Being a Doctor Who companion can be a tricky business. Only eleven in the history of the show - eleven in fifty years – have had to cope with the central mystery of the show: regeneration.
Ben and Polly are confused for about five minutes, then jump on board with the idea that Hartnell has become Troughton. Sarah-Jane and the Brigadier seem to shrug and the line ‘Here we go again’ covers the miraculous change. Adric, Tegan and Nyssa barely comment that the Watcher ‘was the Doctor all the time’ before helping Davison back to the Tardis.
Perpugilliam Brown, known as Peri, was the first companion to whom regeneration came as a complete and terrifying shock. She run away with a complete stranger, but by The Caves of Androzani, she was settling into the life of a time traveller in company with the Fifth Doctor, and the opening banter of that story shows them at ease with each other and their foibles.
Then the unthinkable happens.
The Doctor dies.
What would you do? You’ve run away with a stranger into time and space, had adventures, learned their ways and rhythms, made them acclimatise to yours, and then suddenly not only are they dead, but in their place is a completely different person, who scorns everything they used to be, tries to strangle you, and argues every time you try to make in-roads to understanding them? That is Peri’s dilemma.
It would be a mistake to ascribe too much intent to Peri’s on-screen story arc. Nicola Bryant was hired unsentimentally to ‘bring some sex to the show’ according to Producer John Nathan-Turner, as a contrast to the ‘Mouth On Legs’ persona of Janet Fielding’s Tegan Jovanka, and in an echo of the tactic that had worked with Louise Jameson’s ‘noble savage,’ Leela of the Sevateem. As Leela had swanned about the universe in a leather bikini as ‘something for the dads,’ so Peri would skip about time and space in lycra, bikini-tops and impractical, ankle-twisting shoes.
Bryant was fresh-faced when she came to the role, having had only the beginnings of a stage career before becoming, forever, a Doctor Who companion. The choice to make the Sixth Doctor distant and alien meant her amiable performance against Peter Davison’s Doctor was jettisoned by writers who were under orders to play out the shock of having the man with whom you’ve run away change utterly. The plan to have the Sixth Doctor mellow over time was ultimately doomed by BBC forces that had lost commitment in to the show, but nevertheless, Bryant and Baker delivered a believable evolution from shock through anger and grief to acceptance and dependence before the shocking end comes for Peri – or of course, maybe doesn’t.
There are distinct markers in Peri’s development. While in the Twin Dilema she’s essentially trying to stay alive as the unstable (‘Unstable? UNSTABLE?!’) Sixth Doctor explodes at everything under a number of suns and almost throttles the life out of her, she shows her nurturing side in caring for the loathesome Sylvest twins. By Attack of the Cybermen, we see her trying to make the most of her time with this volatile stranger – and importantly, holding her own (as she had done against the Master in Planet of Fire) when captured by the Cryons.
But it’s in Vengeance on Varos that the first inklings of a genuine camaraderie between the Sixth Doctor and Peri begin to show through. From their work together to bamboozle and defeat a guard, we see Peri’s strength – she’s willing to try anything, this girl who, having gone on a standard Lanzarote holiday was already planning to go travelling with strangers when an even-stranger in a blue box entered her life. She’s conscious of her own abilities, and actually seems to be enjoying herself (in between the video nasty violence and the creepy corporate slug encounters), getting into the mix for the cause of right. Seventies fans may wave their pitchforks at the observation, but she shows all the characteristics of an 80s Sarah-Jane – not being afraid, ever, to interpose the moral standards of 80s Baltimore between people and suffering. Mark of the Rani and The Two Doctors see these elements growing in Peri – she’s hands-on when attacked by mustard gas, and (to Bryant’s inestimable credit) manages not to corpse both when attacked by the lamest tree in TV history, and on hearing the line – ‘the tree won’t hurt you’. In The Two Doctors, Peri is able to think on her feet, both in pulling the Doctor clear of a faintly bizarre booby-trap, and when trying to gather information on the occupants of the hacienda. Even in the matt-walled mess that was Timelash – and even though there are echoes of Sharaz Jek’s leering and a fair amount of ‘clamped to a massively unconvincing monster screamy acting’, if you watch Peri when she finds herself with the rebels, what you see is a woman out of her depth but accepting the unusual situation she’s in and trying to do the right thing. The core of Peri is pure American Girl Scout – adventurous, unphased, and, impractical shoes notwithstanding, much more than a screaming plot-engine. Peri is cool.
In particular, there are very few companions who have the nerve to be a witty wisecracker, rather than either a space doormat or a stolid supporter, as a way of connecting with the viewer. Again, we’re forced to go back to Sarah-Jane to find a mirror for Peri’s muttered witticisms, about her shoes, or falling in a river, or indeed falling into a Spectrox nest. As Sarah-Jane had a habit of muttering about the plot to herself, as a real person would, so Peri’s asides – ‘Is this wise, I ask myself…’ just before getting captured – made her come alive and seem capable in a way few other companions achieved. But despite her mutterings and the unpredictability of the Sixth Doctor, we understood why Peri didn’t just demand to be dropped off at the next habitable planet. The spirit of adventure was strong in this one.
By the time we reach Ravolox in the Trial of a Timelord, negotiations off-screen had taken place, certainly with the production team, and just as plausibly between the Doctor and his companion. There was to be less in the way of bickering and more of a sense of genuine camaraderie between the two, and this is immediately apparent in the otherwise time-wasting scene of them yomping through the forest. Right to the end of her TV time, Peri is holding her own as a citizen of the universe – not so much ‘I’m Perpugilliam Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can!’ as ‘I’m here; what can I do to help’ – she balances allegiances with Glitz and Dibber, pays homage to Queen Katryca and joins Merdeen and Balazar to help avoid disaster.
The ending of her TV life is of course shocking. The Doctor, addled by Crozier’s brain experiments in Mindwarp, seems to revert to his immediately post-regenerative nastiness, and Peri feels betrayed and mystified that having come so far, he could treat her the way her does. Ultimately, she pays the price of travelling with the Doctor in a devastating way – not, like Adric, killed by her own impetuosity, but very distinctly not saved by the Doctor, strapped to a table, with her head cut open, her brain removed, and her body – that body that had been brought in to ‘add some sex to the show’ the puppet of a slug-lord. It’s an ultimate violation, and the ultimate indictment of the Doctor’s lifestyle (which is presumably why the Valeyard either chose it or re-wrote it to demand the Doctor’s life). Bryant is on record as saying she loved that ending for Peri’s character, and was correspondingly disappointed by the schmaltzy retraction at the end of the Trial season.
Of course, the ‘was-she or wasn’t-she killed’ dichotomy has given Peri the opportunity to have lives beyond the TV adventures we’ve seen, and in recent years, Big Finish has filled in many of the gaps in Peri’s on-screen character. The whole series of adventures with Erimem and the Fifth Doctor shows Peri with a female friend on board the Tardis, and she blossoms wonderfully in the sharing of fun, danger and confidences. In addition, there are a handful of strong Peri-centric stories that have taken the work that Nicola Bryant was able to do on-screen (often battling with less than ideal scripts) and elevated Peri’s character far beyond ‘something for the dads’.
In The Reaping, Peri goes home to face the consequences of her running away and finds her family and friends filled with difficult emotions towards her. Bryant plays the returning traveller with excellent naturalism several years after her TV adventures, and shows at least some of what her time away with her Doctors has given her – a capacity not to run away from problems, but to face them head-on and work through them, wherever in her life they may be. In The Council of Nicaea, there’s an interesting moment that sets Peri apart from most companions, in that she mentions the faith of her childhood (Baptist), but adds that she doesn’t consider herself religious. It’s a subject rarely raised explicitly in Doctor Who – whether people of faith can successfully travel with the Doctor (Poor Katarina…), and a touching deepening of the character’s reality.
Some of the ‘Lost’ Season 26 stories, when re-made for Big Finish some years on, show the heart of Peri in a way that didn’t always make it to the screen – it turns out from The Macros that she can’t sing, despite having the courage to go onstage and perform so as to save people from a bad situation. More particularly, Point of Entry, set in Christopher Marlowe’s England, sees Peri, with little preparation, bluff her way as Queen Elizabeth I – again, if you need a have-a-go heroine in an 80s outfit, Peri proves herself to be the young woman to have by your side.
Perhaps even more personal and touching than The Reaping is Peri and the Piscon Paradox.
As the title suggests, there’s plenty of high farce in the Piscon Paradox, but what else there is is an older, more cynical Peri, contrasted with her young, idealistic, adventurous self. There’s an explanation that makes a sort of sense of the double-life of the TV Peri, and there’s an emotional punch in the stomach more visceral than anything even the new TV Who has ever delivered. Just released is Breaking Bubbles, which promises to tell us ‘what really happened to Peri.’ Ahh…spoilers!
Courageous, bright, capable, open-minded, enthusiastic, and with just enough sarcasm and spitfire-spirit to stop her seeming sickly, Peri is not just another in the parade of 80s companions. She can stand alongside the likes of Sarah-Jane, Leela, Jamie and Donna Noble as a real, admirable character. If, as the trailers and interviews suggest, the Twelfth Doctor will follow in the footsteps of the Sixth, being difficult and unapproachable, Nicola Bryant’s Peri is also an object lesson for Jenna Coleman’s Clara in how to cope with regeneration and cement a place in the hearts of fans for generations to come.
Previous Companion Pieces
Sarah Jane Smith
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". By day, he 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