It is a strange feeling, learning that someone you grew up watching on television has passed away. Such is the case with Doctor Who, which I have avidly followed since I was eight years old. Recently, several past regular actors from the show have died, namely Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, and Caroline John. Unfortunately, a fourth name has now joined that list: Mary Tamm, the actress who portrayed Romana during the Sixteenth Season of Doctor Who, passed away on July 26th after a year and a half long battle with cancer. Tamm was 62 years old, too young an age by my estimation.
Prior to her involvement with Doctor Who, Tamm appeared in the 1973 film adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel The Odessa File. In 1977, she was approached by Doctor Who producer Graham Williams to play Romana, a female Time Lord who would embark with the Doctor, then portrayed by Tom Baker, on a season-long quest to locate the six segments of a cosmic artifact known as the Key to Time. Tamm was drawn to the part by the promise that Romana would be the Doctor’s equal, independent and intelligent.
Romana was certainly a distinctive figure. Brimming with knowledge and confidence, she was a posh, sophisticated woman with an incredible sense of fashion. During her season on the show, she sported a series of stylish ensembles, carrying herself with elegant dignity.
In addition to her undeniable air of cultivation, Romana was also actually more intelligent than the Doctor himself. However, being much younger than him, and having just come from a sheltered existence on the Time Lord world of Gallifrey, it could be argued she was naïve as to the actual dangers of the real world. One of the aspects of her relationship with the Doctor would be her university education versus his “street smart” knowledge of the universe gained from centuries of travels. I found this to be interesting source of both drama and humor. However, this dimension of their characters’ interchange would actually contribute towards Tamm’s decision to depart from the show.
By the end of the Sixteenth Season, Tamm felt she had taken the character of Romana as far as she could. In a 1991 interview with Doctor Who Magazine, she explained “I realized that I was never going to be on a level with the Doctor intellectually and the fact that Romana was a Time Lord graduate didn’t help her. She had all the text book knowledge but none of the Doctor’s experience and application.” She added “I felt the role wasn’t stretching me enough as an actress and therefore I was not prepared to tag along with Tom Baker for another nine months just feeding him lines.”
Tamm was “instrumental” in convincing the powers-that-be to hire actress Lala Ward as her replacement on Doctor Who. At the start of the next season Romana regenerated into her new form, although Tamm was unfortunately not on hand to film the transition.
After her time on Doctor Who, Tamm went on to a long & successful career in British television. In recent years she returned to the world of Doctor Who, performing in several of the Companion Chronicles releases from Big Finish. Earlier this year, she was reunited with Tom Baker for a series of full cast audio plays set between her final television story, “The Armageddon Factor,” and her regeneration, in effect a Season 16.5, so to speak. These are scheduled to be released by Big Finish in early 2013.
One of my favorite Tom Baker serials is from the Key to Time season, namely “The Pirate Planet” which was written by Douglas Adams shortly before he found fame as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “The Pirate Planet” may not have been the strongest story in terms of its treatment of Romana that season, or in spotlighting Tamm’s acting abilities (that would undoubtedly be the also-excellent “The Androids of Tara” by David Fisher) but it’s a marvelous adventure. Among its strengths is the interplay between Tamm and Baker. I’m looking forward to re-watching that story again soon.
Despite her short time on Doctor Who, Mary Tamm made an indelible impression on the show. Even though she was not able to stretch the boundaries of the role of the Doctor’s assistant as far as she had hoped or wanted, I think she was certainly one of the actresses who helped to lay the groundwork for more assertive, independent companions to appear on the show in the future.