At the start of the Third Doctor’s tenure in the TARDIS, there was a distinct plan to move the show out of the realms of the entirely fantastical, and to give it a basis in what was then modern day fact. To this end, the idea was cooked up that the Time Lords would exile the Doctor from the universe at large, confining him to Earth in the early years of the 1970s, and giving him a job, as scientific advisor to the newly-formed UNIT.
This solved quite a few production problems, not least the one of having to find a new alien landscape for every new script, but it did raise one significant issue. If the Doctor doesn’t travel any more, and he isn’t walking around explaining foreign worlds to his star-struck companions – or to be strictly accurate for the Third Doctor era, companion singular – how do we flesh out the human stories behind the action? There are no strangers to meet, no alien cultures to explore.
Well, for starters they gave the Doctor a bright yellow car called Bessie to drive, and a hovercraft called the Whomobile. That gave him something to tinker with. And he’d continue to butt heads with the Brigadier, a great way to demonstrating his naturally wayward streak. But a supporting cast was needed too, otherwise the whole show is just three people bickering with one another.
Enter the ever reliable Sergeant Benton – played by John Levene – and action man Mike Yates – played by Richard Franklin.
Benton, being a non-commissioned officer, had a very, very down to Earth demeanor which always complimented the Brigadier’s headmasterly disapproval and the Doctor’s boffiny pomposity. He’s a kind of army Jeeves, a very capable man who sees no need in demonstrating unnecessary emotion, even when baffled, as it could jeapardise the mission.
Here, for example, is his first reaction on entering the TARDIS:
Mike Yates, meanwhile, was brought in to enact the Brigadier (and Benton’s) commands, while swanning around in modern clothes and giving Jo Grant the glad eye. He’s partly a replacement for the Jamie or Ben kind of companion, and partly a bridge between the army, the Doctor and Jo. His position in the middle ground was exploited once or twice, especially when he ended up being brainwashed by the alien intelligence BOSS in The Green Death. This experience pushed him further away from army discipline and further towards crackpot theorists like Sir Charles Grover, who managed to reintroduce the dinosaurs to the modern world.
Mike had to leave UNIT under a cloud, and only managed to redeem himself when he uncovered something sinister at his meditation retreat and contacted Sarah Jane Smith to try and bring the Doctor in. This resulted in the Doctor’s third regeneration, at the end of Planet of the Spiders, so even this attempt at rehabilitation was tinged with unfortunate events.
Meanwhile Benton climbed the career ladder, and was last heard of described by the Brigadier (in 1983) as having left the army and become a used car salesman. But of course by then the Doctor had long since got his travelling rights back and so their role in the show had become redundant anyway.
But the really interesting thing about these two (and to a certain extent the Brigadier too) is that they have actual jobs to do: they not only support the Doctor, they facilitate his actions. They’re not there to drive the exposition and scream when things look scary, they’re there to shoot first and ask questions later. With Benton and Yates around, the action is never slow in coming, and even thought the Doctor is still the one who saves the day, they have a damn good bash at it first.
And, for as long as the Doctor was confined to Earth, they were just as vital to proceedings as any companion ever.