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Doctor Who⎢Gender in the TARDIS: Clara to Thirteen, Companion to Doctor

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In the introduction to a 1986 illustrated book published as promotional material for the 23rd season of Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005- ), then-producer John Nathan-Turner writes 

“It used to be claimed that there were just two requirements to be a ‘companion’ in Doctor Who, the world’s longest-running science-fiction TV series: 
(1) To be able to scream and run at the same time!
(2) To be able to say ‘What do we do next, Doctor?’ with conviction!!”

John Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who: The Companions (1986)

While Nathan-Turner may be writing this in the past tense, not to mention with a certain tongue-in-cheek tone, this comment represents a core attitude that has framed the companion character in Doctor Who throughout the series’ history, and by extension the treatment of female characters in this series overall. The ‘companion’ character holds a central role to the structure and premise of the show – arguably no less important than the Doctor themselves.

These characters mark the point of identification for the viewer, an audience avatar character that the alien Doctor invites into the adventures of their travels just as the viewer is invited into the adventures of the series. These companion characters are also typically women, and throughout the history of the show, this has, on one hand at least, left room for a potentially progressive assumption. Under this assumption the Doctor, as the title character and (usually) male lead, is not the ‘main’ character of the series – instead, we as viewers see the events of the show through the perspective of a (usually) female protagonist who is, despite not being the title character, more centralized by this format.

However, on the other hand, the archetype of the companion can also be a restrictive space, as for many decades this was the only role that recurring female characters on Doctor Who were made to occupy. This has set normative precedents around the companion’s function and role within the narrative that have continued to have an effect on the structure of the show well into the revived series. As we approach the start of Jodie Whittaker’s final season as the first female incarnation of the Doctor – a casting decision that carries with it an assumed expansion to the role of women within this show, let us consider the history of the companion archetype. In many ways the companion has been modernized for a contemporary world of normalized gender equity, but in other ways these characters remain defined by their predecessors, unable to escape the established precedents that come from nearly 60 years of serial storytelling. 

Conventions and Formulas in Time and Space

Doctor Who is a series with a fundamental paradox at its center. It demonstrates a commitment to consistent reinvention of its own format, challenging the notion that there are fixed, tangible qualities that make Doctor Who what it is. However, it also demonstrates a habit of falling back on these qualities, often defaulting to narrative or textual structures that are easy, familiar, or nostalgic. As a result of this, the series maintains an intimate link with its own history and internal perception of what qualities make up its own complex textual identity, yet also presents itself as prepared to break these at any moment.

A particularly dramatic example of this occurred as early as the original 1963 season, a period of the show characterized by an initial intention for Doctor Who to be an educational programme designed to teach children about science and history. In the serial ‘The Daleks’ (S1, Ep5-11) this educational element was shoved into the background for seven episodes as the show concentrated on developing the precise kind of campy, science fiction monsters that Executive Producer Sydney Newman had been vocally opposed to any inclusion of. This serial was, of course, famously successful – creating a wave in British culture around the popularity of the Daleks – and this resulted in the show adopting this model as precedent, one that continues to influence the narrative structure of Doctor Who almost 60 years later. This internal dependency upon precedents has come to dictate how the show operates narratively, structurally, and thematically, and in many cases can be seen as a strength for Doctor Who, but it can also be limiting. The narrative structure of the “Bug-Eyed Monster”, as Newman referred to them, has served the series well, but as the show has evolved and begun to more explicitly explore the potential for genre-bending, the overreliance upon monsters can arguably become repetitive and tiresome. 

The structure of Doctor Who as a serial narrative thus emphasizes this internal dependency upon precedents, requiring the show to maintain a certain degree of continuity with its own past. While the series has historically demonstrated itself to be more than comfortable engaging in a constant rewriting of its own canon, the series also articulates distinct identities within itself. Doctor Who has put itself through numerous explicit rebranding efforts, codified as new ‘eras’ each with a distinctive look and style as if they were a series of different shows rather than just one long one.

Despite being separated by changes in visual and writing styles (not to mention cast changes), these eras nevertheless connect together in a serial continuity. Doctor Who thus balances a consistent reimagining of its own textual identity while maintaining a relationship to its roots. Certain ‘constants’ develop throughout the series that preserve core dynamics that, for whatever reason, have remained. Some of these rules have of course been broken – the TARDIS has appeared as something other than a police box, the Sonic Screwdriver has be replaced with sunglasses, monsters have taken on roles as recurring or sympathetic characters (such as Strax or Rusty the Dalek), and the companion has been allowed operate outside their established gender-based role, but these deviations from the norm have almost always been presented with an implicit expectation that they will eventually be returned to ‘normal’.

When these expansions on the Doctor Who formula are changed back, this only serves to reinforce the established precedents as elements key to what Doctor Who is. These can become a limiting factor for Doctor Who, as such assumptions become accepted universally not only as a feature of how audiences understand the show but are also expected as a matter of brand identity, acting as organizational functions that aid in the production and distribution of the series. These precedents form a set of qualities that define what Doctor Who must be, qualities that can become difficult for the series to meaningfully evolve beyond. 

Tradition in the TARDIS

In the context of the companion, the precedents established by these serial expectations therefore function to keep these characters confined within a recurring, familiar, yet largely patriarchal narrative. Precedents leftover from the beginning of the series’ inception dictate that at any point in time at least one sidekick will join the Doctor on their adventures. The original female companions were Susan (Carole Anne Ford) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), who carried with them arcs of ongoing mental maturity and rebelliousness towards the Doctor. Barbara especially begins the series as, representationally speaking, a fairly progressive character for the time – consistently pushing back against the abrasiveness of the First Doctor (William Hartnell). When conceiving of replacements for these characters however, some of the least empowering elements of their personas were carried over to their immediate successors. Characters like Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), Dodo (Jackie Lane), and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) were all young, female, infantilized, and dependent on the Doctor – solidifying these qualities as assumed features for what the Doctor Who companion should be. 

This does not mean that certain Doctor Who companions have not represented attempts to address these assumptions. Liz Shaw (Caroline John), Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen), Romana (Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward), or Ace (Sophie Aldred) were each in some way a modernization of the standard archetype, but each became undermined by the structure of the narrative they were attempting to redefine. These characters were often perceived as less successful as companions by production staff – most notably Liz Shaw and Romana I (Mary Tamm) – specifically because they violated the established gender dynamic of the show. This became dramatically emphasized in the departure circumstances of Liz Shaw.

Third Doctor companion Liz Shaw (Caroline John) in a comp from | BBC, 2021.

Liz was conceived of as a scientific equal to the Doctor, but only lasted on the show for a single season. Her replacement with Jo Grant – one presented without the fanfare of a proper departure scene – is often read as a specific result of her advanced scientific mind not fitting closely enough to the expectations that audiences and producers had for the Doctor’s female assistant.

Sarah Jane Smith has similarly been described as a character intended to respond to the feminist climate of the time and criticisms of how female characters were traditionally constructed on Doctor Who, and was optimistically described in some places as “the first of a new breed of companions for Doctor Who”. Sarah Jane was positioned as a ‘strong’ character who would identify herself explicitly as a feminist. Sarah Jane’s articulation of her feminism, however, operated within the flawed liberal framework of its apolitical presentation. As a result, Sarah Jane’s explicit feminism has been read as a reductive and limited understanding of second-wave feminism at best or at worst has read as a parody of feminism entirely while nevertheless failing to provide a significant change to the narrative structure of the companion at the root of the problem. Lorna Jowett has also noted that when Sarah Jane returned to the series in the revival episode ‘School Reunion’ (S2, Ep3) this feminist aspect of her character was all but abandoned, as she became largely defined by her past relationship to the Doctor.

“‘Did I do something wrong? Because you never came back for me. You just—dumped me.”

Sarah Jane Smith, ‘School Reunion’ – S2, Ep3.

Leela (Louise Jameson) followed Sarah Jane as a companion designed to break these stereotypes further through a far more violent and assertive persona, yet Leela was also dressed in explicitly sexualized clothing meant to claim the attention of adult male viewers. The presentation of Leela’s character should be read through an intersectional lens as well, as Leela was also codified as indigenous. Originating from the Sevateem tribe on an unnamed planet, Leela is often presented as confused or mystified by technology and other “civilized” (read: “Western”) values. Leela is allowed the ability to challenge the submissive nature of the companion’s role only insofar as the threat of this challenge is mediated by the power of the camera’s ‘gaze’ and the patronizing colonial authority exerted over her by the text. 

Leela (Louise Jameson)’s physical capability was offset by a number of more problematic characteristics. | BBC, 2021.

Perhaps the most notable attempt to reject the precedent of the companion as subservient to the Doctor was Romana (Mary Tamm, and then Lalla Ward), a character conceived of as a female Time Lord and therefore as the Doctor’s intellectual and scientific equal. While Romana would take on a position of authority with side characters more consistently than other companions, when placed next to the Doctor, Romana would continue to demonstrate a more traditional subservience. Romana was presented as holding a comparative naïveté to the Doctor, as her theoretical understanding of the universe was demonstrated as secondary to the Doctor’s practical, hands-on experience.

Mary Tamm’s “ice goddess” take on Romana was also met with a similar fate to Liz Shaw – to be unceremoniously replaced with a more subservient and conventionally feminine character after a single season. Although, instead of being deemed too intelligent to function narratively as a companion by the production staff, it was Mary Tamm’s dissatisfaction with the writing of her character as a “damsel in distress” that lead to her regeneration into Lalla Ward’s version of the character. As James Chapman summarizes in Inside the TARDIS: The Worlds of Doctor Who: A Cultural History (2013), “For all these valiant attempts to offer more positive female roles, however, most companions eventually slipped back into the traditional mold of ‘screamers’.”

The ‘softer’ second incarnation of Fourth Doctor companion Romana (Lalla Ward) from | BBC, 2021.

This subservience may be strongly associated with the companion archetype, but it is also by no means the only version of the companion that Doctor Who has presented. Ace, for example, is positioned within the genre context of an explosive 1980s action sci-fi series but takes on the role of the machismo action hero in place of the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). Ace’s placement as the last companion before the cancellation of the series in 1989 however, results in an inability for Ace to properly redefine precedents around the companion, with only the focus on her life outside the Doctor to be carried on into the revival in 2005 as a precedent.

Characters such as these appear throughout the classic run of the series but are more often read as deviations from the norm rather than offering a new definition of what constitutes normal. When each of these characters is followed by a replacement who would function more within the traditional role of the companion, this communicates that the Doctor/companion dynamic is allowed to be experimented with, but the format of the series requires that the companion must inevitably return to the patriarchal nature of its standard function. This is why it has been historically insufficient to merely produce a new companion character who functions better on a representational level. These characters are still written and read within the patriarchal archetype of the Doctor Who companion, a role largely recognized as ultimately subservient to the all-knowing figure of a male Doctor.  

The Doctor: I don’t suppose you can make tea?
Romana: Tea?
The Doctor: No, I don’t suppose you can. They don’t teach you anything useful at the Academy, do they?

‘The Ribos Operation’ – S16, Ep1.

The Gendered Vortex of the Companion Role

It is important to recognize this recurring problem as not merely the result of naïveté or malicious intent on the part of the production team, but more accurately a fundamental limitation that had by now been built into the very DNA of what Doctor Who was understood to be. Writers and producers of this series have historically demonstrated awareness of the patriarchal nature of the companion role, but have either been unsuccessful in correcting it themselves or demonstrated active complacency towards it. As Grahame Williams, the producer from 1977-1979, put it:

“The function of the companion I’m sad to say, is and always has been, a stereotype… the companion is a story-telling device. That is not being cynical, it’s a fact.”

Grahame Williams in Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (1983).

Williams is not the only Doctor Who producer to express concern over the problematic nature of the companion’s narrative role, with Barry Letts and John Nathan-Turner expressing similar critiques of the companion yet never being able to break the female characters they helped to develop out of this mold through their own work on the show. This is a problem that multiple producers and writers have aimed to resolve. To understand why they have failed, it is necessary to consider the role of the companion in the narrative structure of this series.

The central function served by the companion in the plot of a traditional Doctor Who episode is to ask questions about what is happening at any given moment in order to provide the Doctor with an excuse to deliver exposition about the narrative. The universe of this series is often complex and typically bizarre, toying with science fiction iconography in a way that can be pleasurable in its playfulness but requires both halves of a Doctor/companion dynamic in order to convey itself to a viewer. There needs to be a character with both the access to information – where we are, what is at stake, etc. – and also the willingness to deliver that information.

There also needs to be a character who would reasonably ask the same questions as the audience to provide an excuse within the narrative for this information to be delivered. The reason why these companion characters are largely female and the Doctor character has largely been male is largely the result of a trope. It is a common convention within popular television narrative for female characters to ask questions that male characters have the answers to. The reasoning for this is purely ideological – a representational convention in which women are shown to lack knowledge that men possess, reinforcing unspoken codes of cultural patriarchy. The outcome here, intentional or otherwise is, as John Fiske puts it in Television Culture (2011), to “organize the other codes into producing a congruent and coherent set of meanings that constitute the common sense of a society.”

This question-answer function is necessary to the structure of Doctor Who, but becomes limiting when it is drawn across a clear gender line and even further so when the companion forms the exclusive space that recurring female characters are expected to occupy. There have been many male companions, including characters like Ian (William Russell), Harry (Ian Marter), Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), or Rory (Arthur Darvill) – but the companion is not the exclusive space for recurring male characters. The Master (starting with Roger Delgrado), Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Sergeant Benton (John Levene), or Professor Edward Travers (Jack Watling) all made recurring appearances over more than one serial without taking on the role of a companion.

There have been many side characters who are female, but outside of the companion role these characters rarely return to the show for more than the length of a single serial. This was present throughout the entire classic run of the series, with the Rani (Kate O’Mara) constituting the only non-companion recurring female character after 26 seasons of the original run. 

The Rani (Kate O’Mara) and a Tetrap (best not talked about tbh) from | BBC, 2021.

Fortunately, this does start to change in the revival, if slowly. Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri), despite marking the first step to carve out a new space on the show for recurring female characters, was not allowed many opportunities to make decisions that would impact the plot or demonstrate narrative agency in the same way that someone like the Brigadier could. Jackie Tyler essentially carved out a space for established companions to have recurring mother characters, a pattern that would be repeated with Francine Jones (Roxanne Beckford) and Sylvia Noble (Jacqueline King), but only opened this space insofar as it was adjacent to the existing companion archetype. Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton) was a recurring female character not related to an existing companion and also demonstrates some progress as such, but would often exist in the background of most stories with only a handful of defining moments that had little impact on the rest of the narrative.

Doctor Who would not successfully create a space for recurring female non-companion characters with an ability to consistently have an effect on the narrative until the introduction of River Song (Alex Kingston). River provides a significant presence in Series 5 and 6 – even if her power as a character comes largely from her sexual desirability coding her within a postfeminist lens of autonomous hypersexuality while also being presented through a narrative mediated by her role as an enigmatic love interest to the Doctor. Despite this, River marks the first time that a recurring female character is allowed to operate outside the conventions of the companion and be afforded agency and prominence within the narrative. Following her significant-if-flawed time on the show, recurring female characters who were neither companions nor related to companions become much more prominent, including Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), and Jenny (Catrin Stewart), Missy (Michelle Gomez), and more.

Increasing Autons(omy)

The 2005 revival brought with it many changes to the format of Doctor Who, and the use of the companion for its narrative function took on a different form. The companion was still required to develop the narrative of individual episodes by asking the Doctor questions, but multi-episode arcs and a seasonal structure brought new opportunities for these characters to hold narrative prominence. In many season finale episodes, the companion was often central to the climax of the narrative – a role that would be empowering if it were not consistently mediated by the Doctor. When Rose (Billie Piper) becomes the Bad Wolf, for example, the Doctor is narratively required to take this ascension away from her in the following scene; when Martha (Freema Agyeman) saves Earth from the Master (John Simm), she does so by traveling the planet teaching humanity how to idolize the Doctor as god-like; and when Donna (Catherine Tate) saves the universe from the Daleks, she can only do so by becoming part-Doctor, a part that the Doctor must forcibly strip away from her at the end of the episode. As Piers Britton critiques in relation to companions early in the revived series:

“Excitement, freedom, power and knowledge are accessible to women only via masculine patronage, in this case offered by the Doctor. When he thinks it best to remove this freedom, they have no choice but to accept the role he assigns them, usually within the bosom of the nuclear family.”

Piers Britton, TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who (2011)

Thus the companion archetype, despite much improvement offered by the revival, remains defined by its ultimately patriarchal structure.

The significance of narrative agency for the companion is explored further in the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)’s ‘era’ of the show, however, and this represents a similarly flawed-but-refreshing attempt to further center the companion within their own story. In mirroring arcs between River Song and Amy Pond (Karen Gillen), both characters begin their story with their agency taken away from them. In the case of River, this agency is stolen by the Silence – who brainwash her to kill the Doctor – and for Amy, this agency is stolen by the Doctor, who influences her from an early age to become dependent on him. As each of these arcs progress, both characters make the independent choice to reclaim this agency – Amy distancing herself from the Doctor to develop a life and career on Earth, and River pursuing research in archaeology to form knowledge that is neither limited nor controlled by anyone.

However, in both cases this culminating moment of reclaiming narrative agency is presented through the choice of domesticity – River marries the Doctor in defiance of the Silence, and Amy chooses to live in 1920s New York with Rory in defiance of the Doctor. This feeds into tropes around the de-politicization of motherhood and domesticity, reframing them as choices rather than inevitabilities yet placing female characters in domestic roles regardless. It is significant that these characters are allowed narrative agency in making this choice, but the domestic nature of what they choose should not go understated.

The Doctor: What the hell are you doing?
Amy Pond: Changing the future. Its called marriage.

‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ – S7, Ep5.

The third central female character in the Eleventh Doctor’s ‘era’ – Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) – offers a similar structure in her arc to River and Amy, but with a notable adaptation. Where River’s agency was stolen by the Silence and Amy’s stolen by the Doctor, Clara has her agency stolen by the narrative of the show itself. From the episodes before her first real appearance, Clara is treated as a mystery, with her actual character buried within the narrative framework of a common trope in the revived Doctor Who, the “Woman-as-Mystery”, a convention that by this point would be intimately familiar to Doctor Who viewers from the similar arcs explored with characters such as Donna or River Song. The structure of this arc is unusual for a significant yet subtle reason – Clara is not the primary point of audience identification here, the Doctor is.

Where the companion is typically structured as the ‘main’ character in a story that we experience the adventures they have with the Doctor through, in Series 7b our perspective is aligned with the Doctor as he tries to make sense of the enigmatic Clara. The resolution of this arc in the episode ‘The Name of the Doctor’ (S7, Ep13) does, as with Amy and River, see Clara reclaim this narrative agency  – this time by essentially solving her own mystery. The reveal in this episode is almost underwhelming, that there never was a mystery to begin with, that Clara was just Clara. Her puzzling appearance in episodes prior to her introduction is revealed to be the result of her choosing to rescue the Doctor by distributing copies of herself across his timeline. Just as Rose resolves the arc to Series 1 by becoming the Bad Wolf, Clara resolves the arc of this episode by making a key decision at a pivotal moment, explaining the source of her mystery as mere ripples across time from this one action affecting events in the past.

This focus on Clara’s structural role as companion is a major source of the common reading that Clara was lacking in character for most of this season, as any significant moments that would establish this character are overshadowed by her enigmatic nature. The character traits of a companion have rarely been explored or developed textually throughout the history of Doctor Who, as the result of an attitude that this would interfere with the plot. Particularly revealing about this is how up-front past producers have been about these anxieties, something demonstrated by the inclusion of this passage by John Nathan-Turner in the same promotional book that was referenced earlier. 

“Development of character takes airtime and this reduces the amount of dramatization airtime […] So, slowly but surely, writers and script editors and producers decide to play down the character development of the companion […] and concentrate on the drama of the story.”

John Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who: The Companions (1986)

While some companions have dominated the narrative in the past, they had not done so in a way that consistently prioritized their own development within the episode, let alone the season. In ‘Survival(S26, Eps 12-14), while we receive what at the time was an unprecedented glimpse into Ace’s personal life, the focus of the episode was still on the Master’s alliance with the Cheetah People. In ‘Father’s Day’ (S1, Ep8), while we receive another then-unprecedented glimpse into Rose’s character and family history, the focus of the episode still turns towards the Reapers and the creation and resolution of a time paradox. 

Ace (Sophie Aldred), the first companion whose life aside the Doctor was explored on-screen, from | BBC, 2021.

This is changed somewhat in Series 8. Where the Eleventh Doctor ‘era’ took the form of a post-Lost, mystery-driven fairy tale, the focus of the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi)’s seasons was much more deconstructionist and character-driven. This ‘era’ of the show will often position Doctor Who in conversation with itself, asking metatextual questions around what the show is, what it means for such a story to be told over such a long period of time, and how the different elements of its established formula interrelate to each other. When the Daleks appear in a Twelfth Doctor story, the episode is often about what the Daleks mean to the show and its history. When the Master appears in a Twelfth Doctor story, the episode is usually spent unpacking one of the longest-lasting character dynamics of the series. This applies just as well to the companions, and while Clara and Bill (Pearl Mackie) are both still archetypes who forward the plot, they are also reflections on the role of the companion within the history of the show.

For Clara, this comes in the form of highlighting the unusual dynamic between Doctor and companion through character drama. The Twelfth Doctor and Clara visibly bring out the worst in each other, and the dynamic between the two is presented as explicitly unhealthy. There have been Doctor/companion dynamics in the past that can be considered as similarly unhealthy, but they were typically not provided with narrative condemnation the same way that they are in the Twelfth Doctor’s era. The Doctor and Rose, for example, had a relationship that can similarly read as co-dependent, but this dynamic was romanticized – both literally and thematically – much more than the Twelfth Doctor and Clara.

For Peri Brown (Nichola Bryant) in the mid-1980s, the Sixth Doctor had moments of physical abuse towards her, notably attempting to strangle her in his first episode, and while Peri was clearly distraught by this in the moment, its impact on their relationship is largely ignored in future stories. There is less attempt by the text of the show in these instances to confront on screen the implications of such character dynamics, and this direct confrontation is what makes Clara an essential step in the history of the companion.

While neither the Twelfth Doctor nor Clara are physically violent towards one another, the newly-regenerated Doctor often treats Clara in a way that is explicitly rude, authoritative, or generally condescending. Where previous iterations of Doctor Who might be more inclined to laugh this off and move on to the next story, the deconstructionist impulses of this ‘era’ of the show allow the narrative space for Clara to push back against this where past companions could not. In ‘Listen’ (S8, Ep4), for example, Clara is authoritatively told by an impatient Doctor to “do as you are told” – a moment the audience can see she has been explicitly hurt by. Clara confronts the Doctor in a later scene, however, by repeating this line back to him towards the end of the episode in a way that ultimately grows their mutual respect. This confrontation should not be understood as flawless, however.

The text fails to acknowledge the gendered power dynamics of this moment – the way that the Doctor shouts this line authoritatively whilst Clara echoes it compassionately – making it an imperfect attempt to highlight these power dynamics, even if it does more than just ignore them. Moments such as these also repeat throughout the season. In ‘Kill the Moon’ (Ep8, S7) the episode ends with Clara confronting the Doctor with the patronizing way he had treated her throughout that story, and ending the heated exchange with a deliberate assertion of her own agency by leaving the TARDIS and only returning on her own terms. Clara is not treated kindly in this season, but she is afforded the narrative agency to repeatedly and explicitly advocate on-screen for her own needs.

The Doctor:  Well, not that it’s any of my business, but I think you did the right thing.
Clara:  Yeah, you’re right.  It’s none of your business.

‘Kill the Moon’ – S8, Ep7.

Orbiting Bodies

It is not unusual for companion characters to be denied the kind of agency that was afforded to Clara, and this is especially prominent in the ways that the sexuality of companions has often been exploited. The companion archetype has its roots in a largely heteronormative structure in the dynamic of the all-knowing male figure with his female sidekick, but this is heightened by the way many classic companions were subject to explicit sexualization through the gaze of the camera. The companion has often been described as providing – to quote James Chapman’s Inside the TARDIS… (2013) – “something for the dads.”

Characters like Leela or Peri were deliberately constructed to wear highly sexualized clothing meant to play up their – to quote Piers Britton’s TARDISbound… (2011) this time – “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Tegan (Janet Fielding)’s sexuality was consistently emphasized in interviews and promotional material, yet within the series itself, this was comparatively repressed. This precedent of prescribed heteronormativity was dramatically reinforced, however, at the beginning of the revived series as Rose and the Tenth Doctor displayed a heightened sexual tension and a more explicit romantic undertone to their relationship than had been seen in a Doctor/companion dynamic prior. Rose exists in a powerful position to set precedents for how Doctor Who is understood to function.

The highly sexualized Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), comp from | BBC, 2021.

Rose was not only the first companion of the revived series but, to this day, remains the companion in the most logical “jumping on” season for new viewers. Rose thus carries with her an entirely unmatched capacity to influence the perception of what every Doctor Who companion following her “should be”, establishing a standard by which all future characters will be measured. Within this, Rose is independent without challenging the Doctor’s authority, strong in a way that rarely troubles gender norms, compassionate in a way that creates rather than resolves narrative conflict, yet also bubbly in a way that consistently emphasizes her sexual tension with David Tennant’s Doctor. 

This is not helped by the rest of the Tenth Doctor’s ‘era’, in which the majority of female characters – not exclusively companions but side characters as well – were defined in large part through the terms of the Doctor’s sexual desirability. This positions these female characters at a disadvantage and allows the Doctor to appear notably more superior and in control by comparison. Even Donna, while never engaging romantically with the Doctor, must consistently restate this for the viewer, repeatedly textualizing the exclusively platonic nature of their friendship as if it were something unusual.

Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) presents a queer twist on this pattern, performing his sexual interest in the Doctor within a larger subversion of the hypermasculine sexual conquest trope that is prominent in many popular science fiction texts such as Star Trek (1966-1969). While Captain Jack is critical of this trope in the ways his sexual conquests are not restricted by contemporary heteronormative values, he is still allowed permission to exhibit a form of aggressive sexual assertiveness that is not afforded to female characters of the Tennant era.

This precedent of concentrating on the Doctor’s sexual desirability is one that likely would have been irreversible had Penny – the planned companion in Series 4 had Catherine Tate not signed on to return – entered into another explicit romantic relationship with the Doctor as detailed in Russell T. Davies’ memoir The Writer’s Tale (2010). This form of heterosexual romance, one that would continue throughout the revived series, is mediated on some level by a rejection of normative heterosexual “social practice” such as settling down or child-rearing, but still serves to define the companion’s role within a heterosexual context.

This “social practice” of heterosexuality does still hold influence over contemporary companions, given its established presence in classic episodes. Susan spends her time within the series often infantilized by the narrative and portrayed as subordinate to the Doctor, but this becomes especially solidified in her final moments on the show. At the end of the serial ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, Susan departs the series by staying behind in the year 2051 to live with a man she met earlier in the story. Part of why this is troubling is that a number of companion exits to follow (notably Vicki, Jo, and Leela) took inspiration from this format for a departure and followed the same fundamental beats of the character meeting a man, getting married, and departing the show all in the same story. Yet what is perhaps more troubling is how this decision is almost forced upon Susan by the Doctor, locking the doors to the TARDIS and telling her, despite her own protests:

“You’re still my grandchild and always will be, but now you’re a woman too. I want you to belong somewhere, to have roots of your own. With David you will be able to find those roots. Believe me my dear, your future lies with David, and not with a silly old buffer like me.” 

The Doctor, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ – S2, Ep9.

This assertion by the Doctor that he not only knows what is best for Susan but has the right to make decisions relating to her body and future on her behalf solidified the paternalistic nature of this relationship for future characters. And thus, when Vicki is introduced in the following serial – framed as an explicit replacement for Susan within the series’ dynamic – her character retains this paternalistic infantilization from Susan’s departure more than it does the willingness Susan would have to confront the Doctor in other stories. 

Within the revived series, companions are allowed more control over their role within the narrative, but only insofar as these moments of agency are framed within a context of self-sacrifice in favor of or in obedience towards institutional expectation. For example, in ‘The Christmas Invasion’ (S2, EpX) the Doctor is removed from the action, and Rose is forced to drive the narrative herself, but still spends the duration of the episode struggling to function without him and largely serving to act as caregiver and protect his unconscious body. This does provide Rose with narrative agency, though still in a limited context, and there have also been notable moments in the revival when such agency has been forcibly removed.

At the end of the episode ‘Journey’s End’ (S4, Ep13) the Doctor ‘saves’ Donna by nonconsensually erasing all the memories she has of her travels with him as she states explicitly that she would rather die. The Doctor ignores Donna’s attempted claim at bodily autonomy, depositing her on the doorstep of her mother and grandparents who only affirm this action back to him rather than challenging the assumptions behind it. The implication of this scene is that the Doctor, as the ultimate figure of patriarchal authority, is more ethically qualified to decide what choices Donna can make in relation to her body than she is herself and that while his decision may have been tragic, the greatest loss was the grief and pain that it caused him.

Donna: Rest of my life. Traveling. In the TARDIS. The Doctor Donna. Oh, oh my god, I can’t go back. Don’t make me go back. Doctor, please! Please don’t make me go back.
The Doctor: Donna. Oh, Donna Noble. I am so sorry. But we had the best of times. The best. Goodbye.
Donna: No! No! Please! No!

‘Journey’s End’ – S4, Ep13

As part of the deconstructionist project of the Twelfth Doctor’s ‘era’ however, both of these moments are critically engaged with through Clara as the companion. In the episode ‘Flatline’ (S8, Ep9), parallels are drawn to ‘The Christmas Invasion’ as the Doctor is once again incapacitated to leave the companion character tasked with filling his shoes. Where in 2005 this episode was centered around how to get the Doctor back, this 2014 reframing of the same fundamental conflict sees Clara slide effortlessly into the Doctor’s narrative role. She quickly dons the iconographically charged tools of the Sonic Screwdriver and the Psychic Paper, adopts a companion of her own in the form of Rigsy, and investigates the threat of the episode just as the Doctor would.

Further, in the episode ‘Hell Bent’ (S9, Ep12) this self-reflexive version of the series is once again able to actively critique existing moments from the series’ own past. Towards the end of this episode, the Doctor intends to ‘save’ Clara the same way he did with Donna – to return her to a normal life and a ‘happy’ ending by nonconsensually wiping her memory. Where Donna was not allowed the narrative space to stand up to this form of violation, however, Clara rejects the Doctor’s assumption that he has the right to erase her memory.

She delivers a speech explicitly articulating the importance of her own bodily autonomy, before turning the Doctor’s claim of ownership over her body back around at him, “reversing the polarity” of the memory wipe device and erasing his memory of her instead. Clara follows this up by depositing the Doctor’s unconscious body and adopting a new companion in recurring character Ashildr (Maisie Williams) from earlier in the season, before stealing her own TARDIS and running away. For Clara to not only take on the Doctor’s narrative role in episodes like ‘Flatline’, but mirror iconographically significant phrases such as “reverse the polarity” or “stealing a TARDIS and running away” positions Clara’s narrative role as equal to that of the Doctor. Clara can thus be seen as a flawed but nevertheless essential step in allowing the companion character to evolve in a meaningful way, asserting agency in her own narrative while engaging in an ongoing, self-reflexive critique with her own past iterations.

Timeless Possibilities

Given Clara’s positioning by the end of her run as not just a companion but also a Doctor, and given the literal and figurative ‘regenerating’ of formerly male recurring roles including the Master, the General, and the Brigadier into recurring female characters, it feels inevitable in hindsight that the Doctor to follow this ‘era’ would be played by a woman. In many ways a female Doctor can be argued to resolve the kinds of underlying issues that plague the companion archetype – that the exclusive space women are allowed to occupy in this narrative is no longer strictly that of a female sidekick to the male hero.

Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh), and Ryan (Tosin Cole) still serve their function to motivate narrative exposition, but they are not presented as subservient to the Doctor or dressed in unnecessarily sexualized outfits. Yet it is the apolitical impulses of the Thirteenth Doctor’s ‘era’ and understated approach to characterization that still leaves these episodes to merit critique. This Doctor is afforded fewer opportunities for complexity and interiority than her male counterparts (something that would be more troubling if this could not also be said for other characters like Yaz and Ryan).

Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandeep Gill), the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), and Ryan (Toisin Cole). | BBC, 2020.

Of the four, however, it is Graham who experiences what can be described as the closest to a clear character arc that rather, unfortunately, comes at the expense of his recently deceased wife – placing a woman of color’s on-screen death as central to Graham’s self-actualization. These characters do not participate in the kind of self-reflexive deconstruction of their own role as companion that a character like Clara was able to, neither able to engage actively with the history of this role nor exhibit distinctive traits that place their own stamp on it. The circumstances that make the companion archetype troublesome are largely removed from the equation here, but little is added in their place. This ultimately serves to reinforce the assumptions that we have about the companion more than it problematizes them – merely dancing around the issues with this role rather than confronting them directly or painting a fresh image of what a companion might look like. In the ongoing project of renegotiating the role of the Doctor Who companion, the companions of the Thirteenth Doctor have thus far largely marked a sort of pause – not quite improving matters or making things worse, but also attempting to confront the problem by pretending it is not there.

As we enter a new season, the final full season with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, I hope that these are topics that we can keep in mind. Given the exit of Ryan and Graham and the somewhat reduced TARDIS team that results, it is possible that the coming season may offer the opportunity for new defining character moments for Yaz as she will have more space to occupy a central focus and continue the evolution of this companion role. I hope that we can pay attention to the ways that the characterization of companions Yaz and Dan (John Bishop) are informed and restricted by past iterations of this archetype, how their agency, sexuality, and subservience to the figure of the Doctor is mediated by the narrative, and the ways that this dynamic might be different when the Doctor is not played by a male actor.

The long-running serial nature of Doctor Who is part of what makes this show interesting – few stories have been told for this long in this many different ways, and this positions the show in a unique space to explore ideas that would not be possible in shorter formats. Yet this serial history can also be a detriment, as ideological norms leftover from the 1960s continues to influence the structure and content of the show to this day. This is a fact about the show that we should approach, I believe, with curiosity rather than evaluation.

This does not make Doctor Who ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but instead just…interesting.

This is a media object formed out of numerous contradictions, at once constantly trapped in the past and yet constantly signaling towards its own future. This is a series with the space to always be telling new stories, yet is also one that continues to ride the wave of cultural impact from the original 1964 Dalek serial. This is a series expressing a constant, ongoing awareness that its core dynamic is built upon a patriarchal power structure yet remains incapable of fully breaking out of this dynamic. We can only hope that the future of Doctor Who will bring the kinds of powerful and dramatic evolutions to the companion archetype that the series so desperately needs, but in the meantime, I must resolve myself to a pure fascination with the flawed and messy journey that it is taking to get there.

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Jared Aronoff’s constantly growing fascination with popular culture has come to motivate professional research into areas that include the role of ‘badness’ as an evaluative category in media consumption and the structures and meanings of serial television. As a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies, Jared continues to build upon these research interests to find new ways of exploring them.

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