Mary Tamm, best known for playing the Doctor’s companion, Romana, on Doctor Who from 1978 to 1979, died yesterday after a protracted struggle with cancer. Romana was a Time Lady from Gallifrey. Like the Doctor, she had the ability to regenerate into a new body, and so Mary Tamm’s Romana is known in fandom as Romana I to differentiate her from Lalla Ward’s version of the character (Romana II).
Romana was brought to the TARDIS by the White Guardian, an elemental force for good, to aid the Doctor in his quest to locate and unite the components of a supreme Macguffin. This arc was collectively known as “The Key to Time.” (Guess the Macguffin’s name….) Doctor Who hadn’t really done ‘series arc’ plots like this before, which makes series 16 interesting given that arc-based plotting would emerge as a key element of many modern genre shows, including New Who. The experiment succeeded due to strong script-editing and writing from Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and a great rapport between Tom Baker’s exasperating, disheveled, canny Doctor and Mary Tamm’s Romana: incredibly brilliant, but inexperienced and “by-the-book.”
Romana is initially cold and brittle, severely lacking in people skills—though granted, Four is never going to make Miss Congeniality either. Romana’s so good at being a Time Lady (she obtained a triple first at the academy, whereas the Doctor failed his first go at the exams) that she fails to see the strictures their culture places on her, or to understand the potential value in doing things differently. The Doctor doesn’t so much tell her she’s wrong as serve as a savvier Falstaff to her Hal (if Falstaff was also somehow simultaneously Mr. Miyagi), showing her how the other half/rest of the universe lives and ultimately enabling her to rise to meet her own great promise. The unfolding plot and their developing relationship anchor a run of strong episodes. “The Ribos Operation,” “The Pirate Planet,” and “The Androids of Tara” are particularly well-pitched commedic adventure stories—provided you can overlook Romana’s Welcoming You To Munchkin Land costume in “Androids.” That just should be pitched. Her introduction in “The Ribos Operation” and her polite interest in tapestry embroidery in the face of peril in “Androids” are particularly good Romana moments.
Mary Tamm’s term as the Doctor’s companion is one of the strongest runs in the show’s, and televised sci-fi’s, history. If you haven’t given Classic Who a try, use this occasion to start with this arc, which can be enjoyed in and of itself. If you have already done so and are looking for new Romana content to enjoy, Big Finish will soon release a series of fourth Doctor and Romana audios, and Mary Tamm plays an important role in their usually excellent Gallifrey series.
Tamm’s death at 62 feels quite early, and particularly unfortunate as it follows on the heels of the deaths of Caroline John, Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney last year. There’s a strangeness to non-genre news outlets’ obituaries for Doctor Who actors, born out of casual watchers’ vague recollections of the show. Comedian Toby Hadoke remembers in his standup “Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf” that when Jon Pertwee (the third Doctor) died, the BBC’s own obituary almost disclaimed the actor. Pertwee was well-loved for his work on the long-running radio show The Navy Lark, for playing the title character in the children’s show Worzel Gummidge, and for creating a popular and iconic Doctor, yet all the BBC could dredge up was some “the sets wobbled, but gosh some silly children loved him” mealy-mouthed, palpably embarrassed excuse for a tribute. And, as Hadoke pointed out, it’s not even really factually correct—they were often done with a weather eye on the budget, but the sets only wobbled once in the Three Era, and only twice in the history of Classic Who. Of course, it’s obvious that television production has gotten more technically sophisticated since Classic Who was filmed. Thanks for that stunning critical observation, mate. But what does that have to do with the price of karate lessons on Venus?
Media outlets marked the passing of Elisabeth Sladen (popular companion Sarah Jane Smith) by talking about how Sarah Jane was the first competent, intelligent, female companion. These assessments erase the contribution of women like Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), who played one of the Doctor’s initial companions—a passionate, clever, determined history teacher whose influence and friendship changed the Doctor’s personality forever, helping him become the character we know and enjoy throughout Classic and New Who. They also reduces the complexity of a character like Jo Grant, who immediately preceded Sarah Jane. Jo was young, and rather “girly.” She was also a capable intelligence operative who left the Doctor for a Nobel prize-winning scientist and a life in hardcore environmental activism. Treatments that forget previous companions in order to remember whoever’s just been lost not only prestige popular and personal nostalgic memory to a degree that’s at odds with journalistic standards of accuracy, they also misread the texts in question and impose a rather artificial Feminism of Firsts. The logic of “Elizabeth Sladen and/or Sarah Jane is important because she was the FIRST!! strong female companion!” denigrates other characters and actresses in order to make its (very true!) point that Sarah Jane is special and important to many viewers. Making Sarah Jane the Exceptional Woman doesn’t seem warranted, or particularly feminist.
Comments on Mary Tamm’s passing have been similarly reductive, having thus far made note of Romana’s being the first companion to have matched the Doctor intellectually, the first Time Lady companion, “the inspiration for River Song” (…because both are ladies with academic degrees of some form?), etc. While the fact that she was a Time Lady companion—assigned to keep the Fourth Doctor on task on an important “save the universe” mission—allowed Romana to interact with the Doctor in a unique and interesting way, she wasn’t the first Time Lady in the program (that was Susan, the TARDIS’s eponymous Unearthly Child, or if you don’t count her, Rodan on Gallifrey). And many characters, companions and otherwise, intellectually kept the Doctor on his toes before and after Romana.
Romana isn’t awesome because she’s oh-so-much more intelligent/competent/feminist than other companions. She isn’t awesome in spite of the “campy crappyness” of her source text, or because she’s like some New Who character. Romana is awesome because she’s well-characterized—clever, arch, over-precious in a realistic way, eminently watchable—and within Tamm’s season she makes strong beginnings on an arc of growth. Her background is similar to the Doctor’s, but her worldview and ultimate goals are different than his. That provided an interesting counterpoint to and subversion of the Fourth Doctor’s bombastic monopolization of the narrative. She’s part of a series of very solid scripts. She’s part of Doctor Who‘s tradition of excellent female characters. And Romana is awesome because Mary Tamm, whose well-pitched portrayal absolutely made Romana, was awesome.
Erin Horáková is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.