Monday, 3 June 2013

DW Companions as PCs: Susan

Of the initial set of characters in the first season of Doctor Who, it's Susan who is the hardest to see as a typical PC. That's because one of her key roles on the show is to be put in peril, to be the young, attractive, woman, menaced by the monsters. Equally important, from the show's original perspective, is that she's an audience identification figure, based on the intended age of the viewers. Neither of these functions makes much sense in an RPG context.

Precisely because she's an audience identification figure, however, she is often a viewpoint character on the show. Furthermore, unless there's only three players available (which, admittedly, is not impossible) it would seem odd to run a game based on this era of the show and not have her as a PC. But doing so, while trying to stay faithful to the ethos of the time, presents challenges that don't really crop up if you're only emulating Nu-Who.

If we look at her suggested character sheet in DWAITAS, though, she doesn't look all that bad. True, she is the weakest of the initial four characters, and the only one who is actually under-powered for a starting PC using the rules-as-written. But not, if we're honest, by much, and giving her the Inexperienced trait (and, thus, more story points) would bring her level with Barbara at least. In other systems, of course, trying to stat her up might have different results, but she's still unlikely to look rubbish.

Why is this? Once again, it's to do with the difference between a TV show and an RPG. We're told in the episode 'An Unearthly Child' that Susan is a genius, with a good knowledge of history and a remarkable grasp of science and technology. (Here, incidentally, the writers showed some insight, correctly identifying that a super-intelligent teenage girl is something that viewers in general are happy to watch, rather than finding precociously annoying. Yes, Adric and Wesley Crusher, I'm looking at you).

On this, not unreasonably, we base the character sheet. But, in subsequent episodes, there's very little sign of her supposed abilities.

Now, on TV, that makes sense. Despite the original idea of her being a genius, she can't outshine Ian and Barbara too much, or they have little to do, nor can she fill the exact same role as the Doctor. So the issue is swept under the carpet after the first episode, and the character rapidly morphs into something else once her initial purpose is fulfilled.

Consider how, for example, in 'The End of Tomorrow', on encountering an alien bomb that she can't possibly get away from, it doesn't even occur to her to try and defuse the thing. (She's eventually saved when a dashing young man decides to pour acid on it and smash it repeatedly with a stick). Frankly, unless spraining your ankle is some kind of talent, about the only thing she seems to be good at is Spot Hidden.

But give a player a character sheet that says they're a genius with 1337 skillz, and they're going to use them. Obviously.

In fact, if we are going to imagine that the early episodes of the show were actually an RPG, I think the most plausible explanation is that Susan's player doesn't bother turning up to half the sessions. In consequence, the GM often ends up playing her character as an NPC. It explains a lot, but it doesn't really help us if we do have her as an actively played PC in a game.

I think the most reasonable approach would be to have Susan use the abilities that she ostensibly has, even if she rarely uses them in the show itself. After all, it's not as if she doesn't use them at all in the original episodes. For instance, she identifies some fairly high tech kit in 'The Survivors', and uses her knowledge of alien botany (!) to fight off the Sensorites in 'The Unwilling Warriors'. The latter also brings up the interesting point that, unlike most other early companions, we know for a fact that Susan has had other adventures we've never seen, because they're referenced in stories like The Sensorites and Edge of Destruction. It's a handy way to use story points, justifying them by coming up with something that happened to her before she met Ian and Barbara.

On the other hand, if the player is up for it, it's still possible to play Susan, and similar companions, with an eye to the Peril Monkey role for which she was originally envisaged in the show. (As BBC records make clear, incidentally, lest you think I'm being unfair). Whether a PC or an NPC, such characters don't need to be dim. Susan, for one, clearly wasn't.

Instead, Peril Monkeys tend to get themselves in danger through such factors as insatiable curiosity, general clumsiness, or, in some cases, just because the writer happens to pick on them - the latter being, in game terms, some variant of an "Unlucky" trait. In DWAITAS, for example, Susan is given both Clumsy and Impulsive, for both of which there is plenty of evidence in the show. A player who's keen on the idea could make good use of those traits to blunder into trouble from time to time. We don't want to overdo this, of course - Susan is hardly placed in danger every episode! But judicious use of it can be appropriate to the genre.

Note that, again in DWAITAS, she's given the passive/defensive traits of Screamer and Run For Your Life. In game terms, they're a genre-appropriate way of getting out of scrapes, although, in the show, she does tend to employ them quite sparingly. There's also, of course, the issue of story points, or their equivalent in other systems, which can help compensate for a lack of more overt abilities.

We should probably also discuss Susan's psychic powers. There are, arguably, a few points in the show where she might be exhibiting a sort of low-level psychic ability akin to the Danger Sense of many RPGs. Although, then again, she could just be nervous.

Other than that, though, the only story where these abilities are relevant is The Sensorites. And, when you think about it, they're not exactly impressive then.

She is able to pick up on the Sensorites' thoughts, at least some of the time, but only when they're actively sending telepathic messages to one another. She sends a telepathic signal in 'A Desperate Venture', but that only works when Barbara uses a gadget that amplifies psychic reception. Without either of these advantages, about all she manages is to repel the Sensorites' psychic assault in 'The Unwilling Warriors', and that's clearly throwing story points at it, and possibly getting a good roll on Resolve. To cap it all, at the end of the final episode, it's revealed that she could only do as well as she did because the Sense-Sphere amplifies natural telepathic potential, and the ability never returns on-screen after she's left its vicinity.

Still, she does have some sort of aptitude for such things, and working in a situation that can make use of them does give a GM a way to give her the chance to play a central role. A Susan encountered after she leaves the Doctor could also, of course, have honed her abilities to a more effective level.

But let's look at her more generally. What do we know about her? Less than we might, perhaps, since she is intentionally a somewhat mysterious character. We know that she's from the same world, and belong to the same race, as the Doctor, but neither are ever given any name or more than the vaguest of descriptions during this era of the show's history. Since she is already the Doctor's companion when the first episode begins, we don't know exactly how or why she first joined him, or how many adventures she may have had with him before the series started - although the Doctor's obvious inexperience in An Unearthly Child does rather imply it isn't a huge amount.

It may also be worth noting that she's far more freaked out by wilderness than she is by potentially hostile, but high-tech, environments. This is apparent, for example, both in The Daleks and The Keys of Marinus.  Clearly, she at least feels confident in her ability to deal with the latter. (As an aside, Barbara seems to be the opposite, coping better with a verdant swamp full of monsters than she does with a well-lit and apparently empty alien city).

And what about her relationship with the Doctor? She refers to him as 'Grandfather', and there has been much argument in fandom about what this really means. It's often argued, including in some licensed spin-off media, that Susan must be adopted, rather than a literal grandchild of the Doctor's. Or perhaps Gallifreyans are somehow created by artificial means from pre-existing genetic material, thus avoiding any need for that icky sex and pregnancy stuff. In which case, she has a genetic link to the Doctor, but no more than that.

On the other hand, Nu-Who has strongly implied on more than one occasion that the Doctor really did once have a family, and, if so, it would be surprising if Susan wasn't part of it. While I favour the latter theory, I'd also argue that, from an RPG perspective, it really doesn't matter. What's clear from the show is that the Doctor and Susan act as if they are biological grandfather and grandchild. Carol Ann Ford has said that she believed, at the time, that Susan was the Doctor's literal grandchild, and played the part as if it was true.

And, to my mind, so can we, even if we favour a different theory. That is, after all, how the characters interacted, so why not do the same ourselves?

Susan can physically pass for a fifteen year old girl, or thereabouts. Given that she's not human, and that she was, at the time, living under an assumed identity, we can't be sure how close this is to her actual chronological age. But she does act quite a lot like an Earth teenager, so it's as good a figure to use as any. Like many a teenager she argues with her family - that is, the Doctor - and she can be quite naive and trusting at times. She seems to make friends easily, and she does sometimes back up Ian and Barbara against her grandfather when the latter is being particularly petulant.

On the whole though, she tends not be very successful at persuading him, or anyone else. That's largely because the Doctor insists on treating her like a child most of the time, something that you probably want to be careful with in an RPG.

One of her main motivations seems to be a desire to lead a normal life. She has had to leave her homeworld for some unspecified reason that the Doctor describes as 'exile', and sometimes seems homesick for it. Equally, it was she who begged the Doctor to let her live for a few months as an ordinary schoolgirl in 1960s Britain, something she later says was "the happiest time of my life". Granted, that might be saying as much about Gallifreyan childhood as about Coal Hill School, but it seems to be something she embraces.

After all, she dresses in contemporary human attire long after there's any reason to do so, listens to early '60s pop music, and generally absorbs the mod zeitgeist. Yes, she says things every now and then that remind you that that isn't her real background, but she almost seems to be trying to hide the fact.

While we're on the subject, "Susan" presumably isn't her real name. She takes the surname "Foreman" from the sign outside the yard where the TARDIS materialises in 1963, but her first name is surely equally fake. Given that even the Doctor calls her by it, it may be that the TARDIS translation circuits are merely rendering her real name into the one that Ian and Barbara are familiar with.

On the other hand, and contrasting with her apparent desire for normality, she clearly has a great familial loyalty and affection for the Doctor. This, presumably, is why she is so keen to keep on travelling with him, despite the fact that it often puts her in danger. When she finally finds a boyfriend, the Doctor locks her out of the TARDIS, compelling her to finally live her own life without him, and making her one of the few long-running companions that he has had to force to leave.

She remains behind, then, in Britain some time around the 2160s. We know that she lives for some time after that, because she appears as a mature woman in The Five Doctors, and she presumably became involved in rebuilding society after the Dalek occupation of Earth. As a Gallifreyan, it's quite possible that she ages very slowly, and may, perhaps live for a long time into the period when Earth is re-discovering its destiny among the stars. Whether or not she would be able to regenerate is unclear, since, obviously, such a possibility hadn't even been raised while she was on the show.

In any event, it is abundantly clear in Nu-Who that the Doctor is the last of his kind in existence, and he explicitly states that all of his family is dead. The logical conclusion is that she died in the Time War, and was presumably erased from history in the process - if the Time War didn't work that way, the Doctor could go back and visit any Time Lord he wished, which he evidently can't.

So, in a proper Nu-Who setting, she's gone. In a parallel universe, though...? Well, who knows?

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