12 One-Scene Wonders in Doctor Who
Guest contributor Shane Spangler looks at the memorable bit-part roles of Doctor Who.
In 50 years, we’ve watched a lot of actors in Doctor Who. Some we wished had stayed longer. Others, we would have been happy to see exterminated shortly before they went in front of the camera. And then, there were the ones who only graced our screens for a few scenes – maybe even only a few seconds; but in those few seconds they changed our lives forever. With a paltry few lines – and sometimes only by using body language and facial expression, talented men and women turned thankless, and potentially boring bit-parts into believable, memorable, touching, frightening or funny scenes.
For your consideration are highlighted twelve examples, taken from episodes of each of the eleven television Doctors.
Francesca Bertorelli as “Uncredited Schoolgirl” in An Unearthly Child.
The first-ever close-up shot in Doctor Who. She was only on the screen for a total of 12 seconds on 23 November 1963, between 5:18:22 and 5:18:34 PM. We saw her dark eyes and pouty lips before we had even met Barbara, Ian, Susan or the Doctor. O what secret did she breathe behind her cupped hand into the left ear of her classmate that made her smile so? We will never know. With a playful arch to her eyebrows, she exited stage right, and our lives, forever. Why was she so memorable? Because she looked like that naughty foreign exchange student – you know: the one who brought cigarettes and booze to school, and let you have a bit. “Love a bad girl, me,” said the Eleventh. Too bad you never got to travel with “Uncredited Coal Hill Schoolgirl,” Doc.
David Troughton as Private Moor in The War Games.
Son of Patrick Troughton, a.k.a. the Second Doctor, David Troughton absolutely owned the screen for the brief few scenes he was given in Episode Six, guarding David Garfields’s evil alien Captain Von Weich. His portrayal is a mixture of youthful innocence; bravery and fear, which beautifully encapsulated the qualities one would expect in a young, dedicated, but inexperienced soldier. Troughton develops his character to the hilt: Moor grows beyond his fears to boldly resist his mental conditioning, and, even in his vulnerable and confused mental state, makes good and saves the Resistance members by shooting Von Weich. Even though he would return in three years to star as King Peladon, opposite Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, and again, thirty-six years after that, as Professor Hobbs, opposite David Tennant’s Doctor in the 2008 episode Midnight, it was as the simple, shaggy-haired, blue-eyed country soldier Private Moor that Troughton shone brightest of all.
Derrick Sherwin as the Car Park Attendant in Spearhead from Space, episode 2.
The producer of the show steps in front of the camera to replace a hopeless walk-on actor who can’t deliver the goods – and O my giddy aunt. Sherwin said not a word, but his facial reactions to the Third Doctor’s abrasive verbal assault spoke volumes. Through nothing more than three successive close-ups of the Attendant being rudely cut off by the Doctor before he can speak, Sherwin shows us the Attendant’s diminishing resolve, and finally, mute acquiescence to the third Doctor’s domineering personality. Perfect comic spice in an excellent story. He could have definitely been a recurring mute UNIT character whenever a bit of humor was called for. But both Derrick Sherwin, and the Car Park Attendant, vanished from the Whoniverse just moments after Spearhead from Space was completed, as Sherwin was transferred to another show, and Barry Letts replaced him as producer.
Patsy Smart as “Ghoul” in Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Get out the remote, and be ready to hit “repeat.” (You might also want to turn on the subtitles.) Her performance as the toothless, half-mad, drooling old lady who guides the police to Buller’s mutilated corpse, floating in the Thames in episode one of Talons is nothing short of brilliant. You’ll want to watch it again and again. (For the record, she says, “On my oath! You wouldn’t want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff! Make an ‘orse sick, that would!”) Even though we never get to see it, one totally believes that whatever she and the two constables are looking at is truly gruesome beyond description. (As would be anyone who had been stabbed, chewed by a giant rat, and left floating in the Thames for a few hours.) Patsy truly leaves the audience desperately wanting to see whatever it was that would “make an ‘orse sick!”
James Murray and Shirin Taylor as the doomed Campers in Stones of Blood.
Episode three was running a little short, so this 1 minute, 20-second scene was added in for padding – and, thanks to Murray and Taylor’s excellent performances, it ends up being one of the most deliciously spine-chilling scenes in the whole show. Picture it: they were a perfectly ordinary couple; camping outdoors, when suddenly, in the middle of the night, outside their tent appear two giant standing stones. Of course, they are curious. How did the stones get there? “They must weigh a ton,” says Murray’s character (who never is named). “Maybe someone dumped them during the night,” suggests Taylor’s character (named Pat). They get up to take a closer look. Shirin Taylor reaches out to touch the stones, to see if they are real, and the stones come to life and begin to drink her blood. “My hand! My hand!” she gasps. (A crap line, but she delivered it like it was Shakespeare.) Murray tries to pull her free, and the other stone begins to suck his blood. Imagine the talent it took to make this little studio scene, with no props but a tent and two large polystyrene standing stones, absolutely real! By their believing wholeheartedly in the scene, the viewer has no choice but to believe it too. Nothing is as horrifying as seeing ordinary people, people who look and sound like our neighbors up the street, killed in nasty ways. It’s a pity we couldn’t have seen more of this kind of realism elsewhere in late 1970s Doctor Who.
Hilary Sesta as the fortune teller in Snakedance.
Looking slightly mad, and more than a little bit gypsy-like with her prosthetic teeth and her flowing headscarf, Sesta was perfect casting for this unknowing agent of the Mara on the planet Manussa. Reminiscent of the world-weary sideshow fortunetellers one encounters in modern-day carnivals, Sesta’s performance switches effortlessly between her “stage voice” and her authentic voice as she chats gleefully with Tegan about how she tricks her customers. Then she grows quietly sinister. Her eyes narrow. “It’s surprising what does come into your mind,” she says, with an evil glint in her eyes, as she gazes into the crystal ball. And, her self-fulfilling prophecy comes to pass almost before she has time to scream – but scream she does, and so well – as the skull of the Mara snake appears and shatters her crystal ball into a million fragments. Thanks to Sesta’s performance, the end of episode one of Snakedance boasts one of the best and most bizarre cliffhangers of Peter Davison’s, or any Doctor’s, era.
Ken Barker as The Mutant in Revelation of the Daleks.
Producer John Nathan-Turner first offered this part to Sir Lawrence Olivier, who had expressed an interest in appearing in Doctor Who. Olivier was unavailable, however, so the part went to Ken Barker. Barker masterfully transformed what could have been just another one-dimensional creepy monster, into a many-faceted, tragic character that tugged at our heartstrings, while turning our stomachs and chilling our spines. The product of Davros’ cruel, live human experimentation, Barker’s Mutant is by turns horrifying, pitiful, and noble as he dies in the arms of the Doctor, just after forgiving Peri for having clubbed him to death with a (rather bouncy) tree branch. Special praise must also go to make-up artist Dorka Nieradzik for creating a look for the Mutant that was more victim than monster.
Joseph Marcell as John, the Jamaican immigrant tending the café in Remembrance of the Daleks, episode 2.
He serves the Doctor a cup of tea, and becomes, for one scene, the most important person in the Doctor’s life: his temporary guru, giving the Doctor good life advice when he needed it most. He is also briefly the Doctor’s equal: an outsider; an “alien,” a wise man out of his own culture, simply trying to make his way in the Universe. This is one of those rare “charming” scenes that Jon Pertwee used to request during his tenure, as in Day of the Daleks and the Time Monster. Marcell’s gentle humor fits perfectly with Sylvester McCoy’s weariness at having made a “grave error of judgment.” His character cheerfully embarks with the Doctor on a whirlwind philosophical adventure, as they discuss sugar, decisions, and the ramifications of being able to control people’s taste buds: a metaphor for the unfolding events in Remembrance. The conversation bears more than a hint of Buddhist parable, with the Doctor learning from John’s teaching, instead of the other way around. Like Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor himself, the words between John and the Doctor may seem sweet and frivolous on the surface, but the issues at stake are profound.
Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, and, well, Doctor Who in Doctor Who: the Telemovie.
We needed more of all of the above. There was so much right with the look of the show: the TARDIS, the right actor to play the Doctor, the right costumes – it was like having all the ingredients for a Sultan’s Golden Cake – and then throwing them in a blender with ketchup and sardines.
Karren Winchester as Fitch in Bad Wolf.
I cannot say enough about her beautiful and moving performance. She left viewers gutted with her few seconds of screen time. Agonizing sadness, fear, terror, desperation, and real heartbreak: Winchester’s performance had it all. As Idris said, being alive “is sad when it’s over,” and Fitch shows us the tragedy of meaningless death – for what could be more meaningless than dying on a game show? So rich, and so touching was Winchester’s performance, I found myself creating a backstory for her in my mind; a life and family for Fitch. I wondered if her parents or her children were watching her on their own television screens at home. That is the mark of powerful, powerful storytelling, and beautiful acting. We totally believed her, and, nearly eight years later, are still haunted by the vision of her desperate pleading for another chance. “It was the lights and everything – I couldn’t think!” she sobbed. “I’m sorry. Please. Oh God, help me!” As good as Doctor Who can be, it’s performances like this that shimmer like tiny, precious jewels amidst gold. Of all the scenes of death and loss in Doctor Who, Karren Winchester’s brief scene stands out as one of the most tragic: even Pyrrho of Elis (founder of skepticism – and friend of the First Doctor) would have willingly suspended his disbelief, and wept into his own stoic dogma. Bravo, Karren.
Claire Bloom as “The Woman” in The End of Time.
For only being on the screen for a few minutes in 4 scenes, Bloom managed to intrigue millions of viewers: hardcore Whovians and causal viewers alike. Theories that she was Chancellor Flavia, a regenerated Romana, Susan, Susan’s mother, the Rani, and, most likely, the Doctor’s mother (a view later endorsed by erstwhile executive producer Julie Gardner) flew about the forums. What made her performance so powerful was that it was so beautifully understated. Like the Time Lord in Terror of the Autons, she blinked into scenes wearing contemporary Earth clothing. In her case, she dressed like a fashionable, middle-aged lady who might have been on her way to a garden party. Her eyes, however, held an eternity of wisdom, suffering and sadness. Every time she appeared on screen, we held our breath in respectful silence and hopeful expectation, waiting for her to bestow some clue – some hint as to her true identity. Her speeches were simple, but weighty, and ever-so-slightly archaic in their prose structure, subtly hinting that she was hundreds, if not thousands of years Wilf’s senior. She appeared to Wilf three times, before finally revealing herself to be a Time Lord High Councilor during the climactic confrontation between the Lord President Rassilon, the Doctor and the Master. Her wordless exchanges with the Doctor seemed to stop time itself. A lesser director would have added flashback scenes, or dubbed on additional verbiage. Instead, we were left with the beautiful, lingering mystery, the tear-filled, haunted eyes of the Doctor’s mother – probably – who wordlessly shows the Doctor how to save everyone, at the cost of her own, and the entire Time Lord Assembly’s, existence.
Bill Nighy as Professor Black in Vincent and the Doctor.
Oh, what a mighty might-have-been! We see a glimpse of just what a spectacularly fantastic Doctor he would have made. Quirky, charming, geeky, and brilliant, with a terrific face and a cool bow tie. He looks like a man who could make traveling through time and space in a telephone box seem the most normal and sensible way to spend one’s lifetime. Sadly, we will probably never know.
I hope this article may stir your own memories, dear reader, and that you might recall many other brilliant, but under-used actors, and that we might celebrate their brief but beautiful dramatic moments together. As we take up the story of Doctor Who once again at the end of this month, no doubt there will be a plethora of new examples to enjoy. The efforts of these fine actors certainly deserve another look, and perhaps a grateful, if belated, round of applause from us.