A few weeks ago, Doctor Who announced its latest companion, and let’s just say they seem to have kept a theme going. That theme is that for the last 30 years, every Dr Who companion has been either a contemporary human female, or has joined the show via a contemporary human female. In fact earlier this month was thirty years since the last non-human, male, standalone companion.
It’s an odd observation, and certainly one that most current fans, especially those that started with the reboot 9 years ago are probably unable to make. To them, that companions are female, human, and ‘from around out time’ seems normal. But it wasn’t always that way.
For clarity, we should probably define a few things to start with, human means, well, human. Contemporary means a period +/- 10 years from the run of Dr Who (so roughly 1955-2025). Finally, an associated male, is one that joined the timey-wimey crew mainly because of a female companion he had a pre-existing relationship with, or who joined to be with a companion.
Also, in the main, we’ll focus on companions who made more than one story appearance, we’ll come back to the ‘single story companions’ (who are more of a temporary ally/sidekick, than a companion, let’s be honest)
So, let’s get a quick list of companions, eh? There’s quite a number, 40 in fact counting the Brigadier, and Dr Holloway (since she was the only on-screen companion for the 8th doctor) but not including Capt. Yates or Sgt Benton. Likewise Jackie Tyler was also an associated character.
So, here we have a shot of all 40 companions so far. Oh them, 12 are male, and 2 are robots. That means there’s 26 female companions (a 2:1 ratio) which doesn’t seem THAT bad to start with. But, let’s see how they break down, eh? Turns out, 16 of those 26 companions are contemporary human females.
There is, of course, a question mark over River Song, as she is both human, and can be considered contemporary (as she’s the child of two human contemporary companions, and she even spent time with them in her youth as ‘Mels’. But leaving that aside, almost half of the companions are contemporary human females, as marked.
But it gets worse. Some male companions are introduced and brought along less as a companion to the Doctor, but more of a companion to the companion. They’re not characters that stand alone, but have a pre-existing relationship with a companion, and are there because the other companion is. So let’s mark our chart with a nice blue star, and an arrow showing the link, shall we?
Apart from River Song (which as we’ve already discussed is very much a special case) the only companion in the bottom three rows (representing the late 30 years) is Captain Jack Harkness.
While I’m sure part of the reasoning is that contemporary humans help ‘ground’ the Doctor, and make a good reference point to ourselves, it’s been evident that some of the best writing has been where companions aren’t stuck in the ‘well what’s that?’ or ‘*SCREAM*’ pigeonholes.
There has also been a tendency for only a single companion, or companion group now, which has also limited things. Companions are often relegated to either vehicles of exposition, a Jimmy-Cricket-esque voice of conscience or damsels in distress, but they certainly don’t have to be.
Take a look though most lists of ‘best companions’ though, and you’ll see some common trends. The likes of Romana, Leela, Capt. Jack, and Jamie are frequently mentioned, alongside Donna, Ace and Sarah Jane. And of course, a special mention should go to the Brigadier, the only companion that has had substantial staying power.
Look at that again, two non-humans (from 8 total), and two of the 8 ‘independent’ male companions (again from 8) too. And the three popular contemporary female humans were also not so ‘typical’ – Donna was much older than most companions and had a very sharp tongue (perhaps being so popular because of her brassy, and comedic nature), and Ace had found her own way into space, and was perhaps one of the most aggressive companions ever. Of course, Sarah-Jane was just nice, and pleasant, and perhaps is the exception that proves the rule.
In fact, thinking about it, so many modern-day companions fall a little flat because of the excellence of Ms. Sladen’s work, and we have all been spoilt by it; other companions are left to try and match her standards, and fall short. The excellence of both SJ Smith and Captain Jack as characters led them to their own spinoff shows,
So perhaps it’s time the production staff got a clue and stop trying. In fact, try something new, or at least revisit things that haven’t been done in a while.
I mentioned at the start that it’s been 30 years since Planet of Fire, but I also think that was the end of the best era in companions. At that point we stopped with ‘groups’ of companions, and went to a “+1” system (or in some cases “+1(+1)” as mentioned above). Having two, sometimes three separate companions in their own right, the earlier doctors had more depth to their episodes.
In fact, the epitome of good companion interplay was the constant bickering and distrust between Teegan and Turlough, often with Nyssa there to moderate things. Or indeed the K9 era, where there was usually a companion to make a trifecta of opinions.
Now, with Samuel Anderson joining Doctor Who as Danny Pink, a teacher at Coal Hill School with Clara Oswald, we again have another male companion who has joined as the plus-1’s plus-1. The problem is that they tend to be focused more on the companion than the doctor or the story, that it again shifts the focus. It was the case with Micky, and with Rory.
It’s a bad pattern to follow, with what is shaping up to be another submissive male character when someone more capable of standing up to the doctor, and giving a radically different perspective may have brought a new breath of fresh air into things.
Indeed, by going full circle back to the original episodes, there is the possibility that Mr Pink will not essentially carry Clara’s purse, or ‘be the tin dog’. However, with the sorts of storylines we’ve come to expect from Moffat, where storylines are trying so hard to be clever they scream their interconnectedness like a toddler boasting of a bodily function, it’s unlikely we’ll get the kind of romance-free old-fashioned ‘Who-ing’ the series desperately needs.
And that’s a shame, because while ‘sex sells’, and the element of romance, or at least sexual tension, is de rigour in shows these days, Doctor Who is not your typical show, and ten years of young girls mooning over the Doctor like love-sick teenagers is nine too many.
Of course, we’re still a wile from knowing what’s going to happen. However, unless Doctor Who starts having some strong independent male companions as well, it’s likely to suffer the problems of all shows – staleness. There are only so many stories for a Doctor, his contemporary human female companion, and her male ‘pet’ after all.