Sometimes, plans change…

When I was planning this entry, it was all going to be about how this is the story in which two figures who will be important to this narrative from now on enter — Douglas Adams, whose first story this is, and who would go on to write two more and script edit the next series, and me, because I was born two days before episode two of this story aired. So from now on, the entries will be slightly more personal, as I will remember at least some of them from the time of broadcast.

But instead of being about people entering the story, it has to be about people leaving it.

Because last week, Mary Tamm, the actor who played Romana in this series, died. She was the second Doctor Who companion to die in two months, after Caroline John died in June, but her death attracted relatively little notice compared to John’s death.

Perhaps it’s because Doctor Who fans are suffering from compassion fatigue, after the deaths of Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney last year — there’s only so many times you can say “a part of my childhood died today” — but it may also be because Tamm was one of the most overlooked of all the companions.

This is not because of any lack of ability on her part — far from it, she turns in a quite astonishing performance — but partly because she originated the role of Romana, which would be played for longer by Lalla Ward, and partly because she only appeared in the show for one year, and that year was structured as a multi-story ‘arc’ that’s only ever been made available on video or DVD as a single expensive box set. As a result, the casual fan will never come across a story with Mary Tamm in.

And Tamm’s period in the show has little love from the non-casual fans either. She had the misfortune to have been cast during a time when a combination of Tom Baker’s ego, the BBC’s pusilanimous attitude towards Mary Whitehouse, and runaway inflation destroying the show’s budget, managed to remove any sense of drama from the programme, and turn it into what was essentially The Tom Baker Variety Show, where Tom Baker would turn up on some unconvincing set and be clever and funny at people for twenty-five minutes with the help of his glamorous assistant and his cute robot dog.

Now, this is not actually a bad thing — Tom Baker is one of the most charismatic screen presences ever, and if you give him lines written by Douglas Adams or Robert Holmes then you don’t actually need to bother with such niceties as plot, or effects, or sets, or other actors, and certainly Baker himself thought by this point that all those things were just getting in the way. The period when Graham Williams was producing the show on a low budget was the period that for most casual viewers most characterised Doctor Who — the Doctor in his long scarf, with K-9 and whichever beautiful companion he had that week, making fun of some cheap effects.

Some of those stories were dreadful, admittedly, but it’s not in itself a bad way for the show to go — it’s just a way that isn’t particularly conducive to repeated watching by fans.

And so Mary Tamm was one of the less-loved of the Doctor’s companions. But her Romana, even more than Lalla Ward’s more girlish incarnation, was one of the few companions the Doctor ever had who was a match for him. Romana is clearly, at least at first, somewhat naive, but she’s also both fiercely intelligent and arrogant with it. The Doctor may be a more experienced traveller, and may be older, but Romana has the confidence of youth. She knows that no matter how many centuries the Doctor’s been piloting the TARDIS, there’s still a good chance that the operator’s manual may know something he doesn’t.

Ward’s Romana is closer in spirit to the Doctor, but Tamm’s Romana is a Time Lady — a real aristocrat. One always gets the impression from the Doctor that Time Lord is a bit of a misnomer — he should probably be called a Time Eldest Son Of An Upper-Middle Class Family Who Sent Their Son To Eton At Great Personal Sacrifice So He Would Have All The Advantages Of An Aristocratic Upbringing But Were Then Frightfully Disappointed At The Life He Made For Himself After Dropping Out Of Oxford. I expect they would have used that, but it’s a bit of a mouthful. He has more in common with George Orwell or Christopher Hitchens than with the genuine aristocracy — still stinking of privilege, but with at least some awareness of it, and with a chip on his shoulder.

But Romana — in Tamm’s interpretation of the character, at least — has none of that. Speaking with the kind of cut-glass tones only the Bradford-born child of Eastern European immigrants could actually attain (most of the real aristocracy being far too rich to bother with consonants), she looks and acts every bit the image of what we are trained to think the upper classes are. This is someone who is completely secure in her mastery of space and time.

Tamm only accepted the role of Romana because she was assured the character would be the Doctor’s equal, and quit after one series because she believed the writers were treating her as just another interchangeable woman to scream and say “But Doctor, I don’t understand…”

It’s a shame, because as a result of her characterisation, Romana, now played by Lalla Ward, would be given one of the most fully-rounded personalities of any Doctor Who companion. And great as Ward’s performance in the part is, it would have been interesting to see what Tamm would do with a script like City Of Death or Shada.

She’ll be missed.

4 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 1978”

  1. Me On The Mindless Ones « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] What was meant to be a post on The Pirate Planet but is mostly about Mary Tamm. Share this:PrintEmail Tagged with: Doctor Who, me elsewhere [...]

  2. Richard Bensam Says:

    Agreed with all of the above.

    As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, I once spent an hour talking with Mary Tamm. This would have been late 1983 or early 1984. It was a tremendous thrill for me, and she was absolutely the sweetest and most approachable person you could ever hope to meet. I might add I was young enough to be extremely flustered by the presence of a beautiful woman* and she was even more stunning in person than she appeared on camera. However, I’d like to think I found some inner reserve of dignity, because I asked about her first impressions of New York and what she was interested in seeing here, and spent more time talking about topics other than Doctor Who. (She told me she thought New York was most like Amsterdam and Johannesburg.) I just wish I could thank her one more time for her kindness, because she really was a lovely person.

    * Someday I’ll get over that, no doubt.

  3. Hal Says:

    All acknowledgments of how marvellous the first Romana and Mary Tamm were (and always will remain) is welcome. Even though some of the scripts let her down, Mary as Romana was delightfully *different*, the character and Ms Tamm’s portrayal of her brought a new take on the companion, here was an glamour and a charmingly ironic quality that set her apart; there was something so fitting in Romana’s skeptical attitude to the Fourth Doctor as his character (and Tom’s interpretation) changed. I dislike the whole concept of “compassion fatigue” but then I consider the attitude of “part of my childhood died today…” unpleasantly and unacceptably narcissistic, I am sad because these people who I admired (but did not know) and whose performances and presence I enjoyed are gone, I’m sad that that their lives are over, not because “part of my childhood has died”, I didn’t even *see* Mary as Romana until I was an adult admittedly, but even so I’m sad for her (and Elisabeth and Carry) not for me. No, the notions of “compassion fatigue” and “part of my, etc” that some people mention both rub me the wrong way but I am contrary! I agree it’s a great shame that more people aren’t able to appreciate Mary’s Romana and the best of Season 16 (who can’t enjoy the shifts in the balance of power between the childish yet good Doctor and beautiful, condescending Romana?!), I love the first Romana as I do the second and Sarah and Leela. Unsurpassed.

  4. Tim O'Neil Says:

    As much as this might be a minority position, I much prefer the first Romana to the second. I am always somewhat annoyed by Ward but always delighted by Tamm.

    My big problem with that season was the fact that the actual conclusion of the Key to Time storyline was dismissed in a couple minutes at the end of the last episode. A whole season of buildup for a big fake-out. They followed up during the Davison years, but I haven’t seen the Black Guardian trilogy in forever and a day so I can’t recall how well that turned out.

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