Heroes of Doctor Who: Ben & Polly

By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues

Photo copyright BBC

Once again, it’s Owen’s weekly look back over the legacy of characters who inhabit the worlds and universe of Doctor Who. We look at the characters, some you’ll know, many you won’t, who have formed the Doctor and his legacy…

It was the swinging sixties and the then producers of Doctor Who decided to reflect this in the Tardis crew. The character of Dodo had not really worked, so plans were made to write both her and Steven, played by Blue Peter’s Peter Purves, out of the show. With the imminent departure of William Hartnell, the producers felt the show needed a more relevant time-wise companion set. So seaman Ben Jackson was brought in, the boyfriend of glamour girl Polly Wright.

This new trend to set the Tardis in modern day settings really began in the War Machines, Ben and Polly’s debut story. It is common nowadays, but back then the show was changing direction to regain dwindling audiences. To this end, it was believed that bringing the Doctor closer to every day settings and landmarks such as the newly built Post Office tower, would help modernise the show and make audiences relate to it better.

Ben Jackson was an action man, naval to the back bone and would do anything to protect his friends. There is something magical about a sailor sailing the tides of time with the woman he loves by his side, an almost epic Greek story thread. He continued in the role started by Ian as the Doctor’s muscle, the action man ready to defend the old man at a moment’s notice. They first meet Smugglers in ancient England before being the first companions ever to hold a very special position. They not only meet the Cybermen for the first time in the Tenth Planet but are there to see the Doctor’s first regeneration. Ben has a hard time with it, seeing this new Doctor as an impostor but Polly isn’t so sure; she bonds with the second Doctor quickly as they face a new Dalek threat in Power of the Daleks. By the end of the story, Ben has come round and placed his loyalty with this new Doctor.

Ben and Polly’s presence here was probably one of the most vital in the show’s history. The producers had taken a massive gamble in changing a popular leading man and were not sure the gamble would pay off with the audience accepting Patrick Troughton in the role. This was despite William Hartnell declaring that there was only one man in England capable of replacing him and that was said mister Troughton. To put the first regeneration into perspective, it was a gamble on the scale of Bobby Ewing coming back in the shower and dismissing an entire season as a dream. So having Ben and Polly serving as two sides of the same coin in their reactions to this new man was a brilliant device for any audience uncertainty too.

Russell T Davies has always said the human companion is the doorway through which the audience enter the Doctor’s world. They ask the questions the audience have about any given story and in the Power of the Daleks, this had never been more important. By having the Doctor suddenly pop up in a new body, refer to himself in the third person and watch sadly as the jewelled ring favoured by the first Doctor slipped from his finger, it threw the audience whose questions and distrust were reflected in Ben, with the other accepting half being represented by Polly.

Over the next few adventures, Ben and Polly face the Underwater Menace where Polly is almost turned into a fish person in a hideous experiment before picking up new companion Jamie in the Scottish highlands in the Highlanders.

But the producers wanted change with this new Doctor again and the end was nigh for both of them. Jamie was never intended as a companion but something in Frazer Hines’ performance made them stop and look twice. He had a chemistry with this new Doctor that was missing from Ben and Polly. This new introduction was never more obvious than in the Moonbase where Jamie is unconscious for much of the story and Ben’s dialogue is spread between them.

After battling the Cybermen in the adventure The Moonbase, Ben and Polly find themselves back on Earth the day they left in the Faceless Ones. Ironically they leave in a story that once again reflects modern day London using Gatwick Airport and the then rage of package holidays. But ‘leave’ is a term I use loosely in this case because here the producers let the characters down badly. They had no exit story. They simply disappeared half way through and left a note for the Doctor, just as Dodo had done in their debut story. For me, this is sad and poor judgement on behalf of the production team. Viewers have invested time and emotion with these characters, billed as representing the new modern-day stance on Doctor Who and to simply have them have an off screen exit is insulting to the viewers and the fans. It was also a slap in the chops for both actors who proved popular and got caught up in the politics of behind the scenes changes.

Michael Craze, who played Ben, died a few years ago but was a convention regular and fans lapped his appearances up, especially when he appeared alongside Patrick Troughton who rarely ventured onto the convention circuit until his later years. Anneke Wills, glamour puss Polly, moved to Canada following her divorce from Hammer legend Michael Gough who played the Celestial Toymaker (and Alfred in the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies). She was so far away she didn’t realize the fondness people held for the show and her time in it.

Immediately she was swamped with convention requests and soon settled back into the fan adoration. When making the Doctor Who TV movie, Sylvester McCoy visited her as part of his making of video and for those that have never met her, it was a great opportunity to discover new things about an era that is mostly lost due to the BBC wiping of old episodes.

She has not only returned in novels like most others, but has literally single-handedly represented her era in the Companion Chronicle series for Big Finish which fans lap up.

Anneke has also released her autobiography which gives a good insight into her life and era.

Her contribution is vital since very little still exists of a very important era and it seems apt that one of those missing, presumed lost, episodes has been found. The Underwater Menace isn’t a great story but the recovery of one of its episodes is a valuable asset in completing the picture of the second Doctor’s lost era, especially those early days when Patrick Troughton took over one of the world’s most revered roles.

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