Spoilers for the seven series of New Who, concentrating on the plot and character arcs of the five primary companions
Saturday night I saw Star Trek: Skyfall, then came home and watched the Who finale, “The Name of the Doctor”. So I spent a lot of that night watching loving homages to Classic Who and Original Series Trek that had clearly been made by people who care about those things as much as I do, and I loved every second of it. A lot of effort obviously went into crafting things designed to bring joy to longtime, old-school fans, and I appreciate that. Especially with Doctor Who–the technical achievement we saw in “The Name of the Doctor” was clearly a longtime coming in both conception and execution, long enough that it was already in a pretty advanced stage by the time that worst of Who episodes, “Let’s Get Hitler”, was produced back in 2011.
But there was something else that really struck me about “The Name of the Doctor”, something troubling. I’ve been noticing bits and pieces of it at least as far back as “School Reunion” in 2006, and it’s always bothered me.
When Doctor Who repremiered in 2005, much was made of the new attitude the programme would now have toward the Doctor’s female companions. They would be intelligent, active, independent and competent, not the ditzy, over-terrified sexist stereotypes that we were assured they had been throughout the programme’s first twenty-six seasons. I long ago debunked the idea that ditzy, over-terrified companions were ever a common thing on Doctor Who, or that capable, confident companions were any sort of departure for the programme. But this is more than that. The more I look at it, the more it’s a central message of New Who that the Doctor’s female companions–women who we’re regularly told are special, unique, transcendent individuals in a way we never were in the classic programme–are of value only insofar as they submit themselves to the Doctor.
Much got made during the RTD era of the effect the Doctor had on his companions, of how he made them flourish, capable of more than they would have been otherwise, whether we saw that as a good thing (“But she was better when she was with you!”) or bad (“He fashions his friends into weapons.”). Three of RTD’s four series finales turn on the companion saving the universe (and the Doctor) by achieving some feat that shouldn’t be humanly possible.
First you’ve got Rose, cracking the TARDIS open and taking the time vortex into herself; then Martha, who spends a year wandering the post-apocalyptic Earth, spreading word of the Doctor. Rose refuses to accept her separation from the Doctor and goes to any lengths, including physically impossible ones, to return to him, as she will later do once again with the dimension cannon. Martha, on the other hand, walks away from the Doctor. She sacrifices him, as she sacrifices her family, as she sacrifices at least a degree of her own humanity–when she returns to England at the beginning of “Last of the Time Lords”, she is a visibly harder, less merciful, less empathetic person. Rose rips apart the fabric of space and time to satisfy her own desire to be with the Doctor, whereas Martha spends a whole year in a literal hell on Earth, surviving entirely on her own, telling everyone she meets the importance of having faith in the very man who failed to save her, her family or her world.
And yet of the two, who is routinely treated as the example of the perfect companion, the one who surpasses all others? Whose sacrifice is considered greater? Even the Master laughs at Martha’s trauma, derisively citing Rose as her better, because Rose stared into the time vortex in order to return to the Doctor. The Master, who never even met Rose, thinks immediately of her when trying to come up with an example of companions superior to Martha, rather than thinking of, say, the companion whose brain had such a capacity for mathematics that the Master actually kidnapped him and wired him into his own TARDIS, then was able to harness that mental capacity into constructing solid illusions capable of invading the Doctor’s TARDIS.
After They Leave the Doctor
It is true that time with the Doctor seems to leave his companions more capable, more accomplished individuals. New Who has shown us Sarah Jane, Martha and Donna all excelling in their independent lives–in Donna’s case, even after just a few hours and a single adventure with the Doctor. Of course, Donna turns herself into a professional, perceptive investigator of suspicious situations not because the events of “The Runaway Bride” opened her eyes to the dangers Earth faces constantly and awakened in her a desire to be involved in foiling those dangers; no, she’s simply going to places she thinks she’s likely to find the Doctor so that she can hopefully run into him again. And, in fact, her veneer of accomplished professionalism is just a charade; she’s actually empty and deeply unfulfilled so long as she can’t find the Doctor.
But that’s okay, right, because after she does finally reunite with the Doctor, she and we discover that she’s the Most Important Woman in the Universe? Donna, of course, believes that’s impossible–she believes she can only be important because she’s associated with someone of real importance, the Doctor. But the Doctor assures her that no, the importance is hers and hers alone. So what is that importance? Why is Donna the Most Important Woman in the Universe? Because she happens to be the one who’s there to give the Doctor a hand (literally) when he needs it. If it had been Rose or Jack who were the last ones out of the TARDIS aboard the Dalek spaceship, we’d be talking about the DoctorRose or the DoctorJack.
Yes, Donna then saves the day during the final confrontation with Davros, but critically, it is only the Doctor part of Donna that does so. It’s the new intelligence and perception that the addition of Time Lord genetics has given her; there is, again, no reason it had to be Donna involved here rather than anyone else. And if we really want to get all feminist-critical-theory over this, there’s the very obvious subtext to the idea that what makes Donna special, what allows Donna to fulfill her potential, is that she serves as a receptacle for the Doctor’s genetic code.
At least Sarah Jane achieves for realsies what Donna was only playing at: she’s an actual investigator and defender of Earth. Which is not to say she ever got over the Doctor; it’s important that former companions never get over him. She waited for him, pined after him–clearly she felt a romantic love for him that she did a remarkably good job of hiding, since she showed nary a single sign of it during her actual time in the TARDIS.
Still, she’s overcome being abandoned by the Doctor and has made a life for herself as a truly exceptional person. She’s never found the right man to settle down with, of course, but that’s a perfectly reasonable choice for a character like Sarah Jane–she’s simply not someone who’d necessarily need a romantic relationship at the centre of her life. Which is all fine, until Sarah states outright that the reason she never found the right man is because no man could ever measure up to the Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith was introduced to Doctor Who as the explicit representative of feminism, a driven, focused, professional woman; a woman who took it upon herself to lecture the Queen of Peladon on the women’s lib movement. But when New Who gets a hold of her, we find out that the reason she never got married is not because she simply didn’t need a man to make her life complete; it is, rather, because being friends with the Doctor ruined her for all other men.
Come. The fuck. On.
Which leaves only Martha. Martha is the only companion of the RTD era, and possibly of New Who as a whole (I’d consider Amy a borderline case), to make the conscious choice that she has outgrown the Doctor, that she is ready to face life after the TARDIS. She leaves entirely under her own steam at the end of series three in a scene that’s a neat parallel to her walking away from the Doctor in the cliffhanger at the end of the prior episode and heading off alone to face whatever the Earth has to throw at her. She forges her own path–and the Doctor absolutely despises her for it.
Martha chooses to make a difference in the world by joining an organisation that the Doctor himself devoted six seasons of his life to, an organisation built by his closest friend–and yet he regards Martha has having placed herself under suspicion by having joined the organisation. And we as viewers aren’t directed to take issue with the Doctor’s reaction, to see him as some sort of emotional predator who demands adoration and complete submission from the women he takes with him on his journeys–no, it would seem we’re supposed to agree with him for being disappointed with and suspicious of Martha for joining UNIT.
The Women With the High Concept Nicknames
The Most Important Woman in the Universe. The Girl Who Waited. The Impossible Girl.
(Why is Clara infantilised as the Impossible Girl instead of the Impossible Woman? Is it possibly for the same reason that the Doctor–the fucking Doctor–, when trying to distill the sheer, fascinating impossibility of her into a single sentence, actually devotes more words to how eyecatching her ass is than to the fact that he keeps meeting iterations of her scattered throughout his timeline and watching them die– “A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a bit too tight.” I am going to puzzle out this impossible womangirl, puzzle out what the universe is trying to tell me through her very existence, and defeat whatever profound danger she represents. And then, Jesus H. Christ I’m gonna hit that.)
Amy, the Girl Who Waited. Her nickname is a regular reminder of her deeply creepy origin story. The Doctor meets her when she’s a child, promises he’s about to admit her to a universe of wonder and adventure, and then vanishes for twelve years. Returns, shows her that that universe of adventure is real, that he is real, and then vanishes for another two years, before ultimately returning to bring her aboard the TARDIS. The Doctor is grooming her. He grooms her to regard him as the most wonderful person possible, as her only gateway to an escape to the life she dreams of. He grooms her to respond to his sporadic arrivals in her life by dropping any other priorities she has so she can place herself at his disposal. And he grooms her not to expect anything from him in return–not even his presence, or the idea that he’s under any obligation to keep promises he makes for her.
And now we come to Clara, the Impossible Girl. Whose impossibility, we discovered on Saturday, exists purely so that she can save the Doctor, over and over again, all throughout his life. Even if we assume River’s line about “millions” of Claras being created is hyperbole, there must still be, at a minimum, thousands. Thousands of Claras, through all of time and space, whom, it would seem, are all born, live only the first twenty or twenty-five years of their lives, and then have their encounter with the Doctor–a few minutes, a few hours, a few days; the whole purpose of their life. And then, apparently, they die.
And Clara is fine with that. She’s fine with the idea that on a thousand different worlds in a thousand different times, she has lived a thousand different lives, each of them to help the Doctor on one of his adventures. More than that, she’s proud of it. “I was born to save the Doctor, and the Doctor is safe now. I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done.”
It’s not there in Classic Who. In Classic Who, the Doctor is the leader, yes, and he inspires his companions’ trust. But the companions (generally) leave of their own free will, either because they have outgrown their need for him or because they have found another calling that compels them more. But in New Who, the message is clear: these exceptional women have tremendous potential, but they fulfill that potential only by pledging themselves totally to serving the Doctor.