Tony Fyler pays tribute to Eighth Doctor audio companion Charley Pollard.
It’s a truism that some of the Doctor’s most interesting and longstanding companions – the ones who have had a life beyond their adventures with him – are possessed with a spirit of adventure long before they meet him. Sarah-Jane Smith is already hunting down a news story and pretending to be her own aunt when she runs into the Third Doctor, time travel and the Sontarans. Captain Jack Harkness is already running a time-agent scam in war-torn London when he runs into the Doctor, eventually becoming appallingly immortal and moving on to Torchwood. Ace has already whipped up a time storm in her bedroom which has transported her to Ice World when the Doctor arrives to go dragon hunting. And as for Bernice Summerfield…the mind positively boggles.
Enter Charlotte Elspeth Pollard, self-styled ‘Edwardian Adventuress,’ who meets the Eighth Doctor while she’s hiding out on board the R101 airship, disguised as a boy and running away to see the world in all its magnificence – though most particularly aiming to meet a man in Singapore on New Year’s Day in 1931 (when she will, somewhat scandalously, be just 18). Charlotte, or Charley to her friends, is bouncy and boisterous on her arrival in our lives, replete with some of the certainties of her privileged background but with little of the snobbery it might normally entail. But like many an Edwardian lady of class, she’s also not about to take any nonsense, and is rarely if ever shy of putting evildoers, or indeed just those who show her disrespect in their place – including the Doctor when necessary.
While the Eighth Doctor has technically lived a long life by the time he meets her (in novels and comic strips), Charley is the first of his audio companions, and there’s a sense of the exuberance of newness about their initial relationship: their personalities mesh well – gung ho, enthusiastic about the universe, and about life itself. Charley’s journey through the Big Finish universe so far has tempered her, made her more of a realist, more of a strategist – but that essential enthusiasm that is Charley’s core characteristic is always there, however long or deep it seems to be sleeping. The right spark is all it needs to set her off again, like a glorious, bubbly spinning top with the universe of space and time in which to whirl, just like the Doctor himself.
That said, Charley and the Eighth Doctor go into some very dark territory, and explore some fairly deep personal issues on the way to her growing up. In this, her relationship with the Eighth Doctor makes her a kind of upper class Ace with the Seventh, providing a thread of what’s essential about a Doctor Who companion, while giving it a spin that makes it work for the then-new world of audio adventures, and for this particular doctor. She goes to Hell with him and back, sees him at his brightest and bounciest – the Eighth is frequently a precursor for the Tenth incarnation in his Tiggerish approach to situations – but it’s also Charley who stays with the Doctor at his darkest and loneliest in Zagreus, when he becomes a real and personal danger to her.
After Zagreus, their relationship is never quite the same again. She’s not afraid to say she loves him, but when they’re banished to a whole new universe and pick up C’rizz, Charley’s adoration party is well and truly scuppered. Only under orders and over time does she go from viewing C’rizz as a gooseberry in the Charley-Doctor show to seeing him as a bratty brother, of whom she’s extremely fond. When C’rizz dies in a gesture of noble self-sacrifice, she’s devastated, and the Doctor’s alien inability to appreciate the depth of her feelings drives a wedge between them that has her demanding to be taken to Singapore once and for all – almost a Martha moment, this, of growing up and putting girlish dreams behind her in the wake of the consequences of travelling with the Doctor. Then, as they tend to do when you least expect them, the Cybermen show up to ruin the show. Charley believes the Doctor has died fighting them. He believes she’s left him of her own free will, and Charley ends up marooned on an island in the far future, with just the makings of a rudimentary crystal set to keep her company.
Typical modern, sad companion-ending, right? Trapped in a parallel universe, turned into a soldier, zapped back into the past and left to live to death, turned into a cyberman, robbed of all their memories of the Doctor and the expanded universe… Being left on an island is par for the course, no?
Except that’s far from the end of Charley Pollard. The Doctor picks up her radio signal, and comes to rescue her.
No – not the Eighth Doctor, the Sixth Doctor. Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey. After a short series of adventures, she’s written out of his memory by none other than the Viyrans (a Big Finish creation – they’re big on eradicating viruses from all of time and space, great fun in cold and flu season). And Charley Pollard, Edwardian Adventuress, goes off to have new adventures in time and space as an agent of the Viyrans – they deal with truly exotic viruses that can cause all sorts of galactic terror and inconvenience, so just as she began her time in our lives on her own adventures, she continues to have them after her time with the Doctor is done. That only happens – that’s only viable – with the best and most robust of companions, the ones who can carry a series of adventures on their own. Again, the parallels are straightforward – Sarah-Jane, Captain Jack. Yes, in case you’ve never encountered her, Charley Pollard is that good.
And recently, some of her Viyran – and post-Viyran - adventures have been released in their own box set, actress India Fisher returning eagerly to the fold to show us what Charley did next. It’s a set of four stories that make the most of her ineffable character – enthusiastic, clever, an increasingly good judge of character and these days with a solid appreciation for the bigger picture of the universe. Perhaps the most moving of the stories is the one where she returns home to see her parents (in a most unconventional way), who have thought her dead and gone since the R101 disaster, and who have been growing quietly apart and going to ruin as a result. Proof, if proof were needed, that Charley Pollard is a companion in whom an audience can confidently invest, as her impact hits hard, both when she’s being wild and crazy and gung-ho Charley, and when faced with powerful, emotional scenes. Fisher’s skill in performance steps up to the demands of writers that push Charley’s character into ever tighter and more complex spots, and seeing what she does to get out of them.
Charley Pollard was the Eighth Doctor’s first audio companion, and it would be arguable that she remains his best to this day – her undeniable, adventure-seeking spirit still driving her on out among the stars, fighting good fights, seeing amazing things and making a difference in a big, incredible universe, nearly fifteen years after she arrived.
Check out Charley Pollard in – well, frankly any of her stories, as she’s consistently great, but Storm Warning for her beginnings, Neverland, Zagreus and Scherzo for some traumatic times, The Condemned for her beginnings with the Sixth Doctor, Solitaire for a Who-themed adventure with Charley taking the lead, and The New Adventures of Charlotte Pollard to bring yourself up to date with a new lease life for Charley in the wider universe.
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