Tony Fyler charts the arc of one of the First Doctor’s more often-forgotten companions.
Steven Taylor is very often dismissed as a relatively forgotten companion – he wasn’t there at the start of the First Doctor’s time on our screens, and he wasn’t there at the end either. What’s more, only three of his televised stories exist in their entirety, so like the female companions who shared his time, Vicki and Dodo, he tends to be one of those companions that people technically know was on the Tardis for a while, but don’t really remember.
Not so the actor who played him. For fans of a certain age (and not necessarily of an age to remember him as Steven), Peter Purves is a massively familiar figure and voice, because Purves, unlike many sixties companions, went straight or almost straight into another TV job which secured him that familiarity in the minds of a generation of children. Yes, Steven Taylor was played by ‘the long-haired bloke from seventies Blue Peter.’ Or ‘the voice of Kick Start,’ depending entirely on what your age happens to be.
But back in 1965, Purves, as Steven Taylor, had a vital role to play – he was the ‘Second Chesterton.’ With Susan having left the Tardis early in season two, and Ian and Barbara leaving at the end of the deliciously demented The Chase, the show was about to experience its first full rotation. The Doctor had picked up Vicki in the very next story following Susan’s departure, meaning her role as ‘curious young person’ was filled, but arguably the leaving of Ian and Barbara was far more significant. What would the Doctor be like without his two modern grown-ups to keep him in check and get him out of trouble? From a purely practical, production team point of view, who would do the fighting that Bill Hartnell couldn’t convincingly do? And, as was to become painfully obvious to all concerned, there was another question that needed answering – who would guide Hartnell through scripts he was increasingly struggling to remember?
Purves’ landing of the role of Steven Taylor was the kind of thing that happened with almost alarming frequency in the early days of Who. People who appeared briefly and impressed were invited back to become companions within weeks. Frazer Hines would later report a similar situation – impressing as piper Jamie, his last scene was re-shot and he joined the crew. As Maureen O’Brien, Jackie Lane and Adrienne Hill who played Vicki, Dodo and the tragic Katarina discovered though, the ride could be unceremoniously cut short, as companions stayed behind in Troy, wandered off to a party and never came back, or opened airlock doors and floated out to space-death after short trips on the Tardis too.
Purves had had a brief handful of lines as gauche American tourist Morton Dill during episode six of The Chase. Then when it became clear that Ian and Barbara were leaving at the end of the story, Steven Taylor, the space pilot with a teddy bear, was written in to the final episode, set on Mechanus, and escaped with the Tardis travellers. The Doctor seems to accept his presence on the ship with far better, more grandfatherly grace than he initially showed to the Coal Hill teachers, and even a degree of humour. And with that, the new team took off, heading into the final story of the second season, The Time Meddler. As the decision that Ian and Barbara would be leaving had been rather quickly arrived at, Purves is on record as saying the first few scripts for Steven actually had him playing Barbara’s lines, but he covers this well in The Time Meddler – not for Steven Barbara’s insatiable curiosity about Earth history. He brought more of Ian Chesterton’s solid concern to the party, allied to a skillset of his own when it came to rugged, heroic action. In Galaxy Four, the first story of Season Three, he was particularly unhappy to be kept prisoner by the Drahvins and practically suffocated in episode three without taking more dynamic, space pilotly action. But by the time of The Myth Makers, Steven is beginning to make his own mark, impersonating Greek heroes with a deadpan chutzpah that Ian would possibly have balked at, and crossing the plains of Asia Minor with good if exhausted humour. In the epic that is The Daleks’ Master Plan, he begins to stretch the role further, his futuristic origins meaning less of a need for “What’s that, Doctor?” acting, and more direct involvement in the plot, though to some extent, his role as the Second Chesterton is the sum of the characterisation he is really given to work with.
It is at the end of the Massacre that Steven gets perhaps his best character moment, independent of his storytelling role as ‘the fighting male.’ As Anne Chaplet, the sweet girl with whom they had become friends, is revealed by the Doctor as very probably murdered in appalling circumstances, and the Doctor essentially shrugs, bringing his alien objectivity to bear on the experience, Steven loses all his considerable cool, accuses the Doctor of heartlessness, declares that if that’s the sort of man he is, he wants nothing to do with him and storms out of the Tardis, seemingly forever. It’s a scene that feels decades ahead of its time, and foreshadows the likes of Tegan’s “It’s stopped being fun,” and even Amy Pond’s more direct question when the Doctor says he doesn’t save everyone – “Then what is the point of you?”
We’ve asked uncomfortable questions about the Doctor’s character before, but not since the very early days, not since Ian and Barbara were new in the Doctor’s life and he essentially kidnapped them. Almost, it’s tempting to think, not since the pilot of An Unearthly Child, which was re-shot entirely because the Doctor was too unsympathetic and harsh. Since then, the Doctor has been getting progressively more cuddly to his Tardis companions, the relationship changing to a more familial dynamic. Steven’s hit of moral outrage at the alien’s objectivity about time and people makes us question the Doctor’s motives and personality for the first time in what feels like a long time. When Dodo Chaplet then wanders into the Tardis looking for a policeman, and Steven comes running back, it’s an uneasy moment that ultimately melts when he realises what the young girl’s massively convenient surname might just mean. But in that explosion, Steven Taylor the character really comes to the fore.
It is a perversity of the skill of writers that often, they only show you what they’re capable of at the very point you’re leaving. Peter Davison’s Doctor, two decades later, was never better served than by Robert Holmes in The Caves of Androzani, making you wish that you could see more of that Doctor. The same is regrettably true of Steven Taylor, who had gamely tackled adventure after adventure, and who had made us remember that the Doctor was an alien to our understanding. His final story, The Savages, is actually far better constructed and plotted than much of the rest of season three, with its grim storyline of social and genetic experimentation, its unilateral enforcement of a class structure, it’s essentially chemical vampirism, and its crackingly-paced revolution story, in which, to be fair, Steven does his usual Steven thing – gets stuck in, fights the good fight, worries about the Doctor and Dodo and ultimately wins through. Sometimes in life, as in drama, we do not know what we are looking for until we find it. So it is with Steven, who has not seemed lost or in search of purpose, nor especially lacking in responsibility, until ‘the savages’ need a leader, and he – unwillingly at first, but quickly growing in his enthusiasm – decides to stay behind and make a more permanent kind of difference. Steven had always displayed a need for a kind of order, a need to know where his ducks were and a need for them to be in a row – one of his more regular, semi-despairing cries during his adventures was “Well now where’s he got to?!” It is pleasing to think of the space pilot putting both his own experience and character, and the pragmatism he learned during his time on the Tardis, to use as a leader, diplomat, warrior, architect and society-builder, uniting the Elders and the Savages and taking them forward to a new combined and equal future.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk
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