Tegan the Sarcastic Devotee

teganCompanion Tropes 27

MONITOR: Now, perhaps you would like to see more of Logopolis.
TEGAN: I’d prefer to see a lot less of it.

A few weeks ago we looked at Turlough, the anti-hero of the Fifth Doctor era, but perhaps even more of a thorn in Five’s side was Tegan.  She’s not an anti-hero though, because she is always firmly on the side of the Doctor (well, unless she’s possessed), but despite this she gives him a hard time.  Far from being in awe of him or his TARDIS, she complains a lot, spends several stories just wanting to go home, and delights in sarcastic comments.

TEGAN: Is that supposed to be Heathrow?
ADRIC: It is.
TEGAN: Well, they’ve certainly let the grass grow since I was last there.

When it’s sarcasm it has the potential for humour, but sometimes Tegan crosses the line to a place of sheer grumpiness:

DOCTOR: It’s all right, it’s all right. Just leave everything to me.
TEGAN: I’m sick of leaving everything to you!

The point of all this would normally be to keep the hero on his toes.  Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley created a famous theory of writing known as “Dramatica”, which is a useful writer’s tool and an even more useful script editor’s tool.  Two key roles in a drama they identify are the “sidekick” and the “sceptic” (well, “skeptic” really, if we’re going to stick with the US spelling… which I’m not).  The sidekick is supportive, while the sceptic challenges the hero.  So we have a clear pairing of companions that fits the bill: Nyssa and Tegan.  One issue with the Fifth Doctor era is that it overplays the sceptic role.  To look at the full line ups, and do a bit of broad generalisation:

  • Adric, Nyssa, Tegan (sceptic, sidekick, sceptic)
  • Nyssa, Tegan (sidekick, sceptic)
  • Nyssa, Tegan, Turlough (sidekick, sceptic, sceptic)
  • Tegan, Turlough (sceptic, sceptic)
  • Turlough, Peri (sceptic, sidekick)
  • Peri (sidekick, until the Sixth Doctor era, where she transitions quickly to sceptic)

So there’s a clear imbalance there, in the direction of sceptic, which is a character type that really needs to be used sparingly to avoid annoying the viewers.

DOCTOR: Well, the Tardis is more than a machine, Tegan. It’s like a person. It needs coaxing, persuading, encouraging.
TEGAN: You mean it’s just as unreliable.

As a sarcastic devotee (i.e. a sarcastic sceptic who doesn’t betray the hero), Tegan is perhaps more useful in combative mode when threatened by the villain of the week.  Here she is with a Terileptil:

TERILEPTIL: You are wearing synthetic garments manufactured by technology as yet unknown on this planet.
TEGAN: You’ll have to ask my tailor about that.

…and with a Cyberman:

TEGAN: You won’t like Earth.
LEADER: Like or dislike does not come into my consideration.
TEGAN: It will when you start going rusty.

… and with the Master:

TEGAN: What do you want?
MASTER: To help.
TEGAN: That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.

But let’s stop and think about all that for a minute.  What is it achieving, dramatically?  Yes, it’s amusing, but it bursts the bubble of any fear factor that is being created.  In terms of creating tension it is actually counterproductive, and the straightforward damsel in distress companion is in that respect more useful.  Then again, when a character like Tegan is scared it really makes the viewer take notice.  She is clearly frightened of the Mara at the start of Snakedance, and the sarcastic remarks fail her.

The same characteristics also help make Tegan more astute at times than the average companion.  This is her reaction to Turlough in Mawdryn Undead, in comparison with Nyssa:

TEGAN: I don’t trust that boy.
NYSSA: Oh, I don’t know. I thought he was rather nice.

…and in Terminus:

TURLOUGH: I’m very sorry, I didn’t hear you.
TEGAN: You’re up to something, I can feel it.

She is not the kind of companion to automatically accept the status quo.  We find that out right from the start in Logopolis, and this is something that rarely gets noticed or commented on:

TEGAN: You can tell they’re exploited.
NYSSA: These people are scientists.

Dropped into an unfamiliar situation on an alien planet, Tegan looks around her and immediately questions the human(oid) rights of the people she sees.  She has a different perspective to anyone else: a sceptic perspective:

Back home in Brisbane, we call that a sweatshop.

But there is one big, important point about a sarcastic devotee.  The whole point of the character trope is to challenge the hero and keep him on his toes.  She should be an opportunity to achieve positive things for the main character, such as reminding him of basic decency for example, popping the bubble of pomposity or dismissive technobabbling, keeping him grounded, stopping him from going too far.  Basically, challenging him, and his values.  And that really doesn’t happen much at all.  Tegan snarks at the Doctor, and he brushes her off repeatedly like a troublesome fly.

So in the end Tegan is half of a character trope, and very much the wrong half.  And in a drama the gap between getting something half right and getting something wrong can often be almost invisible.   RP

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About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyardview.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Companion Tropes, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Science Fiction, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Tegan the Sarcastic Devotee

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Janet Fielding was full-force on Tegan which certainly gave me respect for her as an actress. She could have feminine strength, even in her own way whether she was quick and sharp to speak her mind or occasionally going more with the flow (chiefly enough in The Five Doctors). When we saw her quite sad departure in Resurrection Of The Daleks, it made enough sense to give her the most dramatic energy in her own right (as with Jo and Sarah).

    Seeing her return in A Fix With Sontarans (as a convenient replacement for Peri, because Nicola booked a holiday at that point), even though it clearly wasn’t canonized, was nice in the sense of Tegan still caring enough to help the Doctor via some potential return. It can still be possible and more excitingly so with Jodie’s Doctor. Because healing old wounds is continually great drama in Dr. Who. Especially after it takes a long time for the opportunities to present themselves.

    Thank you, RP, and thank you, Janet ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜 for Tegan.

    Liked by 2 people

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