Monday, 22 July 2013
DW Companions as PCs: Polly Wright
Polly's surname is never mentioned on-screen, and for a long time there was fan speculation as to what it might be, with a number of suggestions being made. Once it was confirmed, however, that the BBC's audition scripts for the character gave her surname as 'Wright' that became the one that everybody accepted. It's unclear as to whether this ever intended as any more than a place-holder at the time - it's also Barbara's surname, and the two characters are entirely unrelated. Possibly nobody at the BBC took it seriously as a name, but neither did they bother to come up with anything else, so it's what we have.
While her predecessors are mostly sixteen-year old girls, Polly is a grown woman. Assuming she's the same age as Anneke Wills was at the time, she's 24, notably younger than Barbara, and clearly cut from a different mould. She's a secretary from London in 1966, which, at first glance, may not be the most exciting concept ever for a player character. While the ability to brew a nice cup of tea is one that's quite important in British culture, for instance, it's rarely high on most player's wish-lists.
Indeed, whenever somebody wants to make the claim that early classic Doctor Who was sexist, it's usually Polly that they point to as their first example. And, to be honest, that's not really unfair, although DW is hardly unique in this regard in '60s TV. But, at the same time, looked at from a roleplaying perspective, there's a lot more potential in the character than you might think.
For one thing, Polly is clearly quite intelligent. She speaks French, German, and Spanish, which may not be a lot of use when you have TARDIS translator circuits about, but does indicate a good quality education, possibly at an expensive boarding school. Indeed, given that Spanish is rarely taught in British schools, she may even have taught herself that one. And, yes, in The Moonbase, the menfolk ask her to go off and make them a cup of coffee while they decide how to defeat the Cybermen. Except that, not much later, she's the one that comes up with the idea that leads to their victory...
Polly's primary skills, though, are social. More than once she manages to get information or assistance out of someone who's not entirely on her side. That's partly her inherent charm (easily on display from her first appearance in The War Machines), but partly also a case of fluttered eyelashes and short skirts. That the latter works, incidentally, implies that the character, and not just the actress, has the Attractive advantage. She also seems to be good at bluffing, successfully tricking the bad guys more than once in the course of her adventures.
On the other hand, though, it's hard to deny that, in the show itself, she's mainly a Peril Monkey. She often has to be rescued, doubtless because the writers rather liked the idea of 'attractive young woman menaced by monsters' (in game terms, this is the Unlucky trait). She also screams a lot. More than any of the earlier companions, probably, although Susan could shriek a bit when she needed to.
But that does bear looking at a little closer. Yes, Polly screams when she's startled, when she comes across something horrific, or when she's about to be turned into a fish. But give her the chance to take stock of a situation, and some freedom to influence it, and it's quite a different story. Consider how, in the first episode of The Highlanders, even having just been warned of the risk, she heads out alone onto a darkened moor crawling with enemy soldiers to try and save Ben and the Doctor.
Granted, she almost immediately falls down a hole, but it's the thought that counts.
Or consider her facing down a Cyberman in The Tenth Planet, or the various instances where she sets off exploring. She also seems to be very strong willed when it comes to resisting mental domination. She resists the Macra, when Ben fails to, recovers from WOTAN's mind control far more quickly than Dodo, and - perhaps most significantly - actually throws the mind control off briefly to save Ben. Some of that could just be down to good rolls, but it's worth noting that nobody else resists WOTAN so effectively, apart from the Doctor himself.
All of this gives us plenty to work with, once we ditch the limitations of '60s TV. But what of Polly herself?
She was evidently born into a wealthy family, and lives somewhere in Chelsea, one of the more expensive parts of London. Indeed, her family connections may have been what got her the job working as a secretary to a top government scientist. Her early life may have been somewhat sheltered (Ben certainly thinks so), but she does seem quite adaptable, and not just because she likes dressing up in costumes.
She spends the evenings at the hottest nightclubs, living the '60s dream. In fact, Polly is perhaps the most "Sixties" of all the '60s companions, wearing the latest fashions, and representing a Swinging London that was, for a time, arguably the cultural capitol of the world. Her looks reflect this, too, and if Ben is meant to remind us of Michael Caine, Polly is surely reminiscent of some of the great fashion icons of the day, such as Marianne Faithfull or Jean Shrimpton.
Although she can be flirtatious, it seems that, for most of her time on the show, she really only has eyes for Ben. In The War Machines, Ben seems very conscious of the great social gulf between them, but once they're on board the TARDIS, while that never disappears, it must surely become less relevant. Indeed, it isn't long before she's leaping into Ben's arms when threatened, and it's hard to imagine there's not something between them.
Although she does seem more adventurous than just about any previous female companion, Polly still longs to return home. When she arrives back in 1966, mere hours after she left, once the immediate problem of illegal immigrants at Gatwick is dealt with, there's never any doubt that her travels with the Doctor are over. In one last bit of '60s sexism, the Doctor predicts that Ben will go far in the Navy, and Polly... will make a good housewife. Although it's also worth noting that even he can see exactly whose housewife she's going to be.
But is he right?
Since they were involved with the Doctor during a military operation in The War Machines, UNIT at least, really ought to know about them, and Ben, as a military man himself, is potentially recruitable. Having said which, he's clearly not there during the Third Doctor's time, which does limit the options. What we do know about the pair, though, from a selection of 'official' short stories and audio plays, is that their relationship does not last long after they return to 1966.
Perhaps the social gulf between the rich young jet-set woman and the earthy sailor was just too big a hurdle. Perhaps Ben being away on a ship for so long at a time proved an insurmountable obstacle. Either way, if the spin-off media are to be believed, they end up marrying other people.
And yet... both marriages apparently fail, or perhaps their partners die. Some time around the year 2000 - by which time they would both be in their late fifties - they get together again, and finally tie the knot. According to the only televised evidence we have, a mention in The Sarah Jane Adventures, as of 2010, they are running an orphanage together in India.