I’ve just read that Caroline John has passed away. Another beloved member of the Doctor Who family gone. I’ll miss her. I’ll miss her very much.
Caroline John was only in Doctor Who for a single season. She didn’t even get a leaving scene. Just four stories, over forty years ago.Yet, all these years later I’m sitting here writing words of love and affection for a woman I met a handful of times. I’ll tell you why. She was wonderful.
On paper Liz Shaw isn’t much of a character. A snooty, Cambridge educated scientist who gets whisked away and dumped on a recently exiled Third Doctor. Two highly educated people, neither of whom want to be where they are, both considerably more book-smart than anyone else around them. So many times Liz is used to help whisk up something in a test-tube, to attend to dying alien astronauts, to pull a huge lever or take readings from a dial labelled “megga volts” (sic). There’s not much there for a talented young actress to get a handle on.
Caroline managed, somehow, to invest Liz with real warmth and generosity of spirit. Liz is never afraid to fight her corner. I was always fond of her last scene with the Brigadier in “Inferno” – “I don’t like your tone, Miss Shaw!” “I don’t much like yours, either”. When she’s fooled by the Doctor into nicking the Tardis key in “Spearhead From Space” her sense of hurt and betrayal radiates off her in waves. This in a character barely two episodes old, with little back story to play with. It’s all Carrie, and it’s to her credit. I don’t know how she does it, but she does.
In “Doctor Who and the Silurians” she’s relegated to a surrogate Doctor role in the last episode, flurrying and scurrying about in the lab for the details of that plague virus cure. We never doubt that she’s going to do it, because Liz is solid, competent, efficient and utterly trustworthy. Liz gets kidnapped to look after the Alien Astronauts in “The Ambassadors of Death”, but she’s more than a match for Regan and his crackpot plans. In a story notable for its many contradictions, not least the terminal confusion of the plotline, Liz is – again – rock solid. You need a viewer identification figure in Doctor Who and we may not all be scientists or hyper-intelligent but we like to think that we’d always – hopefully – do the right thing. That was Liz.
Inferno – alternative Liz embodies The Path Not Taken, pitching up in the parallel universe as a hard-nosed brunette with a gun rather than a warm-hearted scientist. Yet at the end of the world, Liz comes through and you feel a real sense of grief as she, Petra and Greg watch the lava roll inexorably towards them. Again, all Carrie. Working through a variety of ridiculous wigs and ridiculous costumes her fundamental high-class shines through. She was marvellous. Never a bad performance, never a word out of place. She knew what she was doing.
I barely met her more than a handful of times at various Doctor Who conventions over the years. She brightened any room she was in. She seemed to approach her time on Who slightly quizzically – in a lengthy and distinguished career, it’s easy to be surprised when we all choose to focus on barely a year’s work so long ago. The reason we do is – amongst others – because she was there at the time when we needed her most. Who was in serious cancellation danger that year. It needed a decent team to pull things together, to bring the viewers in, to keep them watching. In Jon, Nick and Carrie we got just what we needed. They ensured that Doctor Who survived and kept going. The aforementioned family – wonderfully – is expanding, with new people being added as every new season airs. Fans meet, make friends, create, argue and debate together and that’s because we’re all brought together by this remarkable thing called Doctor Who. Without Carrie, Nick, Jon, Barry, Terrance, Derrick et al, we’d not be here. Or at least, it’s unlikely we’d all have met in quite the way we did. That’s hugely important to me and I can’t ever thank them enough.
I can – at the very least – say thanks to Carrie here, and quietly mourn her passing. I hope she knew how much she meant to us fans. I think she did. We’ll miss her, and we’ll go on missing her as long as there’s an insane, mad, ridiculous television show called Doctor Who to dissect and discuss in all its delirious, wonderful forms. You were part of it, Carrie. You were there. In my heart, you always will be. Thank you.