Flights of the Dodo – Why Dorothea Chaplet deserves your respect

Dodo (1)

Image Credit: Adapted from John Cummings (CC BY-SA 3.0Wikimedia Commons)

Image Description: A taxidermied Dodo bird

By John Salway

Following the sad death of Jackie Lane in June 2021, I’ve been taking a look back at her time in Doctor Who as young companion Dorothea “Dodo” Chaplet. Introduced and written out within the same season, and with some of her episodes wiped from the BBC Archive, it’s understandable that Dodo Chaplet is one of the least well-known Doctor Who companions. That said, Dodo has always been a particular favourite of mine – in part, because I like to support an underdog, but mostly for the energetic and charmingly sincere portrayal she is given by Lane. By looking back at the character and some of her best moments, I hope I can show that despite some unfortunate decisions behind the scenes, Dodo is a companion worthy of your time and love.

Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception about Dodo – she is often joked about as the companion with the changing accents. This is, to an extent, true, as her apparently northern (or cockney) accent is changed, by order of the BBC, to a standard received pronunciation between her first two episodes. It is obviously highly disappointing, and sad, that something as minor as a regional accent was still considered too much for TV viewers of the time to handle. But as we only hear her original accent for about five minutes, this totally unnecessary change can be forgotten fairly quickly. It shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the other elements of the character, particularly as Dodo’s arrival marks a significant change in tone for the program.

Dodo’s introduction at the end of The Massacre comes at a key dramatic moment as both the Doctor and Steven reach their lowest ebb. Steven has left the TARDIS, feeling tremendous guilt and anger at the Doctor over leaving French peasant Anne Chaplet to a near-certain death in the titular massacre. Left alone in his ship, meanwhile, The Doctor ponders over the friends who have departed, leaving him a lonely old man unable to go home and who misses his granddaughter dreadfully. Dodo’s sudden entry into the TARDIS provides hope to both lost men. To Steven, who has returned to warn the Doctor about an approaching policeman, her existence provides (flimsy, but accepted) evidence that Anne Chaplet did, in fact, survive. To the Doctor, she is another, after Vicki, to slip into the role of surrogate grand-daughter, even remarking to Steven how much Dodo looks like his beloved Susan.

These scenes represent an important point in Season Three – a return to happier times and business as usual. From the sudden departure of Vicki at the end of The Myth Makers, through the epic adventure of The Daleks’ Master Plan where three travelling companions are killed, to the serious, deathly tone of The Massacre itself, there has been no stability and little fun in recent months. Dodo’s arrival heralds a return to the series’ standard format of entertaining adventures in time and space. She is almost comically without emotional baggage – she’s an orphan, and lives with a Great Aunt “who won’t care if she ever sees [her] again” so is absolutely fine with being whisked away in time and space. Steven cautions that she “may never get home again” and her response is an enthusiastic, “I don’t care!” It may seem shallow, but it’s exactly what the show needs at the time – an adventurous new female lead for the show, who bounces well off of both the Doctor and Steven, and most importantly, who is going to enjoy her travels.

Dodo’s sparky nature is demonstrated well in her first proper adventure, The Ark. She immediately feels at home rummaging through the TARDIS for clothes, choosing a striking medieval page outfit, and is comfortable enough to bicker with her fellow travellers about where she thinks they’ve arrived. She’s certainly not credulous, doubting the TARDIS’ nature as a time machine and at one point interrogating a hapless Monoid with unexpected intensity. “What do you mean? Are you up to something?” she questions suspiciously, “But you gave yourself away, didn’t you!” she then declares, with a fire in her belly. It is almost enough to make you feel sorry for the poor fellow, and shows that despite her unassuming appearance, Dodo is no pushover.

Subsequently, in The Celestial Toymaker, we get to see Steven and Dodo working well as a team, winning the Toymaker’s deadly games while the Doctor is held elsewhere. Dodo’s compassion shines throughout as she interacts with the opposing teams the Toymaker sends against them. This is presented as both a blessing and a curse – her good-natured flattery works to keep Sergeant Rugg pleasant and helpful, but her naive nature allows her to be frequently tricked by the selfish schoolchild Cyril. With Dodo and Steven spending all four episodes together, this story develops a genial, lightly teasing bond between the pair.

The pair are initially ecstatic to arrive in the Wild West for Dodo’s only historical adventure, The Gunfighters, where she spends much of the adventure away from her companions. During this time, she displays great courage in two key moments with Doc Holliday, the famous gunfighter. Firstly, she holds him up with a pistol while demanding to be taken back to her friends. Though unsure what she’s doing, and clearly uneasy to be holding a gun, she holds firm to her demands while maintaining comic British politeness. When he promises to return her to Tombstone, she immediately drops the pistol with visible relief, sighing “Thank goodness for that!” Later, she bravely runs into danger to warn Doc Holliday about his enemy, Johnny Ringo, sneaking up behind him. Though she is taken hostage for her trouble, she turns things around when she breaks free of Ringo’s grip, leaving him open to a shot from Holliday. It goes to show that even in a western, she’s more than a damsel in distress.

The next serial, The Savages, is probably her best showing, as early episodes see her take the lead in discovering the terrible secret of the futuristic city the TARDIS crew have arrived at. “I hate conducted tours,” she declares, before sneaking off from her assigned chaperones, suspicious of their apparent utopia, and finding herself in a sinister laboratory. When she’s discovered, she thinks quickly, getting away with a threat to smash the valuable equipment if she is advanced upon. Upon learning the truth of the city, she is immediately sympathetic to the savages’ plight and determined to help them against their exploiters, despite danger to herself. At the climax of the adventure, she joins the Doctor, Steven and their new friends, in gleefully destroying the wicked laboratory for good. Afterwards, she is left in tears when Steven chooses to stay behind on the planet, demonstrating how close the pair have become. This adventure well demonstrates the simple bravery and compassion that have come to define Dodo.

The War Machines is Dodo’s final story, although you wouldn’t be able to guess her imminent departure as she strides through 60s London streets arm-in-arm with the Doctor, seeming as close as they have ever been, during the first episode. Perhaps that’s why the lazy and impersonal way she is written out stings so harshly. By the end of Part One, Dodo has been brainwashed by the evil computer WOTAN. In the next instalment, her last appearance, the Doctor breaks the conditioning and sends her off to the countryside to recuperate for 48 hours. There are no meaningful final words here between the Doctor and Dodo before she is bundled offscreen, and it seems like a temporary separation – we expect to see Dodo return by the serial’s end, especially as it was quite common for main cast members to take such short breaks to accommodate holidays. 

But in the story’s final moments, new companions Polly and Ben deliver a short, impersonal message from Dodo that she has chosen to stay behind in London – and in a moment that pierces my heart, the Doctor disappointedly calls her an “ungrateful child”. This scene is wrong in so many ways. Firstly, it doesn’t seem to fit with what we know of Dodo. She is a kind, cheerful girl who has grown close to the Doctor, so it seems bizarre she would leave without saying goodbye. In addition, we’re given no particular reason why she would choose to stay behind – we have heard of no friends or family she needs to see, or anything she wants to do back in her time. Remember her cavalier “I don’t care,” when initially told she may never get home!

But what seems most cruel about the departure is that it puts the blame on Dodo. By calling Dodo “ungrateful”, the show itself acknowledges that this isn’t a satisfactory goodbye, that she owes the Doctor more than that, and so her relationship with the Doctor is undermined. It’s a disappointing moment that casts a pall over her tenure in the TARDIS. Certainly, Dodo deserved better. And so I have to ask, based on what we know about Dodo, whether the message conveyed by Polly and Ben is genuine. They have not received it from Dodo herself but instead from senior civil servant Sir Charles Summer, whose wife was asked to look after Dodo during her recuperation. Is it possible, then, that a false message has been passed to the Doctor? Might someone have a reason to keep Dodo and the Doctor separated? One can only speculate…

Despite this inadequate end to her adventures, Dodo should still be remembered for her cheery contribution to Doctor Who at a time when the program was going through many changes both on and off-screen. Her simple, friendly nature and habit for getting into trouble, make her the archetypal 60s companion – and though she may not be remarkable, Jackie Lane’s charming performance helps to make her unforgettable. 

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