The Black companions in the rebooted iteration of Doctor Who have it rough, especially the women.
Think of Martha, who suffers Simm Master’s mockery and his enforced servitude of her family in Season 3’s Sound of Drums. Think of Bill, who endures a decade of medical abuse and slow Cyber conversion (i.e., being made into a cyborg) at the hands of Razor Master in Season 10’s World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. Think of Grace, who dies of electrocution and fall after defending the Thirteenth Doctor from a gathering coil in Season 11’s Woman Who Fell to Earth. The New Who’s Black companions are generally treated as more disposable and less important than the white characters.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if New Who’s first companion had been a young Black woman — cherished, celebrated, integral to the narrative? How might the experiences of Black companions be different if Alison Cheney had been the first?
Alison Cheney is a Black British woman, the focus of The Scream of the Shalka (SotS), the BBC’s abortive attempt to revive Who after a seven-year absence from the screen. SotS is comprised of six animated episodes of approximately 15 minutes each, released online in 2003 to commemorate Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary. (Watch it online on Daily Motion.) Story and script are by Paul Cornell, a white guy who has authored canonical stories and novelizations as well, including the novelization of SotS. (See the BBC’s archived page for SotS here.)
Alison, voiced by Sophie Okonedo, is in her early twenties. She formerly studied history at uni, but now tends bar in the flyspeck town of Lannet, Lancashire. She’s bored out of her skull and struggling with an invasion of screaming alien lava snakes called the Shalka. They aim to take over the planet, so they’re compelling humans to modify Earth’s atmosphere to make it safe for the Shalka.
Enter the Ninth Doctor, voiced by Richard E. Grant. Still depressed over the loss of a previous companion, he shares his TARDIS with his ex-enemy and current robotic househusband the Master, voiced by Derek Jacobi. Quips are slung; lava snakes are dispatched; the Doctor opens his hearts; Alison joins two bickering Time Lords in their travels, and more adventures are promised.
Aside from a short story, Feast of the Stone (available to read online), however, Alison and co. appear nowhere else in the Whoniverse. That’s because Doctor Who was rebooted for TV in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the canonical Doctor. White Billie Piper became Rose, Nine’s first companion. The Shalka trio, superseded, were relegated to canon limbo and largely forgotten.
That’s a shame because Alison is a wonderfully promising character.
I particularly love her combination of directness and respect. When the Master accosts her with a sneer in episode 6, remarking that she reminds him “horrifyingly” of all the Doctor’s previous passengers, Alison just looks him in the eye, unimpressed: “What’s that supposed to mean? Who are you anyway?” (All quotes are from the SotS transcript on Chrissie’s Transcript Site.)
She’s speaking somewhat dryly, expecting the Master to be as straightforward and sensible as she is. He responds by dropping the snark and telling her exactly who he is. The Doctor, the Master, the military — all the white dudes around Alison pay attention to her, living up to her expectations. She changes people’s minds and behavior without struggling or proving herself. Everyone defers to the goodness and leadership of a young Black blue-collar woman.
That’s powerful stuff.
Besides being the audience surrogate and universally acknowledged moral center of SotS, Alison also occupies another position rarely accorded to Black women in any kind of media: She’s the Doctor’s love interest.
Before Alison, the Doctor traveled with a woman that he loved romantically. She died, and he was devastated at being unable to save her. He distanced himself from emotional attachments as a result, but Alison reactivates his ability to love. In episode 3, the Master presses the Doctor to abandon Alison, whose survival is uncertain. The Doctor categorically rejects his former carelessness: “I can’t do this [i.e., run away from people] anymore!” Despite himself, he has become attached to Alison. In short, she’s his prospective partner.
As the Doctor’s beloved, Alison is exempt from extreme suffering because the narrative must keep her safe. SotS is a happy story in which the Doctor learns to love again. It arranges the Doctor and Alison as a potential match, leading the audience to expect their eventual partnership. Because this is a happy story, their joyful partnership will inevitably occur. Their union may be temporarily endangered, but it will never be derailed by, say, Cyber conversion or death because that would kill the major romantic plot. Alison’s pivotal role in SotS gives her immunity from a painful fate.
The Shalka Doctor himself keeps Alison safe by being attentive and sensitive to her needs, in a way that the canonical Doctor isn’t to any of their Black companions.
For example, in contrast to the Shalka Doctor, the canonical Tenth Doctor waves off Martha’s nervousness about her safety as a brown-skinned woman in Shakespearean England in Season 3’s Shakespeare Code. For another example, in The Doctor Falls in Season 10, Bill feels rage and grief after a decade of medical dehumanization in the form of progressive Cyber conversion. The Twelfth Doctor admonishes her that she can’t be angry now that she is Cyberized, because her anger will cause her guns to fire. As you can see, the canonical Doctor habitually devalues Black women’s feelings and perspectives.
In contrast, the Shalka Doctor shields Alison from harm in ways large and small. He sacrifices himself for her, as when he offers himself to the Shalka in episode 3 to save Alison from their torture. He protects Alison from even minor threats, as when he strategically pops up in episode 5 to prevent the Master from testing his mind control powers on her. He prioritizes Alison’s happiness over his own, as when he says goodbye to her in episode 6, (mistakenly) assuming that she would rather stay with her boyfriend instead of accompanying him and the Master.
The Shalka Doctor will do anything to keep Alison safe and whole and happy. He values her and prizes her as his beloved.
The Doctor’s love and protection attenuate the harm that Alison undergoes. You can see this when you contrast Alison in the Shalkaverse with Bill in the canon Whoniverse. Both of them suffer disturbing violations of bodily autonomy that compromise their free will. In Alison’s case, a Shalka larva burrows inside her head [!] and takes control of her body. In Bill’s case, she is nonconsensually Cyberized. In SotS, the Doctor quickly removes the larva from Alison. Furthermore, with the Doctor’s aid, Alison uses her mental connection with the Shalka to free other humans from Shalka control and save the world. With Bill, the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t even try to help her de-convert, and her Cyberization has no positive effect on the story. Compared to Bill’s, Alison’s period of being controlled is very brief, easily reversible, helpful to the plot, and minimally traumatic. The Doctor’s constant intervention on Alison’s behalf gives her a safer environment than that of other New Who Black women.
SotS also neutralizes one of the Doctor’s longstanding antagonists, the Master. The canonical New Who Master subjects Martha and Bill to a virulent racism and sexism.
In the Shalkaverse, however, the Master is much friendlier. The Doctor saved his life by turning him into a robot who can’t leave the TARDIS, and they’ve basically entered a snarky common-law marriage. The Master retains his formidable powers of mental manipulation, as well as his drive to deceive the Doctor, but his robotic status limits his influence. He is not the intergalactic supervillain of previous seasons. In fact, in episode 1, the Master calls himself “the dearest companion of the owner of this craft [the TARDIS],” highlighting his equality with Alison as a fellow passenger who also loves the Doctor. In SotS, the Master offers no existential threat to Alison’s life; he is, rather, competition for the Doctor’s affections.
Even then, while he does make some nasty envious remarks to Alison, the Master genuinely likes and respects Alison. In episode 6, he asks Alison if she will stay aboard the TARDIS. Alison demurs, saying that she hasn’t been invited, to which the Master replies, “He [the Doctor] would never invite you, and neither would I because I am by no means fond of you.” He immediately belies this statement by convincing her to travel with them. (I think he appreciates the fact that she treats him like a fellow person, rather than an insensate machine or an unapproachable, scary villain.)
The Master, a robot created and maintained by the Doctor, recognizes that his safety and happiness depend on the Doctor’s. Alison makes the Doctor happy; therefore, while the Master might mess with her a little bit by trying to use his powers on her, I can’t see him seriously endangering her and, by extension, the Doctor or himself. I can even envision that the Master’s fondness for her, avowed by denial, becoming a positive protectiveness. Imagine that — one young Black human woman with not just one, but two, powerful time-traveling aliens dedicated to her safety and happiness! Alison would have a Time Lord entourage.
Compared to other Black women of New Who, Alison has greater respect from the Doctor and other characters, narrative protection from harm and trauma, no threat from the Master, and a foundation for more enjoyable adventures. If the reboot of Doctor Who had continued with her as a precedent, Black companions might have had happier experiences, none of them ending in death and/or Cyber conversion. Influenced by their sensitivity toward Alison’s feelings and their desire to protect her, the Doctor might have watched out for future Black companions to keep them from stereotypical fates such as tragic death and/or noble self-sacrifice. Maybe Alison, Martha, Bill, and Grace — and all viewers who loved them — could have had some fun, untainted by the prospect of typical racist, misogynist narratives.
Or maybe not.
Though SotS has much to love, the story also features problems common to stories about Black women, especially when written by white guys. Most notably, Alison is isolated from other characters because of her gender and her race. She seems to be the only Black woman in Lannet, otherwise populated by white men. She’s also the only non-white person with any lines or character development; other brown-skinned people only appear as silent, faceless hordes under Shalka mind control. Furthermore, she has very little social support. Her mum is off-screen; she breaks up with her white boyfriend by the end of SotS, and her only mentioned friend is killed by the Shalka before the story starts.
In this context of silence, it’s unsurprising that no one in SotS ever mentions Alison’s race. She’s a Black character played by a Black woman, but, like canonical Black companions Mickey, Danny, and Bill, she has no Black community.
Alison also lacks the specific lived experiences of a Black British woman in a town where she’s a salient minority. This becomes painfully obvious when you consider the plot of SotS. SotS concerns the Shalka’s attempted colonization of Earth and “slaves,” the word that the Doctor uses at least ten times to describe people under Shalka control.
The parallel between aliens exploiting humans and white invaders exploiting Black people is underlined by the Doctor’s quip in episode 6 that “the English” might take advantage of post-Shalka upheaval and “try to conquer the world all over again.” As an aspiring historian, Alison should recognize the imperialist nature of the Shalka’s invasion. She should have some opinions on the topic, opinions informed by the fact that she’s a Black British woman.
She does not.
Thus she joins canonical companions Danny and Bill, who also experience colonization and exploitation (in the form of Cyber conversion) and who remain silent on how this affects them as Black people.
SotS had the potential to disrupt the ubiquitous media portrayals of disregarded and victimized Black women with Alison Cheney. It had the potential to establish the Whoniverse as one where Black characters were respected, listened to, and protected. This potential was compromised by the creators’ refusal to develop the authentic details of Alison’s life as a Black British woman.
Moreover, any disruptive potential SotS had was further reduced when the TV show was rebooted and SotS delegitimized. As a result, a very small number of Who fans know about SotS nowadays, and even fewer like it.
For a sense of the scale of SotS fandom, let’s look at AO3 numbers. There are about 43,450 works on AO3 with “Doctor Who (2005)” as a primary fandom tag; in other words, they take place in the Whoniverse of the canonical reboot. There are a mere 113 works with “Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka” as a primary fandom tag. (Full disclosure: 12.5% of them are by me, and all of mine star Alison.) In other words, the SotS fandom is 0.26% the size of the canonical reboot fandom.
Who are these SotS fans, and what are they thinking?
In the second part of this essay, I’ll look more closely at the fan reception of SotS and Alison in the context of fan reactions to other Black women of the Whoniverse like Martha, Bill, and Grace.
Elizabeth A. Allen lives, writes, and plays with dolls in Vermont. Her nonfiction has been published in Curve, Out in the Mountains, and Tangent Online. Her fiction has appeared in Unbound, Master Works, We’re the Weird Aliens, Gender Who?, and Painting it Black. Her AO3 [ModernWizard] features several novels and short stories following Alison’s further adventures with the Doctor, the Master, and her inevitable fiance Bill Potts. She’s mostly active on Tumblr [http://modernwizard.tumblr.com], but occasionally she remembers that she has a Twitter account [@modernwizard1].