Before we begin: Janet Fielding is battling cancer. I’d like to take a moment to wish her the very best of outcomes, and to point you all to her online support group slash charity page: projectmotormouth.org.uk
Actor Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, in a screencap from the 1982 serial "Black Orchid". In this closeup, she is wearing a flapper-style green headband ornamented with a pink rose, and is laughing at the camera.
Mouth on Legs
Tegan Jovanka, everyone’s favourite trainee Australian flight attendant, is one of the Doctor’s longest-serving companions. She even eclipses the legendary Sarah Jane Smith, though only by a couple of weeks (and SJS was in more episodes). She’s pretty inarguably the Fifth Doctor’s companion, serving in all but two of Peter Davison’s televised serials. But you’d never know it from fandom. What is it with Tegan? Why is her sarcasm “stroppy” and “mean-spirited”, while Donna Noble’s is endearingly sassy? Why is her ambivalence about adventuring across time and space versus forging her domestic, Earthbound life–her real life–”whiny”, when Amy Pond’s very similar arc is portrayed much more sympathetically? I think it’s time to take another look at Our Tegan, the Classic Who companion who most clearly anticipates the New Who companion, and this time see the seeds she planted.
I hate those transmat things. I’d be afraid of coming out puréed.
Me, I had a soft spot for Tegan from early on. In “Castrovalva”, the newly-regenerated Fifth Doctor is looking for a Zero Room–a place, he says, that’s cut off from the rest of the universe. Tegan snarks that if she’d known that’s what he wanted, she would have suggested her native Brisbane. And lo, my little heart went “pwing!” What kid raised in suburban or rural environs–convinced that their parents had deliberately chosen the least interesting place on earth for them to grow up in– wouldn’t feel a twinge of empathy?
I love moments in Who that ground the fantastic in the earthy, that reach right past the high concept of the show to reveal how real people might react in such bizarre circumstances. I love the moment in “Forest of the Dead” where Donna, bewildered at the revelation that her life is a Matrix-like simulation, snaps, “But… I’ve been dieting!” All her discipline and willpower, and she could have had the chocolate cake anyway. Who wouldn’t feel frustrated? I love Martha worrying, in “The Shakespeare Code” whether Elizabethan London is a safe place for a black woman, and I’m annoyed that the Doctor brushes off her valid concerns.
And Tegan, with her shots at Brisbane and her entirely understandable wariness of this strange new world she finds herself in; Tegan, who never travels with a fellow human aboard the TARDIS; Tegan provides that essential grounded viewpoint.
Tegan’s character establishes itself early, and is remarkably consistent: she’ll speak her mind even when her voice shakes, she tries to be self-reliant to the extent that she won’t always ask for help when she needs it; she hides her fear and vulnerability behind a facade of snark and bravado. In short, she has a lot in common with one of the best-liked recent companions: Donna Noble. The two redheads are characterized by their fiery natures–both have tempers, neither is willing to take the Doctor’s crap, and both almost delight in puncturing his self-importance. Both remind the Doctor of the impact his plans have on the ordinary people caught up in them; indeed, they each almost consciously take on the mantle of the Doctor’s conscience. Both women were abducted aboard the TARDIS for their first experience(s) with the Doctor; leave when the Doctor finally returns them to their own time; and, later, dissatisfied with what had, pre-Doctor, been perfectly satisfying lives, chose to return for more adventures. 
So why is Donna beloved while Tegan, generally, isn’t? Is it the quarter century that elapsed between the two? I think that’s a large part of it. Nyssa and Tegan are both good examples of some of the problems with the way womens’ roles were written in the early Eighties: one was sweet and childlike; the other, adult but shrewish, and guess which one was allowed to be intelligent? Nor was the series at the time very interested in the companion’s story. We learned much more about Donna’s past, her family, and her character in one year than we did about Tegan in three, and the depth of Donna’s character helped make her sympathetic. So where Donna was a well-rounded character with flaws and strengths, Tegan, despite her much longer tenure in the TARDIS, is much more of a cipher.
I happen to think that human lives are just as valuable as yours!
Tegan’s original character brief is… kind of offensive.
Tegan is twenty-one, an attractive and intelligent Australian trainee air stewardess, whose brash confidence in her own abilities actually conceals inner insecurity, a state of affairs that becomes clear in moments of stress. On her way to her first real flight she accidentally blunders into the TARDIS and thus finds herself being inadvertantly [sic] abducted by the Doctor. Characteristically her inner bewilderment at the new situation in which she finds herself causes her to assume an attitude of overweening self-assertion, and she begins to take charge of the Doctor and Adric. During the course of three stories, Tegan’s superficial self-assurance will build until it becomes a real problem for the other two occupants of the TARDIS, and it will need drastic action on the part of the Doctor to put things to rights and show her the error of her ways. She may or may not continue with the Doctor thereafter.
(“Doctor Who – The Eighties” by David J Howe, Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker; p.13.)
Oh, joy: the Uppity Woman Who Receives Her Well-Deserved Chastisement At The Hands Of A Wiser Man. (See, also, a remarkable fraction of the plots involving Lois Lane in mid-century Superman.) Way to smack down any female character who thinks herself a man’s equal!
But what’s remarkable here is how little of Tegan’s planned arc made it into production. Tegan had her flaws–rashness, a short temper, a bad habit of lashing out at people when she felt overwhelmed or frightened–but I think it’s very hard to argue that she was arrogant, much less that she “took charge” with “overweening self-assertion”. She makes her opinions known, but defers to the Doctor and Nyssa, less brash than she but more experienced. Certainly her comeuppance, as planned in her character brief, never happens.
Long shot showing Tegan exiting the TARDIS. Screencap from the 1981 serial "Castrovalva".
Tegan gets away from the bitch in the character brief as early as her debut story, “Logopolis”. We meet her as she heads to Heathrow to begin her new job as a flight attendant, a job she is clearly looking forward to. She seems eager for independence, for a chance to prove herself in–yes–a man’s world. Tegan herself identifies her desire to fix her own car as feminist self-reliance.
Even when Tegan stumbles into the TARDIS and gets lost, she manages to maintain much better composure than might be expected of a human confronted with the overwhelming implications of a dimensionally transcendent alien spacetimeship. (Remember that, unlike nearly every other companion, Tegan doesn’t have the Doctor as a tour guide.) She is clearly terrified, but doesn’t let her fear disable her. She knows that she is in some sort of craft: she realizes that the console room is the equivalent of a cockpit; she tries to use the communication devices at the console; she reasons that there must be a pilot aboard, and asks to see that person. She, in short, displays a rather astonishing degree of analytical ability and sang-froid–and that’s just in her first serial.
Peter Davison’s been heard to say that he thought Nyssa was the companion best suited for his Doctor, but I think he’s wrong. Nyssa may have been the one the Fifth Doctor got along with, but Tegan–spiky, ornery, brave Tegan–was the one he needed. It’s Tegan who wants to know why the Doctor can’t go back and save Adric (“Time-Flight”), in a scene that–as the companion confronts the Doctor over a heartbreaking failure to save a fellow companion–is right at home in the new series:
Tegan: Aren’t you forgetting something important, Doctor? Adric is dead.
Amy: Save him. You save everyone. You always do. That’s what you do.
The Doctor: Not always. I’m sorry.
Amy: Then what is the point of you?
It’s Tegan who who commits to freeing the Frontios colonists when the Doctor is trying to butter up the villain (“Frontios”), Tegan who’s willing to throw knives at people in the Doctor’s defense (“The King’s Demons”). And, finally, it’s Tegan whose departure forces the Doctor to admit that his hands are bloody. The Doctor doesn’t last long without her–two serials after she leaves, he regenerates.
Tegan vs. Eurocentrism
"McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World": a 1979 world map by an Australian cartographer that is oriented so that it has South at the top and Australia in the center.
Beneath its glossy science fiction trappings, Doctor Who is a direct descendent of Victoriana: specifically, the Victorian traditions of the gentleman adventurer and the gentleman inventor. This is not an era known for its transgression or its diversity, and Who has at times struggled to rise above the colonialist subtext of “nice white man from advanced civilisation arrives to save backwards civilisations from themselves”.
As our own Courtney Stoker has put it, Doctor Who is:
… not a particularly progressive, transgressive, or subversive show. It’s just a show about a White dude who wields all the power and paternalism of a British imperialist force…
John Nathan-Turner’s reasons for creating an Australian companion probably didn’t include venturing outside Doctor Who‘s comfort zone or introducing a non-European perspective–accounts of the era suggest that he was mostly interested in selling the show to Australia.
But Tegan does bring a non-British, non-European perspective to the TARDIS, maybe most notably in “Four to Doomsday” when she can communicate with Kurkutji, a temporally displaced Aboriginal Australian, and the Doctor can’t. The scene has some problematic elements that imply a screenwriter who seems not to have thought much about either linguistics or Australia’s diversity of languages, including the odd implication that Kurkutji’s language hasn’t changed over 40,000 years (by contrast, a mere 10,000 years separates English from Proto-Indo-European), and the extraordinary coincidence that Tegan happens to know that one particular language among the hundreds native to Australia. But Tegan’s achievement remains: she can do something that the Doctor cannot, and it is extremely important to the story.
It’s tempting to wonder how much of her pointed refusal to be impressed by the Doctor is that, from her perspective, he may well be the Ultimate Pom: representative of an allegedly superior culture who condescends to hang around hers.
It’s stopped being fun, Doctor
What does Tegan want? Does she want to stay with the Doctor or leave? Certainly she’s one of the companions most ambivalent about traveling with the Doctor. But her story is nearly unique among the companions: she stumbled aboard the TARDIS without meaning to, and the Doctor’s attempts to take her home repeatedly failed. She never asked for adventure; it was thrust upon her.
But how do you reconcile a life of adventure with a mundane Earthbound life? This is a major theme of the new series and its spinoffs, but it’s in Tegan’s story that we see it first broached. The confident young woman we met in “Logopolis”, looking forward to her new job, has her horizons so shattered by her adventures that (per “Arc of Infinity”) she doesn’t last three months as a flight attendant.
So she returns to a life of adventure. This time she wants to be there. She seems happier, now that it’s her choice; she’s more of a participant than a bystander. She is increasingly concerned with the lot of the little people caught up in the mayhem that surrounds the Doctor, and is increasingly determined to give them a voice.
And things start going wrong. Gradually, Tegan realizes that the exhilaration of adventure is not worth the psychic toll it’s taking on her. She’s seen too much. She’s… outgrown him.
So she makes the excruciating choice–the only possible choice–and leaves. On her own terms, with her head held high. Brava.
There’s a woman in Australia… fighting for Aboriginal rights
I’m of the opinion that Who has, ultimately, just one lesson for us to learn, over and over again: we are the same.
Tegan learned it.
 It’s pretty common in the new series for companions to alternate time with the Doctor and time at home: Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, River, Amy, and Rory have all had adventures, left the Doctor, and then come back to have more adventures. But it was vanishingly rare in the classic series; I think Tegan’s the only example. (Sarah Jane didn’t come back until the new series.)
 Interestingly, this translation oddity didn’t make any sense at the time (I think it’s the first time the translation magic didn’t work) but does fit in remarkably well with current Who canon, which holds that the TARDIS can’t translate exceptionally old or obscure languages. (“The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”)