Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The best of Tegan Jovanka
Mark Harrison | On 24, Apr 2022
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
“Ace, I haven’t heard from the Doctor for nearly four decades!” One of the bombshells dropped in the trailer for Jodie Whittaker’s forthcoming final Doctor Who special was the return of 1980s companions Ace and Tegan, played by Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding. We’ve already covered the classic adventures of Ace in a previous column, and now it’s Tegan’s turn.
Conceived as an appeal to the show’s growing Australian fanbase, Tegan Jovanka is an Australian living in England who’s about to start work as a flight attendant when she winds up boarding the TARDIS instead. Appearing in all but two of the Fifth Doctor serials, she’s one of the longest-serving – and longest-suffering – companions in the TV show.
In both characterisation and the manner of her introduction, Tegan is the closest thing the classic series has to Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble. Her confrontational chemistry with Peter Davison is a treat, even if their character dynamic is under-explored because of the crowding of companions around them and a spate of poor scripting. (“Brave heart, Tegan” becomes an unfortunate catchphrase for him not listening to her). She remains a fan favourite for those who grew up with 1980s Who.
So, here’s our spoiler-lite look at a few stories to introduce you to the self-described “mouth on legs” before her return, from the good to the, er, not so good. It’s funny that Tegan’s next appearance will be in a regeneration story that also features the return of the Master, but why not? After all, that’s how it all started…
Logopolis (Season 18, 1981)
“I don’t really belong at ground level, Aunt Vanessa.”
Tegan joins the TARDIS team in the very last serial of the Fourth Doctor’s era, joining other Season 18 recruits, Adric and Nyssa. As the universe teeters on the brink of disaster, Logopolis kicks off with Tegan and her aunt Vanessa driving to Heathrow Airport for her first day at work. They break down with a flat tyre on the way, but handily, there’s a roadside police box she can use to call for help.
While she doesn’t have a lot of time with Tom Baker’s outgoing Doctor, Fielding provides the series with something it hasn’t had since Sarah Jane Smith departed in 1976 – a companion from contemporary Earth. Having a crowded TARDIS doesn’t always favour Tegan’s strong personality, but she makes a striking debut in an exceptionally busy story.
Kinda (Season 19, 1982)
“Come on, what are you thinking?”
One story that’s come in for a well-deserved reassessment in recent years is Kinda, in which Tegan is very much front and centre. Anticipating Avatar several decades early and far, far less expensively, Christopher Bailey’s script takes place on the jungle planet of Deva Loka, where colonists are at war with a native tribe called the Kinda. Soon, an exhausted Tegan’s dreams are invaded by a malevolent subconscious being called the Mara, granting it a path back into existence.
Altogether, this is a compellingly weird mix of standard generic capture-and-escape runaround and wild psychological horror. Regrettably, the physical manifestation of the monster at the end of Part 4 is among the show’s biggest visual clangers, but it speaks volumes that it still doesn’t undermine the story. The Mara is also notable for one of the few returning monsters that debuted in the 1980s, but we’ll come to that shortly…
Black Orchid (Season 19, 1982)
“I think it’s a great hoot.”
Later in Tegan’s first full season, there’s Black Orchid, which sees the Doctor and friends whisked along to the annual costume ball at an English country estate in 1925. She’s hardly in her element in the period setting, but she has great fun showing alien companions Adric and Nyssa how to party. Terence Dudley’s two-parter is the last sighting of a “pure historical” in Doctor Who to date, with no alien involvement except the Doctor and his companions, so it’s only a shame that a shocking murder spoils Tegan’s otherwise lovely afternoon out.
Between drinking screwdrivers and dancing the Charleston, Tegan’s more obviously having fun here than in any other story of the era – on the Donna scale, 2008’s The Unicorn and the Wasp could be an answer to Tegan enjoying herself in a similar setting here. You’ll also find Tegan in party mode, albeit with some hard-learned trepidation, in Enlightenment, (Season 20, 1983), another Fifth Doctor story we’ve recommended in various columns.
Snakedance (Season 20, 1983)
“Am I free of the Mara now? Forever? Am I?”
One season on from Tegan’s Kinda surprise, it turns out that it lives on inside Tegan’s mind. However, this sequel is set centuries later, during the planet Manussa’s 500th-anniversary celebration of banishing the Mara. It’s a great setup for the monster in the previous story to have passed into myth, then legend, then the stuff of tacky tourist attractions by the time it strikes again.
Sequels aren’t usually Classic Who’s strong suit, and sure enough there’s a lot more of the Doctor and Nyssa running around while Tegan does all the heavy lifting story-wise. However, there’s lots of fun stuff involving guest star Martin Clunes, and the origin story that Bailey lands upon for his monster is a clever one, because explaining it only makes it scarier. In both stories, it’s Fielding’s performance that really sells the genuine horror factor of a monster that just happens to look like… well, you’ll see.
Resurrection of the Daleks (Season 21, 1984)
“It’s stopped being fun, Doctor.”
After a wobble between Seasons 19 and 20 (more on that below), Tegan travelled with the Fifth Doctor almost to the end of his era on-screen. She finally departs when they arrive back in 1980s London, but not before an especially harrowing ordeal involving the Daleks and their android slaves. After all her adventures, it’s the last straw.
Fielding announced her departure from the series at the beginning of Season 21 along with Davison, but it does lend a bit of heft to a story that’s very much in keeping with the grim-dark tone of 1980s Who. Although both actors have reunited in audio plays for Big Finish Productions, this ending marks Tegan’s last appearance in the TV series proper, bar for a hallucination that appears to the Fifth Doctor as he lays dying in The Caves of Androzani, two stories later.
“Brave heart, Tegan…”
As the Tenth Doctor once joked to Donna, someone must have put a dent in the 1980s, so not all of Tegan’s defining storylines intersect with great stories. And, like Donna, Tegan decides not to travel with the Doctor when she originally gets dropped back home.
Some fans don’t get on with The Runaway Bride and Partners in Crime, but there’s far more to recommend these stories than Time Flight (Season 19, 1982) and Arc of Infinity (Season 20, 1983), which are connected by the cliffhanger of Tegan being left behind by the TARDIS crew. She meets the Doctor and Nyssa again in Amsterdam and re-joins the crew right in time to be hassled by the Mara again in the next story – hooray!
We’ve tried to stick to stories where Fielding or Tegan are especially prominent in our recommendations, but a list of the best stories she’s in would largely tally with a best Fifth Doctor serials list – and 40 years since her and Davison’s first full run, Season 19’s highlights include Castrovalva, The Visitation, and Earthshock.
New series fans will remember writer Mark Gatiss slipping a reference to Tegan in 2013’s The Crimson Horror, with the Eleventh Doctor reminiscing about a “trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport” while ranting about his temperamental TARDIS to Clara.
More flatteringly, once-and-future showrunner Russell T Davies included her in a roll call of companions in The Sarah Jane Adventures, stating that she’s now back in Australia fighting for Aboriginal rights. A further audio story by Davies during the 2020 lockdown watchalongs suggested she was now married to Nyssa. But where we’ll find her in her next episode remains to be seen…
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.