Framing and Writing The Companions

For my first post on Doctor Her, I would like to present a conundrum I’ve been mulling over on and off since watching the first series in 2005: what would it take to reconcile character motivations to get a different type of companion into the TARDIS?

There are some basic similarities in the basic characteristics of The Doctor’s companions over the run of New Who (2005-present): she is young, without clear purpose and unsure of herself. This presents us with a problem from a feminist perspective. Once is a character choice, when the pattern repeats it becomes more of a troubling trend, something that the writers should be trying to solve as the series continues.

Rose was nineteen when she left her job in a shop to jump into the TARDIS with Christopher Eccleson’s Doctor, leaving her Mum and Mickey for worlds and times unknown. As the audience, we accept this premise. The time after leaving high school, especially for those young people who choose not to go on to University, or cannot afford to is one fraught with uncertainty, a lack of purpose, and perhaps a nagging sense of something better waiting for us out there. As an audience, we can understand how Rose would choose to leave a dead end job and a (not too serious) boyfriend when such a unique opportunity presents itself.

Martha, a medical student, also leaves behind her family, but this time she also leaves behind her studies, her hard work towards being a doctor in her own right, for the chance to travel with David Tennant’s Doctor. Martha has more concerns with leaving her life behind for adventure, needs reassurance that she could be back to the same day or only lose a few days in the process of this adventure. It is the family drama she wants to escape from, the demands of siblings and being caught between her parents’ divorce. Martha eventually leaves and goes back to her studies, and we later on see her become what she set out to be, in episodes of Torchwood. As an audience we understand this decision, with Martha’s caveat of returning to the time when she left, not losing any time towards her goal, and later returning to what she set out to do.

Donna at first declines the Doctor’s invitation but later on, still working as a Temp, living with her mum and grandfather, she accepts when The Doctor waltzes into her life again. We accept this, as the audience. We can understand why a woman, who’s relationship has recently fallen apart (spectactularly and because of aliens), who is working a dead-end job, and unsure of what she wants to do with her life, would take the opportunity to see the world.

And then we have Amy. Before we met Amy, we saw photos of her in a police uniform. What an interesting take that would be, a policewoman who chooses to travel with The Doctor? We were excited, but were unsure of how the storytellers would work their way around this one. Then, when the episode aired we found out that Amy wasn’t a policewoman, instead she was a kissogram, the police uniform carrying not power with it, but fantasy. She leaves on the eve of her wedding night, unsure enough of her decision to risk it all to leave with the man in the Blue Box. With Amy though, we have a history. Her life has been building up to this moment. Young Amy waiting in the garden for the man in the Blue Box to come back for her, suitcase packed. Then again when she’s in her early twenties, working as a kissogram, Matt Smith’s Doctor barges into her life. So even though Amy is happy enough to be soon married, we have a background that leads up to her willingness to run away with The Doctor. 

Though their stories are all slightly different, the similarities are a troubling aspect of this type of storytelling. As writers, there has to be an explanation of this character’s motivation in leaving her (or sometimes his) life behind to travel in space. I would very much like to see a different type of companion to The Doctor. Someone sure of herself, established, less naive or easily persuaded. But how would she get into the TARDIS in the first place. Would we accept the premise of a companion with a career, a family, children? leaving everything to travel with The Doctor?

Another interesting moment to consider comes in series two, with the episode School Reunion, where Sarah Jane Smith gets her chance to return to the TARDIS. After the adventure of the episode, which takes place on Earth. The Doctor offers Sarah Jane the chance to travel with him again. She declines. She has a son, a life on Earth that she can’t leave. But I for one, can’t help but wonder how that would have played out, what it would be like to have someone established and comfortable with herself and her convictions travel with The Doctor.

So, my friends of Doctor Her (Doctor Hervians? Can we make this a thing?), what do you think? Is there a way we could accept a different kind of companion leaving her life and traveling in the TARDIS? As a storyteller, how would you reconcile this? I’m honestly curious, as it’s something I’ve puzzled over for a while now.

32 comments

  1. [...] I have posted my first blog on the new Doctor Her and I invite you to check it out. There is an incredible depth and breadth of writers for this blog [...]

    • Elle Clegg says:

      It’s an interesting question.

      There are some more established companions in Classic Who – Sarah Jane has a good career when she first travels with the Doctor, but as an investigative journalist she can take the time out for adventures without unduly upsetting her normal life.

      Evelyn, who travels with the sixth doctor in the Big Finish audio books, is a more interesting solution. She’s an older academic. I haven’t listened to enough of her stories to know how (if) they deal with the way she reconciles the two aspects of her life. I’d love to see a character like Evelyn join the Tardis in the TV series, to see how that plays out.

      • Pippa Adams says:

        That’s good to hear about Classic Who! I haven’t had a chance to look at a lot of it yet (though it’s on the list!) That would be really interesting to see in New Who.

        • There’s definitely a greater variety of companions and their motivations in Classic Who, but at the same time often those motivations are mentioned once and then tend to disappear into the stories, which are a lot more plot-driven than character-driven (with some notable exceptions).

          Big Finish has done the interesting thing of combining our modern need for character & more women leading stories with the great raw material of Classic Who, giving greater depth to characters like Peri (who was a botany student, something barely mentioned in the actual stories she appeared in, despite the potential of that idea) or Mel (a computer programmer) or Nyssa (an alien scientist).

          Spearhead from Space, the first Jon Pertwee story, and Robot, the first Tom Baker story, are both really good introductions to Classic Who which provide agency & some good material to the companions of the time (Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith, respectively).

  2. You should read the post I published today! I think that Rose and Donna leaving with the Doctor is really understandable, because the Doctor represents a life where money doesn’t matter. That is less compelling to Martha, which is why she can (and does) leave after a short period. As a poor person, I can see the almost breathtaking appeal of jumping ship, of never having to live paycheck-to-paycheck, coupled with the kinds of adventures (vacations) I’ll never be able to afford.

    • Pippa Adams says:

      I loved your analysis of the difference between poor and well-off companions, that’s definitely an important part of the issue – and a major reason why Rose and Donna would jump into the TARDIS.

  3. Worth noting I think that Donna turned the Doctor down once, regretted her decision, and then actively hunted him down (solving mysteries in the mean time). She had her bags packed to join him!

    So I think she had a bit more agency than the younger female companions of that era, though you have a fair point that she didn’t have a lot to leave behind.

    I don’t know how understandable it would be for a companion (including male companions) who had a young family to go away in the TARDIS. Craig, for instance, feels off the table now that he has a partner and baby.

    On the other hand, someone having a mid-life crisis, or feeling shattered by the pressures of a high stress job, would be a lot more sympathetic.

    I’d love to see an older companion who deals with empty nest syndrome by fleeing the nest herself, when her children are grown up!

    It’s difficult, though. A female character who is seen as abandoning responsibilities is likely to come under a lot of criticism that wouldn’t necessarily be pointed at a male character who does the same thing.

    Personally what I’d love to see in a companion is a New Who version of the models we were offered in the old days – one from the future, or from the past, who brings a different perspective to the Doctor and his travels. Imagine a young woman of Edwardian times, struggling to even be allowed to vote, or shackled by domestic service, who REALLY has something to run away from, and how she would view our contemporary world. And while Jack and River are both “from” the future, we haven’t had a longer term companion with that perspective.

    What about Madame Pompadour, if the Eleventh Doctor could line up the TARDIS and snatch her from her time stream? She could offer the Sarah Jane style older woman perspective.

    I do think it’s important that some people turn him down, from time to time. Every bit as important as who chooses to go with him.

    • Elle Clegg says:

      It occured to me that the current Doctor has pretty good control of the TARDIS. In theory it would be possible for someone to go adventuring with him and be back before anyone missed them. It would certainly be interesting to see how they explain any changes to their friends and family.

      • Very true, and you can see the temptation that might hold – say to a new mother desperate for a night off from the crying baby. But then, she’d be more likely to stagger to Amy & Rory’s bunk beds and just sleep until it was time to go home again, so maybe that’s not the best scenario.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      – “Personally what I’d love to see in a companion is a New Who version of the models we were offered in the old days – one from the future, or from the past, who brings a different perspective to the Doctor and his travels. Imagine a young woman of Edwardian times, struggling to even be allowed to vote, or shackled by domestic service”

      I love this idea. Recruiting a companion from the past or future, which also opens up all kinds of social commentary as the character adjusts to different freedoms and social biases. Not to mention the technological or intellectual advancement that a future companion could provide, as a challenge to The Doctor. I’m sad that Astrid Perth (Kylie Minogue, “Voyage of the Damned”) never got to become a companion.

      I think the writers feel locked into a companion from the present because that is the most literal way to give the audience someone to relate to.

      • The nice thing about Jack as a companion from the future was the conversation that opened up about sexuality and the really QUITE subversive idea that in the future, humans would all be omnisexual without even thinking about it.

        One of the most feminist characters Doctor Who ever had as a companion was Sara Kingdom, in the 1960′s, whose episodes are sadly now mostly lost – but what struck me on listening to the audio track of them a year or two ago was the way that she is never dismissed for being female by the Doctor’s other companion, Steven, who is also from the future. She is treated as an equal, which was pretty unusual for the time.

        • Brass Cupcake says:

          Yes, I enjoyed that about Jack also, and would like to see more of that. From what I’ve read we had a similar difference of perspective with Leela, coming from a “primitive” place. Though I think that in the current series picking up a young woman from a past time would require someone other than The Doctor to guide her, or it would come across as Big Smart Man teaching Ignorant Little Girl and diminish the empowerment. Still, since the show is about time travel it would be fun to see companions from different time periods.

    • Pippa Adams says:

      I definitely think it would be interesting to see an older companion in the TARDIS. I’ve read some interviews and analysis that suggests the writers have locked themselves into the frame of the young, female companion as a link to the audience’s understanding -but I think we could manage!

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        – “that suggests the writers have locked themselves into the frame of the young, female companion as a link to the audience’s understanding -but I think we could manage!”

        That’s my fear — that the writers or Moffat in particular are unnecessarily locking themselves into a singular presentation of women companions, due to a misunderstanding of the audience. Or due to a situation where they create a self-fulfilling prophecy: they feature a very young Doctor and a very young companion, this of course attracts younger viewers because people flock to images reflecting themselves, then the show says “see, we mostly have young viewers, we can’t have older characters.” When in reality the show has fans of all ages, including older viewers. So at the very least we can have a young Doctor and older companion, or the reverse. I’m hoping season 7 brings some new things to the mix. :)

        • I’d like to add that younger viewers are perfectly capable of watching, relating to, and really enjoying programs about and featuring older characters.

          It really grinds my gears when people imply that someone, just because they are young, is incapable of understanding more complex ideas or themes. Or, in this case, a character who isn’t the same age as them.

          I understand that’s not what you were saying but I just wanted to put this out there…

    • Nightsky says:

      There’s a terrific bit in an otherwise OK audio called “The Council of Nicaea” that explores this. The Fifth Doctor goes to the titular council (held in the 4th century AD) with two companions: Erimem, who is from ancient Egypt, and Peri. Erimem decides to fuck shit up. The Doctor (and, IIRC, Peri) tell her to desist; she can’t change the past. Erimem makes the excellent point that from her POV, it’s the future. Hell, it’s the FAR future, nearly 2000 years after her time.

      Sadly, instead of addressing temporal privilege, the audio just skips past that and goes somewhere else.

  4. Sally Odgers says:

    I don’t see Donna as being “young” even if she is temping. Also, I find it a bit troubling that this essay (though I much enjoyed it!) appears to equate “successful” careers with “worth”. The way I see it is that some people choose a career that defines them, while others work to pay for that which defines them. Neither, in my view, is any less worthy, male or female. On the other hand, the idea of leavin’ on a jet- um – a TARDIS is not a problem for even a career/family/responsibility-bound person. As Amy found out, one can always return to the time of leaving and thus have it all. I’m sure most people go through a time of wishing the kids/SO/job/dogs/elderly parent, dearly though they are loved and valued, came with a “sleep” switch to allow guilt-free ME time. The Doctor provides that. Mind you, it could never last too long, or else, as in The Green Bronze Mirror, the traveller would have aged visibly.

    • Pippa Adams says:

      Thanks for pointing that out to me Sally, I didn’t mean to frame successful careers directly with worth, but I can see how that might have come across. For me it’s not so much the lack of those kind of role models in the TARDIS, but the lack of any sort of diversity in the types of companions & their positioning in the world/their life. I hope that clears my intentions up a little. I’m glad you enjoyed it though!

  5. What about a companion whose entry into the TARDIS is an opportunity, rather than an escape? For example, a scientist who wants to study each new world they visit, and keeps getting herself into trouble because she wants to take and analyze samples of things–and what kind of moral conundrums does that introduce when she wants to go back to her own time and space with all this knowledge of alien science and technology? Or a writer, who goes everywhere with a notebook, and is constantly looking for just the right metaphors to describe the purple skies of planets they visit. An opportunity like that would make her career; how would she handle that?

    • fontgoddess says:

      This. I like the “opportunity” companion, as I think that was one of the best parts of how you could read Donna’s reunion with the Doctor.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      I like this. I was thinking along similar lines. :)

      That’s what I’ve been hoping for. A companion who is excited to join The Doctor as an opportunity to discover new planets, to see history in person, to meet other cultures, to learn about technology/art/scient, or just to study the weirdness that is the TARDIS.

      An adventurer, an explorer, a historian, a scientist, a technology/computer specialist, an anthropologist, an artist/musician/writer. Someone more interested in travel than in romance or idolization of The Doctor. Someone who has a decent life, but recognizes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run through time and space.

    • Nightsky says:

      They tried to do something like this with Peri, who was a botany student: occasionally, you see her geek out over plants. (Watch the first episodes of Mark of the Rani and Revelation of the Daleks to see botanist!Peri.) In the audios, she’s doing things like attending interplanetary botany conferences (in “Master”). They could have taken it a lot further, IMHO, but I like to think of Peri exactly how you describe her–sketching plants, sneaking alien flowers to press into her textbooks, and generally living the dream of a geek whose horizons of geekery have just been unimaginably broadened.

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        – “[re: Peri] They could have taken it a lot further, IMHO, but I like to think of Peri exactly how you describe her–sketching plants, sneaking alien flowers to press into her textbooks, and generally living the dream of a geek whose horizons of geekery have just been unimaginably broadened.”

        I do love that aspect of the character. :) And actually, I think that’s the source of my frustration. I feel like we’re stuck, we haven’t moved forward to the degree I’d hoped for from a modern sci-fi show.

        For instance, I can accept that Peri’s story wasn’t taken further due to the gender limitations of that time. However, it’s much harder for me to swallow that here we are more than 25 years later and the show hasn’t progressed on that particular front.

        More than 25 years later we don’t even have a Peri archetype to explore her further. Instead we get a generic profile of a “bad girl in a TARDIS” (which I’ve yet to ever see explained by Moffat beyond that catch phrase). Inquiries into the character result in “she’s ginger! And um… she’s ginger! And… she’s married! She’s um, ‘the girl who waited!’ Did I mention she’s a bad girl in a TARDIS?”

        I feel like there is such a vast area currently unexplored in terms of companion characters and companion background, and it makes me itchy. ;)

  6. Brass Cupcake says:

    Great first post. :) I think you’re right that the basic premise of the show presents some problematic hurdles in this area. And I think your post works nicely with Tansy Rayner Roberts’ post about “Domesticating the Doctor.” If domestication doesn’t work with The Doctor, then that eliminates the option of a woman bringing her family with her. So then we’re back to single women, as that removes the complication of family ties. I’m reminded of Ellen Fox’s satirical video that “hookers are the best roles around, with no husband, jobs, or kids to drag the story line down.” ( http://current.com/shows/the-rotten-tomatoes-show/90859248_hookers-are-the-best-roles-in-town-by-ellen-fox.htm )

    We do have Amy currently traveling with her husband Rory, but having children is going to affect any couple’s decision to stay with The Doctor. Such a dangerous life means any child-wanting married couple will have a short run with him.

    – “Once is a character choice, when the pattern repeats it becomes more of a troubling trend,”

    Well put, and that’s my concern as well. I think each companion also had a joy for the travel itself, so it wasn’t just about escaping their dissatisfying life. However, it does become frustrating when the single dynamic becomes a companion running *from* her life, instead of running *towards* a path that could broaden her life. Ditto for companions choosing to join The Doctor as a romantic pursuit, as opposed to joining for the betterment of herself and her life.

    This is along the lines of what Genevieve Taylor stated in her comment here: “What about a companion whose entry into the TARDIS is an opportunity, rather than an escape?” (Which I’ll respond to separately to keep this from getting too long.)

  7. Brass Cupcake says:

    I’m breaking up my thoughts into 2 posts, so it’s not such a wall of text. :)

    – “Someone sure of herself, established, less naive or easily persuaded. But how would she get into the TARDIS in the first place.”

    This is what I’ve been wanting to see. A companion who is inquisitive, who wants to broaden her understanding, who is just excited by life and doesn’t want to wait to be led around.

    I think it’s not that hard to get a person like that to want to travel, even if they were previously happy. As I mention above, travel doesn’t have to be about running away from something. And getting her into the TARDIS goes back to opportunity as an alternative motive.

    I also want to see a female companion with confidence and street smarts, who approaches The Doctor with a healthy suspicion. In the past we have pretty much the same get-a-companion setup: she trusts him because he saves her life in some crazy alien crisis. It’s kind of like immediate Stockholm Syndrome. ;) Believable, but the writers have been relying on this trope every time.

    I want to see a companion who initially treats The Doctor like a strange man trying to get you in his van because he offers you candy. Because that’s what The Doctor does, with nearly every companion. When they show hesitation about joining or continuing with him, he dangles some fantastic carrot in from of them — some crazy sounding far off cosmic event, or some wild party in another time period. It’s a clear manipulation technique (a character flaw I think was written intentionally), and you can see the companion struggling with the decision each time he does this. So I want to see a female companion who recognizes this and calls him on it.

    In addition typically when The Doctor picks up a companion he’s made sure it’s on his terms (Amy’s story being an anomalous ball of weirdness I haven’t sorted out). When they hesitate he doesn’t say, “we’re going to travel together for years, so why don’t you take a week or two to get your affairs in order, then we’ll go at your convenience.” Instead he tries to instill a sense of pressure. I want to see a companion confident enough to call him on this. To say “you can travel through time, you’re immortal –you can spare 2 damn weeks so I can notify my family, re-home my pet and clear out my apartment. I don’t need to run off right this very second, with no preparations. In short, I don’t need to destroy the life I have here first, and if you can’t give me that then maybe you’re not someone I want to travel with.”

    I think that kind of dynamic would make it easier for an audience to accept her running off into a new life, without having to invent a crisis to motivate her.

    Another possibility is having a companion whose parents are no longer alive, or who is estranged from her family due to abuse or abandonment. That element could help balance out her other strengths so she doesn’t appear unrealistically perfect and well-adjusted. It could also create a character who can more intimately understand The Doctor’s loneliness.

    • Pippa Adams says:

      I really like your point about taking time to sort things out!

      - – To say “you can travel through time, you’re immortal –you can spare 2 damn weeks so I can notify my family, re-home my pet and clear out my apartment. I don’t need to run off right this very second, with no preparations. In short, I don’t need to destroy the life I have here first, and if you can’t give me that then maybe you’re not someone I want to travel with.”

      This part makes so much sense (and I’ve actually seen this sort of set up make a lot of narrative sense in one or two fan fictions) he’s a time traveler, why do you always have to make a split-second decision right now?

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        Exactly, why does it always have to be right now, amongst chaos, the moment The Doctor asks? He continually sets up a situation of urgency and pressure, like he’ll leave and they’ll forever lose the chance if they don’t jump on his terms. It’s a sort of emotional power play, possibly because The Doctor is so lonely and is afraid they’ll say no if he gives them time to think. Or possibly due to his arrogance where he forgets that non-immortal non-aliens have domestic ties. But I’d like to see a companion address that.

        Instead we have them jump first, then a re-do later as a kind of clumsy way to both have excitement when they first join and a more conscious decision on their terms later (Rose “enlists,” Martha wants to be a proper partner, Donna keeps packed bags in her car, Amy joins as an adult).

        I love the show, but I’d like to see the writers break out of their formulaic devices, and free up some of the gender patterns.

    • Nightsky says:

      To be fair, they DID have companions who had no ties to their homes–most of them, in fact! It’s just that the classic series wasn’t interested in exploring companion drama until Ace. Look at Nyssa: teenaged princess and lone survivor of her species, PLUS the Master is walking around in the shape of her beloved father. In the new series, that’d be worth at least a season of angst. But it’s basically never addressed.

      To me, this is one of the best things about the new series: they’re taking questions that the classic series deliberately avoided–what kind of person leaves everything behind to go adventuring with the Doctor? Do her parents know? What do they think? How does she re-adjust to life in the normal world? Wouldn’t an attractive young woman look at the Doctor, superficially young and usually attractive, and think thoughts?–and addressing them head on.

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        I’m new to the originals, so I’ve only read about those companions. However, you bring up an interesting issue: it seems the reboot has been more narrow in its approach to the DW universe and the companions. We’re seeing the same patterns and dynamics reused, giving us a more homogeneous experience of the companions.

        Perhaps this is because I’m comparing 6 years of the modern show to decades of episodes in the original, and that’s an unfairly weighted comparison. On the other hand, the current series should have the benefit of greater social awareness and inclusion.

        As you said, there have been past examples. Though some of these interesting issues have been left unaddressed or unexplored.

        I like that the new DW has addressed the fallout of a companion abruptly leaving home, as well as what it looks like from an outsider’s perspective (family, friends). We often have an attractive mysterious man greatly influencing a young woman, and pulling her away from people who lover her, even keeping her isolated from them (due to the travel). IRL that would most certainly raise eyebrows and cause concern about the implications. I’ve been happy that the reboot gave us that insight into both Rose’s and Martha’s family. I just want to see the companion herself question this as well, instead of always being swept up.

        • Nightsky says:

          Yes, absolutely. During Martha’s time, I was just dying for Saxon’s henchmen to tell her mum that the Doctor has a history of absconding with young women, sometimes against their will, and that they don’t always come home. 100% true, AND it would have been awesome to see the Doctor defending himself and facing the consequences of centuries of actions with respect to his companions.

  8. Brass Cupcake says:

    TYPO: *he dangles some fantastic carrot in FRONT of them

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