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The Third Doctor and Liz Shaw
The Third Doctor and Liz Shaw

Hats off to whichever Doctor Who script-writer who came up with the idea of exiling the Doctor to Earth and having him work for UNIT at the beginning of his third incarnation. Especially the Third Doctor. The First would simply not have put up with the indignity, the Second would probably rather have wandered off to learn an eccentric circus skill after a few days on the job,  whereas the charmingly superior Third rather suits his capacity as scientific advisor to the Brigadier.

The only trouble is, the job had already gone to someone else, and another doctor, to boot. Enter Dr. Elizabeth Shaw – played by Caroline John – expert in meteorites, physics and medicine, who has arrived hot-foot from Cambridge university to assist the taskforce in their dealings with extra-terrestrial forces.

Here’s her interview, and introduction to the show, in which she gives the Brigadier as good as she gets: a prerequisite for any early ’70s companion:

Oh and look, there’s the Doctor.

What you’ll notice right away is that Liz and the Doctor are on a similar wavelength so long as the Brigadier is in the room, and then he asserts his usual scientific dominance as soon as he leaves. It’s as if, as far as a Time Lord is concerned, the brightest brains humanity have to offer are still far too primitive to be considered on an equal basis, but cocking a snook at authority beats all other concerns. And to make matters worse, the Third Doctor appears to love being right far more than either of his forebears.

So this puts Liz in an awkward position from the off. She’s clearly charmed by her new workmate, and he’s started calling her “my dear Liz” before he’s even taken his cloak off, so the feeling’s mutual. However, she’s been a doctor for a while, she’s the Cambridge don who has been brought in as an expert, and now someone has come along and turned all of that training and learning upside down, and worse, shown that she is not only NOT at the peak of her profession, that there’s a whole other mountain of new science to climb.

So you can forgive her for sometimes being a little cold and prim, she’s a genius of imperial measure, dwarfed by a supergenius of insterstellar dimension. In this sense she’s poised between his world and the Brigadier’s, a bridge between the Doctor and UNIT, rather than a giggling co-conspirator in the vein of Jo Grant or Sarah Jane Smith.

Not that she spends her time huffing about this. In fact, Liz takes to her role as the Doctor’s scientific sounding board rather well. And it’s not as if the Doctor doesn’t respect her. In fact, when he accidentally travels to a parallel dimension, in which a parallel Liz is an authoritarian security officer, he is quick to draw a glowing thumbnail sketch of what she is really like:

However wide her horizons have become as a result of working alongside the Doctor, Liz evidently yearns to get back to her studies, and elects to leave UNIT. As the Brigadier put it after she has left to go back to Cambridge “what you need Doctor, as Miss Shaw so often remarked, is someone to pass you your test tubes, and to tell you how brilliant you are,” which is effectively what Jo Grant started off doing. Liz was perfectly fine being brilliant on her own, the last thing she ever needed was to be trounced in every department by a man in a ruffled shirt, no matter how charming.

Here’s her final moment, bickering with the Brigadier, and then laughing as the Doctor gets his comeuppance for being pompous once too often.

That’s not the end of her though, she makes a reappearance in The Five Doctors as a ghost of the past, alongside Mike Yates, and  in The Sarah Jane Adventures she is referred to as working on a moonbase. Clearly she learned a lot from her time with the Doctor, but then, learning was something she always did have an aptitude for.

Next: Jo Grant, who did considerably more than just pass test tubes and say how brilliant the Doctor is.

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By Fraser McAlpine