Doctor Who’s Doctrine, Part 6: Those Complicated Companions

Image: http://www.doctorwho.tv/

Before the 50-year anniversary of “Doctor Who” on Nov. 23, Christ and Pop Culture is exploring the sci-fi series in Doctor Who’s Doctrine. 

Part 1: Mad Man with a Box
Part 2: Genre Roots
Part 3: Exterminating Evil
Part 4: The Trip of a Lifetime
Part 5: Music for a Mad Man

I came for the Doctor; I stayed for the companions.

Like most, I wandered into my obsession with a strange, sci-fi children’s show called Doctor Who at the recommendation of friends. And by recommendation, I mean full on badgering—by some very smart, funny, witty people. So I dived in, like most people do, with the series rebirth from 2005-2011, conveniently streaming on Netflix.

The first few episodes threw me off. And by that, I basically mean the entire first season was me adjusting to the fact that I was watching a cheesy, slapstick comedy with a few intense dramatic moments within. I had to wrap my mind around all these villains and their terrible costumes and sound effects (EXTERMINATE!). But mostly, I had to get used to the dynamic of a Doctor and his companion.

I mean, come on. I can’t believe that the language isn’t intentional. The sexism of the terms themselves (not to mention the show’s predilection for young, beautiful companions) should immediately give pause. And in many ways, I found some of the plot lines between the Doctor and his female companion to be tiring, full of tropes, and usually written at the expense of the women characters themselves. I don’t like how the companions sometimes seem to exist solely in order to “save” the Doctor from himself, how they are written to be uncomplicated, one-note wonders,  how they are expected to jump into a strange little box with a mad man at a moment’s notice.

But here is what I do like: that’s not all the show is. Over 6 seasons, with a multitude of writers and directors (although they could stand to have a few more females—harrumph), I have come to be consistently surprised by the show. Just when you think they can’t get any more predictable, or cheesy, or have one more Manic Pixie Dream Girl be the companion de jour—the show has a way of changing on you. Here’s a completely subjective recap of the companions (and, it should be noted, for obvious reasons: SPOILERS).

1. Rose Tyler

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I suffered through Rose. I liked the working-class elements of her character (her acid wash jeans! Those sneakers!), but by the David Tennet seasons I just couldn’t stand her. Her main characteristics involved flashing her giant, goofy smile and giggling up at the Doctor. Her redeeming qualities include introducing the character of her mother Jackie Tyler, who to this day remains one of my favorite characters on the show. I also enjoyed seeing Rose when she appeared in later seasons, all sober-minded and leading a revolution (complete with enormous weaponry). I actually sort of liked that unsmiling, serious creature. She actually had a bit of chutzpah about her.

2. Martha Jones

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Martha gets a short shrift on the internet, but I liked her. She always looked a bit worried, which soothed me after the intense silliness of Rose. Martha, famous for her unrequited love for the Doctor, handled her feelings with a gravitas I found compelling. Martha also brought another layer of complexity of the show by being the first person of color to be a companion. In some time-travling situations, Martha finds herself automatically being relegated to the servant, while the Doctor is the professor. In many ways, her character revealed just how privileged the Doctor was. I like how Martha can see all of this—even the Doctor’s refusal to acknowledge her feelings for him—and she chooses to empower herself instead of focusing on the Doctor. In the end, when Martha left, I felt almost relieved for her. Now she could get on with the business of her life: leading rebellions, being a real doctor, being awesome.

3. Donna Noble

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That’s Doctor Donna, to you. I am team Donna, all the way. She is the best thing that ever happened to that show. Donna is smart, shrill, auburn-haired, and not the teensiest bit mouthy. I like how complex she was—how she was fragile and a bully and incredibly caring and a bit like a teenager around her mum. How she told the Doctor what was what, and how she never lost sight of what was truly important: every day, ordinary people. In the end, when Donna saves the world and the 10th Doctor looks at her, and realizes that all along she’s been full of bluster and bluff: at her core, Donna still does not realize how valuable she is. She also proved that it is possible to have electric chemistry with the Doctor without a hint of romance clouding up everything. Donna was a breath of fresh air, and there has been no one like her since.

4. Amy Pond

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I never liked Amy. From day one she was eye-candy; she doesn’t have much of a backstory (please—The Girl Who Waited is the most Manic Pixie thing I have ever heard in my life). She blindly follows the Doctor around, is aggressive in her pursuit of danger and selfishness, and is perennially mean to the greatest boyfriend/husband you could ever wish to meet. Both Amy and the 11th Doctor seemed to be a calculated ploy at a younger, hipper audience. Amy is selfish, and good-looking, and that’s all we really get to know of her. Shame on the writers for thinking that would be enough.

5. River Song

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Not technically a companion, River gets enough screen time that she should be mentioned. I adored River from the moment she took control of the first scene she appeared in; I loved her cheeky smile, her sorrow and her wisdom. I loved how she spanned multiple seasons and a dizzying timeline; I love her catchphrases (Hello, Sweetie), and how she made everything so deliciously saucy. I liked how much she differed from others in her ideaology (River Song was no pacifist). But I don’t like that by the end River seemed to be a pale version of herself, another tiny background player in the story of the Doctor. I don’t like the way she said things like “don’t ever let him see you age”, and how it became all about a wedding. By the time her storyline was over, it seems the brilliance of River Song had been played out. Well, it was good (and gorgeous) while it lasted.

6. Rory Williams

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Rory, long-suffering boyfriend/husband of Amy Pond, is probably my second favorite companion. I was completely blindsided by the importance of his character. As he continued to show up in episode after episode, my confusion gave way to pleasure. He was the perfect bumbling foil to the steely Amy and the silly 11th Doctor. Rory Williams: The Boy Who Understood That This Was All a Bit Mad. Rory never fell prey to the charms of the Doctor, but he was exceedingly loyal. He was funny, he was witty. He was just a dude, who was confused most of the time, but who really truly wanted to do good by the world. I don’t know what he ever saw in Amy.

—-

Beyond the 6 (and I stop here, since I don’t quite know enough about Clara to have an opinion on her) there is the ensemble that rounds out the companion dynamic. The characters that travel with the doctor for an episode or two (and sometimes even more). Of those, I find Jackie Tyler and Wilfred Mott to be the most compelling and hilarious of the short-term companions. But for every endearing family member, we also get Kylie Minogue dressed up as a scantily clad waitress (hint: not my favorite). Sensing a theme? I, like many others, crave stories that matter. We crave characters that we can identify with, or look up to. We aren’t satisfied with the shallow, because it turns people into objects (long shots of Amy Pond’s legs, I’m thinking of you). I believe all of us recognize that as dehumanizing to the characters, which affects us as we consume the stories. Even as Doctor Who panders to the easy stereotypes every once in a while, I am gratified that the show doesn’t stop there, giving us plenty of real characters with emotions to go on. As Doctor Who has evolved, the network of trusty, fragile human companions seems to grow with it. And in the end, I began to see myself in them.

Other writers have made the case that the human companions are something of an emotional anchor to the Doctor. They humanize him, save him from his fits of bad temper, fall in love with him, scold him, and bring him down to size. I would also add that the companions are there for us, the audience: to titillate, to move us emotionally, to act as a mirror for our own desires. As a Christian, I have found myself fascinated by the larger themes of the show: non-violence, forgiveness, memory, sorrow, and in the end—companionship. In a way, it has redeemed my view of the word, so often used with the connotation of the lesser. As a Christian, I see how the companions are somewhat similar to me: complicated creatures who are being asked to grapple with the unimaginable: how far will we follow the image of the Invisible One? I see how so many in my tribe choose to follow God in so many different ways, see how we all respond uniquely to the invitation to expand our worlds beyond what we can see, to live like the kingdom of God is already here, and that it is not yet.

Speaking as a fan of the show, I still see some issues of representation of work in the dynamic of the Doctor and his companion. So what will we demand of the show in the future? We will accept another beautiful, brittle Amy Pond, but only if there is a Rory Williams at her side. Because in the companions I see the mirror image of myself. And I am not a one-note wonder. I am confident and doubtful, brave and fearful, terrified and amazed, and made in the image of God. So here’s to more Donna, less Rose. Here’s to the complicated; here’s to the reality of life in the kingdom of God.

Geronimo.

 

About D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield's life is about 90% mundane and 10% cray-cray. She loves food and books and a good outsider perspective portrayed in pop culture. She gets very, very excitable when anyone mentions the phrases "kingdom of God". You can find her blog here and on twitter as @d_l_mayfield.

  • Stuart Blessman

    Martha was easily my favorite companion until Clara came around. She may not have enough screen time yet (where’s that missing series 8 with Matt Smith, BBC? Way to celebrate the 50th anniversary with only filming two episodes), but there seems a spunk and confidence in her that the other companions were lacking. If they ever bring Martha back, I want her and Clara to have many scenes together.

  • Alondra Soli’deoGloria Hanley

    Series 8 hasn’t begun yet. 12th Doctor will be series 8.

  • Alondra Soli’deoGloria Hanley

    Donna is my favorite also. I think you under estimate Amy, she isn’t just eye candy, she is an insanely complex character, she gives voice to those of us that have been hurt by our childhood, find ourselves saying cutting words to the one we love the most, she loves Rory, she learns to show it as she grows. She learns and does love more deeply, completely in the end.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    What do you make of the fact that some of your favourite companion moments are when they take up arms (post-doctor Rose and post-doctor Martha) in opposition to the Doctor’s (and Xianity’s) essentially pacifistic idealism?

  • Stuart Blessman

    I was implying that there SHOULD have been a series 8 with Matt Smith, because they’ve only filmed about two hours of Doctor Who in all of 2013. They had time for another series or at least some specials. Instead, the fans got gipped.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/ D.L. Mayfield

    i’m so complicated, seth.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/ D.L. Mayfield

    I see that. But–the modeling career thing? It just killed me. Maybe colored my opinions. Again, this is my super subjective list!

  • Brett

    Team Leela — Her ready resort to a violent solution offers an example of how sometimes when we face large problems we are all too ready to just start laying into things right and left, viewing simple removal as the best way to handle the cause of a problem. She learns that’s not always the best way, while the Doctor learns that sometimes people know the right choice but don’t make it, and that these people aren’t always persuaded by sweet reason to change their ways. It’s a sort of departure point for discussion of just war theory.

    On the other end there’s Adric — better known as the sci-fi character that Wesley Crusher is most glad to have around because it means there will at least be a contest as to who is the most despised person in the room.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    You would be the last-of-your-race creature that the Doctor would offer to relocate and you would say no thanks I’m okay with this big gun here and then your race would end. :(

  • Alondra Soli’deoGloria Hanley

    I see, he wanted to leave and was off making movies, he is my all time fav so I am so sad she is leaving.

  • Alondra Soli’deoGloria Hanley

    Lol, I just saw it as a job. I have been known to have a biting tongue (not proud) so i related to her, I also have a “Rory”.

  • Jon Sharpton

    Except the Doctor never protests that hard about armed members of his “party”.

    It’s like they said in “A Good Man Goes To War” (I think?): The Doctor doesn’t *need* to carry a weapon, he forges other people into weapons and lets them do the dirty work for him.

  • Stuart Blessman

    He might have wanted to leave, but I think he mostly did the movie because he was sitting on his butt doing nothing because of the BBC.

  • Alondra Soli’deoGloria Hanley

    They wanted to sign him for 2014/15 but he said he was tired, it may seem like they don’t do much but each episode it like a movie… BBC is always like that, Sherlock fans have been waiting over a year, they don’t have the schedules like in the US. BUT! He was asked at one of the comic conventions why he left (completely his choice) he paused, then hung his head and said “I don’t know! I made a mistake” which kills me even more because he is my fav and I am going to cry my eyes out when he regenerates

  • aslanscompass

    Have you watched any of the classic series, because I’d be interested in your take on those characters. The ratio of guys to gals is a bit higher–in fact the Second Doctor has a male companion named Jamie who is in all but one of his episodes (though they were mostly called assistants back then). Let’s see if I can remember all the others: Ian, Steven, Ben, Harry, Adric, Turlough and reoccurring characters Sergeant Benton, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and Mike Yates. And they traveled with female companions, so it wasn’t always “the Doctor and a girl” in the classic series. Likewise, there was a lot more mentoring/paternal relationship–the first companion to romantically kiss the Doctor was Grace in the 8th Doctor movie. In fact, after watching all classic and new episodes, I actually prefer the Doctor-companion dynamics of classic who, because it drew companions from the past and future as well as the present.

    As for Amy Pond, I know some people see her that way, but I actually have seen her grow and develop. To address some of your concern:
    No backstory? Growing up with a crack in your wall and having your parents being erased from time doesn’t count? What about how she was considered insane by everyone from the day the Doctor crashed into her lawn?
    Manic Pixie: Okay, it does come off like that, but look at her later episodes. Specifically, The God Complex. Earlier episodes have her avowing faith in the Doctor: “Save him. You save everyone, that’s what you do (Amy’s Choice),” but in The God Complex, it’s her faith that puts everyone else in danger.
    The Doctor tells her:
    Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored. Look at you. Glorious Pond, the girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are.
    He doesn’t want her to see him that way. It’s the Doctor who brings Rory into the TARDIS when Amy begins expressing romantic interest, the Doctor tells young Amelia to “live well. Love Rory” in The Big Bang, and the Doctor tells her that this can’t last forever.

    …. perennially mean to the greatest boyfriend/husband you could ever wish to meet.

    Admittedly, she treats him harshly in season five, but that’s tied into her abandonment issues. Look at Girl Who Waited in season six, when she’s trapped in a medical facility:

    All those boys chasing me, but it was only ever Rory. Why was that? You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful and then you actually talk to them, and five minutes later they’re as dull as a brick? Then there’s other people, and you meet them and think, not bad, they’re okay. And then you get to know them, and their face just sort of becomes them, like their personality’s written all over it. And they just turn into something so beautiful. Rory’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.

    Or her choice in Angels Take Manhattan. It couldn’t get any clearer. She could keep traveling with the Doctor, or she could be taken back in time without any assurance of seeing Rory again, but definitely never seeing the Doctor and her own daughter. What does she do?

    It’ll be fine. I know it will. I’ll be with him, like I should be. Me and Rory together….I’ll be fine. I’ll be with him. Raggedy man, goodbye!

    Sorry if this came across as argumentative, but I really appreciate Amy and her character development. If anyone wants to further discuss this with me, I have a tumblr at aslanscompass.tumblr.com

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/ D.L. Mayfield

    you know, I haven’t watched the classic series yet (spoiler: not a TRUE fan). maybe some day I will have the time. good thoughts on all the characters! i am willing to let people convince me that amy is not the worst :) but heck, she was introduced as a kissogram . . .

  • Brett

    I think you can be a fan without watching the original series, but I also think remembering that there was a world and popular culture before the internet is a good idea.

  • aslanscompass

    Ditto Brett. I don’t get mad when people say they haven’t watched the classic series–I just want to know why, because there’s so many great stories.
    And don’t let the character’s introduction blind you to their growth. Besides, technically Amy’s introduction was as Amelia, the seven-year-old in the garden


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