“I’ll miss you savage.” A blindingly obvious appreciation of Leela
In many ways, the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker’s Doctor, was the least companionable of Doctors. It’s well known that Tom Baker relished going companionless for The Deadly Assassin and that he rather immodesty challenged the longer term need for the Doctor to have any companion at all.
If Baker’s concern was a companion who might distract viewers from his own performance then the character devised for the new season by messrs Hinchcliffe, Holmes and Boucher must have resembled his worst nightmare.
Because, at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obviously, just look at her. Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier, going at full throttle, could hardly be assured of any audience’s undivided attention while standing next to Louise Jameson. Small wonder that Baker feared that he might no longer be the cynosure of the British televisual gaze.
Leela is a warrior of Sevateem (survey team) – a tribe of devolved superstitious savages who have, over the centuries, shed all vestiges of civilisation with the exception of shampoo and elocution lessons. The Doctor permits Leela to travel with him (in his usual casual, irresponsible fourthdoctory sort of a way) perhaps because he’s intrigued by her spirit of curiosity. Although he officially disapproves of her residual murderous instincts (“no more Janus Thorns – ever”), it has to be said that her remarkable state of constant combat awareness proves useful on many occasions. She intuits danger when nobody else can. She is forced to fight killer robots on a desolate mining planet and compelled much against her will to wear clothing while visiting Victorian London. She may be at her very best in Horror of Fang Rock (the “Rutan in an Edwardian lighthouse” episode). The scene where she chides a young lady for her reliance on horoscopes is remarkable. The look on her face while she declares “it is better to believe in science” is both intense and sincere.
The truth of the matter is, of course, that more obvious attractions notwithstanding, Louise Jameson’s performance as Leela is superb. She’s a killer, she’s a child, but above all – she’s a learner – she has a remarkably scientific spirit of inquiry. Starting out as a superstitious forest dweller, she develops under the Doctor’s more or less benign tutelage into a scientist in the truest sense of the world. She is determined to find out how things work.
The dismissal of Leela at the end of Invasion of Time would count as one of the most absurdly truncated goodbyes in the history of the franchise were it not for the fact that the Fourth Doctor was always one for absurdly truncated goodbyes. These days it takes the Doctor at least half an hour to say goodbye to anyone – but back in Baker’s day companions were dispatched with little more than a grin and a nod. The Fourth Doctor’s regard for his companions was real and he’d risk his life for any of them, but he never seemed to live in fear of being alone. Solitude was for, him a natural condition to be pleasantly interrupted. Invasion of Time, Leela’s swansong- in which she is somewhat arbitrarily paired off with the febrile looking Andred – is, in any case a very strange story. The comedic bumbling around Tardis corridors while trying to confuse the Sontarans should not distract us from the fact that for the first two and a half episodes, the Doctor is very nasty indeed. Oh, for sure, it’s all a ruse, but we are given a glimpse of what slight tweaking it takes to turn the Fourth Doctor into a villain.
It is particularly cruel that Leela experiences rejection at the hands of President Doctor so close to her departure. But then, the 1970s could be quite deliciously cruel on occasion.