Doctor Who – How Well Did Each Producer Handle the Companion Departures?

Doctor Who has been around in one form or another for nearly sixty years, and in that time it’s been in the hands of many creative people. Recently, we voted some of them into a Hall of Fame, even.

(Daily Doctor Who #291)

One of the most significant roles in shaping Doctor Who on television are the lead producers. For the old show, these men (and woman) were generally just credited as “Producer”–in the modern series, they are called “Executive Producers”, but given there are several people with that job at any time we more commonly refer to these people as the series’ “Showrunner” or maybe “Head Writer.”

All together, if we only count the two ongoing series of Doctor Who, there have been twelve of these people–eleven men and one woman–who are really as important if not more than even the actor playing the Doctor at shaping the quality of the program.

Many a person has listed a countdown ranking these individuals, and today I am going to do that as well, but with the specific grid of how well each person handled another mainstay of Doctor Who–the companion departure.

If you know the show, you know what I’m talking about. Doctor Who has (almost) always had companions–regular characters who traveled or worked alongside the Doctor and participated in the story’s adventures, often as a co-protagonist. There is a lot of debate about who counts and who doesn’t as a companion, but the vast majority of them we can all agree on. And with a few exceptions, they’ve all had “departures” from the series–a scene and/or story point in which the character went from being a regular presence on the show to not being a regular presence anymore. Usually, this meant they stopped traveling on the TARDIS, although sometimes the moment looked different depending on the status quo of the time.

So I’m going to rank the producers based on how well or poorly they handled these moments…

12. Graham Williams

Farewelled: Leela, Romana I

Graham Williams had a lot to work with, but he did so with the least results. Leela and Romana I are both great companions, frankly, but they both have terrible send-offs.

Leela marries a dude who she basically has no chemistry or interaction with, basically just because the story (The Invasion of Time) had come to an end and nothing else had been worked out. It’s one of the show’s worst departures, redeemed only because Louise Jameson and Tom Baker each had a touching reaction to the parting.

Romana is even worse. Apparently, Mary Tamm had told the production team she wasn’t sticking around after her one season, but they didn’t believe her and therefore didn’t give her a farewell scene. Instead, the character departs in the next story, Destiny of the Daleks, in a joke-scene featuring her replacement announcing to the Doctor that she has just decided to regenerate, and then going on to try on different bodies before settling on a permanent one. If you don’t try to take it seriously, it’s mildly amusing, but if you do, it’s terrible.

Incidentally, K9 Mark 1 also technically leaves with Leela, but he is immediately replaced in the following adventure by a near-carbon copy K9 who is voiced by the same actor—so I’m not really counting it here.

11. Innes Lloyd

Farewelled: Steven Taylor, Dodo Chaplet, Ben Jackson, Polly

Innes Lloyd saw the conclusions of four companions runs on the TARDIS over three separate stories, and all three smack of a producer eager to clear out the existing cast in order to try something new.

Steven’s departure in The Savages is a bit perfunctory, but at least it’s got a unique and interesting story justification and an actual departure scene that seems to hit all the beats.

This can’t be said for Dodo Chaplet, who I have argued is the companion with the worst ever departure. Dodo disappears from the adventure–The War Machines–two episodes in, and then leaves the Doctor via a message sent to him by her replacements. The underdeveloped nature of it all shows that the production team had no real interest in the character or any sort of story associated with her.

Ironically, the companions that Dodo is overturned for, Ben & Polly, suffer almost an identical fate in The Faceless Ones. They also disappear from their last adventure in episode two, but then come back in at the end long enough to realize the date and announce that they are leaving. It was obvious and abrupt, but at least allowed the characters an on-screen goodbye.

10. John Wiles

Farewelled: Vicki, Katarina, Sara Kingdom

John Wiles is a tricky one because his tenure as producer only lasted four serials, but one of them was The Daleks’ Masterplan, which featured two characters leaving the show who are sometimes considered to be companions.

Prior to that, Vicki had left in The Myth Makers, a story which is no longer in the archives but which by all accounts was really strange. The audience didn’t get to see her announce her decision or say goodbye to anyone. Instead, it’s all revealed when she finds a guy she’s interested in and tells him she’s staying with him. There is a bit of a story justification for it, but the impression is that they just wanted to get her off the show with as little fuss as possible.

She is replaced by Katarina who goes on to have an abrupt departure in The Daleks’ Masterplan when the production team evidently did not feel the character was working particularly well. She dies in a struggle with a criminal in an airlock–it’s obviously dramatic and sad, but under-developed, as evidenced by the fact that it takes place in the middle of not just a story, but of an episode.

Her “successor” is Sara Kingdom only appears in one story (the same one Katarina dies in), but because it’s so long she is sometimes listed as a companion. She also dies when she is aged rapidly by the Time Destructor, a Dalek weapon the Doctor has repurposed to defeat his enemies. Her death is certainly epic and dramatic, but seems a bit purposeless.

Obviously the impact of losing both her and Katarina is limited by how briefly they had been around on the program.

9. Chris Chibnall

Farewelled: Ryan Sinclair, Graham O’Brien

Chris Chibnall is the current showrunner of Doctor Who, and thus the only of these producers whose ranking could plausibly change in the future, after he has (presumably) written out both Dan and Yaz.

The big thing that is points against the departures of both Ryan and Graham is the fact that Chibnall’s era struggled to give the companions meaningful roles on the show, so that even both Graham and Ryan are around for a while (two seasons each) we don’t really feel like they’ve gone through any sort of meaningful story arcs.

The exit scene itself in Revolution of the Daleks is perfectly fine for what it is, but are not especially memorable or meaningful. Ryan decides to leave simply because he wants to spend more time being a positive impact in his community, which is admirable but not dramatic (and something the episode had to spend a lot of time trying to motivate). Graham’s departure is slightly better, as he wants to leave to spend time with Ryan (his grandson)–something that had a bit more of an emotional quality.

8. Derrick Sherwin

Farewelled: Jamie McCrimmon, Zoe Herriot

Jamei and Zoe both leave at the end of the Second Doctor’s era, in The War Games. Given the nature of the events of the story–the gravitas of introducing the Time Lords–having them just sent home was a perfect way for the Doctor’s companions to be written out.

It actually added a sense of significance to the Doctor’s whole trial, as well as a bittersweet quality when we learn their memories are (at least partially) erased. It does, however, feel like we lose two beloved characters a bit abruptly, which isn’t ideal.

7. Peter Bryant

Farewelled: Victoria Waterfield

Victoria leaves simply because she finds the death and terror she meets at every turn in her travels just too much to handle. It makes total sense that not everyone would want to stay with the Doctor in those circumstances, and so her departure actually makes a lot of sense.

Her decision is set up by a number of moments throughout her final serial, Fury from the Deep, and she had quite an extensive and satisfying goodbye sequence which was appropriate for the depth of relationship she had with the Doctor and Jamie.

Producer Peter Bryant only loses points because this is the only companion farewell to happen in his tenure.

6. Philip Hinchcliffe

Farewelled: Harry Sullivan, Sarah Jane Smith

Harry’s departure was a bit of a non-event. His latest adventure–Terror of the Zygons- takes him back to earth for the first time since his initial departure, and at the end he just opts not to keep going.  It makes sense, but there’s no drama or emotion associated with it, so its highly forgettable.

Much better is the farewell of Sarah Jane Smith in The Hand of Fear, which happens when the Doctor is recalled to Gallifrey and finds he cannot take Sarah with him. Sarah was was a beloved character with a strong emotional bond with the Doctor, and so needed a strong farewell. The show found an interesting way to handle this, writing her out in a way that was surprising and unusual and emotional, but which avoided making things unnecessarily tragic (by having her die, or anything). The scene is very well played between Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker.

5. Steven Moffat

Farewelled: Amy Pond, Rory Williams, Clara Oswald, Nardole, Bill Potts

Steven Moffat is a real mixed bag at writing out companions. On one hand, most of his departure sequences are highly emotional–almost operatic really–but also tend to be overwrought and in one case, strangely repetitive.

Amy and Rory have an emotionally heartfelt exit in The Angels Take Manhattan when Rory is “killed” by a Weeping Angel and Amy decides to let it take her as well so she can be with him. Unfortunately, the question of why the Doctor can’t simply retrieve them from the past (and thus making the whole story beat irrelevant)is explained only with a flimsy bit of techno-gobbledygook. Also, it’s all treated like a tragedy but really it’s mainly sad just for the Doctor himself—making it feel a little shallow. Still, it’s beautifully played, which covers a multitude of sins.

With Clara, the story is needlessly convoluted: she dies in Face the Raven, but is then in Hell Bent is pulled out of the time stream just before her death by the Doctor, who then forgets about her existence; and then she chooses to roam time and space with an immortal friend before eventually returning (we presume) to her point of death to let things play out. I love Clara but I’m not interested in her further adventures with Ashildr, so leaving it open-ended as it did was unnecessary and unsatisfying.

And then there is Bill’s departure in The Doctor Falls, which is a carbon copies of some elements from Clara’s, and is almost the only thing from last story that I don’t like. To recap: she’s turned into a Cybermen but then saved and restored by “Heather”–actually some sentient oil that has taken the form (sort of) and emotions (sort of) of a girl Bill barely knew. And then Bill leaves with her, without telling the Doctor she is still alive. Treating this like it’s some sort of great romance, and not just super-weird and kind of creepy, is very annoying.

In some ways, Moffat’s best farewell is Nardole, who also leaves in The Doctor Falls, in order to stay with Hazran and her people on a Mondasian colony ship who were constantly under threat from Cybermen. He leaves in a way that is satisfying for the character and integral to the story, and refreshingly straight-forward.

4. Verity Lambert

Farewelled: Susan Foreman, Barbara Wright, Ian Chesterton

Verity Lambert was the show’s first ever producer, and as such she oversaw the exits of the first three companions.

Susan’s departure in The Dalek Invasion of the Earth was one of the show’s best. The Doctor locks her out of the TARDIS because he knows she will never leave him even though she has fallen in love with David Campbell, a freedom fighter who has helped to liberate earty from the Daleks. It doesn’t really hold up under logical scrutiny (does it really make sense for the Doctor to force his granddaughter to stay behind?), but the scene itself is beautifully played and set a standard for the show that it took about a decade to match. It also gave us one of William Hartnell’s most iconic lines: “One day, I shall come back, yes, I shall come back…”

Ian and Barbara leave later, in The Chase, when they realize they can use a captured Dalek time machine to return home. Their farewell isn’t as emotional as Susan’s, but it’s nicely story-driven, given their overall story arc of being “trapped” with the Doctor. There are some really fun still images of Ian and Barbara joyfully exploring London upon their return at the end of the episode..

3. Barry Letts

Farewelled: Liz Shaw, Jo Grant

Barry Letts is perhaps surprisingly high on this list, as he only saw out two companions, and one of them was not done especially well.

That was Liz Shaw, who left between seasons (as revealed in Terror of the Autons) because she was tired of just being an assistant to the Doctor. She doesn’t get a departure scene, which is s shame, but it has more dignity than Dodo Chaplet before her (see Innes Lloyd) because it is narratively stronger and because she doesn’t just vanish in the middle of an adventure.

But then came Jo Grant, who left the show in The Green Death in what might be the perfect classic-Doctor Who companion farewell, in order to marry guest character Clifford Jones and travel with him to the Amazon. Jo’s romance with Clifford ones was a big part of her last story, so her decision was strongly set up and justified.  The actual goodbye itself was given the screen time it needed, so the whole affair was beautifully emotional without becoming saddling the show in tragedy.

2. John Nathan-Turner

Farewelled: Romana II, K9, Adric, Nyssa, Tegan Jovanka, Kamelion, Turlough, Peri Brown, Mel

As Doctor Who‘s longest serving producer it’s not surprising that John Nathan-Turner farewelled the most companions, and it seems like something he was invested in doing a good job with, possibly in response to the poor job done by his predecessor, Graham Williams. They range in quality from weak and confused on one hand to absolutely brilliant on the other…but there was a distinct effort to make each one meaningful.

With Romana II, she left a bit abruptly in Warrior’s Gate, but she gets a touching farewell as she departs for noble purposes (to help champion the opporessed Gonds and their cause for freedom). Her exit is punctuated by a meaningful pronouncement from the Doctor which fittingly honors her: “All right? She’ll be superb.”

K9 leaves in the same story, impulsively handed off to Romana to assist her in her quest. It’s a pretty good way to say farewell to the character (at least until he started showing up in spin-offs), as it might have been tricky making too big of an emotional scene with the robotic dog alone, but at the same time it would have felt insufficient if his departure hadn’t had some meaning associated with it.

Adric’s departure came next, with him dying as he attempted to save the earth from an attack by the Cybermen in Earthshock. It’s one of the most affecting departures ever, if for no other reason than that the character properly and legitimately died (Big Finish retcons notwithstanding). This had never happened before with a long-serving companion, and basically hasn’t happened since (all later companions deaths have always been mitigated in some way.) Adric’s sacrifice, which as it appears on-screen was tragically unnecessary, is extremely moving and brilliantly played by the creative team.

Nyssa’s departure, which came in Terminus as she opted to devote her life to helping victims of Lazar’s disease, isn’t as emotional or tragic but works well thanks to being completely story-driven and uplifting the character in the same way that Romana II’s did.  It also fits the plot as it had been playing out over the four episodes of her final serial.

Tegan left in Resurrection of the Daleks when she announced she was no longer wanting to go with the Doctor after being disheartened by the death and destruction she had seen. It’s notable as she and the Doctor depart on reasonably bad terms. Her decision to leave comes a little out of nowhere but still is understandable given how brutally violent her last story is. And the cast does a good job with the material.

Planet of Fire saw the last appearances of two companions. The first was Kamelion, the shapeshifting robot who begs for and is granted a mercy killing by the Doctor after being used by the Master for evil purposes. It’s hard to know if Kamelion should even be counted on a list of companions, but we will as almost all he did was depart. In reality, Kamelion was a victim of the fact that the creative team didn’t know what to do with him either technically or narratively. His departure has the benefit of being well-motivated by the script and well-played by the cast, but it’s a hard one to really care about.

Turlough left later in the same story, returning to his home planet after political shits made it possible. His departure was not particularly dramatic or exciting, but perfectly reasonable, and well-integrated into the plot and effectively character-driven.

Peri came next, whose departure in The Trial of a Time Lord is a tough one to judge. She has her brain replaced by the villainous Kiv, who is then killed by Yrcanos…but later this is revealed to be a falsehood and in reality she marries Yrcanos…so, yeah. Her “real” goodbye is something that we don’t even really get to see–it’s just a throwaway line and a re-used video clip to help give the story a happy ending.  Her “main” goodbye on the other hand, is a scene of gruesome torture followed by a cruel death. It’s hard to say which is worse. Certainly, the “death” is impacting, but coming as it does in the midst of a confused story, it doesn’t work as well as it should have.

Nathan-Turner’s (and all of classic Doctor Who’s) last departure was Mel, which a bit narratively ludicrous, with the character just deciding to go and hook up with con-man Sabalom Glitz–there’s no build-up or real explanation for it. But the actual farewell scene is pretty good. However, it turns out it was written as an audition piece for the Seventh Doctor, with no connection with any particular plot or character…and unfortunately it shows.

1. Russell T. Davies

Farewelled: Adam Mitchell, Captain Jack Harkness, Mickey Smith, Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble

The revival series’ first showrunner set up the show in a way that was different from before—in addition to the “main” companions, there were a handful of “recurring” characters who also acted like companions from an in-universe perspective.  The two different types of characters required different types of exits, which the show did very deliberately. 

The first three were Adam Mitchell, Captain Jack and Mickey Smith. Adam wasn’t much a companion–he obviously wasn’t written to be a long-term character, but rather someone who could show how tough the Doctor when he kicks him out for trying to use time travel for personal gain (in The Long Game). In that way his departure was well done, but it only fits this list if we use some pretty broad parameters for who gets included.

Captain Jack is super confusing entry–he finishes his role as a companion in The Parting of the Ways when he is killed, resurrected and turned immortal, and then abandoned by the Doctor for not making any sense anymore. A lot of this is only explained later–at the time it just seemed like the character got forgotten—so it wasn’t the greatest of farewells. Really there to just set up the character for future spin-offs.

With Mickey Smith, he was a recurring character both before and after he travelled on the TARDIS, but had a four-episode run in the middle where he functioned like a companion. This concluded with a proper exit in The Age of Steel, when he decidd to stay behind in a parallel universe to care for his grandmother. It made sense both for the story and the character.

However, it’s really with the three main companions that Rusell T. Davies distinguishes himself, giving each one an overall story that ran over an entire season (or two, in Roses’s case).

When Doctor Who came back in 2005, Rose was as important to the show as the Doctor himself. Over her two seasons, her relationship with the Doctor had been developed and built up beyond anything we had seen in Doctor Who to that point. Her departure in Doomsday (when she is trapped in a parallel universe) milked all the emotion it could out of the sstory, making her farewell one of the series’ most powerful and intense. It’s only let down in hindsight as Rose became less unique, having more “lead companions” to be compared to.

Martha Jones left in The Last of the Time Lords, when she finally realized the Doctor would never be as interested in her as she was in him. Her character had been unfortunately saddled with the burden of being unrequitedly in love with the Doctor all season long, but she got a good ending when she finally woke up to the situation and opted to leave on her own terms.

And finally there was Donna Noble, whose memory of her time with the Doctor erased in order to save her brain from burning out after she experienced a two-way biological meta-crisis (so, uh, yeah). Donna was one of those companions who was purposely written to be someone who would never willingly part with the Doctor, so her eventually exit from the series had to be something steeped in tragedy. The production team found the perfect way out for the character–absolutely heart-breaking, without actually killing her.

All three of those main companions’ departures–Rose, Martha and Donna–are amongst the best in the series’ whole history, and help cement Russell T. Davies as the show’s best lead producer at making this classic part of the show as good as it could be.

2 thoughts on “Doctor Who – How Well Did Each Producer Handle the Companion Departures?

  1. I know that there was a better farewell planned for Jamie where the Doctor returned him to the Highlands, where they (with Zoe) would defend Jamie’s family heritage against the Yeti. I would have really liked that farewell.

    Thank you for this list.

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