Awhile ago, I started watching Doctor Who (the new series) from the beginning. Again. I do this every few years, especially when a new season starts and it’s been a minute since I’ve seen it and I worry that I’ve forgotten details. When Jodie Whitaker’s turn as the Doctor began, BBC America aired almost the entire back catalog of Doctor Who episodes from 2005-2019, and I used up most of the space on my roommate’s DVR to record them, and I’ve been working my way through them ever since.
A lot of Doctor Who fandom (me included) gets wrapped up in discourse about the Doctor. This is the obvious thing to do, it being his show and all. It’s easy to have conversations about the Doctor, away from the screen. But when I’m actually watching, I’m completely taken in by the Companions. In the original series (at least into the 1970s; I haven’t seen any stuff from the 1980s yet), the Companions were often just assistants, people for the Doctor to talk to. And they were inconsistent, changing around based on whatever the plot needed that week. But today, it may be the Doctor drives the story, but the Companions are often the heart of it. They’re our human way in. Donna, reacting to the plight of the Ood, or stopping the Doctor from killing the spider-lady thing at the beginning of the fourth season. Rose, wanting to like the new Doctor after he regenerates, but not sure she can trust him, not sure if he’s the same. Rose’s reaction to the Tenth Doctor helps us, the audience, get used to this new person too. Her journey into loving and trusting him is the same as ours.
I love Rose Tyler. People talk about “Their Doctor” (mine is Ten), but Rose is “my companion,” if one can have such a thing. I love her passion, how she jumps right into the Doctor’s mission and his lifestyle. Her smile. Billie Piper has one of the all-time great smiles. If Rose had the opportunity, she would absolutely be a superhero. Put on a cape and fight the baddies. She’s an adrenaline junkie. She loves dropping in at the last moment, saving the day, making a difference in people’s lives, and then traveling away again. The chemistry between The Doctor and Rose has led to a generally-accepted theory in fandom that they had a physical relationship (I think Steven Moffat has made clear that he’s always believed this to be true), but I don’t know that Rose finds The Doctor sexy. I think adventure is the sexiest thing in the world to her. When the Doctor sends her home at the end of the first series, stranding her, she was upset at the loss of the Doctor, but what really drove her crazy was the idea of being trapped on Earth, of having to live a “normal” life. Working at a shop and eating fish and chips forever. Knowing the whole exciting universe was out there, and she couldn’t get to any of it.
And I love how honest she is about all this. She constantly and repeatedly trashes the idea of a normal life to her mom and (ex?)boyfriend Mickey, the ones she leaves behind over and over. She disparages the lives they lead (and which they prefer compared to the dangerous nonsense that she gets up to). She leaves them behind. She asks them to do things for her, often pretty big things, but doesn’t do much for them in return. They give her these looks of loneliness and disappointment and resentment that she barely notices while she’s asking them for help, to upend and/or risk their lives, and they always come through for her, but (like The Doctor in some ways) she’s always on her way somewhere else. Rose might be the only Companion who sort of has her own set of Companions, people who always stand willing to help her.
By the second series, Rose is the Doctor’s equal in some ways. She can’t fly the TARDIS without risking her life, but they work in tandem, they’re in sync, they can work together without consulting each other. The Doctor trusts Rose. It’s the closest, most intense relationship of her life, forged in fire and gravity wells and ghostly aliens and werewolves. Rose and the Doctor are the same: they never give up. The episode “The Satan Pit” really shows this. They both have solid reasons to think the other is dead, or at least lost forever. And they can’t get to the TARDIS. But they trust each other, and keep trying, and they win (and live to fight another day). When the Doctor gets sucked into a child’s drawing, Rose keeps working, keeps going after a solution. She can’t do as much as a Time Lord, but she can do a damn sight more than an average human. She stares death in the face and says, not today.
Donna runs a close second to Rose. Sometimes I love her more. She doesn’t have a specific agenda, really, as long as she can get out of her rut of a life and away from her terrible mother. When she finds her way to the TARDIS, it’s all she ever wanted, and everything else is a bonus. If Rose is attracted to the adventure part of the Doctor’s life, Donna connects to the people. She’s the most human human. Even in her very first episode, “The Runaway Bride,” where she is mostly a person that the story happens to, rather than a person making choices, she connects to the Doctor and decides that her job is to help him. After discovering that she’s been poisoned, that her fiance secretly hates her and is in league with an alien that wants to conquer Earth, after she’s been kidnapped by the TARDIS and spends most of the episode screaming at the Doctor (Donna’s tendency to get angry and snarky when she’s really terrified is one of my favorite things about her), at the very end, when the Doctor is fully prepared to drown the Racnoss as well as himself, and in spite of every mind-blowing and unbelievable thing that’s happened to her that day, Donna shouts, “Doctor! You can stop now!”…and he does. On her very first episode, Donna saves the Doctor.
In her third episode, Donna travels to Pompeii, and though she knows that there’s no stopping the volcano, she convinces the Doctor save just these ones, this one family, like a kid on the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. In her fourth episode, she meets the Ood, and their plight–and their song–are enough to make her want to go home, back to Earth, where she can feel less horror at the way the universe hurts things. The more Rose sees of the universe, the more active and smiling she is. The more Donna sees of it, the more she learns how much it hurts, its power to make her sad. For Donna, more than for Rose and Martha, the universe is equal parts beautiful and terrible. She makes the choice to keep going out to see it, even though she knows what’s in store for her. Rose was not moved to tears by the experience of meeting of Madame de Pompadour. I think that Donna would have been. And she knew–and so did the Doctor–that her tears and her compassion were good for the Doctor. They kept him human. As human as a Time Lord could be.
Of the first three companions–Rose, Martha, and Donna–Martha’s probably my least favorite. Which is not her fault. It’s clear that she’s crushing on the Doctor, and I love how determined she is, ultimately, to save the Doctor and save the Earth. But she’s in love with the Doctor, and I’m profoundly uninterested in any Doctor-involved love stories. (I also really don’t like that they eventually made her a soldier in U.N.I.T. She was studying to be a doctor. Let her go on and be that doctor. She’d be a good one.)
The first three primary companions of the reboot–Rose, Martha, and Donna–all have their own reasons for following The Doctor onto the TARDIS. Rose loves the adventure. Martha loves The Doctor. Donna understands that The Doctor needs her (or needs someone, at any rate) to remind him of his own humanity. (And then there’s Wilf. Lovely Wilf. And Jack Harkness.) Each Companion has her own internal hole she’s trying to fill (and, thanks to Murray Gold, also her own music theme). They all bring out different qualities in The Doctor. They’re not just there to hang around next to him. They have their own skills, talents, choices to make. They don’t follow him onto the TARDIS just because it’s fun and exciting, or because the Doctor needs somebody to talk to to keep the show from being boring. They have an independence and a completeness that later Companions (coughcoughAmy and Claracough) don’t have.
Other thing I love about the first three Companions: they’re not jealous. Rose is, a little bit, when she first meets Sarah Jane, and I don’t think Martha ever gets into a situation where she has to think about anyone as being in competition with her for the Doctor (well, there was the episodes where the Doctor hid himself inside a human life), but when Donna meets Martha, she just…she’s so warm. And open. And making fun of the Doctor. She likes Martha the minute she meets her. And Rose. They can all relate to each other in a way that nobody else on the planet can. They gang up (in a good natured way) against the Doctor, instead of competing for the Doctor’s attention or affection. And that’s not something that you see among female characters very often. (One of the reasons why I hate the “TARDIS is actually the Doctor’s wife/sentient space ship” story is because then there’s this whole rigamarole with the TARDIS deciding it doesn’t like Clara and causing trouble until they eventually make friends and I hate it because the TARDIS isn’t like that, and there’s no reason for women/apparently woman-identified disembodied spaceships to compete over the attention of a Time Lord like they’re fucking toddlers or puppies and argh either the TARDIS is fine with human women, it’s not like Clara is the first one she’s met, or there’s something wrong with Clara, and since there’s nothing wrong with Clara I just assume this is another one of those times where Steven Moffat doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing with his women characters and throw the whole thing out the window) (and yes I know there’s the whole “she’s a temporal anomaly” thing but don’t get me fucking started on the whole reason why Clara is a temporal anomaly in the first fucking place).
The loyalty that the Companions show to the Doctor, their willingness to help him, their reasons for traveling with him, their joy at discovering this whole entire universe–it’s one of the things that makes their various endings–especially Rose, stuck in the alternate Earth, and Donna, with her memory erased–especially sad. Not just they can’t travel with (or remember) the Doctor, but that they can’t talk to anyone else about it either. I used to have a whole story worked out for how the Doctor could go back and get Donna and reunite with her and her head wouldn’t explode, though unfortunately I don’t remember how I worked out the kinks anymore. Rose at least got a Doctor Clone, but Donna? Donna had to go back to Chiswick, be a temp. She didn’t even know that all her dreams had come true. And I find that just so unbearably sad.
Pithy conclusion? I’m not sure if I have one. If you write “assistant” characters, make sure to give them their own heft and weight and choices in the story. Also, as you walk through life, if you do it with the adventurousness of Rose Tyler, and the loyalty and faith of Martha Jones, and the compassion of Donna Noble…well. You won’t be doing half bad for a human who can’t regenerate.