The saying “two’s company, but three’s a crowd” could have been coined with Harry Sullivan in mind. A naval medical officer, charged with keeping an eye on the newly-regenerated Fourth Doctor, he found himself not only failing to fulfil his responsibilities, due to being outwitted, but off on a ride to new worlds and new civilizations with only his training and his naturally affable character to protect him.
Harry never had Sarah Jane’s natural curiosity, or the Doctor’s sense of mischievousness. He always appeared happiest when he had a task to fulfill, a wrong to put right, and this, coupled with his clipped, upper-middle-class manner, made him a bit of a stuffed shirt figure next to his switched-on traveling companions.
His adventures began with a giant robot attacking UNIT (Robot), and they ended on the shores of Loch Ness, back with the Brigadier (Terror of the Zygons). In the meantime he got to battle the Zygons (twice) and met Davros, the Sontarans AND the Cybermen. Not bad for a hanger-on.
Here’s Harry’s first appearance, arriving immediately after the Doctor regenerates. We’ve featured this clip before, but it’s choc-full of incredible quotes, so it bears a repeat. We’re very fond of both “you may be A doctor, but I’m THE Doctor. The definite article, you might say.” And the bit where Sarah Jane calls the Brigadier a swinger:
And while the Doctor runs around causing havoc, it’s left to Sarah Jane to issue this helpful thumbnail portrait of Harry’s character before we’ve even really had a chance to see what he’s like: “seems a bit old-fashioned”
And that’s what he is. With the Doctor being livelier and more insufferable than his crusty predecessor, and the Brigadier taking less of an active role once the traveling begins, it’s left up to Harry to be the straight man. Originally the character had been intended to provide the action antics of Ben or Jamie, the beefcake backup to the professorial Doctor, but Tom Baker being such a primal force left Harry with less to do as a character, despite being well-liked by cast and audience alike.
So what he does is back the Doctor up, acting as a second-in-command – with that lovely posh boy military bearing of his – and observer of fair play. This allows Sarah Jane to get into all sorts of scrapes without removing the all-important “someone to talk to” service that all the companions provide. And the Doctor seems fairly happy with this arrangement, as he can poke fun at Harry’s narrow (from his perspective) world view, and make himself look wonderful in front of the admiring Sarah Jane.
And while there is no hint of a relationship between Harry and Sarah Jane, this jostling for attention from the Doctor is the same trick the Ninth and Tenth Doctors pull with Mickey and Rose, and the Eleventh Doctor pulls with Rory, until Rory has the good sense to put him in his place. Harry simply says “now look here!” a lot, and gets on with the job in hand.
In fact, as the Fourth Doctor era marks the start of what we affectionately call the “running down corridors” Doctor Who, and the end of the “boffin shouts at aliens while surreptitiously looking for their hidden weak spot” Doctor Who, the need for a have-a-go hero diminishes to such a degree that Sarah Jane’s point about Harry being a man out of time becomes less an analysis of his personality and more a description of his character arc. The freer and wilder the Doctor is, the more of a stick-in-the-mud Harry appears, and of course Sarah Jane isn’t the type to take his chivalry lightly either.
Mind you, while Harry is the perfect gentleman, his terminology, in the era of Women’s Lib, leaves a little to be desired. “independent sort of bird, isn’t she?” indeed:
Apart from a last battle with lookalike robots in The Android Invasion, Harry left the TARDIS as soon as it was practical to do so, perhaps knowing that he was becoming surplus to requirements. After all, a gentleman always knows when he has outstayed his welcome.