So Doctor Who comes back on television this Saturday, and I’m planning to write a post about each episode, just as I did last year. Because people really liked those posts, and thought they were interesting.
In a Twitter conversation I had with a few of my friends in the international Who fandom community this weekend, we got to discussing how amazing the character of Vicki was. She was a companion during the 2nd and 3rd seasons of the classic series, with William Hartnell. It got me thinking about what kind of characters make Doctor Who companions, and I realized that there are really only four templates.
Most of the characters, especially today, mix ideas from all four. But each of them still dominate each character one at a time.
Probably the most remarkable companion template on Doctor Who is the Revolutionary, and these characters are always women. They have a manic energy and love to fight the authoritarian villains of Doctor Who.
Vicki was the first Revolutionary companion, and probably the purest expression of the idea. Her best story The Space Museum saw her literally lead a revolution against a staid, authoritarian regime. As the Shabogan Banksy said the other night, Vicki literally taught the Doctor how to be a Revolutionary himself. Their relationship was a central step in the development of the Doctor’s own character.
The next Revolutionary was Patrick Troughton’s last female companion, Zoe. One of my favourite scenes of hers is in The Invasion when she giddily laughs as she overloads and destroys a computerized security guard.
|Did you also know that Ace made her own explosives?
Rose picked up from Ace in the new series, a rabid anti-authoritarian from London council housing. Even though Martha was a doctor, her aggressive attitude gives her the energy. And her positionality as a black woman makes her challenge cultural conservatism directly.
Think of her confrontation with Joan in Human Nature: Doctor Who rarely confronted the real historical legacy of racism, but Martha shows an otherwise villainous trait in the story’s guest protagonist. Just as Vicki did by encouraging the Doctor's revolutionary spirit in the first place, Martha as a character is pushing the show forward.
In the Moffat era, Amy and River had these anti-authoritarian traits. River’s more dominant relationship with the Doctor makes her fit another type, but chaos was always the core of her personality.
Then there’s the sadly retrograde version of this character that I uncharitably call the Bimbo. They’re the unfortunate stereotype of a Doctor Who companion from the 20th century, the character whose only purpose is to get captured/rescued, stumble around getting into danger, and scream at scary shit. They’re infantilized when not sexualized.
It’s not to say that these characters don’t have redeeming aspects. If not in the show, then at least the ancillary media have explored these characters enough to make them interesting.
Susan was the first. She was the Doctor’s granddaughter, encouraging a paternalism and impulse to protect and shield from harm. It seems odd to watch stories from Hartnell’s 1st year and see the Doctor this way. It shows how transformative Vicki’s character was.
|One reason the Bimbo character could come back to
Doctor Who is that they actually can work when
they're men instead of women.
When Dodo was written into the show to replace Vicki, Doctor Who had its purest infantilized Bimbo. But many 3rd season stories suffered from having two Bimbo characters, Steven and Dodo, with the Doctor. Hartnell’s health problems meant he wasn’t on screen enough that year to keep their stupidity from annoying a viewer.
Another male companion, Ben, filled this role in the 4th season, Troughton’s first. But he combined stumbling ass-backwards into danger with a manly swagger that ended up hilarious. After Ben left, Victoria filled the role very easily, and her Victorian beauty was the first movement of this companion type’s sexualization.
Sexualization hit high gear with Jo, when the writers only thought of her as a pair of legs in a short skirt. Jo’s an interesting character because in her best stories, she embodies anti-authoritarian spirit. But in her worst stories, the writers see only her looks, sexy wardrobe, and girlish voice.
Tom Baker’s Doctor almost completely avoided Bimbo companions, thanks to two sets of producers dominating his tenure (1974-7: Philip Hinchcliffe & Robert Holmes; 1977-80: Graham Williams & Douglas Adams) who hated those kinds of characters. Then John Nathan-Turner took over, beginning a nostalgia-driven era that over-emphasized the importance of the Bimbo companion to Doctor Who.
|Peri works in most of her
audio plays (1999-present)
because her character is
written with an edge more
like a Revolutionary who
tends to stumble into
Turlough was originally designed with an innovative edge, probably JNT’s most radical creative step. He was the companion you couldn’t trust, literally a sleeper cell sent to gain the Doctor’s trust and kill him. But after this arc was resolved, Turlough settled into an irritating Bimbo role. Like Adric’s older brother who smoked pot, but was still clearly related to Adric.
Peri was the last of this template, when it finally proved itself completely unworkable. She was hypersexualized from her first appearance, threatened with real or metaphorical sexual violence in almost each of her stories, and utterly incompetent to get herself out of the trouble she let herself get caught in.
Her television portrayal heightened everything that went wrong with this type of companion. Its problems were now impossible to ignore. No one could write a Doctor Who character like this again.
The type of character usually associated with male companions I call the Loyal Soldier, who does everything it says on the tin. They’re the Doctor’s muscle, the bodyguards, and sometimes the attack dogs. The arc of the 1st season was about Ian and Barbara on one side and the Doctor and Susan on the other, each side learning to trust each other. But Ian functioned essentially this way.
Stephen was supposed to be a Loyal Soldier, but his character was too dim. He stumbled into trouble when the Loyal Soldier is supposed to be a rescuer, so ended up having to rescue himself. Or else Vicki would do it, because Revolutionaries do that.
Instead, we wouldn’t have a Loyal Soldier until Troughton had Jamie. The Brigadier was Jon Pertwee’s Loyal Soldier, though his later appearances saw his heritage push him to a more equal level to the Doctor. Harry was an explicitly comic version of this role for Tom Baker. But Leela filled this role with him best.
After Leela, this kind of companion disappeared from the show until Captain Jack Harkness, I think because it’s mostly associated with men, and male companions slipped from prominence from 1975 onward. Jack was, I should add, only in this role when he was on Doctor Who itself. Torchwood required a version of Jack as a struggling anti-hero.
|Wilf says goodbye.
The Revolutionary is the companion that embodies the anti-authoritarian essential ethics of Doctor Who. The Loyal Soldier is the show’s inspirational action hero. The Bimbo was a mistake, the sexist mutation of a character that held the show back from its potential when it first appeared. There’s one other type of companion that’s closest to the usual meaning of the word. The Doctor’s partner, the closest he has to a spouse. The Matriarch.
Doctor Who has had Matriarchs from the beginning, though these mature characters don’t often appear. Barbara was the first, because their relationship was literally about Barbara teaching the Doctor to be a more ethical person. The Doctor learned how to fight authoritarianism with Vicki, but he learned why to fight authoritarian ideas in the world and himself from Barbara.
After Barbara, the Matriarch’s relationship with the Doctor is no longer about teaching, but being a partner for the Doctor. Essentially, the Matriarch is the Doctor, but played by a woman. This is why it won’t be a big deal when Peter Capaldi eventually leaves Doctor Who and is replaced by a female actor.
Women have played versions of the Doctor since the start of the show: Jacqueline Hill, Anneke Wills, Caroline John, Elisabeth Sladen, Mary Tamm, Sarah Sutton, Bonnie Langford, Catherine Tate, and Jenna Coleman.
Troughton’s companion Polly was essentially a Matriarch, though she was often crowded out of the 4th season’s complex stories and given Bimbo duties in the straight shoot-em-ups because she was a woman. Listen to how Polly and Troughton speak in Power of the Daleks and you hear a brother and sister.
|Jacqueline Hill's performance on Doctor Who gets
even better when you imagine how she'd play the
** She was UNIT’s Scientific Advisor on alien life before the Doctor out-qualified her by being an actual nomadic alien.
But Terrance Dicks didn’t know how to write a Matriarch, so he replaced her with Jo, the planned Bimbo who turned out to be a Revolutionary.
Sarah Jane was another mistake of Terrance Dicks made better. Dicks conceived of her as a Revolutionary, but in her year with Pertwee, she expressed this only through the ham-fisted dialogue of how a culturally conservative English man would think a feminist activist of the 1970s sounded.
Once she was in her proper element with Tom Baker and Robert Holmes, she became a proper Matriarch. She and the Doctor were like two adventurous college students in a madcap romance.
Mary Tamm’s first Romana also worked best when she was written as a Matriarch. They shared a dynamic like a sitcom couple: the rambling man who doesn’t want to settle down and the domme who can rope him in because he kind of likes it when she ties him up, even though he'd never say so.
Nyssa was a perfect Matriarch for Peter Davison’s Doctor, a quietly confident fellow scientist with a deep sadness in her heart alongside compassion. The problem of this era was, as with Adric, that no one on the writing staff understood the Matriarch concept. Not knowing what to do with Nyssa, they just wrote her out of most action.
|We can all agree that Jenna Coleman has been playing
the Doctor already since the start of the Capaldi era?
How about Doctor Who hires her back to play the
Doctor for real in the mid-2030s when she's 50?
But all we got was the carrot juice sketch.
Donna is the first Matriarch of the new series, which is why I think she’s David Tennant’s best companion. Tennant’s Doctor had an impulsive, over-dramatic immaturity that Donna’s worldliness and empathy complemented and refined. Think of the “Can’t you save just a few?” speech from The Fires of Pompeii or her hug at the end of Midnight. They’re best friends for all the best reasons.
Clara is a Matriarch. Her deep friendship and empathy with the Doctor helps each other grow, and the show positions her as a parallel Doctor on multiple occasions.
There’s so much more to grow from with all these types. Even some aspects of the Bimbo character can be fruitful if it’s handled with enough knowledge and nuance. Really, I'm just looking forward to what new developments will happen in the new season next week. As well as the next 51.