Companion Tropes 6
A doubting Thomas is somebody who won’t believe things without first hand experience. The origin of the term is of course the Apostle Thomas in the bible, who would not believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he could see and feel his wounds from the cross himself. Further down the road of disbelief is the arbitrary sceptic, who is somebody who has a tendency not to believe things, even when the weight of the evidence is pointing in the direction of it being true. In genre television, the arbitrary sceptic will often have experience of fantastical things, but still will somehow disbelieve the next fantastical thing that comes along. Sometimes that’s for comedic effect, sometimes it’s bad writing, sometimes it has another function altogether, as we will find out.
Somewhere between the tropes of doubting Thomas and arbitrary sceptic exists Doctor Who’s Ben Jackson. In his first story, set in the contemporary London of 1966, he witnesses the construction of War Machines by people being brainwashed by a super computer. It’s pretty out there for the 60s, and one might think it would give him an open mind when it comes to other strange things. Despite that, he could probably be forgiven for disbelieving the abilities of the TARDIS, when he and Polly wander abroad and then get deposited in 17th Century Cornwall.
DOCTOR: Ah, yes. I think we’ve landed in some sort of caves.
BEN: Yeah, well, thanks for the home movies, Doctor. Now if you’d just open these doors.
DOCTOR: Wait, wait, wait, young man, we don’t know where we are. We don’t know if it’s safe or what period we’re in.
BEN: Well, I’ll take a little bet with you, ay? London, 1966, Fitzroy Square.
I mean, he is standing in the control room of what is clearly a spaceship that has somehow been squeezed inside a police box when this conversation takes place, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Less understandable, and this is a really common way of making companions look stupid in Doctor Who, is how he eventually gets his head around the fact that they have travelled in space, unable to deny the evidence of his own eyes, but still won’t entertain the idea of time travel.
BEN: You’d think there’d be a few houses or something. I bet it’s miles to a bus.
DOCTOR: Well, there doesn’t seem to appear any Victorian restoration. I think it could be any time after the 16th century.
BEN: Only it’s not. It’s good old 1966.
But so far this is nothing unusual. Ian and Sarah Jane both spring to mind as companions who behave in similar ways. In his next story, The Tenth Planet, he plays the role of sceptic again, but only in jest:
DOCTOR: Well, that pretty soon we shall be having visitors.
BEN: Visitors? What, here? Well, who do you think’s bringing ’em, Father Christmas on his sledge?
DOCTOR: Oh, quiet, boy, quiet!
And during that story he encounters the Cybermen for the first time. It’s fair to say that his eyes should now be opened to the weird and wonderful possibilities that travel with the Doctor offers. Then the Doctor regenerates.
POLLY: Well, that’s who came through the doors. There was no one else outside. Ben, do you remember what he said in the tracking room? Something about ‘This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.’
BEN: So he gets himself a new one?
POLLY: Well, yes.
BEN: Oh, do me a favour.
POLLY: Then whatever happened, happened in here.
BEN: But it’s impossible.
POLLY: Not so long ago we’d have been saying that about a lot of things.
So what is happening here is that the writer clearly identified that what was needed post-regeneration was somebody to represent the voice of scepticism for the viewers, and past history shows that Ben is the obvious choice. And it’s taken further, into the realms of stupidity for Ben. Remember that he has just seen the regeneration with his own eyes, but boy does he take some convincing, taking giant leaps of nonsensical logic in the process:
BEN: Now look, the Doctor always wore this. So if you’re him, it should fit now, shouldn’t it?
That’s the Doctor’s ring he’s talking about. Should it fit him now, post-regeneration? Of course not, and it clearly proves nothing.
DOCTOR: I’d like to see a butterfly fit into a chrysalis case after it’s spread its wings.
This is where Ben crosses over from merely a doubting Thomas into the realms of full-blown arbitrary scepticism. It’s actually a work of genius, because Ben and Polly are positioned as the two conflicting voices in the mind of the viewer: the one that wants to accept the new Doctor and the one that isn’t sure, with the latter made to look like an idiot. Who are the viewers going to side with? Not the idiot, so it leaves them no choice but to accept Troughton’s Doctor as the same man. Utterly brilliant, but it almost destroys the character of Ben in the process.
Once he’s stuck in a rut, he stays in it, for the little time he has left and the few lines he has per story once Jamie is on the scene. The Underwater Menace finds him on a mountainside which appears to be deserted, with Polly. And if his eyes tell him it’s deserted he simply won’t listen to somebody whose eyes tell her something different:
POLLY: I’m beginning to see things.
POLLY: Down there, look. I’m sure I saw something moving.
BEN: Ah, you’re round the twist.
POLLY: Look, there it is again.
Then, in The Moonbase, the Doctor is suspicious about the apparent virus on the base. But Ben sees evidence of a virus, so it must therefore be a virus.
DOCTOR: There’s something about this epidemic that I don’t quite understand. It’s not like a real disease at all. It’s almost as if…
BEN: Not real? What more do you want?
When the premise behind The Macra Terror calls for one of the companions to be brainwashed, it needs to be somebody who will be suggestible to towing the party line, accepting a forced status quo without questioning. Can you guess who got chosen for that role?
JAMIE: I heard something.
BEN: Oh, you’re always hearing something.
JAMIE: I never heard a voice like this before. Ben?
BEN: I’m asleep.
JAMIE: It was evil, Ben. An evil voice. An evil that spoke so gently and yet I almost believed what it said.
BEN: Oh, look, mate, get some sleep. We’ve got a hard day’s work ahead of us tomorrow.
JAMIE: Why do you say that?
BEN: Well, we’ve got to do something to help in the Colony. We can’t just eat their nosh without helping out.
JAMIE: You sound just like that voice, Ben.
BEN: Oh, what are you on about? This Colony’s all right. It wouldn’t be too bad to work here.
Ultimately, Ben was doomed to be a failure of a companion from the start. The minute he started to be established as the doubting Thomas, there was nowhere to go for him. At times that made him a very useful character indeed for the writers (he’s absolutely integral to Power of the Daleks and The Macra Terror), but it also made him much harder to warm to than either of his fellow travellers, Polly and Jamie. As soon as his original contract was up, Michael Craze was informed that his services were no longer required. Anneke Wills did not face the same fate. She left of her own accord. As likeable as some fans find the character of Ben, I can’t help but think he will always be remembered as the companion who saw the first ever regeneration with his own eyes, and then refused to accept it. RP