Monday, 18 November 2013

DW Companions as PCs: Liz Shaw

The third player in the new, quasi-military campaign is the only one to create an entirely new character. Instead of a soldier, she creates a scientist, Liz Shaw, leaving a bunch of NPCs to wreak action-filled havoc backing up the Brigadier. In some respects, the character is a more down-to-earth version of Zoe, and while lacking the same level of genius, she is, if anything, even more of a pure Science Geek.

In the real world, scientists are only highly knowledgeable about specific, narrow, fields - or at least they have been since about the early twentieth century. In the world of TV, however, being a scientist tends to mean you're skilled at pretty well anything science related, unless the show itself is focussed on some particular field. DWAITAS, and many other RPGs, tend to follow this approach, so we can say that, yes, Liz was very good at science, and leave it at that.

For some other systems, however, we might need to clarify just what she's good at. Even in DWAITAS, there's a valid question as to whether she has a speciality, and, if so, what it might be.

She's initially hired by UNIT because she's an expert on meteorites, which would tend to imply a good grounding in geology and astrophysics, probably with some astronomy and chemistry thrown in for good measure. "Meteorites" strikes me as an overly narrow specialism for a PC; frankly, it isn't going to crop up very often, and it's really not worth the cost of the character point. Physics and/or chemistry might, then, be a better bet - they're likely of more practical use than astronomy, especially in an earth-based campaign.

Speaking of physics, Liz also seems to have a good working knowledge of radioactive substances, judging from The Ambassadors of Death. Not to mention, from the same story, computer science and cryptography - she doesn't quite crack the alien code, but she gets closer than anyone else, bar the Doctor. (Granted, it's not clear how hard anyone else is really trying).

Liz, is, however, described by the Brigadier as having degrees in "everything". Even allowing for hyperbole on his part, there is certainly evidence that her player has chucked a lot of points into knowledge-based skills. Science is the obvious one, and there's plenty to show that Liz is a skilled scientist, at least before the Doctor turns up and over-shadows her.

In The Silurians, however, she's also shown to be good at medicine, and she mentions having a medical degree on a couple of other occasions, too. (Note, however, that nobody ever calls her "Dr. Shaw", suggesting she has neither a PhD nor an MD). Her work on the vaccine for the Silurian virus suggests a knowledge of pharmacology and virology somewhat surprising in a physicist, and makes one wonder how she got so many degrees in what must, judging by her age, be a fairly short time.

In addition to Science and Medicine, there is also, of course, Technology, or Engineering, or whatever it might be called in your system of choice. Both Inferno and The Ambassadors of Death show her skill at operating complex and highly technical equipment. True, on the screen, she doesn't appear to be doing much other than watching some dials and pulling a lever when told to, but it's clearly meant to be a bit more complicated than that, and something that not just anyone could do.

Somehow, with all of this on the character sheet, her player has still managed to find a few points left over for other things. For instance, Liz can speak French, although, technically, we don't hear her holding a full conversation in the language, so we don't really know how good she is. She seems to be reasonably athletic, at least enough to go potholing, and does give the impression of being rather good behind the wheel when she's involved in a car chase at one point.

In the same scene, when she's eventually cornered by a pair of thugs on a weir, she gives one of them a whack that nearly sends him into the water. It doesn't actually do her any good, though, and it's more likely to be a lucky dice roll than evidence of any decent skill at fighting. But, still, she might at least have picked something up from her time with UNIT.

As for her personality, perhaps her over-riding feature is that she is a sober, professional, scientist, and likely married to her career. According to the implausibly-named 1997 novel The Devil Goblins from Neptune, she was born in Stoke-on-Trent, a place which is only remotely interesting if you happen to be a big fan of industrial pottery. If she's the same age as her actress, she's about thirty when she meets the Doctor, and so rather more mature than most of his female companions.

From a modern perspective, the one blot on her professional demeanour is her penchant for mini-skirts. The audio story The Blue Tooth suggests that her taste in dresses is the one relic of an uncharacteristically wild time as an undergraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. But, honestly, it was 1970, and it's not as if a lot of other women weren't wearing the same.

Liz is unique among the Doctor's female companions in that she never travels with him in the TARDIS. Her stories are all purely Earth-based, and involve her work for UNIT. However, she only stayed with them for about a year, being hired from her work at Cambridge University in Spearhead from Space, and returning there at some point after Inferno.

She claims to have done so because she wasn't being stretched as a scientist, although this is really rather hard to credit given her successes in the four stories she appears in. Various spin-off media have tried to give more of a background to this departure, but the varying versions aren't entirely consistent with one another. However, the spin-off media do succeed in giving us an unusually complete picture of how she fared afterwards.

Through the 1970s, she continues doing research work, and is occasionally called back to UNIT to help out - sometimes when the Doctor is unavailable, off travelling in the TARDIS. This, obviously, is a good way to use her in a game, as well as giving her the opportunity to meet up with the Doctor and actually time travel. But likely only for a brief time, since she doesn't seem the type to abandon her career for long.

She continues in various forms of government scientific work, and in the mid '90s successfully lobbies for the creation of the Preternatural Research Bureau, dedicated to investigating weird goings on. She becomes its first, and apparently only, head, but the organisation is so chronically underfunded that the only other employee is a secretary - who lasts for less than a year, and is never replaced. Liz herself continues with (or rather, as) the Bureau for a few more years before somebody evidently decides it's all a bit pointless. Doubtless Torchwood were sucking up all the funding, and everyone felt that Liz was just too straight-laced (or too middle-aged) to be allowed to join them...

According to the novel Eternity Weeps, Liz died in 2003 after contracting an alien virus. However, that's no longer canonical, since she is clearly stated to still be alive as of 2010, when she's mentioned in the Sarah Jane Adventures. At that time, she is back with UNIT again, working on their moon-base. Why UNIT has a moon-base in 2010, I don't know, but apparently they do, and it's sufficiently easy to reach that it's not an issue for them to employ septuagenarians there...

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