We’ve lost many actors and creators from Classic Who over the last couple of years. When Elisabeth Sladen died, I was gutted, and simply couldn’t talk about it. Her character had been so important to me as a child, and had continued to be relevant and important through my adult life. The fact that she was still working, still playing the character on screen, made it more immediate. I never blogged about the loss of Elisabeth Sladen, or talked about it much, and even turned down the request to give a toast in her honour, because I couldn’t find the words.
Only when I heard in the last week that Caroline John had died did I start thinking about how important her character had been to me, too. I’m a lot less emotionally invested in Liz Shaw as a character, but she was a huge influence and role model for me – specifically the Liz Shaw of Spearhead from Space, the story which rebooted Doctor Who from the black and white 1960’s to the colour 1970’s.
Everyone remembers the Jon Pertwee era of Classic Who as being about the Doctor, representing the hippies and the scientists, in regular conflict with the Brigadier and UNIT, representing the military solution, despite taking resources from them without any apparent qualms. In fact, the Brigadier is quite accommodating to the Doctor, who rarely does more than roll his eyes at the use of guns in dealing with aliens, and the two of them riff good-naturedly against each other while saving the world.
Liz Shaw, who is our point of view story for a large part of Spearhead from Space, criticises the military and their way of doing things more in that first story than I think the Third Doctor does for his entire five year run. She is cynical and amused by UNIT and its military solutions, but also very much a skeptic about aliens, who has to learn fast that she is wrong (about the aliens thing) and adapt. Which she does – she may start out as something of a Dana Scully, but once she sees what is happening, her scientific mind proves to be more than up to the challenge. She is an assistant to the Doctor, yes, but she is very much portrayed as his intellectual equal, and while she never wanted to be part of UNIT, the scientific challenge is enough to keep her around (for a while).
And oh, it burns me every time one of them calls her Miss Shaw. I know it’s the 70’s, but she’s a freaking DOCTOR, she earned that title, and the script still occasionally treats her like she’s a dolly bird brought in to make the tea (though that, of course, is Benton). Still, Caroline John rose above it, and despite the mini-skirts and big hair, proved to be a capable and inspiring female scientist.
More importantly, she left. Now, Caroline John left for two reasons – because the production staff felt that having a companion who was the intellectual equal of the Doctor wasn’t the direction they wanted to go in, and also because the actress was pregnant and needed to quit in any case. Because this was decided after the filming of Season 7, there was no ‘final’ story, no leaving scene for Liz Shaw. Fans have often complained about this, because that is what fans do. But I kind of love the way she’s written out – the beginning of Terror of the Autons, the first story of the next season, makes it clear that Liz has gone back to Cambridge to continue her work, and that the Doctor isn’t happy about it.
She has, in short, better things to do. “It was fun, Doctor but… I’m busy.” (The Brigadier even says at this point that she was overqualified for the role as the Doctor’s assistant as he only needs someone to pass him test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is – which feels like a bit of a dig at the behind the scenes decision!) Liz’s independence is part of what makes her such an original and awesome companion character, and the critical regard so many viewers have for season 7 has a lot to do with the role that she played.
i09 article on How Caroline John Helped Save Doctor Who.
Calapine posts about Caroline John and Liz Shaw and provides time stamps for the following long YouTube interview:
A lovely tribute to an unforgettable character, and an important woman in the history of Doctor Who, by Babelcolour: