Doctor Who companions can have mixed motives when it comes to travelling with the Doctor. In the case of Vislor Turlough, he was plotting his murder…
The production team of the 1980s were nothing if not creative when it came to devising new Doctor Who companions. For the show’s 20th anniversary season, they decided to introduce possibly one of the most complex characters to date – Vislor Turlough played by Mark Strickson, with dazzling orange locks and a positively hypnotic wide-eyed stare.
And unlike some of the other Doctor Who companions, Turlough came with quite a complex backstory, and a mysterious one at that. When viewers first met him at the start of the Black Guardian trilogy (in a story called ‘Mawdryn Undead’) Turlough was apparently a student at a boys’ boarding school. But it soon became clear that he was no ordinary schoolboy – he was an alien, trapped on Earth for reasons that weren’t entirely clear.
Even more mysteriously, in the first episode of ‘Mawdryn Undead’ Turlough ended up in a near-fatal car crash, during which he received a vision of one of the the Doctor’s deadliest enemies the Black Guardian. He made a deal with Turlough to free him from his Earth exile in exchange for one small favour: he had to murder the Doctor.
This was certainly a first for Doctor Who companions, who are usually more interested in exploring time and space than ‘popping off’ the titular hero. But Turlough (albeit reluctantly) agrees to the Black Guardian’s request and spent the entirety of the Black Guardian trilogy feigning friendship with the Doctor and his companions Nyssa and Tegan, all the while trying to dispose of the Time Lord in various grizzly manners.
He never succeeded, of course, although it would have been interesting if had; presumably, the Black Guardian had a back-up plan for circumventing the Doctor’s ability to regenerate.
Admittedly, it’s a plot thread that doesn’t quite manage to maintain its momentum over 12 episodes, although it is fascinating to see the character arc that Turlough follows in this trilogy. Few Doctor Who companions had been afforded such character development prior to Turlough, and it is interesting to see him wrestling with his conscience as he grows increasingly uneasy with the notion of croaking his new friend.
Ultimately he sees the Black Guardian for who he is, and Turlough quickly becomes the hunted rather than the hunter as the Black Guardian tries to destroy him. But it’s not long before the truth of the situation is made clear to the Doctor, and his malicious enemy is apparently destroyed in the last episode of ‘Enlightenment.’
And even though this adventure wraps up the aforementioned Black Guardian trilogy (and thus the trying-to-murder-the-Doctor plot thread) this isn’t the end for Turlough’s character, who stays on as one of the official Doctor Who companions at the end of Season 20, with the Time Lord having forgiven him.
Of course, his character undergoes a change and becomes a bit softer as he settles into the TARDIS; after all, he is no longer pre-occupied with trying to murder the eponymous hero. But it’s fair to say that Turlough was one of the series’ ‘edgier’ Doctor Who companions, who was prone to unfiltered, straightforward talking and could certainly given Tegan (the self-proclaimed “mouth on legs”) a run for her money.
Indeed, the relationship between these Doctor Who companions is fun to watch. In the Black Guardian trilogy, Tegan is deeply suspicious of Turlough and isn’t overly happy about him joining the TARDIS crew. In fact, it’s not until the final story of Season 20 ‘The King’s Demons’ that they could really be considered friends, and even then they prove to be something of a fiery combination.
But as the series progressed, Turlough became a bit less less pro-active in the TARDIS team. In one amusing scene in ‘The Five Doctors,’ he is literally sent off to make the tea by the First Doctor. This came about at the request of Janet Fielding (who played Tegan) as the original script had stipulated that she should do it! Naturally, Turlough is none too pleased, but it does make for a humorous moment.
Unfortunately, like many of the Doctor Who companions before him, Turlough then developed a penchant for getting captured and in need of rescue. And in some ways, this is how Doctor Who should be; the main character is a hero, after all, and a hero’s job is to save the lives of others. Turlough couldn’t be so heroic that he overshadowed the series’ lead.
At the same time, there have been feistier Doctor Who companions who have managed this without stealing the show, particularly Leela who thought nothing of stabbing her enemies with janis thorns. At the same time, it must have been tricky for the writers to know exactly what to do with Turlough given that his main raison d’être was to murder the Doctor. After ‘Enlightenment’ he is, effectively, just another Doctor Who companion, and doesn’t really experience any further development.
That being said, the writers did finally explain his origins in ‘Planet of Fire‘ and gave him a worthy send-off. There is a lot going on in this adventure, but in many ways it belongs to Turlough. He encounters the survivors of a crashed spaceship on the mysterious volcanic world of Sarn, and these people transpire to be from his home planet of Trion. In fact, one of them is his brother Malkon.
And in order to save the survivors, Turlough repairs their radio equipment and summons a rescue ship – a heroic act by all accounts, as it turns out that he is a wanted criminal and will face the full force of Trion justice when the ship arrives. He was meant to be in exile on Earth, after all.
Thankfully, Turlough is spared this fate and bids an emotional farewell to the Doctor as he leaves with his brother to return to his home planet. And it is refreshing to see his more affectionate, delicate side in this adventure – certainly a far-cry from the rude, somewhat acid Turlough that viewers first met in ‘Mawdryn Undead.’ Plus of course he has decided to abandon the idea of murdering the main character, and if that doesn’t count as character development, what does?
In short, Turlough is undoubtedly one of the most complex and multi-faceted Doctor Who companions and the decision to introduce him in the show’s 20th anniversary season was a bold one. He was afforded a discernible character arc that few Doctor Who companions before him had seen, even if this development petered out as the series progressed.
But over to you, reader. What do you think of Vislor Turlough, and which is your favourite Turlough moment? Let me know in the comments below.