What Makes A Doctor Who Companion?
Guest contributor Sam White investigates.
A few months ago I wrote an article speculating about whether Clara would be staying with us all the way through Series 9 or not. Frankly, though my heart sinks a little when considering the prospect of Clara’s departure, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the future, and given the options available to us as many other fellow fans have pointed out in the past, I expect a new Doctor-Companion(s) dynamic to be nothing short of spectacular.
But getting to the point, this is not an article about who the companions should or should not be, but a contemplation of what I think being a companion means in the modern era of this show, what I have come to expect of the companions, why I think that it is the companions that have held this show together for so long and why they are integral to the show.
CLARA: Doctor who?
DOCTOR: Ooo, yeah. Ooo. Do you know, I never realised how much I enjoy hearing that said out loud. Thank you.
A common mistake people make when they come across the title “Doctor Who” or read about the show is that they base the whole show as being about a renegade time lord and his escapades around all of space and time. Doctor Who in and of itself can be interpreted in two very different ways: Firstly as a name or title of the show’s beloved protagonist and secondly as a question. And so I am here to say that while the presumption made by the people is true to some extent, it is as much a show about the people who pose the question “Doctor Who?”, people he takes a liking to, people who follow him on his grand journey as he covers the complex tapestry that is all of space and time, people he calls his companions.
More than half a century ago when Doctor Who began and the Doctor and his origins were still a big enigma, the companions were present to act as our eyes and ears, to question him when we would question him, to help him when we would have helped him. More precisely the companions were there to act as bridge between our world and the Doctor’s universe. This explains why initially most of the companions were of the contemporary times in which the show aired like Barbara and Ian, Ben and Polly, Liz Shaw and of course Sara Jane Smith . As the show progressed and evolved and the audience became more accustomed to the show’s own ethos and structure, the companions also changed, now not only providing a different keyhole view of the show but also adding to the ethos thereby making the role of a companion even more multifarious. Such companions include Jamie, Romana, Leela, Captain Jack Harkness and River Song.
Who are the Companions?
For a show that has been going on for as long as half a decade, Doctor Who generally follows a fairly simple template of storytelling. Trouble happens, then the Doctor happens, chaos ensues, stakes are raised and finally (mostly) the Doctor saves the day. But then how does the show manage to stay fresh and exciting even to this present day? A fair answer would be regeneration and great stories that are woven around this template but an even better answer would be to follow the list with an added element listing the companions the Doctor has had; full time ones plus the part time ones. Not only would it have been extremely unfair but also impossible to place the burden of 50 years’ worth of storytelling solely on the Doctor’s shoulder but it also would have caused the show to become repetitive and contrived. No character can survive that. Any story gains force and momentum from both its plot and the sundry of characters it boasts of. This is where the companions come into the picture.
Throughout the course of this show the companions have helped the Doctor in his adventures, questioned him, challenged him or have simply played the part of being his friend, admirer or lover and this is what has kept the show going. Introducing new characters and to have them travel with the Doctor opens up a lot of horizons for the writers of this show. From the companions’ own backstory to his/her future on this show, every details helps keep the show renewed and provides new ground for the writers to fabricate and weave their stories around. So while the Doctor is a common thread connecting multiple eras and holding them together, it is the companions who embody those eras which is why they must prove to be independent characters that can stand on their own with their own stories.
Another aspect the companions help provide is finality, because while the end to the Doctor’s own journey is nowhere near in sight, the departure of a companion imparts the audience with a sense of closure in this long and epic saga. Mostly this entire business culminates with us broken-hearted or in a heap of tears as our (current) favorite companions bids adieu, be it at the Bad Wolf Bay where the Doctor fails to tell Rose how he feels or in a drawing room where Donna fails to recognize the Doctor or in the Doctor’s very own tomb where River says her final goodbye to the Doctor.
The Stories and the Arcs
Throughout the course of this article I have made arguments stating the companions to be imperative to the show. It’s time to back those arguments with substance.
Let’s start with the stories. Since the revival the format of this show has been fixed on forty-five minutes of storytelling with maybe a couple of two-parters every series. This gives the writer forty-five minutes to establish characters and setting, effectively convey the premise and the challenge and then end the story on a satisfying note. A job easier said than done. Framing stories around the companions not only provides the story with more purpose and drive but also helps the writer develop existing characters without the need of creating new ones ultimately benefiting both the viewers and the writers. Some brilliant examples of such stories are Father’s Day which introduces a new facet to Rose’s character, Amy’s Choice where we witness what true friendship and love mean for Amy, The Caretaker and Flatline where we see Clara struggle with keeping her normal life and her identity in balance and School Reunion which was enough to make the new fans curious about Sarah Jane and instil nostalgia in the old ones.
Now let’s talk about the series arcs. Of the 8 Series of the revived era there have been 5 Series where either the entire arc stands on the companion’s shoulder or they play an extremely pivotal role. In Series One finale we see Rose saving the day and defeating an entire army of Daleks after she absorbs energy from the time vortex and becomes the very personification of Bad Wolf. In Series Three we see Martha sacrificing all she has and going on a mission to propagate the Doctor’s name throughout Earth thereby helping in defeating the Master and in turn restoring the original timeline. In Series four we again see the Daleks and their creator Davros defeated by Donna when she single handedly (pun intended) becomes the convergence of all possible timelines and takes part in the two way metacrisis becoming Doctor Donna. In Series Five we see Amy pulling the Doctor back into existence after he reboots the universe. And then we have Clara.
The Clara Conundrum
In her two years on the show we have seen the impossible girl splintering and scattering throughout Doctor’s timesream to save him from the Great Intelligence. Then in the 50th Anniversary special of the show (which is in itself a great privilege) we see her helping the Doctor in his darkest moment and thus consequently saving Gallifrey and absolving the Doctor from countless years of guilt. Then we see her taking the limelight again in the Eleventh Doctor’s swansong where she helps the Doctor in acquiring a new set of regeneration by making the Timelords understand who and what the Doctor really is through an extremely moving speech. And finally in Series 8’s Listen we see her help the Doctor overcome one of his greatest and oldest fears in one of the most unanticipated circumstances to occur on Doctor Who.
Due to the nature of the show to iteratively reinvent itself, it is very demanding of writers in the sense that they must either come up with new ideas altogether or a new take on an existing ideas and not every such take is well received. Current showrunner Steven Moffat tried such a stunt with Clara by making her an embodiment of the Doctor himself. Surprisingly with the plenitude of achievements Clara has in her baggage she is also one of the most divisive companions to board the TARDIS in all of Doctor Who history. Clara’s over involvement in the Doctor’s personal history, her pompous, bossy and control freak characterization and her simple Doctor like attributes have not gone down well with a large part of the fandom, especially when she tends to undermine the Doctor. Many fans have even suggested renaming the show to ‘Clara Who’ due to the excessive importance being given to her character.
A fair question at this point would be – what are the makings of an effective and brilliant companion and what role must such a companion play in totality?
Changing the Status Quo
Astonishingly the companion arc that I’ve found to be extremely effective and moving is not from the television series but from the Big Finish Audio drama Dark Eyes and the companion is Molly’ O Sullivan. Though Dark Eyes is a story about the increasing tension between the Daleks (and a few other Aliens) and the Timelords, and acts as a precursor to the events of the Time war, the whole plot from Dark Eyes 1 to Dark Eyes 4 is very deftly and cleverly woven around the life of Molly O’ Sullivan rendering the whole arc all the more satisfying. The greatest feat here comes from the fact that she is never overplayed and even though the entire arc depends on her, the narrative is not afraid to change focus and present her as a normal human being with her own agendas and life, something I have always wanted the show to take note of i.e. to not get wrapped up in its own mythology and have the courage to look at things from a different perspective.
Of course the same audio drama comes with the character of Liv Chenka, a case where the character is extremely bland and generic and provides no real substance to the overall plot. Again this just proves that nothing is perfect and that certain characters might not be as great as they appear on paper but also that the writers must never be afraid of experimenting.
Many a times while watching Doctor Who I have been forced to ponder over the central elements that drive this gem of a show. Of course the first thing that comes to mind is the Doctor but while the Doctor will always remain to be the icon he is, I think we must also take note of the people he takes with him on this journey, of the lives he changes as he goes along because ultimately it is the companions that bring out new elements in the Doctor, introduce him to challenging situations and help us understand him better. It is the companions which help provide relatability to the show, make us more emotionally invested in the stories, provide a sense of danger and purpose to the stories, steer them and make them even more worthwhile to watch.