Vicki, who never even got a surname on screen despite appearing in 38 episodes of Doctor Who, is an underrated companion. Indeed, Maureen O’Brien’s character is significant as the template for the young female lead in the show going forward. She has a strong bond with William Hartnell’s Doctor, who provides a father-figure for her, and is smart, confident and funny in her own right (you can see echoes of these in a lot of companions, especially Jo, Ace and Series 1 Rose).
Appearing in only nine stories, Vicki’s final story has no surviving footage (though the audio exists) and two more of her stories are only partially complete. Only one of her stories was in the top half of the Doctor Who Magazine 50th anniversary poll, and a few of them are in the lower reaches of the rankings. Her only Dalek story is ‘The Chase’, which is one of the less well thought of. So perhaps there are reasons she’s not often cited in the list of influential characters or popular companions. Here’s why she deserves to be.
Designed as a Companion
Vicki is the first companion who joins as A Companion – the concept of the Companion was developed as the series went along, with Ian and Barbara initially kidnapped and Susan already present as the Doctor’s granddaughter. However, actress Carole Ann Ford was unhappy with Susan’s lack of development. She’d reportedly made her own suggestions, and these had been turned down, and the character was very much still a peril monkey: there to get into trouble and not do a lot else. Meanwhile Producer Verity Lambert and Script Editor David Whitaker had considered getting rid of Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara before Ford asked to be released from her contract.
There were a lot of variables in play. The plan was to replace Susan with another young character, and Terry Nation was writing a young Indian rebel for his script ‘The Invaders’ (which would ultimately become known as ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’). This character eventually turned into Jenny (initially Ann Franklin was cast with a view to being in 19 episodes, but Ann Davies eventually played the character on screen), but the decision to make her a companion was changed due to the other regular cast being unhappy with their contracts and the future of the show being in flux (the decision to grant Lambert another 13 episodes after ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ came late in the day).
And so Vicki was created for the following story, ‘The Rescue’, although at times she was called ‘Tanni’ and ‘Lukki’. An orphan from the 25th Century, stranded on a planet called Dido in a crashed spaceship with only one other survivor, her father killed, Vicki is understandably desperate to leave.
‘Why Don’t You Just Get Carole Ann Ford Back?’
Maureen O’Brien won the role fresh out of drama school, and quickly found a rapport with lead actor William Hartnell. On set, O’Brien was forthright in her views. Sydney Newman, the co-creator of the show, asked her to cut her hair short and dye it black, to which O’Brien reportedly responded ‘Why don’t you just get Carole Ann Ford back?’
One reason for Vicki’s short run of stories is because new Producer John Wiles was said to have been annoyed by O’Brien complaining about her dialogue during ‘Galaxy 4’, and so Wiles let her go at the end of her contract (both Peter Purves and William Hartnell were also unhappy with that story, with Purves’ character Steven given material intended for the now-departed Barbara, and Wiles threatening to fire Hartnell). O’Brien only found this out when, after the regulars weren’t in ‘Mission to the Unknown’, she came back from holiday and discovered the next story would be her last. Overall O’Brien actress was reported to have had a mixed time on the show, having a lot of fun with the other actors but leaving on a very sour note.
It’s such a shame, because O’Brien’s personality shines through as Vicki. This is a character who, like Susan, is young and able to regularly wander into dangerous situations, but Vicki benefits from coming into the show with the Doctor, Ian and Barbara already established. There was less competition for space, but also the scripts and the actor emphasise Vicki’s positivity, her energy and intelligence. Vicki is childlike, but this comes out as enthusiasm rather than mere naivety, and when she is shown to be naïve it’s because she’s from the future and so only knows about things like the Daleks and the Beatles as parts of human history. This also means that she knows more than Ian and Barbara on occasion. She’s also utterly loyal to the Doctor, and shares his sense of restlessness.
Stories Happen to Susan. Vicki Happens to Stories.
Take ‘The Rescue’. In her debut Vicki is trapped, but she is trying incredibly hard to stay optimistic. She’s made friends with one of the local animals. This is a case of Vicki being stuck somewhere but trying hard to break out. You’ll see her break out of potential traps in ‘The Space Museum’ – where there’s a telling line where she says this museum has ‘no men about telling you not to touch things’. When Ian and Barbara argue, she takes charge. Soon after meeting the ineffectual Xeron rebels, she’s persuading them to start fighting, and then actually follows through on this and takes great delight in telling the security systems that she’s there to instigate revolution. Her sense of injustice leads her to swap poisoned cups around in ‘The Romans’, and then break this to the Doctor by casually mentioning ‘Oh, something else I forgot to tell you. I think I’ve poisoned Nero.’
Susan simply would not have done any of this.
To be clear, this is a failure of the writing more than anything on Carole Ann Ford’s part. Essentially Susan didn’t get established as a character in the same way, partly because she was one of four new characters compared to Vicki being only one. Vicki feels like the writers have learned from the mistakes they made when writing the Doctor’s granddaughter. Stories happen to Susan. Vicki happens to stories.
Yet they both share a childish streak (Vicki names the robots Chumblies in ‘Galaxy 4’ because they’ve ‘got a sort of chumbley movement’). Though both actors were in their early 20s, they played up the childish sides of their characters, Vicki being more enthusiastic and reckless and Susan being more insular and wary. Once Ian and Barbara – Susan’s schoolteachers – left, Vicki and new companion Steven had an enjoyably sarcastic sibling relationship, with Vicki often outsmarting and out-quipping her more serious older brother figure (in ‘The Myth Makers’ when Steven’s attempted rescue fails and she points out that he shouldn’t have assumed she’d be in trouble).
A Compromised Exit and a Welcome Return
If you took Vicki as written and performed and put her in a new series she would not feel out of place. The only difference is the emotional range the show deploys has expanded. Steven’s debut ‘The Time Meddler’ is a good illustration – Vicki absolutely has the Doctor’s back, is indignant at Steven’s scepticism about the TARDIS, works out the Monk’s double bluff, and is immediately bored of being captured by the locals (‘Are you going to stand here arguing all day?’). In ‘The Crusade’ she’s interrogated by the Earl of Leicester and from there works out that he’s been spilling court secrets.
What’s disappointing about Vicki’s departure then, is that it’s a case of the story happening to her. This was not writer Donald Cotton’s original intention for ‘The Myth Makers’. His original version was reported to be a riff on Troilus and Cressida, with Vicki being named Cressida by Priam and falling for Troilus. Steven posed as a Greek soldier named Diomede and Vicki would have left in the TARDIS with him at the story’s end, roughly matching the Troilus and Cressida story of myth. However, with John Wiles insisting Maureen O’Brien should leave, Vicki was written out as falling in love with and escaping with Troilus, which does work to an extent with the character’s naivete and mirrors her arrival (trapped, but facing it with hope), but it’s definitely a compromised exit for a character who deserved better.
So, Vicki left because Maureen O’Brien spoke her mind. The very qualities that made her character stand out lead to her being removed from the show. No wonder O’Brien was angry. This short-sighted and petty decision feels even sillier considering Vicki’s replacement was killed off after a few episodes because it had been decided she wouldn’t work. At least Vicki didn’t meet the same fate.
In later years, after a successful career as a novelist, O’Brien has returned to Doctor Who in a variety of roles for Big Finish, and as an audiobook narrator. With the recent announcement of the Season 2 Blu-Ray boxset she reprised the role of Vicki for the above trailer, a sweet reminiscence of times gone by, written with the optimism and heart that Vicki brought to the show.