Tony Fyler pays tribute to a mouth on legs.
‘Well, that settles it – she’s got to come with us!’
As ‘Welcome to the Tardis’ parties go, it’s not the most promising beginning, and yet Tegan Jovanka is the go-to companion of the Peter Davison era, the one your mind immediately conjures up when you picture the early 80s Tardis. Of the Fifth Doctor’s companions, she’s the one who stays the longest, and the one who lets him get away with least in the way of prevarication, fecklessness or shoddy piloting. In essence, Tegan is the Fifth Doctor’s whetstone – with his personality so much less inherently bluff and commanding than that of his fourth incarnation, it’s Tegan who frequently makes the Fifth Doctor buck his ideas up, or at least gives him an ideal to live up to.
Her beginnings on the Tardis are particularly resonant, as they closely resemble those of the original Earthling companions, Ian and Barbara –their curiosity leads them all on board, and the Doctor effectively kidnaps them, takes them out of their lives and leaves them no option but to travel the universe and adapt to his way of life. There’s an image of Tegan as a particularly stroppy time traveler, never especially keen on her adventures, but it’s an inaccurate image on two counts. In the first place, the Fifth Doctor threatens or promises to take her home on several occasions, and Tegan jumps at the chance to keep travelling. In fact at the end of The King’s Demons, she practically begs the Doctor to keep her on board, before he reveals he’s already set the controls for their next destination. And secondly, ‘stroppy Tegan’ is mostly the product of the situation in which she initially finds herself – lost in a mad craft that’s bigger on the inside than the out, and face to face with a megalomaniac who not only kills her auntie, but does it in a horrible, literally belittling way that makes a mockery of everything that woman ever was and everything she ever taught her.
Really, Tegan is an achiever – the farm girl who wants to fly, and who works hard and studies hard and earns her uniform and her passport to a wider world than she ever would have known or seen. Then weirdness, tragedy and some striding peacock with an unfeasible scarf and his snotty-nosed boy toy sweep into her life and make it all for nothing. And as if that’s not enough, the bug-eyed scarf-wearer then up and turns into a twentysomething streak of fecklessness who wears a decorative vegetable!
Tell me you wouldn’t be a little stroppy if that happened to you.
The strength of Tegan though is her adaptability. When she comes to terms with time and space, her dream proves malleable – she wanted to see the wider world, to fly, and experience new places, meet new people, have new adventures. The Doctor gives her the opportunity to live that dream on a far more massive canvas – the universe of time and space – and it’s really not long before Tegan is enjoying living the dream as the Tardis gives her the unique chance to do. What’s more, she embraces the Doctor’s ‘righter of wrongs’ mentality, for all she sometimes doesn’t believe he thinks things through, and she frequently finds herself on the sticky end of the wicket, whether it’s encountering the darkness in her own mind in the person of the Mara, being threatened with being burned as the Queen of the May in a village gone mad, or being trapped under a deeply unconvincing door while being menaced by a seaweed-green pantomime horse.
She’s also keen to help out wherever she can – in Earthshock, she volunteers to join Scott’s expedition party, despite, on thinking about it, realizing that her ‘mouth on legs’ tendency has voluntarily led her into danger. In Frontios, when there’s hard lugging labour to be done, Tegan comes to the fore, the frontier spirit and necessity of the place and its people touching her. Tegan’s eagerness to meet new people and try new things though is tempered by a rock-solid sense of where and when she’s come from – like Jo and Sarah-Jane before her, Tegan’s never afraid to say ‘You can’t do that!’ based on the moral principles and the humanity she’s been taught at her point in time. If anything, it’s this moral core, this flame of fundamental decency and compassion, along with a dry sense of humour, that forms the bonding bridge between her and the Fifth Doctor. She realises that he too will say ‘You can’t do that!’ when faced with tyranny or terror, and she comes to trust more in his instincts for doing her version of the right thing.
Just as she’s not about to let the bullies of the universe be thuggish and unpleasant to their victims though, she’s also never about to let the Doctor have an especially easy life – their relationship is more like that between cousins than anything more formal, and while he gets a little peevish with her, Tegan is frequently able to push the Fifth Doctor further than, say, Adric is, precisely because their relationship is more equal. They are fellow travelers, not teacher and pupil, and Tegan’s never shy of giving the Doctor a flea in his ear.
Her relationships with her fellow companions shows the many sides of Tegan’s character. With Adric, who at first is openly hostile to her presence, she forms a quickly protective relationship. He’s the smart-alec teen she might have had for a little brother, and she’s devastated when he dies. Nyssa is the posh girl at school, probably too quiet to be Tegan’s natural pal, but with whom, in an otherwise male time capsule, she bonds over not only frustration at the occasional stupidity of men (see them together in Earthshock, each going to talk some sense into one of their feather-spitting friends) but also an inherent compassion between shared victims of the same tragedy – the walking tragedy that is the Master. Turlough she’d cheerfully slap senseless before breakfast – he’s the kind of self-entitled, arrogant, ‘better-than-this’ snob who’d never survive the life from which Tegan has come. Eventually, once he gets over his ‘must-kill-the-Doctor’ phase, she begins to treat him more as a necessary inconvenience, but the sense that the universe would be properly improved if she slapped Turlough upside the head continues to dog Tegan’s interactions with him. That’s the fundamental nature of Tegan – funny, helpful, compassionate, validly opinionated, not afraid to get stuck in, and yes, ready with a verbal mauling for people who think the universe owes them favours. In essence, she’s an Australian, female (as written and dressed mostly by men), early 80s version of everything the Doctor is and stands for. In many ways, the perfect combination would have been Tegan and the Sixth Doctor, who was louder in every sense of the word and himself more opinionated than the Fifth.
But Tegan’s similarity to the Doctor, her certainty that he will stand up to the bullies of the universe is shaken, hard, by the events of Resurrection of the Daleks. It’s the first time she’s encountered the cruet sets of doom, and the number of good people that get killed in the crossfire between the Doctor and the Daleks is shocking and revolting to her. She knows it’s not really his fault, but there’s something in their relationship that’s changed forever when she sees the fallout when the Doctor stands up to the Daleks’ plans. It ‘stops being fun,’ and Tegan knows it’s no longer for her. In a move that was bold for the time and the age, there’s little in the way of tender parting, which the Doctor would prefer to salve his conscience. For almost the first time, a companion he has shown his universe runs from him. Runs from the truths she sees about his life.
After that, the world divides around Tegan. Big Finish recorded a ‘final’ Tegan adventure with Janet Fielding, set years after her time with the Doctor. Life has not worked out especially well for Tegan. She’s more than a little embittered, and when the Doctor and Cyber-technology return to her life, she’s dying. The Doctor tries to make amends, to save her, to remove the thing that’s killing her. She won’t let him. She’s lived her life her way, and that’s that. It’s a bitter pill for Tegan-fans to take, however realistic it sounds to her character. Fielding has since recorded plenty more ‘back in the day’ Tegan stories with Big Finish, expanding the character’s range and depth, all the while making the recorded history of Resurrection feel less right. The Sarah-Jane Adventures though has Tegan, decades on, fighting for aboriginal rights. That’s a destiny that feels more right, more soothing – that’s our mouth on legs, still putting herself between the little people and the big bullies of her world.
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