Monday, 2 June 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Leela

Sarah Jane leaves part way through the fourteenth season after what is (at the time) the longest run of any companion on the series. Her player is ready for something new, and comes up with a concept that's quite different from anything seen so far: her new character is going to be a Victorian street urchin.


Bear with me.

As it turns out, the GM is already planning a scenario set in set in Victorian London, so this will be perfect. He'll be able to work the character in seamlessly, and have her back-story relevant to the plot. There's only one problem: he hasn't got very far with planning the scenario yet, which he wants to make really authentic. The Doctor's player has badgered him into running a solo game while the other is away on holiday, but, even so, the GM has two more scenarios more or less ready to go before he feels ready to run the Victorian spectacular.

So he's got a suggestion: why not run a temporary PC for those two sessions? That way the arrival of the 'real' PC can be something of a surprise to the Doctor's player, and it will enhance the plot even more. He can even work in a short story arc for the temporary PC to his existing plots, and everything will be great.

The player agrees, but now, of course, she has to come up with that temporary PC. Since she's only going to be there for two and a half scenarios, she might as well work her arrival into the plot of the first one. Which, as it turns out, is set on a human colony world in the far future that has long since reverted to barbarism. So our player designs a savage hunter-warrior, a jungle-dwelling barbarian that might almost belong in D&D.

She creates Leela of the Sevateem. A character that, as it turns out, is so much fun to play that when she finally gets round to Talons of Weng-Chiang... heck, no, she's keeping this one. There's no need for street urchins after all, and the idea is shelved, never to re-appear.

There have, of course, been many combat-oriented PCs in the campaign before, but almost all of them have been male. The only exception is Sara Kingdom, who didn't manage to survive the scenario she appeared in. (Admittedly, it was a long one). The most obvious parallel is probably Jamie, a similarly low-tech character, who also had good combat skills. But, in fact, there are some pretty significant differences between Leela and he.

For one thing, Leela is from an even more 'primitive' culture. The Sevateem basically seem to be late Iron Age, with the addition of some pretty effective crossbows. This very low tech level is, however, less of a handicap than it might appear. That's largely because Leela's player has made the sensible decision to focus on skills that have nothing to do with technology. A lot of them are combat-related, with her favoured weapon being a knife, whether used at close-range or thrown at her enemies. (Many of whom turn out to be knife-proof, unfortunately).

If your system has different skills for different weapons, we also see her either using or trying out bows, crossbows, spears, clubs, and a blowgun. She has no trouble with laser guns, either, probably because they're just point-and-click, but may well have had to spend some experience points to buy the firearms skills she displays by Image of the Fendahl. Oh, and, unsurprisingly, she's pretty good at unarmed combat, too.

Her other skills come more specifically from her being a huntress. We're explicitly told that she's good at tracking, and it's a fair bet that she has Jungle Survival, and likely some basic craft-and-repair skills. Talons of Weng-Chiang also allows her to demonstrate a considerable degree of athleticism, and Magnus Greel comments on the size of her arm muscles. She displays the use of the Danger Sense advantage on multiple occasions, which is usually explained as a combination of highly acute senses and a knack for reading body language - things that should probably also be on the character sheet, if the system allows them. On the other hand, in The Invisible Enemy, her Danger Sense instead seems to involve psychic premonitions, a somewhat different approach.

Skill set aside, another major difference between Leela and Jamie is that latter was not, as a rule, portrayed as especially bright. Leela, on the other hand, while entirely lacking in scientific or technical skills, is clearly very intelligent. She quickly sees through attempts to bluff her, and seems quick to learn new concepts, once she gets the opportunity. In most episodes she is not shown as being superstitious, even though the rest of her tribe is. Most notably, perhaps, we first meet her in The Face of Evil as she is being exiled from the Sevateem for refusing to believe in the great god Xoanon without evidence. (Having said which, a couple of stories later she apparently still believes in an afterlife where she will get the chance to hunt down her enemies).

One could point out, as a counterargument, that, in The Invisible Enemy, she is described as operating on instinct rather than rationality, and  that this is used as an explanation for her immunity to the mind-affecting virus in that story. But, even aside from the fact that it seems to conflict with her portrayal in other stories (and note that this is the same story that seems to make her psychic), it's worth remembering that her immunity eventually turns out to be purely biological. So one could perfectly well argue that it isn't true even in that story - instead, perhaps an indication of civilised peoples' innate prejudices about "primitives".

Leela's first approach to most problems is usually a violent one... but then, there can't be many PCs with high combat skills that that's not true of. Left to her own devices, things would probably get bloody quite fast, something that the show was actively trying to avoid for most of her tenure (c.f. Whitehouse, Mary). Whether this would be true in an RPG campaign depends a lot on the tone, and perhaps on the other PCs - in the show the Doctor is frequently trying to rein her in, but in a combat-heavy game, there might not be any need.

An interesting note to bear in mind when playing her is that her tribe has apparently forgotten how to use contractions such as "don't" and "it's". She also tends to cast problems in terms that she can understand, and, on the whole, is rather better at it than Jamie was.

There isn't a lot one can say about her background that doesn't simply re-iterate the plot of The Face of Evil.  Her mother died when she was young, and her father at the beginning of her first story; going by the age of her actress, she is in her mid twenties at this time. The planet she lives on is never named, and it's possible that her people, not needing to distinguish it from anywhere else, don't even have a name for it.

The Sevateem are, as mentioned, an Iron Age culture, with decent metal-working skills, the ability to weave cloth (the only other female member of the tribe we see is wearing a dress) and so on, although they prefer leather. Their religion is shamanic, although it's notable that Leela believes the shaman to be a fraud. The tribe is presumably quite a bit bigger than could be represented in a BBC studio, but, even so, they don't live in anything larger than villages. She mentions a tribal council in Image of the Fendahl, although we only ever see a single chieftain.

The planet, or at least the bit of it inhabited by the Sevateem, is a lush tropical jungle. Until she leaves with the Doctor, this is the only environment Leela has ever seen - she's amazed by the desert in The Robots of Death. Clearly there are a range of creatures to hunt there, as well as some exotic vegetation. One of these plants is the source of Janis thorns, which rapidly paralyse, and eventually kill, anything with human-like body chemistry. Leela apparently takes quite a stash of them with her when she travels in the TARDIS, despite the Doctor constantly telling her to stop using them.

Of course, we can't possibly discuss Leela without mentioning her costume. Specifically, that there isn't much of it. In the real world, there's a pretty obvious intent here on the part of the production team to get the "Dad" audience continuing to watch the BBC after the sports results had finished. But, in fairness, at least they bothered to create a logical reason for it: Leela comes from a tropical rainforest, and she wears about as much clothing as her menfolk do. She only puts on more clothes when the Doctor insists on it, although this seems to be more because she finds such clothing restrictive for a warrior than anything else. (She seems, for instance, comfortable enough in trousers and sweater in Horror of Fang Rock).

She has, at least after the first few moments of The Face of Evil, no surviving family, and she never shows any interest in returning home. She eventually stays behind on Gallifrey, in one of the least plausible departures of a companion in the show's history, and marries Andred, an officer in what passes for the planet's military. It's hard to imagine her adapting to life in such a structured society easily, but, when the Doctor eventually returns to Gallifrey in Arc of Infinity, she gets no more than a passing mention, so who knows?

Still, being on Gallifrey, she has at least got access to time travel, and if you want to bring back a former companion there's probably nowhere, other than present-day Earth, that it's easier to do it from. One could, for instance, easily imagine her joining some other renegade Time Lord to explore (although you'd have to explain what happened to Andred, if he's not also in the party).

The spin-off media provide plenty of stories about her later life, with, for example, the audio series Gallifrey implying that she can no longer leave the planet for any length of time without dying. Sticking solely to televised evidence, however,  there's no absolute reason to suppose that she was on Gallifrey when it fell so, for all we know, she could still be out there, somewhere.

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