Flashback Friday: THE DOCTOR's Companions Through the Ages

My Friend the Doctor

I'm taking a ride

With my best friend

I hope he never lets me down again

He knows where he's taking me

Taking me where I want to be

I'm taking a ride

With my best friend

"Never Let Me Down Again", Depeche Mode

There's been eleven people playing the title character on Doctor Who; more if you count the films, the stage plays and the varied parody and tribute shows.  But almost forgotten in the conversation are the nearly five times as many actors who have played companions of the Doctor, a role as hard to play as the lead.  The role of the companion has changed over the decades, as did the way they interacted with The Doctor. 

In fiction in general, the primary purpose of the Companion is to serve as a surrogate for the viewer.  They're someone The Doctor can explain things to (or promise that he'll "explain later") so the audience can learn what's going on.  More than that, they give the hero someone to talk to and on occasion fight alongside...or with.  Holmes and Watson, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves; literature is filled with heroes and their confidants. Sometimes the relationship is more of equal partners, both capable of action, and sometimes the companion is a glorified damsel in distress (regardless of gender) serving only to provide drama by getting kidnapped and tied to things.  Doctor Who has had its array of both, and we'll be looking at the most notable examples of them here.

They serve, or served, a second purpose in the earlier years of Doctor Who. When William Hartnell started the show, he was no spring chicken.  The companions were included to take the physical scenes off Hartnell's shoulders - they could do the running and jumping that he couldn't.  That role has diminished over the years as the actors grew younger.  It was true for Troughton to a degree, but he was more spry, so he could do "quite a lot of running" as Jenny would put it years later. Indeed, his catchphrase, "When I say 'Run,' run!" was a sign of the more active role The Doctor took in the proceedings.  Jon Pertwee was quite a physical actor and so the need for a male companion went away entirely. Harry Sullivan went with the Tom Baker Doctor for a couple of adventures mainly because they didn't know how much physical activity Tom would be able to do, or more correctly would want to do. Once it was clear Tom could handle it, Harry was shuffled home. 

Susan Foreman, The Doctor's Granddaughter, was his first on-screen companion, the show's first mystery, and to this day one of its greatest mysteries.  Is she really his granddaughter?  How did they meet if she wasn't?  In that first episode The Unearthly Child The Doctor clearly states that they are both aliens, and they both come from Gallifrey (tho the planet is not explicitly named).  But there's every possibility he's lying, not out of malice but in the way an adoptive parent might choose not to reveal their child's origins until the right time, if ever.  With recent plot points about the Doctor having a cloned "daughter", and very possibly a wife in River Song, the possibility of an actual familial attachment becomes more possible.  There's been many expansions of her history in the novels and radio plays, but I follow the rule of Star Trek and Star Wars continuity; if it didn't happen on-screen, its veracity and canonicity is suspect.

She's also the first companion to leave.  The Doctor locked her out of the TARDIS at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth when she couldn't decide to keep "taking care of" the Doctor or stay with her newfound love.  Even before the first regeneration, it was a sign that the show could and would survive changes to the cast.  People could come and go, bringing new life to the stories by seeing the adventures through new perspectives.

Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton entered the TARDIS in that first episode almost entirely as the eyes and ears of the viewer.  They saw everything for the first time, just as we did, and had The Doctor's origins explained to them.  They started as scared as rabbits, but eventually got quite good at fending for themselves, saving The Doctor's bacon a few times.  They really set the standard for companions as the show went on, right down to being returned to Earth juuuust a little off target from where (or when) they left.

"You're worse than a broken clock - at least it's right twice a day!" -- Tegan Jovanka

As time passed, The Doctor picked up more companions who were able to spar with him on more equal footing.  Zoe Herriot was a polymath and astrophysicist who could and did show up the Doctor on occasion.  She was also the first of The Doctor's companions to be absolutely adorable.  Only 21 when she took the role, Wendy Padbury was regularly costumed in hotpants and skintight catsuits, and they seemed to go out of the way to pose her in ways that featured her glorious hindquarters.

When Jon Pertwee took the role, he was teamed up with Caroline John who played scientist Liz Shaw.  With several degrees in physics, Liz understood most of what The Doctor was talking about, and could grasp at the rest without needing a chair to stand on. She was the first companion who not only questioned The Doctor, but outright bickered with him.  Alas, the producers thought that was a detriment to the show - again, they saw the role of the companion as someone to ask the questions the viewers had. Caroline's contract was not renewed; she was pregnant at the time, to be fair, so it's quite possible she wouldn't have been able to continue with the show even if they had decided to keep her on.  Liz never even got a farewell episode; she resigns from her position off-camera in between adventures.  She got one last zetz in as she left, though; when she tendered her resignation to UNIT, she told The Brigadier that "all the Doctor really needs is someone to hand him test-tubes and tell him how brilliant he is".  She was quickly replaced by Jo Grant, who filled that role perfectly.

Sarah Jane Smith, widely considered the queen of the companions, was a journalist, and had a tenacity that would put Lois Lane to shame.  While most of the past companions had a "follower" vibe to them, Sarah Jane stood shoulder to shoulder with The Doctor, more comrades than teacher and student. 

Romanadvoratneludnar (Romana for short) actually got to be two types of companions.  In her first incarnation (played by Mary Tamm) she almost looked down on The Doctor, finding his manner annoying and his dress code outrageous.  When she regenerated (and was played by Lalla Ward) she calmed down a great deal, and became more of a mate of the Doctor's

"You're not matin' with ME, spaceman!" -- Donna Noble

In the new series, the female companions have all been self assured and independent.  Indeed, in a wry  bit of role-shifting, it's been the male companions who have been the weeping worriers, finding themselves at a loss for what they're seeing.  Mickey Smith realizes he's "the tin dog" in School Reunion and Rory Williams spends much of his time desperately trying to pull Amy Pond away from the monsters in his first (coming soon) adventure, The Vampires of Venice. And of course, they all pale (don't we all?) before Captain Jack Harkness, a man who give new and hilarious meaning to the word "cocksure".

He's made the odd mistake as well.  Turlough was actually a human Trojan Horse, instructed by the Black Guardian to become a friend of the Doctor so that he could kill the Time Lord.  It all worked out in the end, but it showed that even The Doctor could be wrong about people.  Ironically, his next male companion, Adam Mitchell, was his next mistake.  Taken into the far future, Adam has massive amounts of data downloaded into his head for the purpose of taking advantage of the information when he eventually returns to his own time.  While the Doctor was quite compassionate about Turlough's choices, he's positively vicious to Adam.  Likely this is because Adam simply didn't see any problem with his choice, and The Doctor has never liked being take advantage of.

With exception like the android Kamelion and the indefatigable K-9, the Doctor's companions have largely been human, tho not always Earthlings. In addition to aliens like Romana and Turlough, Nyssa was from the planet Traken, and maths award-winner Adric was from a whole other universe, the mysterious "E-space".  The reason for this is obvious - makeup costs money, so it's simply easier to make aliens look human.  Kamelion's requisite special effects were so expensive his time in the TARDIS were brought to a halt quite quickly.  Similarly, while most were from their planet's version of "modern day" or later, he's had a few friends who went through even greater culture shock than the rest.  Jamie McCrimmon was from 1746 and fellow companion Victoria Waterfield was from 1866.  Leela was a sort of odd situation.  She was from the future, a member of a starfaring race, but after a ship of Survey Team 7 crashed on a distant planet, its crewmembers eventually regressed to state of iron-age savagery.  Rarely able to process the fantastic things she was seeing, she even felt out of place in a Victorian London music hall.  Since the role of the companion is to serve as a viewport for the audience, it makes sense for them to be as similar to the audience as possible. A fan can more identify with a person from Council housing than they can a member of the Victorian aristocracy.

If we were to include all the companions The Doctor has had in the comics, novels and radio plays, this analysis would be far longer.  The shapeshifting alien Frobisher, would be pharaoh Erimemushinteperem and Paul Cornell's spectacular creation Bernice Surprise Summerfield all deserve their own chance to shine, but there's only so much space on the Internet.  If you've not yet enjoyed the other media The Doctor has appeared in, you have the opportunity of using the cliche "tip of the iceberg" in your everyday life.

The Doctor needs a companion, someone to talk to, both as a person in the narrative and as a character in a story.  Until the new series, there was only one episode where The Doctor traveled alone, the classic The Deadly Assassin. Tom Baker complained to the producers that he didn't need someone to work off, and the episode was written to see how true that was.  It was a very wearying episode to play, and Tom was happy to share the load again starting with the next episode.

In the new series, The Doctor spends an episode in Midnight, and as soon as he finds himself alone, he immediately starts chatting up the people in the tour ship.  He does the same with Lady deSouza on a London bus in Planet of the Dead.  He's a gregarious person; even in the current season he commented that when he started traveling alone he started talking to himself.  Like so many people, he needs an audience.  It's the mix of characters that make a great relationship in fiction.  It's only fair that in a show where the main character can change, he'd have a varied list of friends who made his adventure all the more exciting.

My friend the Doctor says the world is full of fantasy

and who are I to disagree?

Let's hope and pray that that is the way

the life he loves will always be

for my friend the Doctor and me!

"My friend the Doctor", Anthony Newley



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