The Ten Best Classic Who Companions
One point that people often miss, though they may pay it lip service, is that Doctor Who is not a show about an ancient Time Lord wandering around in a ship that's larger on the inside than the out. It's a show about everyday people who get caught up in the uncanny, and through their adventures learn their place in history and the cosmos. In principle the Doctor, much like his fake police box, is little more than a narrative device for these adventures amidst alien cultures and environments. He's an unknowable catalyst, leading the actual protagonist into action.
The show is called Doctor Who, not The Doctor. It's a show about questions, not about answers. The one who asks the questions is the one who holds our eyes and ears in the story -- and the one who asks the questions is, as the role has come to be known, the Companion.
The reason the Doctor can safely regenerate over the years is that in story terms he doesn't really matter. What matters is the effect that he has on the people who tag along with him -- and since 1963 that crew has checked just about every box on the survey. Male, female, human, humanoid, robot, black, white, gay, straight, futuristic, historical -- we've had a spectrum of eyes at our disposal. Some have worked better than others, for any number of reasons -- casting, scripting, conception, or simple chemistry. Here we will look at the best of the bunch.
Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright
Doctor Who's best leads are its original pair -- a matching set, as inseparable here as anywhere else. Schoolteachers who follow a peculiar student home, only to find themselves kidnapped by her irascible grandfather, Ian and Barbara are both reflections of the show's original educational remit and a perfect summation of its premise. This is a show which takes us through time and space, to see how else the world might be in order to understand how it is today. In turn, our guides in this journey are masters of science and history. With Ian we follow reason, and with Barbara we know empathy.
William Russell and Jackie Hill are two of the most stilled and earnest actors to hold regular roles on this show. Between them, they hold the mind and soul of Doctor Who in its formative period. Had either role been delivered with less conviction, this daft little show would never have lasted past its thirteen-episode trial period.
In story terms Ian and Barbara are also the first humanizing element upon the Doctor. Barbara in particular is one of the few characters to face up to the Doctor and tell him about himself. The Doctor begins the show as a small, petulant, rather violent old man, and in those early years the best moments come when our heroes serve him his faults on a platter, forcing his ownership over his behavior and his recognition of other valid perspectives.
In their plain decency and bravery in the face of the unimaginable, Ian and Barbara are the heroes that we all wish we could be -- or failing that, who we wish would be there for us at our worst.
The Doctor's next best foil is the short-lived Liz Shaw, as played by Caroline John. During those first four serials of the 1970s, Doctor Who took on a whole new identity. It was in color. There was a new Doctor, a new production team, and a new supporting cast. The show's premise had shifted; now the Doctor was exiled to Earth, and employed with a paramilitary group. What had been a children's educational show was quickly becoming a fantastic action espionage show for adults -- a gritty procedural, full of politics, social philosophy, and gore.
The biggest emblem of this change was our new eyes on proceedings. From an innocent Jacobian Scot and a manufactured girl prodigy we shift to a highly credentialed modern-day scientist. With Liz Shaw at our sides we are expected to follow the show's often lofty concepts, or at least accept them with an open mind, and then to pursue their implications with an academic rigor. Liz Shaw is an adult, who knows both how to think and how to assert her conclusions -- and in this stew the Doctor serves as inspiration, as a suggestion that perhaps we haven't accounted for all of the possibilities at hand.
Though this concept of the show may have been untenable as a long-term proposition, Liz is one of a handful of mature and progressive windows that Doctor Who has handed us, which in turn put the Doctor in his proper place as the white rabbit, leading us to new ways of thought.
And here we have our 18th century piper, the loyal blank slate that is Jamie. If Ian, Barbara, and Liz are progressive figures who challenge us to question the world around us, Jamie is the coziest of all Companions. With Troughton's warmer, if somehow even more elusive, Doctor we need an appropriate foil to both the light and the darkness. In Jamie's simple affability Troughton's playful side gets to flourish, and his darker manipulation has a pawn at the ready.
Whatever the situation before him, Jamie takes his world at face value. Sometimes that value is filtered through some odd assumptions, and due to his background often Jamie lacks some essential knowledge, but malice and ego rarely factor into the picture. Through all of the wonders that he encounters, and all of the Doctor's tonal swings, Jamie remains earnest, loyal, and prepared to tackle his world hands-on -- whether or not he fully understands what is happening.
After the departure of Ian and Barbara, the show needed both another action lead and another voice of conscience, and in Steven Taylor it found both. Both a rational man and a staunch moralist, Ian is never slow to criticize the Doctor's behavior or challenge the arguments before him, yet is just as quick to defer to greater knowledge and to wait and observe rather than pursue his case just for the sake of it.
The show's strongest moment is a lost one, toward the end of a season three serial called The Massacre. Over the previous two serials the show had shed three companions, killing two of them in the process. The Doctor and Steven had overseen atrocities on a local and a cosmic scale. Finally over the course of The Massacre Steven had a chance at his own solo adventure -- right in the midst of one of history's politically-motivated culls. Through the story Steven grew close to a girl who might well have become the next companion -- until at the last moment the Doctor refused to help her, and dematerialized with Steven, leaving the horror behind.
For Steven, this action was the last straw -- and he let the Doctor know it. And for a few minutes there, it seemed like he might be gone forever. And in those few minutes, for the first time we see the Doctor broken. All of his past misdeeds come home, he comes to question his own motivations, and he crumbles.
Soon enough, Steven returns -- and on the other side, the Doctor is a new man. Well, sort of. He is humbled, at any rate.
Other than Barbara, no other Companion has had as large a role as Steven in shaping the character who the Doctor would become. While people speak at length of the difficulty that Patrick Troughton faced as the second man to play the Doctor, no one ever speaks of the impossible task before Peter Purves, of filling the roles of both the show's heroes at the same time -- yet he does it, and despite some scripting irregularities he does it very well.
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart
And then we have the Brig. Dearly departed, Nic Courtney brought a one-off character such warmth and dimension that he became a recurring character, and then a regular, and then a decades-long institution.
On paper the Brigadier is a simple character. He's the military mind, against whom the Doctor butts heads to aid in proving the Doctor's high-minded ideals. It would be easy to write and play this character as a humorless official or a bumbling oaf, but in execution those are just two minor aspects of Courtney's Brigadier.
Perhaps the key is Courtney's perpetual amusement with his own blank face. The Brigadier has to be unflappable, both rooted in the practical and ready to issue and act upon the most absurd of orders at a moment's notice. Behind his proper military mask, the Brigadier knows how little he knows, and is aware of just how vast and peculiar the universe can be. He is, after all, the man who formed UNIT in order to investigate the things that it does. He is the man who in a fit of pragmatic desperation was willing to believe in a magical Police Box if it could save him and his men from an robotic Yeti attack. Yet he is a brigadier, and he must look and behave a certain way -- and he knows the way that he comes off as a result. He sees the way that people respond to him.
His open mind his his own little secret, and one that he must protect to do his job well. And that's the magic to the Brigadier -- he's not the idiot who you think he is. The more that you forget this fact, the more hilarious that he finds the whole charade.
Under Andrew Cartmell, Doctor Who found its creative rudder for the first time in years. Though he and his writing team may have been young and inexperienced, and sometimes a bit incompetent on a technical level, finally the show was going somewhere with a purpose.
Into this purpose Cartmell introduced a new lead in Ace, a middle class kid with demons in her past who chooses to act out and play tough, with sometimes daffy results.
Ace is angry and opinionated, full of righteous indignation. Through her eyes we see the show explore racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of social injustice. Then the show sets upon her own past and motivations, exploring and challenging the roots of her anger.
For more or less the first time, a character on Doctor Who has her own arc -- and an arc that develops straight out of her psychology, questioning why she is as she is in order to move her to a new place.
All the while we have the best chemistry in the show's leads since Troughton and Frazer Hines. Give Jamie a bundle of angst and an opportunity to work it out on-screen, and you have the basic idea behind Ace.
Although the perfect craft is free of flourish, often the best details in a work are surplus to requirements.
Take Harry Sullivan. He doesn't have to be there, and in fact was written out after a year in recognition of this -- yet thanks to the charm of Ian Marter and his interplay with both Tom Baker and Lis Sladen, he is one of the most warmly remembered companions in the show's history.
When Pertwee handed in his notice, the producers had no clue who they would cast next. For all they knew the next Doctor would be an old man like Hartnell -- so in planning the next season they prepared for the worst, and in the Ian and Steven model wrote in a new male lead to take up the slack.
Then they cast Tom Baker, the youngest Doctor to date and such an enormous ham that there was hardly room for scenery, let alone a supporting artist. Under the aegis of Tom Baker even Lis Sladen, whose Sarah Jane Smith had been crafted as a strong feminist lead, crumbled to screams, petulance, and playground games. Between the ever-so alien Time Lord and Sladen's abdicated identification role, there was a gap for an everyman -- and Marter filled that gap with baffled affability.
Through all the Doctor's abuse and Sarah Jane's dependence, Harry prevails with a raised brow and a stiff upper lip. Rather like the Brigadier he forges ahead with a perfectly sane pragmatism, regardless of the situation or its demands on his imagination.
Harry grounds the show right when it most needs a foot in the practical. Were it that he lasted another year or two, and helped to temper Baker's force of personality, the mid-1970s might have turned out a little less pulp and a little more adventure.
Turlough is a curious case, a dangling end from a questionable plot thread who never quite fit his original sketch.
The original idea was that Turlough was there to kill the Doctor. He would be a sort of a Trojan horse who the Doctor would lug around with him, ready to spring at any moment. The thing is, from the start Turlough was written as a well-adjusted if snotty little fellow, who was simultaneously blackmailed and duped into the role of assassin. If he didn't agree, he would be allowed to die -- and anyway, he was told that the Doctor was the embodiment of evil.
Of course Turlough is anything but stupid, and he quickly realized that his target was not the monstrosity who had been described to him. Yet thanks to that deal, he was still an unwilling servant of a dark force -- so for a couple of serials he struggles with that scenario, until he breaks free and is allowed to just follow his own judgment. From that point on the character is both freed from his narrative confines and sort of abandoned by the creative team -- and yet he lingers.
So what makes Turlough so great? Mark Strickson, mostly. During his era on the show, Strickson is probably the strongest actor amongst the regular cast -- Peter Davison included. Whenever the two of them share screentime, you can see them both up their game. That, or try to upstage each other. Either way, put the two of them in the same room and you get some fantastic interplay.
Turlough also has the advantage of intelligence, meaning that aside from details beyond his frame of knowledge he doesn't have to ask for many explanations. After working through possible courses of action, mostly he just gets on with it -- often on his own initiative. Through his eyes, the audience can also get on with it. Yes, we understand the plot -- and even if we don't, it doesn't matter. What matters is what we do next. And like as not, what Turlough does next makes perfect sense -- even if it's not what we would hope to do in his place.
Although several Companions can put the Doctor in his place, as a Time Lady Romana is his only true equal. What she lacks in relative experience (though she learns quickly enough), she makes up for in scholarship and theoretical knowledge -- most of which is gobbledygook in a real-world context, but who's really counting?
Though at this point the show becomes rather aloof and smug, lacking a touchstone in practical reality, the writing and performance have reached a height of absurdity that sort of grounds its elements in the anarchy of high satire. We're not supposed to be in this show; we're supposed to be observing it from afar and nodding along as it underlines its own folly, hoping to make a larger point in the process.
As viewers we also have the advantage of two Romanas. In Mary Tamm we have a rational Liz Shaw figure, eager to play Scully to Baker's Harpo Marx. In Lalla Ward we have the second half of an insufferable double act, just in time to buzz through a season of Douglas Adams' brilliantly insufferable creative direction.
And then there is the tin dog. K-9 is more than a companion; he is one of the irrepressible icons of Doctor Who, slotting in somewhere after the TARDIS and before the Sonic Screwdriver. Depending on your shore, he may lurk either before or after the Daleks.
What can I say? It's always good to have a character take the Doctor down a peg, particularly when the Doctor is played be an actor like Tom Baker. For as absurd a man as Baker, what better voice to undermine his behavior than that of a dog-shaped computer?
Granted, K-9 presents many practical problems to efficient storytelling. I'm not going to belabor them all here. Strictly as a personality, though, and as a piece of cool, memorable gear -- seriously, it's K-9! Would you turn down a robot dog, especially one who knew everything better than you? As with the Daleks it's folly to give the character a lead role, but if you've got a chance to park him behind the TARDIS console you're a fool to turn it down.
There will be objections to this list. I left out Sarah Jane (for reasons alluded to along the way). The Brigadier isn't a real companion, for some reason. K-9 is horrible. Why would I choose Turlough over so many others? And where is Rose Tyler? (Not in the classic series, I respond.) This is the nature of things.
Over fifty years, Doctor Who has presented many excellent leading and supporting roles. Some of them are more obvious than others, and some have contributed more or better tied into the show's themes. If in the process of reading you had chance to think differently about an overlooked character or actor, then to some extent I consider my job done.