Doctor Who: Who is a Companion?

So each week, I’m writing up an article in response to some geeky question from my friend Rod.  This week, the question has to do with companions on the TV show, Doctor Who.

Now, similar to a question Rod recently asked me regarding the Legion of Super-Heroes comic books series, I find that my answer requires a lot of back-knowledge to understand.  In that case, instead of including all that background info in the main post, I wrote up a separate article that was more of a reference it.

I’m doing the same thing here, because I find that to answer the main question, I have to come to a clear understanding in my head of which Doctor Who characters qualify as companions, and which do not.

Doctor Who Series 9.jpg

So, for anyone reading this who does not know, Doctor Who is a science fiction TV series that started back in 1963 and has run for an impressive 36 seasons, plus lots of specials and bonus episodes, etc.  The series follows the Doctor, an itinerant alien scientist who travels in time and space using a ship called the TARDIS, and constantly runs into universal horrors and threats, combating them out of an innate sense of justice and rightness.  He is usually accompanied by one or more “Companions”, characters who often served as audience-proxies, and aid (and occasionally hinder) his efforts.

The series has starred a whole bunch of actors as the Doctor, explained by his ability to “regenerate” himself when he’s mortally wounded.  And so amongst fans, the debut of a “new Doctor” is often a moment of great interest and curiosity.  Only slightly behind that is the introduction of a new Companion, as this co-stars of the show are nearly as important to the series and nearly as beloved.  Over the years, Companions have played a variety of roles:  the Doctor’s conscience, friend, confidante, fellow-warrior, foil, and even occasionally an object of the Doctor’s romantic affections.

But, given the longevity of the show and the variety of formats that it has existed in, it’s not as simple to define who does not qualify as a Companion as one might think.

Traditionally, the term “companion” is really a shorthand for “Traveling Companion”–a character who literally travels with the Doctor.  But this definition is limited–there are dozens of characters who traveled with the Doctor at some point, but were clearly guest characters for that story alone (like H.G. Wells in Time-Lash, from the 6th Doctor’s era). There are others who, because of the format of the show at the time, didn’t actually travel that much, but would still be considered companions by most.

You could try saying that to be a companion, you had to be a “regular character” on the series, like a series star.  But that’s confusing as well:  the Doctor’s arch-enemy, the Master, was pretty much a regular character in the classic series 8 – we’re not calling him a Companion are we?  Also, you bring up questions like, was Mickey Smith a regular character?  He pretty much functioned as a companion for a few episodes, but was really more like a recurring character than a regular.  Does that discount him as a companion?

Even the traditional functions of a Companion as mentioned above are not the exclusive domain of the regular characters who traveled with the Doctor.  So how do we classify the role?  Let’s try to develop a definition here.

The Definition

Ultimately, I’d say to be a Doctor Who companion, you have to fulfill all or most of the following points:

• Characters who traveled with the Doctor, usually in the TARDIS.  At least they travel with the Doctor when he does.  If he’s in a period where he’s staying in one place, they stay in one place with him.

• Characters who usually function as the Doctor’s assistant or confidante.  Whatever exactly it looks like, they are, overall, the Doctor’s ally.

• Characters who appeared on TV over an extended and continuous time in the real-life production of the series. This would automatically discount Companions from all the spin-off material, like Frobisher or Charley Pollard or Jason & Crystal.

• Characters whose association with the Doctor has a clear beginning and clear ending.  This doesn’t mean we have to have seen everything, but as a function of TV production, every proper companion of the Doctor’s has a moment where they start being the Doctor’s companion and where they stop. Even characters like Amy & Rory, Clara and Bill, who were seen coming and going with the Doctor from their homes as the situation demanded, still had this sense of both a beginning and an end to their relationship with the Doctor

• Characters who function as surrogates for the audience of sorts–it’s often through the eyes of the companion that we experience and understand the Doctor and his adventures.  If the character does not occupy this role, they aren’t really functioning like a Companion.

I think to really be considered a Companion, all or most of these things need to be true.  If that’s true, that would make a bunch of characters undisputedly into Companions:

Susan, Ian, Barbara, Vicki, Steven Taylor, Dodo, Polly, Ben, Jamie, Victoria, Zoe, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, Harry, Leela, K9 (both of them), Romana (both of them), Adric, Nyssa, Tegan, Turlough, Peri, Mel, Ace, Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Clara & Bill

But with this in mind, there are still lots of other characters who require a judgement call.  So, setting myself up as judge, let’s do this!

The Judgement Calls

Katarina (Adrienne Hill) – a servant girl rescued from ancient Troy, joined in the last episode of one adventure and killed off four episode (out of 12) through the next, totaling five 25-minute episodes all together.  Her tenure was short but she actually fulfills all of the definitions I mentioned.   Status:  Short-Lived Companion

Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) – a member of the Space Security Service who started off as an adversary of the Doctor’s but quickly became an ally.  She was only in the last two thirds of one story, but it was a long one so she was on TV for eight weeks fulfilling a companion role, which included lots of travels to lots of planets. The actress did not consider herself to be a companion but most listings and lots of spin-off spin-off material do, with things going so far as to create all sorts of other adventures that Sara had with the Doctor in between her televised stories.  Status:  Companion, basically

Liz Shaw (Caroline John) – Actually, nobody really disputes Liz’s position as a companion, but I mention her because she disproves the idea of “travels with the Doctor in the TARDIS” as a sole definition.  Liz was the Doctor’s assistant during a period when he was stranded on earth.  She never traveled in or even entered the TARDIS, as far as I remember, but served as his friend, confidante and primary ally over the one year she was on the show (25 episodes covering 4 stories).  Status:  Companion

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) – One of the most beloved characters on the show (perhaps more so than any other aside from the Doctor), the Brigadier was essentially a regular for the first couple of years of the 3rd Doctor’s tenure.  He was the Doctor’s ally and sometimes friend, but in spite of that, he wasn’t a companion.  Not only did he never travel with the Doctor on the TARDIS (aside from anniversary stories!), but he was never positioned in the show as someone through whom the audience experienced the Doctor and his adventures.  He was always a bit on the outside–never fully understanding the Doctor and enjoying his trust in the way the main companions of the era did (at least, not until much later, when the Brigadier was clearly a returning guest star).  He was an important part of the Doctor’s life on earth, but more as someone the Doctor was visiting for a really long time than as a Companion.  Status: Beloved friend, sometimes necessary evil, but not a Companion

Captain Yates (Richard Franklin) and Sgt. Benton (John Levene) – These two UNIT soldiers were for a while almost on the show as much as the Brigadier (their commanding officer), but never had his prominence or consistency.  For all the same reasons, they are not companions.  Status:  Recurring Characters

Kamelion (voice of Gerald Flood) – Hoo-boy.  Kamelion is one of the most tricky ones, and one for whom I had to rethink through my definitions a bit.  The idea with Kamelion was that he was a robot who had the ability to shape-shift, who was used by the Master during the 5th Doctor’s era as part of an evil, but after being freed, he asked to join the Doctor.  So Kamelion did travel with the Doctor, and his his tenure had a clear beginning and end…it’s just that we never saw any of the stories that were in between.  Indeed, he joined the Doctor in his second episode, which aired on March 16, 1983, and then did not reappear until February 23, 1984:  6 stories, 16 episodes, and nearly 1 year later.  He went on to appear for that one 4-part story and then was destroyed, and most of those six episodes he spent in disguise.  He never served as an audience surrogate, and he couldn’t really be considered the Doctor’s confidante or ally–indeed, he spent most of his time under the mental sway of the Master trying to destroy the Doctor.

The only thing that argues for his inclusion, other than the technicality of his having been part of the TARDIS crew (and apparently been sitting around in the back room during all those other adventures) is the fact that he was part of the flashbacks that the regenerating 5th Doctor has with all of his other companions.  In other words, the Doctor himself considered Kamelion a companion.  And so even though it’s a bit inconsistent, I’m going to have to give way to the Doctor’s opinion, because that in-story justification is hard to dismiss.  Status:  Companion, reluctantly.

Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), Astrid Peth (Kylie Minogue), Jackson Lake (David Morrissey), Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan), Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan), Claire Skinner (Madge Arwell) – There are some who have considered these characters, all one-offs, to be companions, mainly because they were the main co-star different Doctor Who special episodes and had their names on the opening credits.  To these claims I say nay!  You can’t become a Doctor Who by appearing in one episode of the story, even in a major role.  Status:  A bunch of one-off guest stars

Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) & Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) – I include both of these guys in one entry because they fit the same general mold, which is sort of “guest characters who had a brief season being Companions”.  For Mickey, his stint came in the middle of all his appearances, while for Jack it came at the start.   But both characters had a short arc where they joined the Doctor in his travels, had one stand-alone adventure, and then left during the subsequent two-parter.  So they both qualify, albeit a bit reluctantly.  Status:  Short-term companions for four or five episodes each.

Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri), River Song (Alex Kingston), Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), Strax (Dan Starkey), Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), etc – All of these characters appeared more than once, but most not in consecutive episodes, and none as full-on traveling companions of the Doctor.  River Song comes the closest, having been invited to join the Doctor, but her refusal keeps her from being included.  Status:  Recurring Characters

• Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley) – An interesting one because Adam is literally a companion in the sense that he did actually travel in the TARDIS with the Doctor, having a “joining” episode (Dalek) and a “leaving” episode (The Long Game).  But the thing is those episodes were back to back.  Adam was never truly the Doctor’s ally, basically using his opportunity to time travel to try to further his own wealth, and he wasn’t really ever welcomed by the Doctor, having come more as Rose’s “plus 1”.  Indeed, it was more like he was Rose’s companion.  Maybe if he’d been around one more episode before his fall, I don’t know, but as it is, I can’t count him.  Status:  Recurring Idiot

Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) – Rory is clearly a Companion, but in his first season it’s just in a Mickey Smith sort of way – he barely shows up with the Doctor for a small handful of stories before he is written out (by dying).  Fortunately, he gets better and then returns in full-fledged Companion status with the following year and a half.  Rory was never the Doctor’s main confidante–that was always his wife Amy–but he was part of things enough that there’s no question of including him.  Status:  Companion, usually

Nardole (Matt Lucas) is a funny one.  He starts off as a guest character (and sort of comedy-villain) before he is killed and then resurrected as a companion of the Doctor in a way that nobody else had ever been before:  almost like a servant or a butler.  The Doctor is a little bit more sedentary at this point, having taken a job at a university, but Nardole still goes on a bunch of TARDIS journeys and shares in most of the adventures the Doctor has with Bill, so I think we have to count him.  Status:  Companion, usually

The Conclusion

Phew!  There we have it!

By my count, that’s 40 companions that the show has had…a useful list to have as I prepare to answer the next Weekly Geeky Question, which will combine Doctor Who with another long-running science fiction TV show.



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