Whatever else he is, he’s interesting.
Turlough is a classic case of a John Nathan-Turner idea that wasn’t quite thought through. Many of these ideas seemed to run like this ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’ insert extreme idea. Some of the time I think JN-T was right on the money and came up with some great stuff. The other half of the time he was so far off the mark you wondered what on Earth he was smoking. Turlough is, rather unusually, a rare case of one of these extreme ideas that was somewhere in the middle. Having a companion who is actually against The Doctor is a very intriguing idea in principle but in practice it falls down, and it falls down by quirk of when it was made.
Three complete stories can be a mere three episodes (or six episodes when adjusted for the latter date episode length). Which is a reasonable run time when one of the regulars keeps trying to kill the Doctor. In 1983 three complete stories was often equal to twelve episodes. That’s a heck of a lot of time to fill when you have a character who the audience already knows is not going to achieve their goal. Many fans complain about how dull ‘Terminus’ is but when you have four episodes to fill that essentially require the Main cast to be split for no real dramatic reason and thus resulting in a lot ‘filler’ the fact that ‘Terminus’ is even watchable is something of an achievement. By the time the storyline is resolved, it’s gone on far too long for anybody to care.
What is remarkable about Turlough however, is he is the very first companion ever to have a complete Story arc. Yes, all other companions had recurring themes, Ian and Barbara didn’t trust the Doctor and wanted to get home, Leela was being educated, Romana was sent to find the Key to time, but these themes never really came to any sort of definite conclusion. Such was the way classic Doctor Who was made they were just written out when the actor terminated their contract and it fell to whomever was writing at the time to do it. It was probably luck more than judgement that Peter Grimwade both introduced and departed Turlough but the results give us a companion who was very much ahead of his time.
As I’ve established, he spend his first twelve episode trying to kill the Doctor and failing because he’s not really a bad guy. Desperate, shady, morally ambiguous, not human, would like to think of himself as a bit of a maverick but is little more than a rebellious child, but at his core he is a good person and it’s his first few adventures with the Doctor than bring this out. On the face of it, Turlough joining the TARDIS crew is quite forced as Tegan and Nyssa blatantly don’t trust him and the Doctor seems to welcome him with open arms, oblivious to the fact that he has attempted to murder him several times in very obvious ways. The only explanation is that The Doctor has either become utterly clueless or he knows there is something else going on. John Nathan-Turner had Mark Strickson’s hair dyed red so that he and Peter Davison wouldn’t look to similar. It’s interesting that was on his mind as the characters do share much in common, all the aforementioned facets of Turlough have been used to varying degrees over the years to describe the Doctor. Were we ever to be presented with a ‘Young Doctor Who’ I imagine he would be very much like Turlough, they certainly share a penchant for uniform-like clothes, and the recent ‘Listen’ showed the Doctor as very much ‘the weedy kid that everyone picked on’. In the closing moments of ‘Enlightenment’ despite everything he trusts Turlough. He must see much of himself in the young man. Either that or he was so sick of Tegan’s complaining he wanted a bro-mance.
And to give huge props to Mark Strickson, he never loses that shady streak. After ‘Enlightenment’ it would have been very easy for him to slip into the ‘I’m a completely reformed character’ trap and become little more than a generic male companion who handles the action and occasionally makes plucky comments. This allows some of the writers to have a bit of fun and gently poke fun at the shows clichés. His gleeful delivery of ‘refugees fleeing from the DOOMED planet Earth’ is a particular highlight.
It’s safe to say that The Doctor puts up with a lot from Turlough and the two actors play this superbly throughout Strickson’s tenure, resulting in a lot of stern big-brother type ‘I don’t think you wanted to do that did you?’ looks. So when he threatens to end their friendship in ‘Planet of Fire’ the moment is all the more powerful.
Were Turlough around today, his story would most likely be set out from day one, and his failure to kill The Doctor could have evolved as subtle, insidious plan. As it is, he becomes a victim of his time, a great idea that was almost impossible to realise. On the plus side we were given one of the most interesting, and in my view, most under rated companions the show ever had.
Dominic Fellows is an actor and writer from Birmingham in the UK. He is also producer of the group Stripped Down Theatre (find them on Facebook). His shows have had more than one or two ‘geeky gags’ in them.