Alison the beloved – Scream of the Shalka and representation

Image Credit: PictureCapital (CC BY 2.0Flickr)

Image Description: The Shalka Doctor

By Elizabeth A. Allen

What if things were different? Doctor Who loves to explore how a single, seemingly insignificant person or even a single act can have ramifications radically altering the entire universe. In the same spirit, let’s examine an alternative timeline, but with our imaginations, rather than a TARDIS. Our question is this: How would NuWho change if Alison Cheney were the Ninth Doctor’s inaugural companion?

Wait… Alison who? Alison Cheney is a Black British woman first appearing in The Scream of the Shalka (SotS), the 2003 web-based animated series created for Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary. Voiced by Sophie Okonedo, Alison, who’s in her early twenties, is a former history student who now tends bar in the flyspeck town of Lannet in Lancashire. She’s bored out of her skull and struggling with an invasion of screaming alien lava snakes called the Shalka. 

Enter the Ninth Doctor, voiced by Richard E. Grant, who is still depressed over the death of a previous female companion. He travels in his TARDIS with his ex-enemy, and current househusband, the Master — voiced by a pre-Utopia 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. 

However, aside from a short story, The Feast of the Stone, Alison and co. never go on to those promised adventures. Before Alison and her Time Lord entourage really got the chance to soar, Doctor Who was rebooted for TV in 2005. With Christopher Eccleston established as the ‘canonical’ Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose, his first companion, the Shalka trio were relegated to canon limbo and largely forgotten.

But what if the ‘Shalkaverse’ were canon? How might the show be different? Namely, with Alison as a role model, how could NuWho have treated its Black companions, particularly Black women?

To appreciate what might have been, we first need to establish the status quo: NuWho’s current characterisation of Black companions. NuWho’s Black companions, especially the women, are treated as more disposable and unimportant than the White characters. Think of Martha, who suffers the Simm Master’s mockery and his enforced servitude of her family in Series Three’s The Sound of Drums. Or think of Bill, who endures a decade of slow Cyber-conversion in Series Ten’s World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. In a world where Black women have been, and still often are, regarded as expendable victims, it’s painful and demoralizing to see Black women of the Whoniverse suffer similar fates.

By contrast, Alison holds a special position in the Shalkaverse: that of the Doctor’s beloved. She is, as a result, central to the story, essential to the Doctor’s happiness, and a vital actor in the narrative. As the Master admits to her toward the end of SotS:

“Loath as I am to admit it, you offer [the Doctor] a companionship that I do not, one that he has not allowed himself for a long time.” 

We find out from various indirect references that this “companionship” refers to the Doctor’s love for a previous female companion who died. In other words, SotS positions Alison as the Doctor’s new love interest. She’s his potential romantic partner. The BBC’s placement of Alison as the Black beloved of the White Doctor is highly unusual to say the least.

As the Doctor’s beloved, Alison is protected from the suffering that other Black companions experience because the narrative must keep her safe. SotS presents itself as a happy story in which the Doctor learns to love again. As a hopeful tale that was intended to introduce an open-ended series of adventures, SotS arranges the Doctor and Alison as a potential match, leading the audience to expect their eventual partnership. Their union may be temporarily endangered, but it will never be derailed by a Cyber-conversion or death because that would kill the major romantic plot. Alison’s pivotal role in SotS gives her immunity from fates like this.

The Shalka Doctor himself keeps Alison safe by being attentive and sensitive to her needs, shielding his beloved from harm in ways large and small. He sacrifices himself for her, as when he offers himself to the Shalka to save Alison from their torture. He protects her from even minor threats, as when he strategically pops up to prevent the Master from testing out his mind control powers. He prioritizes Alison’s happiness over his own, as when he says goodbye to her, assuming (mistakenly) 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. 

The Doctor’s love and protection attenuate the harm that Alison undergoes, especially compared to that of other Black female companions. Both Alison and Bill, for example, suffer disturbing violations of bodily autonomy. In Alison’s case, a Shalka larva burrows inside her head and takes control of her body. In Bill’s case, she is non-consensually Cyber-converted. In SotS, the Doctor quickly removes the larva from Alison, reversing the invasion. 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. As for Bill, her Cyber-conversion is dragged out across ten agonising years, with  limited positive effect on the story. Compared to Bill, 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 NuWho Black women.

So what would Doctor Who have been like if Alison had been the rebooted show’s first companion? She would have had a role much like Rose has in the canonical Ninth Doctor’s life — foremost in the Doctor’s hearts, idealised, adored, and protected at all costs. She would have been the standard by which all future companions would be measured. A blue-collar Black woman would have been the show’s representative of humanity and the most important human in the Whoniverse. That’s powerful stuff. 

Alison could have offered a different template for the relationship between future Doctors and Black characters. With her bravery, competence, and leadership skills, she exhibits heroism, and, with the Shalka Doctor’s aid, never has to bear her trials alone. Furthermore, while she is also vulnerable, the Shalka Doctor’s respectful concern keeps her from the horrors that other Black companions experience. I like to think that Alison’s precedent could have influenced writers to create happier stories, with less victimisation and pain, for Mickey, Martha, Danny, Bill, Grace, as well as for all the Black characters yet to come. 

Tides 47 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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