It’s been a year or so of terrible mortality for actors playing Doctor Who companions. First Elisabeth Sladen, then Caroline John and now Mary Tamm. Tamm played Romana alongside Tom Baker’s Doctor in the 1978-9 season. She followed on from Louise Jamieson’s hugely popular Leela, a hard act to follow. Leela had been written out in a disappointingly underwhelming fashion. The noble, fearless savage deciding to settle down and marry a man she had only just met! The producers wanted Elisabeth Sladen to return as Sarah Jane Smith, but she was firm in keeping her distance from the character (for the time being). The choice of Tamm came once the decision had been made to make the Doctor’s new companion a fellow time traveller. She was initially suspicious of the whole idea of the female companion, believing that it would too easily devolve into the standard passive role assigned women in adventure stories, the woman in peril or the admiring observer of heroic male deeds. Having been assured that this would not be the case, she accepted the part. Romana was indeed a character of great intelligence and cool assurance, the polar opposite of Leela’s hot-headed primitive. She was imposed on the Doctor at the beginning of his quest to find the Key To Time, a clumsy contrivance which grafted a story arc onto stories which would otherwise have stood as individual adventures. The Time Lords assigned a reluctant Doctor to search for the fragments of this grail-like relic which maintained the balance between the opposing forces of the Black and White Guardians. They are the equivalent to the forces of Law and Chaos in Michael Moorcock’s multiverse, although here rather crudely envisaged as pantomime figures of good and evil. Tamm’s Romana is given the job of assisting him in this quest. She introduces herself as Romanadvoratrelunda, which the Doctor immediately shortens to Romana. ‘I don’t like Romana’, she complains. ‘It’s either Romana or Fred’, he retorts, a line which has the hallmarks of a Baker ad lib. ‘All right, call me Fred’, she coolly replies.
Coolness and a certain haughty froideur were the hallmarks of Tamm’s Romana. She provided an excellent foil for Baker, who by this time was showing an increasing tendency to clown around and introduce his own amendments to the scripts in order to keep himself amused. She is a top grade graduate from the Academy on Gallifrey, an intellectual with an encyclopaedic knowledge and academic understanding of the nature of the universe which is the match of the Doctor’s. Indeed, it is revealed, much to his huffy chagrin, that the Doctor only just scraped through his own examinations. Her knowledge has not been tempered with the wisdom of experience, however, and in this respect she still functions as the Doctor’s junior, and as the questioning figure of identification for the audience. The testy nature of her relationship with the Doctor perhaps reflects Baker’s reluctance to have a companion at all. His ego was, by this stage, large enough to lead him to feel he could carry the show on its own, and he was reluctant to share the spotlight. There’s little real interaction between him and Tamm, and at times he might as well be talking to himself. Some of the Doctor’s dismissive lines could almost be seen as little satirical digs on the part of the scriptwriters. The Doctor rudely rebuffs her initial overtures in which she asks how she can be of assistance, telling her ‘I’d like you to stay out of my way as much as possible and try and keep out of trouble’. ‘I don’t suppose you can make tea?’ he adds, summoning up another one of the elements of the traditional female character which Tamm was keen to avoid. She was also lumbered with the lumbering K-9, who returned for this and further seasons to act as the occasional plot deus ex machina and obligatory cute post-Star Wars robot. The producers were assured that his internal mechanisms would be improved for this series, but he still experienced difficulties in navigating the slightest ruck in a carpet.
It has to be said that this was not a great period for Doctor Who. The Key to Time structure was clumsy and unnecessary, and was for the most part an incidental aspect of each story. It never really led to any great conclusion, either. The Doctor was best left as a bohemian wanderer, without the need for any extraneous quest to spur him on. There were a few good stories, along with several dull ones, but nothing attained the level of the classic gothic tales of the Philip Hinchliffe era, or the domestic SF and political allegory of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ Jon Pertwee stories. Tamm looks regal in long white dress and cape trimmed with feathery fur in her first story, The Ribos Operation. But the story itself, written by Robert Holmes, one of the finest Doctor Who scriptwriters, is merely competent, and fails to rise to his previous heights. It’s probably best to gloss over his later story in the series, The Power of Kroll, which conforms to Margaret Atwood’s expectations of science fiction by featuring giant squid-like creatures who menace the Doctor and Romana with wholly unconvincing rubbery tentacles. The Pirate Planet, Douglas Adams’ debut script for the show, is enjoyable in a broad, comic way (it was written at the same time as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), with a memorably over the top villain, deadly robotic parrot perching on his shoulder. The Stones of Blood reaches back to early 70s preoccupations with its mixture of stone circles and pagan beliefs given a space operatic rationale. The image of a mobile megalithic standing stone draining the blood from a hapless camper is definitely one of my early ‘behind the sofa’ moments. The Androids of Tara adapts the form and look of a Ruritanian adventure story in the Prisoner of Zenda or Man in the Iron Mask mould, and whilst the story is rather flat and uninspiring, this does allow for some splendid and colourful costumes and set dressing. Tamm plays multiple roles in this one, as Romana and as her double on the planet Tara, Princess Strella, as well as their android doubles (a return of the companion revealed to be a robotic replica plotline used in the Sarah Jane story The Android Invasion some years earlier). Tamm wears a vaguely Edwardian purple and green ensemble as Romana, whilst her princess is decked out in spangly disco queen finery.
Mary Tamm and Peter Jeffrey in The Androids of Tara
Tamm got to act alongside some fine co-stars during the series: John Woodvine, Iain Cuthbertson, Peter Jeffrey, the towering, craggy-faced Neil McCarthy and the recently deceased Who regular Philip Madoc (best known for his role as mad scientist Solon in The Brain of Morbius) all delivering distinctive performances. Disappointingly for Tamm, however, her character remained underdeveloped and scriptwriters swiftly reverted to using her primarily as a passive focus for cliffhanging peril, her worst fears realised. She was menaced by the embarrassing ‘man in a suit’ dragon the Shrivensale in the Ribos Operation, falls off a cliff and is transported as a captive to an orbiting spaceship in The Stones of Blood, is almost immediately taken prisoner in The Androids of Tara and replaced by a killer android replica, is captured once more in the Power of Kroll and offered up as a sacrifice by a primitive tribe to their cephalopod gods, and is threatened with torture by the Black Guardian in the Armageddon Factor. In the light of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that she decided not to return for another series. The producers and scriptwriters may have taken heed of her dissatisfaction, however. When Romana returned in regenerated form, portrayed by Lalla Ward, she took a much more active role, whilst retaining her function as a foil to Baker’s Doctor. Tamm’s Romana remains as a bridging character, possessed of great intelligence (and beauty) and a cool, sardonic wit which the writers didn’t quite know how to incorporate into the more traditional stories which predominated in this period. She pointed the way towards the more active heroines of the future, however, and Tamm always maintained an elegant poise and displayed effortless style. They are qualities which make her six episodes worth revisiting.