Wonderful Chaplets, All of Them | The Awkward Legacy of Doctor Who’s Dodo
Hello there! You’ve stumbled across Undigested Morsels, a feature on my blog. The Morsels are my bouts of random quasi-academic writing and discussion, without the pretence of a central thesis, on everything from popular culture to popular science.
SPOILER WARNING: This blog post contains spoilers for:
- Classic Doctor Who TV stories The Massacre, The Celestial Toymaker, The Savages, The War Machines
- Modern Doctor Who TV story Journey’s End.
- Doctor Who novels The Man in the Velvet Mask and Who Killed Kennedy?
Given that two of these stories range between twelve and fifty-four years old, anyone keen to lose their plot point virginity in a proper, Christian fashion ought to get round to watching them fairly soon.
The Infinite Lives of Dorothea Chaplet
Quoth Doctor Who companion Dodo Chaplet in her final televised appearance:
My name is Dodo Chaplet … I resist all attempts to change me into somebody else.Dodo in the second episode of The War Machines, broadcast July 2nd, 1966.
I keep revisiting this narrative epitaph, which holds a kind of frustrating, even tragic irony with Dodo’s entire run considered. Dodo did not, in fact, resist change – in fact, the character was so fluid that she might as well have been a liquid.
A modern Doctor Who recruit, I’ve been watching the classic series chronologically. Quite regardless of the fact that 97 of the episodes no longer exist, archaic Doctor Who presents a fair number of its own challenges for a modern viewer.1It doesn’t help that many a classic devotee will lampoon so-called “fangirls” for their preference or knowledge of Tenant or Smith’s runs. Honestly, this is akin to gaslighting, because, by my money, there are many more of these cynics than there are the fangirls they’re criticising. The constant generation of artificial problems can make longer serials a slog to get through, and poor choreography makes the quick turn-around of early stories horribly transparent.
But amongst tin foil monsters bumping into doorways and episode-after-episode of faintly homoerotic 40s-style combat, no aspect of classic Doctor Who2sans the occasional sprinkling or racial of sexual prejudice, of course has aged quite like Dorothea ‘Dodo’ Chaplet.
Dodo was introduced in The Massacre, as the apparent descendent of Huguenot servant girl Anne Chaplet who was left to expire earlier in the serial. Frankly, her introductory scene speaks somewhat for itself. Witness to a hit-and-run involving a child, she naturally dashes for the nearest police box. That police box turns out to be the TARDIS, which departs with Dodo aboard.
Dodo never appears to realise that, rather unusually for a telephone box, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. Nor does she ever acknowledge that grievously-injured child again. When it’s pointed out that Dodo may never return to the planet Earth, she assures them that:
I don’t care… I live with me great aunt, and she won’t care if she never sees me again.Dodo in the second episode of The Massacre, broadcast February 26th, 1966.
When Dodo disembarks the TARDIS a week later (only minutes in-story), she’s suddenly speaking “properly” – or rather, Queen’s English. In fact, the Doctor reprimands her for using slang twice in the following serial, advising her that “you’ll have to do something about that English of yours” and that once the adventure is complete, he’s “going to teach you to speak English.”
This is an unfortunate carry-over from colonial ideas about civility, and a far cry from the anarchic Doctor we see later in the show. Jackie Lane rehearsed The Ark in a cockney accent, but the production team were instructed by higher-ups that anything other than RP would be unacceptable. Curiously, this rule seems to have been abandoned by the time of the noticeably male Ben Jackson’s debut just four stories later.
From this point, Dodo accompanies the TARDIS crew for five further stories – four and a half if we’re being strict about it. She is, through no fault of her performer, rubbish. Quick to scream, oblivious to significance, and impulsive to variously frustrating and dire consequences, Dodo, from her first scene, suffers from a brutal and terminal case of neglect-by-writer. No effort is made to meaningfully develop her beyond the initial pitch of “cool girl from 60s”. She can’t stagnate because she is static, and even then her foundations are flimsy.
Make no mistake; Dodo was a transitionary companion, in existence to fill console room space between a producer who didn’t know what to do with her and a producer who wanted nothing to do with her. She epitomises the thoughtless grind to ensure that there was 20 minutes of Doctor Who-brand entertainment on the telly, regardless of quality, Saturday teatime after Saturday teatime. It didn’t matter that Dodo doesn’t work; she was a ticked box, a signed contract, the designated young female to accompany our traveller on his adventures. Dodo made sure existing scripts could be used with minimal rewrites, that the BBC machine could continue to churn out 45 episodes per annuum, without pausing to think, plan or contemplate. She is the milk provided to compliment the bottomless teapot, oblivious that she is quite sour.
Dodo or Do Not, There is No Try
Dodo’s stint on the show was brief and underwhelming. As such, stories with her characters, while not unknown, are fairly unusual in the grand scheme of the franchise. After all, how on Earth do you write for Dodo? This will make me sound nasty, and I swear I don’t mean to be, but I think the only solution is to make her a bit thick. After all, it’s her single consistent trait throughout her six serials. In The Celestial Toymaker, she encounters more than nine people, all Toymaker illusions, and still assumes each arrival is real and trustworthy.
And to some extent, you have to make the rest of your cast a little thick too, at least when it comes to the regulars. After all, Dodo’s insouciance to being potentially separated from her home only rings so untrue because the Doctor and Steven don’t seem to care much either. If her two TARDIS-mates expressed more than a passing moment of concern about her separation from her home planet, perhaps Dodo’s casual attitude could be used as fuel as commentary for… something. Isolation. Mental health. Delusions of greener grass. Basically anything other than juvenile misunderstanding of the stakes, exacerbated by an almost sociopathic lack of consideration by two callous shipmates.
Perhaps as a result, Doctor Who scribes appear to approach Dodo’s tenure with a common attitude; “Ah. Right then. How do we sort this out?”
Since Dodo shares all but two of her episodes with Steven, writers have usually used that fact to push her aside. Her role in Big Finish companion chronicle Mother Russia could easily be given to predecessor Vicki. And while Return of the Rocket Men’s intertextual dialogue with Steven’s departure in The Savages means that she has to appear, the story is never really about her. Writers only confront her presence in stories set during her solo travels with the Doctor.
Enter The Man in the Velvet Mask. One of Virgin Publishing’s Missing Adventures written during Doctor Who’s sixteen-year hiatus, Velvet Mask has a plot surprisingly appropriate for a publishing house usually known for erotica. The Doctor and Dodo, fresh from the departure of Steven, find themselves in an alternate version of post-revolutionary France, crafted from the mind of a sexual sadist. With the inclusion of the Marquis de Sade, author of The 120 Days of Sodom, Velvet Mask anticipates the “Agatha Christie solves a murder mystery” or “a ghost story with Charles Dickens” format of modern Doctor Who‘s celebrity historical, while mischievously using a historical figure that family-friendly TV is unable to touch.
In an unexpectedly cerebral and agreeably disagreeable gothic speculative fiction, O’Mahony reimagines Dodo’s apparent worldly ignorance as sexual innocence. It’s rarely comfortable reading quite regardless of your preferred sexual dynamic; after all, an undercurrent of non-consensual sexual violence is necessarily threaded throughout the world of the story as part of that plot. But where it’s particularly interesting is where it gives – or attempts to give – Dodo some kind of agency.
Dodo’s sexual innocence is never something she expresses herself. It is a label given to her by others; by Dalville, her would-be lover, and by Bressac, her historical gay best friend. Yet rather than reject the notion, she instead embraces it, before quickly letting herself become “corrupted” by Dalville.
Through making love to Dalville, she is able to claim maturity through her actions rather than verbal protests. This seems to be, at least by the climax (heh) of the book, something of a rebellion against the Doctor himself. One of the very last events has The Doctor, as usual, refer to Dodo as “child”. Dodo, who has just copulated with Dalville, is frustrated:
Child, she thought. It wasn’t meant as an insult — she hardly felt stung by it — but it was there. It felt as though a little more space had opened between them, another inch added to the gap.
It’s clear that O’Mahony perceives the Doctor and Dodo’s relationship as a distant one; not necessarily one without warmth, but certainly with a degree of patronisation on the Doctor’s end. With the Doctor being the figurehead of the franchise, it is easy to see this dynamic as a reflection of Dodo’s (Jackie Lane’s) treatment on the show itself. While the modern reintepretation of Hartnell’s Doctor as a senile sexist is grating at best, Velvet Mask‘s more dramatic exploration of the early TARDIS power dynamics is thought-provoking; beyond being elegantly woven into the thematic tapestry of the book, the Doctor’s disregard for Dodo’s independence works as a reflection of the creative conditions that made and broke her character in the first place.
While O’Mahony largely avoids indulging in the fandom instinct to “fix” the show, we do get a number of suggestions that try and reconcile inconsistencies. In this regard we get a possible explanation for Dodo’s miraculous changing accent:
I grew up in one of the poorest parts of London. When my parents died, I went to live with my aunt. She wasn’t rich, but she was comfortable. She was a real social climber, and everyone she knew was exactly like her. I spent the rest of my childhood shunting between extremes … I had to reinvent myself to keep up with all the changes … I’ve acted all my life. All the world’s a stage.
A neat and insightful explanation. But one that can only go so far.
More recently, Big Finish short trip The Horror at Bletchington Station covered a Dodo adventure. Chris Wing’s story is less ambitous, but inoffensively so, providing an exciting and legitimately spooky story in which Dodo takes on more of a passive, perhaps “generic” companion role. Yet even here her situation is complicated; Stephen Critchlow, in an otherwise skilled reading, for some reason decides to perform Dodo’s lines with a brummie accent.
Whether this is the fault of the narrator, director Neil Gardner, or someone else, it is difficult to say. But how typical for Dodo that even her “safe” expanded universe outings muddle her character?
Go Forward in All Your Beliefs
Dodo’s troubles really begin to bubble over in her final episode. In Dodo’s final scene on-screen, the Doctor discovers that she’s been hypnotised by WOTAN. He jumps to action, shining a lamp in her eyes and providing instructions thus:
Now, I want you to repeat after me. My name is Dodo Chaplet … I resist all attempts to change me into somebody else … Now, I’m going to start counting. And when I’ve counted up to five, you will be fast asleep. And when you wake again, you will forget all about this distressing incident … Yes, I think she’ll sleep for forty eight hours. And when she wakes, I want absolute peace and quiet for her.The Doctor, The War Machines (Episode Two), 1966.
Snoozing cosily, Dodo is whisked off into the country to recover. Then, off-screen, she decides to leave the Doctor’s company, leaving a message with new guest stars Ben and Polly, and leaving televised Doctor Who for ever.
I can’t honestly describe this as a bathetic ending because there was never a solid foundation to fall from. It is a pathetic ending, a final kick for a maltreated character who was already writhing on the floor. There is no reason Dodo had to be so transparently discarded like a used toy, even by classic Doctor Who’s storytelling standards.
The contemporary Doylist explanation, of course, was that Jackie Lane had to be written out of the show. Everything about her departure is understated, even the coverage of its real-world explanation; in a 1988 interview with Doctor Who Magazine, Jackie Lane simply comments:
…[Innes Lloyd, then-producer of Doctor Who] had definite plans for the series which neither Steven nor Dodo really fitted, and half way through my first year I was told that Dodo was to be written out. I would have liked a dramatic ending and my farewell just two episodes into The War Machines, and not even on camera but in reported speech, was a bit of an anti-climax. Still, I got my revenge. I now run a voice-over agency and Innes Lloyd once asked me to find him work. I reminded him that he had once sacked me from Doctor Who and said a very firm ‘no’!Jackie Lane for Doctor Who Magazine #74, 1988.
A storyteller myself, I have to sympathise with Lloyd to some extent, especially given that his Season 3 stories are more interesting than the majority if Doctor Who preceding his tenure. Still, one can’t help thinking there must have been a more delicate, emotionally befitting way to part ways with Dodo. Even a magical performance by Hartnell can’t help this plot point feeling emotionally divorced and rather cynical.
And yet… rather suitably for a programme about time travel, Doctor Who watchers are not limited to linear, chronological consumption. We can watch The War Machines with the knowledge of the following fifty years of television.
I want you to identify this scene. In a season finale close to the contemporary Doctor’s departure, the Doctor and his companion, a young woman, have arrived on present day Earth. In solving a mystery involving amusingly-shaped robots patrolling the streets of London, the companion finds herself with her mind altered. To save the young woman’s life, the Doctor wipes her memory, changing the course of her life forever and forcing them to discontinue their travels.
I’m describing Dodo’s final moments in The War Machines. But you’d be forgiven for – perhaps even questioned if you weren’t – assuming I’m talking about Donna’s departure in Journey’s End.3In the process of writing this blog I discovered that the chakoteya.net transcript for Journey’s End has the final line as “Soaked to the skin, the Doctor squelches to the Tardis.” Struggling to reconcile the emotional impact of that scene with the fact that that description is hilarious.
She Was Better With You
Stepping away from any kind of formal analysis and indulging in a healthy slice of headcanon, I’d like to put forward a fan theory. Drawn from the parallel I just highlighted, it makes Dodo’s blunt farewell a little more palatable.
It’s difficult to reconcile the Doctor’s nonchalance at her departure to his earlier warmth and consideration for her safety. But let’s say that the Doctor’s skills here are not just prowess in anti-hypnotism, but an early demonstration of the Gallifreyan telepathic physiology. Let’s imagine that the Doctor, uncertain that he’ll be able to defeat WOTAN, sees only one option; to wipe Dodo’s knowledge of the unexplained, breaking her hypnotic link and protecting her from harm. Perhaps when the Doctor says “this distressing incident”, he is not only talking about WOTAN’s control – but Dodo’s abduction in the first place.
The theory isn’t remotely water-tight; after all, this is a very different scenario to Donna’s metacrisis. Furthermore, Dodo later passes a message along with Ben and Polly that mentions the Doctor by name, and the Doctor appears to be sincere in his suggestion that he was about to leave without her.
Unconvinced? I don’t blame you. Equally, the line of thought – that is, that Dodo’s departure and her hypnotic experiences are a strange coincidence – was so obvious that it was picked up on by expended universe contributors. I’ve yet to read Who Killed Kennedy, a kind of novel predecessor to Love & Monsters presented intriguingly as an in-universe piece of journalism (the author even shares a credit with the protagonist). But it’s unfortunate to note that its reputation as a unique example of Doctor Who storytelling is preceded by its treatment of Dodo. Bishop gives Dodo psychiatric problems as a result of having been controlled by WOTAN – before nastily murdering her before her wedding, with-child.
Somehow more bleakly, Doctor Who Magazine short story Ships has Dodo take up a mind-numbing career as a secretary, always regretting departing the Doctor’s company. She even bumps into Sarah Jane at one point, tragically never realising that this is her potential window back into a life of adventure.
No, you’re right, my theory doesn’t work. I’d say that none of these other endings sit quite right, too. The best alternative we have is Farewell, Sarah Jane, a touching story by Russell T Davies produced in lockdown – and all we hear here is that she’s still alive (and familiar enough with Smith to attend her funeral).
On the Extinction of the Dodo
But who can blame me? Who can blame anyone who has tried to retrodict the inner machinations of Dorothea ‘Dodo’ Chaplet? I’m sceptical of trying to give Dodo justice, in prequel or follow-up form, because her behaviour is so completely unlike how any human being has ever acted in the history of human anything, ever. It’d be like trying to organise a Piccasso painting, to narrativize a Lynch film, to regularly eat Rochester garbage plates as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
I was so very ready to develop a nicely contrarian opinion about Dodo, perhaps out of a slightly patronising instinct to guard Jackie Lane from her character’s poor reception. But the moment Polly and Ben arrive, the character’s flaws become clear, and it’s uncanny watching Dodo accompany them to the Inferno nightclub. Polly and Ben are so instantly “real” that it’s startling to remember we’re watching three people intended to be of the same milieu; young people of the 1960s, two from refreshingly working class backgrounds. Polly and Ben, with their instant screen presence and chemistry that rivals even that of Ian and Barbara4…who featured in my short story for Time Scope 2020, didn’t you know!, feel cool now. Dodo, I can only assume, must have been embarrassing even to contemporary audiences.
I’d go as far to suggest that the character is unfixable. Unless Jackie Lane offers to return to the world of Doctor Who, and we’re given a more committed attempt to show us Dodo’s life in the time after time, I don’t think we’ll ever get a satisfying explanation for her puzzle.
But Lane has wisely turned her back on a franchise that has mistreated herself and her character, bar a touching message for Doctor Who fans during the 50th Anniversary celebrations. I’d be surprised if we saw her return to the cap-and-miniskirt any time soon – and all the more power to her, I say.
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Dodo also appears in the missing episodes
collected in audio form as
Audio plays and novels include
Love & Monsters and Journey’s End are part of Series 4 and Series 2 respectively. The Horror at Bletchington Station is available from the Big Finish website.
3 Replies to “Wonderful Chaplets, All of Them | The Awkward Legacy of Doctor Who’s Dodo”
Good stuff, but its worth mentioning that even Bishop seemed to dislike what happened with Dodo and wrote a new ending for 20th anniversary of book where she is saved. U can find it here. http://doctorwho.org.nz/archive/wkk/ Apparently she is dead by Dec 2015 which does jar with FSJ but meh.
Woah, I had no idea about this anniversary rewrite. Thanks for the link. Glad you enjoyed the article!
It’s not quite what I’d call a rewrite. More an additional ending. But it’s certainly worth reading and I think it feels like a more suitable ending. I really do try to recommend it because it’s one of the best DW books I’ve read.