Character: Elizabeth 'Liz' Shaw
Fandom: Doctor Who
Spoilers: Series Seven of Doctor Who
Author's Note: A huge thank you to eponymous_rose for being a wonderfully thorough and extremely encouraging beta.
Liz: It’s all right, I won’t hurt you.
‘The Ambassadors of Death’
Doctor Who fandom should never be traversed by the unprepared. In the murky depths of livejournal, and the even murkier depths of Outpost Gallifrey, every aspect of the series (and its many spin offs) is analysed and torn to pieces on a regular basis. Asking questions such as ‘is the Shalka!Doctor more canon than Eccleston’s version?’ or ‘what are those loom things, anyway?’ is about as sensible as wading into a pool of hungry piranhas, and will probably have the same results.
One of the most heavily debated topics is the infamous ‘companion’ ethic. A companion is defined as a person, male or female, who has travelled with the Doctor in the TARDIS. In theory, at least.
Doctor Elizabeth Shaw – more commonly known as Liz – served for just one season, alongside Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. Since he was exiled on Earth at the time, she never got to travel in the TARDIS, and, consequently, is often overlooked by even the most enthusiastic of Doctor Who fans.
Her status as a companion is an interesting topic to debate, but not as interesting as her success as a character, and that is what I’m going to be looking at here. Because Liz Shaw is my favourite human companion, and a much better one than people give her credit for.
Here are my two cents. Although perhaps ‘my two pence’ would be more appropriate, since Doctor Who is quintessentially British. Either way …
It’s the 1970s. Doctor Who is about to be transmitted in colour for the first time, with a brand new Doctor at the helm. Following his forced regeneration, the Doctor has been exiled to Earth with his memories of time travel removed. He is now played by Jon Pertwee and is a suave man of action rather than the cosmic hobo of previous years.
A new Doctor for a new age. And this new Doctor needs a new companion.
While the Doctor is lying unconscious outside his TARDIS and strange alien meteorites are raining down from the sky, UNIT’s new scientific advisor is being whisked towards the organisation’s London HQ, surveying everything with a very critical eye.
She is not impressed at having her research programme disturbed, she is not impressed by the United Nations Intelligence Task Force and she is definitely not impressed by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s attempts to coerce her into joining.
Her name is Doctor Elizabeth Shaw, but you can call her Liz, if you like. She’s an expert in meteorites who has just been press-ganged by the Brigadier and is not too happy about it. She’s intelligent, determined and proud, with more degrees than you could shake a stick at.
Welcome to series seven.
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart: We were lucky enough to be able to stop them. There was a policy decision not to inform the public.
Liz: Do you seriously expect me to believe that?
‘Spearhead from Space’
‘Spearhead from Space’, the first story of this brand new series, paints a picture of an aloof scientist, critical of both the Doctor and the world he’s a part of. Caroline John, in the story’s DVD commentary, refers to Liz as looking “terribly competent”. She certainly is. And she knows it, too.
Supremely sceptical, Liz laughs along with (and often at) the Doctor, and, like Zoe before her, has an intellect which often rivals his. In fact, the only thing she lacks is experience and the ability to believe in the impossible.
Because of this, the Doctor is less patronising towards Liz than he is towards many of his other companions. Admittedly, he does take advantage of her a little, persuading him to steal the TARDIS key back off the Brigadier so he can escape from UNIT. There’s no time for her to spend a large amount of time and energy being annoyed at him, however, because her first adventure passes all too quickly, in a whirlwind of Autons, invasions and very short skirts.
Next up is ‘The Silurians’, occasionally titled ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’. By this episode, Liz has been reassigned as the Doctor’s assistant, and is performing the task admirably (while listening to him moan constantly about the job he stole from her in the first place). A mature scientist in her own right, she could easily have returned to Cambridge after her first adventure, but she seems unable to resist staying around, at least for a little while.
Incidentally, after just one serial, Liz’s appearance has already softened somewhat. The severe haired scientist has been replaced by a gentler, and considerably more feminine, look. I could analyse this change in depth, and work out how it relates to Liz’s character, but, since Caroline John – a rather serious theatre actress – was only granted an audition with the BBC after she gave up writing polite letters and sent out a photograph of herself up a ladder in a bikini, it was probably just the BBC costume department appealing to the Dads.
In fact, the only reason she didn’t end up pot-holing in a miniskirt was because Jon Pertwee put his foot down.
Sometimes it’s hard being a scientist.
At least she got to wear a lab coat over her miniskirt most of the time, I suppose.
I would like to take this opportunity to point out that, contrary to popular belief, Sarah Jane Smith was not the first grrrl power companion. Neither was Liz (Barbara Wright, anyone?). That isn’t the point. The point is that the companions have never, ever been there just to look pretty and scream a lot when something dangerous happens.
Take Liz’s actions in ‘The Ambassadors of Death’, for example. After she and the Doctor are tricked into believing the Brigadier wants them to head to Hertfordshire, she drives off to meet him halfway, but instead ends up embroiled in a high speed (by 70s standards, at least) chase and a desperate sprint along a jetty. She then manages to push one of her attackers over a fence, and into the river.
Although she does end up following him over the edge shortly afterwards, you get points for trying. Especially when you take into consideration the boots she was wearing at the time.
your test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are.
‘Terror of the Autons'
Following ‘The Silurians’, Liz worked with the Doctor and UNIT for two more adventures, ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ and ‘Inferno’. Then she left. Just like that. She didn’t even get an onscreen departure.
Jo Grant, who wore even shorter skirts but wasn’t quite as intelligent, was brought in instead, and poor Liz Shaw ended up as just another name on the list of previous companions, without even a spin in the TARDIS to show for it.
Unfortunately, it makes all too much sense. One of a companion’s primary functions is to translate the Doctor’s scientific jargon for the viewer. As the Doctor could talk to Liz as an equal, she simply wasn’t fulfilling this crucial requirement. Liz’s greatest strength – her prodigious intelligence – was, in many ways, her greatest weakness.
In the 1970s, it was extremely difficult for a woman to make a name for herself in scientific circles. It still isn’t particularly straight forward. Science is very much a ‘boy’s club’ and it can’t have been easy for Liz to gain a position at Cambridge and make a name for herself. Although affection for the Doctor, and respect for his intellect (as well as an understandable curiosity when it came to alien life), kept her at UNIT for several months, it was clear from her very first episode that this wasn’t the career path Liz wanted.
The fact that the Doctor went and took her job only exacerbated this. Liz Shaw wasn’t cut out to be merely an assistant, even if the person she was assisting was the Doctor. At Cambridge, she would be the one in charge. She would be the person people praised and passed test tubes to.
As Caroline John herself has said, she was sick of trying to find different ways to say “what are you going to do now, Doctor?”. As much as she enjoyed learning from the Doctor, and working with him, it was all too obvious that she was working for rather than beside him. It just couldn’t last.
The Doctor: Well, simply that her mind process runs along a similar parallel to yours. Doesn’t that strike you as significant?
Section Leader Shaw: Not particularly.
The Doctor: Look, please try and think. Whatever they taught you in this bigoted world of yours, you’ve still got a mind of your own!
If I’m going to talk about Liz Shaw and both her tenure and development as a companion, then I have to talk about ‘Inferno’. This serial is Doctor Who’s take on a classic sci-fi storyline, the parallel universe. Thanks to the Inferno Project, the Doctor is shifted into an alternate dimension where the same project is taking place under very different circumstances. Liz Shaw is now Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw (and the Brigadier is Nick Fury … but let’s not get into that).
This story shows how much a character can be shaped by their circumstances … and how much they’re not. Despite growing up in a very different world – one where a fascist dictatorship is in control – and despite her very different lifestyle (and hairstyle), there is still an inherent ‘Liz-ness’ about Section Leader Shaw.
Although clearly more amenable to military procedures than the Liz we know, she harboured dreams of being a scientist, once, before joining the military. She is apparently fiercely loyal to the Brigade Leader (the alternative version of the Brigadier), but, when the Doctor needs her to do so, shoots him without a second thought.
Apparently loyalty towards the Doctor is built into Liz’s biology, despite the initial reservations of both Section Leader and Doctor Liz Shaw. Section Leader Shaw learns just as much from the Doctor as her counterpart, but is over the space of a few hours rather than a several months. She sees the possibility of a different life and she can’t turn away from it.
When the serial draws to a close, and the Doctor returns to his own universe and his own Liz, it’s difficult not to look at her and think about who she could have been. ‘Inferno’ reiterates how much meeting the Doctor has helped Liz develop.
Really, the Doctor makes an already intelligent woman open her eyes and look at the world afresh. Twice.
Liz: I suppose that was one of the Doctor’s most endearing qualities. The ability to make the bizarre and terrifying seem utterly normal.
‘The Blue Tooth’
Doctor Who is not really a program about a time traveller in a blue box. It is a program about how people react to him. There is always a similarly structured relationship between the Doctor and his companions. No matter how intelligent they are, it always pales in comparison to the Doctor’s genius. No matter how much he loves them, they can’t stay together forever.
Although their relationship was never as intimate as, say, that of the Doctor and Romana, or the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, Liz and the Doctor were undoubtedly close. They worked very closely together, and, most importantly, they respected each other. They could talk quite contentedly together, using a variety of scientific jargon, while the rest of the cast could do little but stare at the two in awe.
What’s more, she wasn’t afraid to question him. When she didn’t understand something – and it must have be extremely complicated if even Liz was thrown – she asked him. When she wasn’t happy with him, she told him so. He might not have always listened, but she tried.
The Doctor is more than happy to leave Liz to her own devices when necessary. He left her to conduct a series of forensic tests during ‘The Silurians’, because he knew she was more than capable of handling it herself.
Admittedly, since Liz was, in almost every sense, his companion, he still seemed to feel responsible for her, despite her ability to work well independently. The Doctor can’t seem to curb his natural protective instinct, even if she would never admit to needing it. When Liz accidentally got thrown into the future (albeit only a few seconds into the future) during ‘The Ambassadors of Death’, he was genuinely worried for her safety. Bless.
As further proof of the depth of the relationship between them, the Doctor even trusted Liz with his beloved car, Bessie, during that same adventure. Since that car was the Third Doctor’s pride and joy, this is no small matter.
Later in the episode, Liz is kidnapped, and the Doctor doesn’t seem particularly worried. This could, of course, have been because he didn’t actually care, but the wonderfully tender moment when they were reunited negates that theory. No, it’s much more likely he knew Liz was clever enough to hold her own, even in captivity.
(Which, by the way, she did. When her own escape attempt failed, she managed to help another scientist escape and get word of what was going on to UNIT. All without breaking a sweat, and while wearing a rather miniscule – and unscientific – skirt. Not bad at all.)
Though he accepted her decision to leave, the Doctor’s frequent attempts to make Jo Grant into a scientist suggest that he misses Liz more than ‘Terror of the Autons’ indicates. The Doctor liked having someone he could talk to as an equal. (it wasn’t to happen again until Series Sixteen, when he would meet a young Time Lady called Romanadvoratrelundar.)
He doesn’t forget Liz, either. She is mentioned again in ‘Mawdryn Undead’, when the Doctor attempts to reawaken the now-retired Brigadier’s memories of UNIT.
Which brings us, quite nicely, onto Liz’s other major relationship in the show.
Liz: Have you never heard of female emancipation?
Liz Shaw and Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart are polar opposites. He is a blustering military martinet, with rather old-fashioned ideals which never fail to infuriate Liz, the forward-thinking and thoroughly modern scientist. They’re hardly a match made in heaven, but try telling that to the multitude of Liz / Brig ‘shippers’ across the internet (which, I must admit, I count myself among). The fact that their relationship is not as straight forward as that of Liz and the Doctor serves only to make it more interesting.
The two rub each other up the wrong way immediately. Liz has a very low opinion of the military, particularly ‘security work’, and makes this clear straight away. The Brigadier has the unfortunate job of convincing her that UNIT does much more than just make invisible ink. He doesn’t do a particularly good job. His old fashioned approach – insisting on calling her ‘Miss Shaw’, informing the Doctor that she is “more than just a pretty face” – doesn’t really help matters.
They continue to clash throughout series seven, with the Brig apparently wanting to protect Liz, and Liz constantly determined to prove that she is the equal of not only the Brigadier and the Doctor, but also of any other man who happens to be her way. This attribute appears to both irritate and, more importantly, intrigue the Brigadier.
‘The Silurians’ marks a turning point in their relationship. He refuses to let Liz join the men on a trip to the caves, which infuriates her, and then makes her answer phones, which infuriates her even more (it’s hardly a suitable occupation for a skilled scientist, after all). But – and it’s a very big but – she is still terrified for his safety when he goes missing. They might argue (a lot), but she cares about him as much as he cares about her.
In ‘The Ambassadors of Death’, it is the Brigadier who panics about Liz’s kidnapping, not the Doctor (and, I might add, he then does a lot of shooting and running around to rescue her). It isn’t necessarily because he lacks the Doctor’s confidence in her abilities, or because she is a UNIT operative in trouble (after all, UNIT employees fall in and out of trouble all the time, and he hasn’t stolen a police car to track down any of them). She simply means a lot to him.
Liz often acts as a buffer between the Doctor and the Brig, who manage to argue with each other even more than Liz and the Brig do. Their very different approaches – one being scientifically minded, the other military minded – resulted in many arguments during series seven (and beyond). The destruction of the Silurian race did not help. Liz defends the Brigadier when the Doctor criticises his actions, which is unusual since she is a scientist herself, and unlikely to agree wholeheartedly with UNIT’s pre-emptive strike.
She also, incidentally, defends the Doctor when he is the one being criticised by the Brig. She doesn’t want anyone to think she’s gone soft, after all.
Most importantly, it is the Brigadier she talks to about her departure from UNIT, not the Doctor. He knows more about it than the rest of the UNIT team, which indicates a level of trust and friendship off screen which was only briefly touched upon during the serials. It would have been interesting to see how their relationship would have developed if Liz had chosen to stay with UNIT but, hey, that’s what fanfiction is for.
Liz Shaw learned a lot during her time with UNIT. Not only were her eyes opened to the possibility – certainty - of life on other planets, but the Doctor shared some of his vast knowledge with her. The Liz who returned to Cambridge was probably no less acerbic, but would certainly have been a little more open-minded. Over the course of series seven, she was able to absorb everything she saw and apply it to her own knowledge. By the time she returned to her research program, her experience had tripled and her view of the world had changed a great deal too.
She was a genius to begin with. I don’t think there is a word for what she became.
A shame, really, that publishing papers on time travel and alien races would have got her into trouble with UNIT. I’m sure she had a wonderful career nonetheless.
In fact, the P.R.O.B.E video series – an unfortunate title, I know – deals with this career, showing Liz working for the ‘Preternatural Research Bureau’ and solving mysteries quite comfortably without the aid of the Doctor or the Brigadier. Due to the BBV’s tentative licensing, they were allowed the character of Liz Shaw but not the Doctor, so she isn’t able to refer to her adventures with UNIT. Nevertheless, the character is clearly the same one who appeared in the show – just a more grownup version. With a pipe, for some reason.
Her departure from UNIT is also something dealt with more thoroughly off-screen than on. The Third Doctor TV Comics (issues 944 to 999) touch on the subject, and a recent Big Finish Audio, ‘The Blue Tooth’, deals with the human reasons behind her departure, as the Doctor and UNIT face the Cybermen once more. It gives her some much needed back story (and femmeslash), with the conversion of a close friend helping her to see that the Doctor’s word is filled with terror as well as wonder.
Liz even gets an off-screen trip in the TARDIS, in the Past Adventures novel ‘The Wages of Sin’. Although it should be noted that, as wikipedia says, “the canonicity of spin off media in relation to the television series is unknown”. Basically, if you want to believe it, believe it. I, personally, choose not to. Not because I don’t like the idea of Liz getting her adventure in time and space – it’s the Doctor simply dropping her off home again that I have issues with.
Although she left the show after a painfully short stint as a companion, this continuing interest shows that Liz Shaw is far from forgotten. Her intelligence and capability (coupled with her rather nice legs) make her an interesting character to watch. Her interactions with the Doctor and the Brigadier make the show interesting to watch, even thirty (nearly forty!) years on.
Underappreciated, maybe. But unsuccessful? Certainly not.
The Liz Shaw livejournal community.
- sleepy_sheep683's take on Liz Shaw and the Brigadier
UST in 1970s television. No, really.
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