Companions in Comics: Getting into Sharon’s Head

A drawing of Sharon's face. Speech bubbles include the comments: "We don't want grown-ups poking their noses in. He's our alien! Our secret!"

Picture of Sharon from Doctor Who Weekly, published by Marvel Comics.

Doctor Who Weekly, latterly Doctor Who Magazine, was launched in 1979 offering comic strips, short fiction, posters and information about the show. Due to licensing problems not all the television characters could be included in its stories. New sidekicks were developed instead – and so started a separate genealogy of companions from the ones we’ve seen on screen.

Take Sharon, for instance. Twenty five years before Mickey Smith stepped foot on the TARDIS, Sharon was introduced in the comics as the first ongoing Black British companion.

She joined the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who and the Star Beast, as an eighties teenager who finds an injured alien on her way home from school. The setting is Blackcastle: an English city of terraced streets, steel mills, and union disputes.

Incorporating a companion of colour, from an industrial town, was a departure for Doctor Who. Sharon was originally devised by Pat Mills, who in addition to creating the science fiction comic 2000 AD, had recently been working on Grange Hill spin-off comics. For the uninitiated, Grange Hill was a children’s TV series that aired on the BBC from 1978 to 2008. The school-set drama was popular in Britain for its realist approach and issue-led storylines. It also portrayed an array of working class characters; quite a rarity for seventies children’s programming. I raise this because Mills has since clarified that he wrote Sharon as a “Grange Hill type character,” which I take to mean a mildly irreverent school child with a background that would be recognisable to city dwelling, working class readers.

I have mixed feelings as to how successfully her personality is conveyed. Sharon has a pleasing affability, and phlegmatism, that offsets the cartoonishness of the villains. Admittedly she doesn’t always do a great deal, because she’s primarily a place holder for confused readers. So she asks questions—frequently—which give the Doctor a chance to explain what’s going on. But her youth makes this reactivity credible, and she does still get to save the day on at least one occasion.

On balance I like her. Yet from a feminist perspective, her storyline is marred by problems pertaining to the treatment of race, gender, and childhood. If you’re the sort who likes to avoid spoilers, this is where you should bow out.

Sharon appears in six comic strip stories, originally published between 1980 and 1981 (they were subsequently coloured and reissued in the Doctor Who Classics series): Doctor Who and the Star Beast, Doctor Who and the Dogs of Doom, Doctor Who and the Time Witch, Dragon’s Claw, The Collector, and Dreamers of Death. Her travels with the Doctor are initially accidental – but once on board, she’s in no hurry to get back, and the TARDIS doesn’t oblige the Doctor’s efforts to return her home. Near the end of her run, the Doctor’s attempts to mend a fault in the TARDIS instantaneously age Sharon by four years, propelling her into adulthood. Need I add, her clothing becomes considerably clingier in the process? Soon afterwards she disembarks at Unicepter IV, a farming world, to marry a man called Vernor Allen. She never returns to Earth.

Now throughout this, Sharon’s racial identity is scarcely mentioned. For the period, it is quite refreshing that her race should be incidental to the plot: she simply gets to have adventures. But choices about the wider cast of characters continue to imply that whiteness is the norm. Until the end of her storyline, Sharon doesn’t encounter one other black character. We never see her family, and this isn’t just a narrative aversion to domesticity, because we do see the home and family of Sharon’s white best friend. The other residents of Blackcastle are white, as are all the people Sharon encounters while travelling with the Doctor–excepting the characters in Dragon’s Claw, which is set in China. When Vernor, a second black character is finally incorporated—again, seemingly the sole black person in his community—Sharon announces her intentions for a “new life” with him almost immediately. (Yes, this does rather foreshadow the sudden and inappropriate pairing of Mickey and Martha).

It is not that their attraction is unbelievable. Vernor is handsome and personable. If there were more characters of colour throughout the comic, their relationship would be framed differently. As it stands, it is hard not to feel that Sharon’s departure with the only other black character is a reassurance that the comics will in the long term remain a white space.

Such a wince-inducing exit seems partly motivated by authorial discomfort. Half way through Sharon’s storyline, Steve Moore took over writing duties from Pat Mills. During a subsequent interview Moore stated some of the thinking behind her departure:

I inherited her, and I didn’t like her at all! To me, being a young girl rather than a grown-up assistant, that said ‘kids’ story’, and I really wasn’t interested in writing for kids. I just wanted to do well-wrought SF stories, where the invention would appeal to all ages, and besides that, I wasn’t sure I could really get into the head of a young black girl in order to write the character properly. So I just wanted to get rid of her, right from the start… but it’s a bit difficult to ‘safely dispose’ of a child character, as this certainly wasn’t the sort of series where I could have got her killed. So the first part of the process was to have her grow up… then when the readers had got used to that, I could find a legitimate reason to remove her… Having made her an adult, marrying her off was the quickest and simplest way of getting her out of there and still leaving everybody happy. Not that I have any objection to female characters (I’ve written quite a lot of them), but I just didn’t take to Sharon, and I was much more interested in doing stories about ideas, rather than the characters.

I have some sympathy with worrying about “getting into the head” of a character if the writer fears appropriating experiences. That is clearly not what is going on here (and I’m disappointed, because I enjoy other aspects of Steve Moore’s stories). Sharon gets a very raw deal: her two options for development are, apparently, death or marriage as the quickest means of getting her out of the way.

To be clear, I have no problems with companions getting married if it makes sense in terms of their character development. I do have a problem with treating marriage as the default outcome for a female companion, which Sharon’s exit smacks of. The marriage becomes doubly problematic because, experientially, Sharon is not an adult.

The use of the accelerated aging trope is irritating. It might have been cool to see Sharon at different life stages if this had been differently handled. But the effect of rapid aging on Sharon’s personality and emotional development is barely explored. The implication is that female adulthood is just a physical category: experience and identity are ignored. This aligns rather neatly with sociocultural representations of women as children in adult bodies, and with attempts to racially other people by infantilising them.

Although I was annoyed I’d hoped, on first reading, that her transformation was catering to child readers’ fantasies of suddenly possessing adult power. I still hope it had that effect for some readers. Unfortunately the above quote shows that wasn’t the intention, because the rationale is entirely focused on adult centric priorities. The reluctance to write a “kids’ story” might not seem strange if you’re only familiar with these stories through the Classics reissue. If you’re looking at the originals, it sounds bizarre. The letters page, and the rest of DWW/DWM content, make it very clear this is a children’s publication. Even acknowledging that there was an adult readership, why does appealing “to all ages” necessitate writing only about adults? Every one of us was once a child. It concerns me that this is simply reflective of an attitude that adult interests must always be prioritised above children’s: even in cultural forms that allegedly belong to childhood.

Despite all these reservations, the gaps in Sharon’s characterisation and history intrigue me. Just what was that family on Earth like if she was she so happy to leave them behind—and to do so at such a young age? What sort of person elopes with blithe insouciance, without at least letting her family know that she is alive and well? Someone should get into Sharon’s head. She seems ripe for reinvention to me.

7 comments

  1. This is fascinating, thanks! I wasn’t reading DWM quite this early (from late 80′s onwards I was quite obsessive about it) so had never heard of Sharon.

    “I was much more interested in doing stories about ideas, rather than the characters.”

    Ugh, I hate to be gender essentialist, but that’s such a MALE attitude, something I see come up over and over again in science fiction, both current and historical. Good stories use ideas AND characters.

    Out of interest, do you know what kind of companion replaced Sharon?

    “What sort of person elopes with blithe insouciance, without at least letting her family know that she is alive and well? Someone should get into Sharon’s head. She seems ripe for reinvention to me.”

    That actually perfectly describes Ace as a companion – well, not the eloping part, and she didn’t leave home exactly by choice, but certainly she had an unhappy family life which was at least partly explored. She and Sharon seem to have a lot in common as companions, but of course Sharon predates her by 7 years.

    It would be very cool to see the character return – I have been wondering now that Big Finish has Tom Baker (finally) on the payroll if they would consider designing an original companion for him as well as writing stories for Leela and Romana I (highly unlikely that Lalla Ward or Matthew Waterhouse will reprise their roles). Maybe developing this existing character would be interesting!

    There should SO have been more Doctor Who and Grange Hill crossover… apart from Bronson.

    • Kmasca says:

      For about three years the Doctor’s only companions were male characters who popped up for just one or two stories at a time. He worked on his own a lot, or with K9. The next ongoing companion is Frobisher, the shape shifter, who arrives in 1984. So there is quite a big gap!

      Ace certainly seems like a fully-realised version of what Pat Mills was aiming for. With Sharon the potential is there but the character doesn’t coalesce because of strange gaps in her back story. It would be very cool to see her reprised. I can’t help feeling she wasn’t given a fair chance.

      Mr Bronson is all over Old Who, isn’t he? :D He plays about half a dozen different characters! A fan mash up of Doctor Who/Grange Hill seems like such an obvious thing to do I think it MUST exist somewhere.

  2. Brass Cupcake says:

    I understand having mixed feelings about Sharon. One one hand, it was incredibly progressive to feature a Black girl in 1980 (sad as that sounds); on the other hand, the portrayal itself doesn’t do much to earn praise.

    I feel analysis like this is beneficial on a number of levels because it doesn’t just point out the problems, it also illustrates the ignored potential and possibilities. The more we as fans can communicate what a full-fledged realistic character looks like, the more likely we are to see an improvement. It also illustrates the problem with having a homogeneous writing staff: it results in a homogeneous world and a singular character voice. The more varied the writing staff is (such as the inclusion of women and people who aren’t Caucasian), the more varied the characters and more rich the voices.

    You’ve nicely covered the difficulties of reading/watching material from earlier decades, DW or otherwise. And I think this compliments the earlier post by Courtney Stoker, “Why do we watch Doctor Who?” in the sense of liking a show while still being critical of its shortcomings.

    I’ve been trying to watch the original DW episodes (what I can find online in the US) and besides the pacing and technical issues, much of my difficulty has been with the portrayal of gender and race. I typically have to “take off my feminist hat” when I watch classic film and tv, looking past the characterizations to enjoy the larger story. But I can only do that so often throughout an episode before the sexism or racial stereotyping becomes grating.

    I tried watching an early episode with Sarah Jane and had a hard time following the plot because I spent so much time with my head hitting my desk. ;) It was as if the writers said “hey, I here this ‘women’s lib’ thing is taking off, we should write about that”… so they literally included lines, spoken sarcastically by men, like “that’s women’s lib for you” and “you’re such a female chauvinistic pig.” And at every turn they had to point out how plucky and independent Sarah Jane is in the most ham-handed sign-posting manner, which just came across and pandering condescension. And that’s Sarah Freaking Jane. THE icon for feminist DW characters. I really *want* to like the earlier works, but I’m having a hard time of it.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      oh, for @#$! sake… “hey, I -hear-” not “here.” Any chance y’all might be getting a comment preview or edit feature at some point for the typo-ridden folks like myself? ;)

    • Kmasca says:

      Generally (depressingly)I assume any show, old or contemporary, will have a proportion of problematic content and the degree to which I want to continue watching depends on other aspects of the story telling.

      I do find it disconcerting to re-watch programmes that I remember from the air date, and see things that looked progressive at the time now look inadequate.

      Classic DW varies a lot over the years and different teams so I’d hesitate to say give up just yet. Particularly because there are some ways in which the portrayal of women is preferable to the revival. But I also think life’s too short for persisting with shows you don’t like. I know there is enough to criticise in the entertainment that I *do* enjoy!

  3. paul leigh says:

    could the present doctor Mat Smith revisit Sharon? What is she doing now in her fourties? still married? would she be considered a missing person on earth?

    • Kmasca says:

      All interesting questions that I’d like answers to, although Sharon is a character at the fringes and we’re unlikely to see her revisited.

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