It was with much sadness that I heard the news that Caroline John, known to many as Liz Shaw, companion to Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who had passed away last week.
Liz Shaw is one of the more unusual, and, underrated companions Doctor Who has had. Coming at a time in the show’s history when viewing figures were dropping, the show was undergoing an ambitious last throw of the dice with a new Doctor in the form of Pertwee, bursting into colour (even if the reality is that few would see it in colour) and with a new Earth-bound format more with the feel of rival ITC series like Department S and Strange Report than Troughton’s era of Doctor Who. Dropped into this was one of the first companions not to scream, but to use her brain.
Cambridge graduate Liz Shaw used her wits and brain in helping the Doctor to fight alien intrusions, yet she was always remained cool and aloof to events going on around her. Her initial dislike of the Doctor, and Brigadier had, by the end of the season given way to a more comfortable character (and presumably actress, who recalls the very male dominated early stories as a little intimidating for a young female actress).
Liz was more grown up, and much more straight than any of the companions had been to that point. Her predecessor, Wendy Padbury’s Zoe, Liz’s nearest ‘rival’ in terms of style was more of a traditional Who girl than Liz. Padbury’s Zoe, another scientist, was never shown to have the degree of skill, intelligence and authority that Liz displays in her dealings with the Doctor. Here we had a companion who would willingly stand up for, and to the Doctor. Perhaps it is fitting that a more adult companion should appear when the whole style of the programme, from the plots through to the guest cast becomes more gritty and real.
Despite John’s misgivings that there wasn’t a massive rapport between her and Pertwee, it is clear to see how well human and Time Lord work together in their episodes, especially in the latter part of The Silurians when the two are developing an antidote to the Silurian plague. Shaw’s evident dislike of the military method also finds an ally in the Doctor – an interesting dimension that was lost and watered down over the seasons that followed.
Of course, John gets the chance, along with many of the cast to portray a twisted double of her character in the final story of the season, ‘Inferno‘. Obviously relishing the chance to do something different, John is able to let rip with her sneering, cynical and brutal alternative version of Liz Shaw. Although she does come good in the end, quite rightly, this is her favourite Who story.
Unfortunately, Liz’s and with it, John’s fate was sealed when incoming Producer Barry Letts decided to replace Liz Shaw with a more traditional companion who would, as was put “pass the Doctor his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is”. Certainly, Jon Pertwee also felt Liz was too strong a equal to the Doctor, and prevented the Doctor from being the focal point for the show. From there, John had little to do with the Doctor Who world, despite her husband appearing as The Master in the show in 1976. Some bad experiences, and her own negative view of what her portrayal as Liz Shaw, put her off attending conventions. But when, thanks to the Manopticon team, she did start to attend conventions, she found the experience to be completely different to what she had imagined, and attendees at conventions found her to be one of the most, funny and kind warm guests to grace the stage.
Since then, she reprised the character several times over in the video spin-off P.R.O.B.E. and for Big Finish’s range of Companion Chronicles series. Some of the spin-off novels also used Liz to great effect, Gary Russell’s The Scales of Injustice being one such story, a sequel to The Silurians, it is perhaps the definitive Liz Shaw story.
John made many other appearances in a diverse range of programmes and films but will always remain known to a legion of fans as one of Doctor Who’s most varied, three-dimensional companions up to, and beyond that point and way ahead of her time. One of my favourite companions, I hadn’t appreciated as a child how she safely anchored the much more scary world of colour Doctor Who. Her last story recorded for Big Finish, The Last Post is out next year.