Doctor Who Series 15 Is Setting Up a Mel Bush Mystery

Who the heck is Melanie Bush? Doctor Who's next series might finally tell us.

Bonnie Langford
Photo: BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who episode “Empire of Death”

While ‘The Melanie Bush Mysteries’, in the form of a new novel written by Bonnie Langford, are now a Doctor Who spinoff in their own right, one is also brewing in the TV show. The in-episode commentary for “Empire of Death” hints at a big secret in the backstory of Langford’s character, the former companion and present-day UNIT employee Mel Bush.

In the series 14 finale, Mel is psychically targeted by Sutekh while she’s aboard the Remembered TARDIS. Sutekh whispers inside Mel’s head and boasts of being able to find the living through “time and space and family”. Watching the episode with Langford and producer Vicki Delow, that last word prompted showrunner Russell T Davies to say: “What’s that family line, then, Mel? That’s a big secret.”

Okay, so that′s not so much hinting as flat out telling us that Mel′s backstory is going to come into focus. The casual viewer could easily be forgiven for wondering what Mel′s backstory is. The thing is, so could long-term fans, because the origins of Melanie Bush are shrouded in mystery.

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How Did Mel Meet the Doctor?

We don′t know.

What Was Mel Doing Before She Met the Doctor?

We don′t know.

What Year Is Mel From?

We don′t know.

Why Don′t We Know Any of This?

Okay, so…

Mel first appeared in the ninth episode of serial The Trial of a Time Lord (1986), in which Colin Baker played the Sixth Doctor. This was the 23rd season of the show, and it consisted of one long storyline across 14 episodes. This was broken up into four segments, the first three of which were four episodes long and showed the Doctor′s adventures as evidence at his trial. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the court was shown evidence from the Doctor′s past, his present (well, extremely recent past), and future.

This is where Mel comes in, introduced in the Doctor′s defence segment during an adventure from his future. The Doctor is currently on trial for his life and therefore may not have a future if this defence fails (and – spoiler – it does. Useful tip for anyone defending themselves in court: don′t offer a defence that includes you committing genocide). This means we just meet Mel when she′s been travelling with the Doctor for a while and therefore don′t have the usual introductory context, but you′d expect that the show would return to this plot strand later and show the Doctor meeting Mel for the first time.

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About that.

″Leave the Girl, It′s the Man I Want.″

Constantinople. Coruscant. Rome. Colin Baker – all of them were sacked. When Doctor Who was renewed by the BBC for Season 24 it was on the condition that Baker was fired. Baker would later demonstrate his range and ability in the role for Big Finish audios, but in 1986 he was made a scapegoat. The Sixth Doctor regenerated in the first scene of Season 24, in the pre-credits sequence of Time and the Rani. This meant that Bonnie Langford would appear alongside a new Doctor, and we would not get to see her meeting the Sixth Doctor. 

With a new Script Editor in place who wanted to take the show in a different direction, the character of Mel – which, let′s face it, wasn′t exactly rigorously defined – was out of favour, and Langford saw out her contract without any character development, playing the role as the scripts demanded. Fandom wasn′t fond of the character, and not always able to dissociate the actor from the role. Bonnie Langford had been hired to play a computer programmer and fitness fanatic from Pease Pottage, who we never saw in Pease Pottage or doing computer programming, in the style of someone played by 1980s Bonnie Langford. Which, it has to be said, she did. So it seems unfair to criticise her for doing exactly what she was employed for.

Several writers (most notably Gary Russell and Craig Hinton) attempted to fill in Mel′s backstory across different spinoff media. These stories, written decades apart in some cases, contradict each other. Backstories include:

  • At the age of 18 months, Mel accidentally killed her two-year-old sister Anabel. Mel repressed the memory of the death, while her family decided to simply hide all the photos of Anabel and never mention it again.
  • After leaving school, Mel got a job in a nature reserve in Scotland and, after being attacked by an owl, mostly stayed in the office and discovered she had an affinity with computers.
  • Mel was kidnapped by Adam Mitchell, the short-lived companion from series one, who was working with the 1980s Master, before being rescued by the first eleven Doctors and a shape-shifting creature taking the form of a penguin.
  • While Mel and the Doctor visited the planet Oxyveguramosa, the Master kidnapped her and took her to the Doctor′s trial so she could give evidence (as seen in parts 13 – 14 of The Trial of a Time Lord) whereupon the past version of the Doctor (from Mel′s perspective) returned Mel to Pease Pottage so the version of the Doctor on Oxyveguramosa could collect her, and then another version of Mel and a third version of the Doctor turn and – look just listen to The Wrong Doctors if you′re not following this, okay?

Whereas on TV, Mel left the Doctor in 1987 at the end of Dragonfire, to go off on adventures with the intergalactic conman Sabalom Glitz. Because why not. She then returned for a cameo in The Power of the Doctor, and then in 2023′s The Giggle she confirmed how she′d returned to Earth and that she was an orphan with no connections.

Orphan 56

Mel said she was orphaned, but Davies′ comment about her family line being a big secret suggests we′re going to find out who her parents were (and if they pointed dramatically at anything significant). Potentially, we′re going to get three Doctor Who series in a row where a character meets their long-lost mother figure

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Why Mel, you might ask, especially if she wasn′t the best-written character in the first place?

Mel is a logical choice here is because she’s almost a blank slate. You can create a backstory from scratch. (Also, Bonnie Langford is still a well-known actress who works regularly in theatre and on TV, and, between her, Anita Dobson, Susan Twist, Michelle Greenridge, Angela Wynter and Dame Siân Phillips, Russell T Davies appears to be righting the ageist wrongs explored in his ITV drama Nolly by writing decent roles for women over the age of 50.) 

So, expect the speculation to commence. Get on board the wipe-clean hype train. Season two will be the biggest mystery, the most dangerous foe, and all the usual razzmatazz, but also we might find ourselves asking: is Mel actually Susan? Does that mean Mel and Susan will host the UNIT version of Bake Off? Is Mel the Doctor′s daughter? Or the Timeless Child′s twin? WAS SHE THE RANI ALL ALONG?

No. Obviously. 

But maybe we′ll get an answer to a thirty-eight year old question: who the heck is Melanie Bush?

Doctor Who series 14 is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer and Disney+.

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