R.I.P. Caroline John, Doctor Who's Liz Shaw

R.I.P. Caroline John, Doctor Who's Liz Shaw

British actress Caroline John, best known for playing scientist Liz Shaw during Doctor Who’s seventh season in 1970, died June 5 at age 71. Her death was reported by the BBC, after her funeral was held yesterday. The cause of death was not made public.

The daughter of an actor and a dancer, John trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama before joining Sir Laurence Olivier's National Theatre in the 1960s, where she played Ophelia in the professional debut of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. She joined Doctor Who—alongside Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor—in “Spearhead From Space,” at a time when the show was seeking to reinvent itself as a more serious sci-fi adventure program that confronted its hero with contemporary social and political problems as often as it did alien invasions. Liz Shaw was a reflection of that, being consciously conceived as more than merely an assistant to the main hero but a smart and capable professional in her own right, and someone who could stand up to the frequently petulant Doctor and tell him when he was wrong. Though Shaw was not the first strong female character on the series, John’s grounded, sympathetic portrayal helped push the boundaries for women in science fiction and TV drama, and she was an important precursor to the likes of The X-Files' Dana Scully and Fringe's Olivia Dunham. (It’s almost certainly deliberate homage that Noomi Rapace’s Prometheus character is also named Elizabeth Shaw.)

John left Doctor Who after only one year, due to a combination of her pregnancy and the producers’ desire to return to more traditional companions. Afterwards, she worked frequently on the stage while also appearing on television programs like Agatha Christie's Poirot, The House Of Elliott, and (with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker) 1982’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles. She also had a non-speaking cameo in the 2003 film Love Actually. John eventually returned to the role of Liz Shaw in the 1990s, both in the obscure direct-to-video Doctor Who spinoff P.R.O.B.E. and later in audio dramas produced by Big Finish, recording her final appearance as the character this past January. She’s survived by three children and her husband Geoffrey Beevers—another Doctor Who vet who played the Doctor’s rival The Master in the 1981 episode “The Keeper Of Traken,” and had a smaller role as a UNIT soldier opposite his wife in 1970’s “The Ambassadors Of Death.” 

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