When celebrating 50 years of a television show as epic as Doctor Who one cannot merely look at only the main character. The supporting cast, in this case the companions, are vitally important to the story and success of the show. These characters are more important that your normal neighbors and family members of a general sitcom or dramatic series, the companions are how we relate to the storyline and The Doctor himself. We learn The Doctor’s values and genius through these characters and also realize how truly alien he his at times. In the Classic run of Doctor Who from 1963-1989, along with the 1996 television movie, there were 33 companions that travelled with or worked alongside one of the first eight Doctors.
When Doctor Who first appeared in 1963, it was not The Doctor that fans were drawn to as much as the companions. From Susan to Polly, yes even including Dodo, the companions were not only travellers in the TARDIS, they helped gauge the moral code of the show and many times kept The Doctor from being a danger to himself. Ian Chesterton (William Russell) was every bit the alpha male action hero that The Doctor was not. The first Doctor was grumpy, however also seemed very impulsive and childlike. Many times it felt as if Ian and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) were the grown ups trying to reign in two genius children: The Doctor and Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). This theme of the companions being there to steer The Doctor in best direction continues to this day.
With The Second Doctor we were treated to The Doctor’s first best friend. Just like Sarah Jane Smith and Donna Noble after him, Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) was the best pal that you could never picture The Doctor without. After being plucked out of 18th century Scotland, Jamie met every obstacle head on, albeit in a kilt. Even when the technology he was looking at made no sense, he would not become frightened, rather he would compare it to creatures and items from his time. He called airplanes “flying beasties” and Jamie was sure that a Cyberman in The Moonbase was really his clan’s legend of the Phantom Piper. What is very compelling about Jaime to new Doctor Who fans is not only his amazing on screen chemistry with The Doctor but also the terms of his departure. Very similarly to Donna Noble’s exit in the show, Jamie was sent home with his mind erased. While not to the extent of Donna’s heartbreaking ending, Jaime was left at home by the Time Lords only to remember his very first adventure with The Doctor; something that we could only dream of for Donna. To date, Jaime McCrimmon has appeared in more episodes of Doctor Who than any other companion being in a total of 116.
The Third Doctor came with a group of very strong companions. Since he was exiled to Earth, he assisted UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce) this came with the territory. These companions included Liz Shaw (Caroline John), Jo Grant (Katy Manning), The Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Sergeant Benton (John Levene) and Captain Yates. (Richard Franklin) All coming from UNIT, they were very strong willed, determined and loyal. Jo Grant was a bit of a departure for this Doctor. While she was still a part of UNIT, she harkened back to the more helpless companion who looked to The Doctor as a parental figure. After Jo’s departure in The Green Death, the world stopped when The Doctor found Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Sarah Jane was everything men wanted and women wanted to be. Strong, sophisticated, take charge and also underneath it all a bit vulnerable, Sarah Jane easily became the most beloved companion in all of Doctor Who.
When Tom Baker donned the scarf as The Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane was at his side, however after being called back to Gallifrey, he had to drop her off on Earth. What viewers have always asked is ‘why did he not go back for her?’ This is one of the greatest unanswered questions in Doctor Who. Could it be that he is more alien than we thought and he just moved on? The toughest part of being a seemingly eternal Time Lord is that everyone around you eventually leaves or dies. Maybe he thought this goodbye seemed as good as any.
Shortly after Sarah Jane’s goodbye, or lack of one, The Fourth Doctor travelled with a few different companions. Leela of the Sevateem (Louise Jameson) was the primitive, scarcely dressed woman who had moxie and an inquisitive mind. He also travelled with two different versions of a Time Lady named Romana. Romana I (Mary Tamm) helped The Doctor solve the riddle of The Key of Time and then regenerated into Romana II. Romana II (Lalla Ward) traveled with The Doctor for a while until she stayed behind with K-9 to help free an enslaved race called the Tharlis.
As The Fourth Doctor starts winding down he encounters who will be The Fifth Doctor’s main companion group. Meeting Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) in E-Space, Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) on Traken and Tegan (Janet Fielding) when she literally walks through the front door of The TARDIS, this threesome seemed like an odd stepfamily. Nyssa and Adric were aloof geniuses, and Tegan was a simple flight attendant that was late for her flight. Sometimes at odds but always looking out for each other, this group bands together as their Doctor changes before their eyes and one of them is lost senselessly during The Fifth Doctor’s watch.
With The Fifth Doctor also came an interesting new companion type. Vislor Turlough (Mark Strickson) actually wanted to kill The Doctor. Following the age old advice of ‘keep your friends close but enemies closer’, Turlough jumped onboard the TARDIS waiting for his best opportunity to execute the Black Guardian’s plan. Through his travels he realizes that The Doctor is a good man and is able to free himself from the grasp of the Black Guardian.
Just when our companions seemed to becoming more fascinating and multi-layered, along cam Peri and Mel Bush for The Sixth Doctor. Peri (Nicola Bryant) had to deal with the traumatizing fact that her gentle mannered Doctor became a temporary monster who actually attempted to strangle her. While Peri Brown became a good companion as the stories progressed, she truly saw her heyday in Trial of a Time Lord. Her relationship with The Doctor had grown and they were beginning to work as a cohesive unit. What is truly tragic about Peri’s character should have been her demise in part four of Mindwarp, however this was not to be. Peri had a dramatic and jaw-dropping death, however it was later revealed to fan’s dismay, along with Nicola Bryant’s, that she was in fact still alive and living peacefully.
The Seventh Doctor’s companion Ace was cut from a completely different companion mold. Young, street smart and good at Chemistry, Dorothy Gale “Ace” McShane (Sophie Aldred) was a woman who came from a difficult upbringing and could face any enemy toe to toe. You would never see Ace running away or hiding. In what would become the norm for modern companions, Ace grew as a character and viewers truly became invested in her. She always carried Nitro 9 in her backpack, which was a powerful explosive. Even when The Doctor reminded her how much he abhorred violence, she was always there to save him with a bit of Nitro 9. In a highlight of her take-charge character she handily beat up a Dalek with simply a baseball bat in Remembrance on The Daleks. Sadly the BBC decided to cancel Doctor Who in 1989 and the final moment is Ace and The Doctor walking into the sunset.
When it was announced that Doctor Who would return in a made for television movie in 1996, fans clamored to find any piece of information about the show’s long awaited return. Along with The Eighth Doctor, there was a new Master and a new companion. Doctor Grace Halloway (Daphne Ashbrook) was not your normal human woman waiting to be whisked into the TARDIS. As a heart surgeon she actually causes the regeneration from the Seventh to the Eighth Doctor due to her lack of knowledge about Time Lord physiology. This opera attending, Renaissance woman felt a deep responsibility for her mistake, however decided to stay on Earth instead of travelling with The Doctor. Grace also marks a first in Doctor Who. She is the first companion to kiss our favorite Time Lord. It would have been amazing to see the continuing adventures of this gorgeous and compelling duo, however that was never to come to fruition.
Through many different incarnations of The Doctor, one truth has always remained; he should never travel alone. The Doctor in all of his wisdom needs someone a tad more grounded to make sure that he does not use his knowledge and power in the wrong way. The companions are also how viewers relate to the show. Every fan of Doctor Who has imagined what it would be like to travel with The Doctor. These strong men, women and sometimes children are the cornerstone of the longest running Science Fiction television program and are also one of the main reasons that the show has maintained for 50 years. From great companions to not so well liked, each character added something special to the mythos of Doctor Who and to pop culture.