Doctor Who Series 9: Have companions become more important than the Doctor?

Invasion of the Zygons Doctor Who
Didn’t I say, if we hang around long enough we’ll get another show…


The fifth of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine. The return of the Earth invasion, politics and the last brilliant multi-Doctor story. But something wasn’t quite right. The Doctor wasn’t in total control. His companions were.

A question brewing for 10 years. Inspired by the The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion

IT’S NOT TOO SOON, IS IT? WHEN COMES TO DOCTOR WHO IT MAY AS WELL BE TOO LATE, SO LET’S JUST SETTLE ON THE TIMEING BEING EXACTLY RIGHT. From where I sit in the far future Clara’s been gone for centuries and I’ve managed to get over it… Yes, this might be a little strong. Episodes of Series Nine are increasingly piling up the doom and gloom surrounding Clara’s imminent departure. It could be any time now, but even if it falls before the series finale, the repercussions will reach to the end and beyond. It’s certainly going to be a wrench. As the recent two-parter proved, she’s not only the modern era’s longest serving companion, but quite possibly the most important companion in the show’s history…

But Clara’s colleague companions have been important for many years. If the New Series can be marked out from the classic years in any terms, it’s not the missing Time Lords but the increased role of who the Doctor calls his “friends”.

The Classic Years

Far beyond… “The nightmare scenario…”

Companions had a simple purpose in many of the padded stories of the classic era. Classic companions like Leela, who accompanied the Fourth Doctor, had foibles and qualities that fed into the tone of the stories that followed their introduction. In further adventures they often used these to find new and very personal ways to get into trouble. Leela brought an Eliza Doolittle model to the TARDIS. Harry Sullivan was an imbecile, but also a doctor. Sarah Jane Smith was a reporter. Nyssa was a scientist, specialising in bioelectronics. Tegan was an air stewardess who was constantly trying to get back to Heathrow airport and once did. Mel Bush had an eidetic memory and a spectacular scream. But often, despite their unique characteristics, companions served their greatest narrative function within the confines of their origin story. None of their characters defined subsequent stories.

Perhaps the nearest the series came to that was the delirious Brigadier in Series 20’s Mawdryn Undead, a Blinovitch loaded time bomb wandering around an alien ship until he created a scene. That same season Tegan fell under the spell of the Mara for a second time, although she was the bridge rather than the focus for these stories. Then came Mel in Trial of a Time Lord. Having seen her in Matrix projections of the future, the Doctor retrieved the companion he’s never met to form part of his defence, only for her to take a role in foiling the fiendish plot of the Valeyard inside the Matrix of the Timelords itself. Earlier came precocious Adric, whose sacrifice to mathematics enabled his friends to escape. It was his last act, but he certainly never found out if he was right.

Original crew

When she left, she left for love …

Even original companion Susan was as removed from adventures as her offish un-Doctorly grandfather. Indirectly, it was her elevated extrovertness and poor subtlety that brought two humans, Barbara and Ian, on board the TARDIS to kick-start the two exiles’ involvement in the universe. Susan and the Doctor didn’t leave Gallifrey to gallivant around the universe after all. With so little of the show’s fabric stitched by the time she left the TARDIS crew a year later, she was never attached to being a Time Lady or given their key abilities. She even had the sauce to claim the acronym of TARDIS as her own, as the Doctor presumably fondly remembered in The Zygon Inversion. That said, she did display telepathic abilities, saving Barbara in The Sensorites, that might just have exceeded her grandfather’s. When she left, she left for love. She didn’t play a part in any arc, presumably the Time Lords never caught up with her to put her on trial. Maybe she wasn’t pursued – but could she have escaped the Time War? 

New Years

You have to find a way around each companion discovering the Time Lord…

The Great Time War was the universe altering moment that changed the fabric of the show, immediately updating it, adding a well of drama and mystery and neatly explaining away the show’s time off air. In 1963 the mystery of Susan, the ‘60s school girl, had opened the door of the TARDIS for us. Russell T Davies repeated the same trick to his advantage just over 40 years later. But while companions remain that crucial route to the alien time traveller and his mysterious ship, it comes with some issues. Dramatically you have to find a way around each companion discovering the Time Lord and every part of his extraordinary life without making the audience fall asleep every few years. While the first half-decade of the show’s return handled this neatly, taking on board three modern woman with vastly different outlooks on life, current showrunner Steven Moffat has recently taken it to an extreme by introducing at least three versions of Clara. And that’s after he confirmed that the TARDIS wasn’t sex free.

Rise of the arc – something new

The Classic Series was built on serials…

With the New Series of 2005 came something new, an arc. Integral parts of the new series structure that companions would be tied into from the start. While the Classic Series had been previously built on serials – connected runs like the Third Doctor’s exile to Earth, the arrival of the Master, and the Fourth Doctor’s opening series or season-long quest for the Key to Time (all during the 1970s) – they had little in common with the arc structures that arrived in American genre television two decades later. When the Doctor found himself in a season long trial during his 23rd year, that conceit typically came from a wry attempt to comment on the show’s real-life predicament by script editor Eric Saward and writer Robert Holmes.

Companions personal timespans aboard the TARDIS formed their own arcs of a kind, although they’ve proved a lesser measurement scale than the defining periods set by Doctors on screen and script editors and producers off. There seldom seemed to be a compelling entrance or exit strategy for companions, often something that fell to contracts and actors’ careers. Sometimes it may have been better if the production hadn’t been hamstrung by a need to give companions any welcomes or goodbyes within adventures at all. Sarah Jane Smith suffered an ignominious dumping in 1976 while a few years later the Fifth Doctor’s full TARDIS was contrived very quickly in the Fourth Doctor’s final three adventures. Mostly by the Master, and that should have set off some alarms.

Rise of the arc – something borrowed

Shows had often relied on a reset formula

When the show returned in 2005, things were very different. And the template had been set across the Atlantic. Years of America syndication policy – where shows were sold for broadcast around multiple stations who had little care for running order – which had previously restricted connected storytelling on American television, had petered off. Before then, shows had often relied on a reset formula where major characters could either avoid all life-changing events or simply recover completely and forgetfully in the seven days it took for the next episode to appear. That’s still a reference point, one often levelled at the majority of Star Trek episodes pre-1994. In contrast was the long-lived show that could lose all its major characters from one week to the next.

In particular, genre shows began to embrace the dramatic strength of drawing from the intertwined approach of soaps in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those that refused looked immediately tired and dated. Even in the early days, when networks were still anxious about linked episodes, Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine used it as a strength. The X-Files and Lost would soon become the foremost examples of better, or complicated, storytelling in a genre show. All four of those shows arrived on television before Doctor Who’s glorious return. As Davies looked at the appeal of seminal genre shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the new Doctor Who was bound to enter a new period of cause and effect. And while you’re looking at one of genre’s great female characters…

Rose Tyler

She was the eyes for a whole new generation…

When it come to the most important companion in the show’s history, the only one who can hold a torch to Susan Foreman is Rose Tyler, first appearing just over four decades later. It was her we first met in 2005’s Rose. In the title, hitting her alarm clock, being dragged to her day job. Until she meets a stranger. A stranger who tells her to “run”. She was the eyes for a whole new generation, running then, and about 45 minutes later running straight into the TARDIS to experience the universe alongside everybody at home.

Rose was like us, all wide-eyed wonder at first, from the far future to Victorian Cardiff to sharp present day satire. But soon even the Doctor couldn’t miss the continual repeat of the words “Bad Wolf”.

“Everywhere we go. Two words, following us. “Bad Wolf.””

In the heady days of that first series it looked like an arc. It was an arc. Huge, gigantic, dominating all discussion as soon as the pattern emerged. It wasn’t of course. There were some episodes where it didn’t feature. But in the wonder and amazement of that first series it was at the forefront of this new and connected universe. It was almost unbearable by the time the two-part series finale came around and Bad Wolf was revealed to be… A vortex enhanced all powerful Rose Tyler. She had created herself in the New Series’ first paradox, and in doing so destroyed the Daleks and her beloved Doctor.

Unfortunately, she also destroyed her purpose. She had a new Doctor to discover, acting as the eyes once more, this time into the idea of regeneration. But tellingly, despite a demise (in this universe) that owed more to the Daleks and Cybermen than Bad Wolf, she would never escape the shadow of that first season arc. And that was in spite of those earlier implications being washed away very quickly. When she returned to stop the Daleks destroying reality in Series 4 she was heralded by the words “Bad Wolf”. When her likeness returned in Day of the Doctor it was Bad Wolf and not Rose. By now, that’s shorthand for a particularly cocky version of Rose, whose name alone can give shudders to the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors.

Donna Noble

Nobody expected Donna’s to be the most satisfying character arc …

When the Daleks settled on ending all reality, we found ourselves at the climax of Donna Noble’s one year storyline. Catherine Tate seemed like optimistic stunt casting in the likeable Christmas romp The Runaway Bride. But when she turned down travelling with the Doctor it added a new texture to the show. Even in his tenth incarnation, the Doctor wasn’t irresistible. A lovely touch: the idea that the Doctor wasn’t for everyone. When she returned a year later, nobody expected Donna’s to be the most satisfying character arc of all time. Hints throughout the series were more abstract, from missing planets to disappearing bees. And then those prophecies from the Ood and the soothsayer Lucius Petrus Dextrus in Pompeii. The Doctor Donna. Something on her back… In the end, it was a revelation just as deus ex machina as Rose’s in The Parting of the Ways. But it also managed to be even more tragic. The other half of the hybrid that gifted Rose her very own and rather sinister Doctor Doll, the Doctor Donna helped save the day at the cost of her memories. And part of the reason it was so fulfilling was that Donna can never make a return to her peak at the end of Series Four. Although, as every two-parter of Series Nine has suggested, hybrids will find a way.

Martha Jones

As if to reject her rival Rose even more…

Martha arrived between Rose and Donna, a sharp, sweet antidote in what’s probably still the New Series’ greatest year. While the Doctor had loved Rose, a selfish and lazy underperformer to a fair degree worker, Martha was a doctor trapped in unrequited love. Her back story was mostly based on paradox too, one she indirectly created when she reawakened the dormant Master. Come the end and a chance to launch a one woman crusade against the enslaver of her family and planet, it wasn’t as universe-stopping as Rose’s alter-ego. And as if to reject her rival Rose even more, her role in the year of hell that ended the series was not to promote herself but build the legend of the Doctor. She soon drifted away to a quiet life of success, as befitted one of the few companions who don’t overshoot their story. Perhaps the most notable ‘inflated’ aspect of Martha’s turn as companion was the Master had learnt the importance of using the Doctor’s companions. Still, he had many years to learn that lesson.

Amy Pond

Come the new Doctor and the show’s rather random five year reboot, no one was prepared for the apex for the companion. It started innocently enough, with the girl who waited. By the end of her first year, Amy had become inextricably linked to the reboot of the universe in The Big Bang. That series presented a paradoxical conclusion which resolved the universe ending danger. Having been seeded, influenced and used by the unlikely Pandorica Alliance of the Doctor’s enemies, Amy, like Rose, had her initial and core arc ended by the end of her first series. Unlike Rose, it reached fruition through the setting of the trap, rather than the solving of a problem. But still, her purpose, many years in the making, had been fulfilled. And to rub that in, she gained parents previously lost to her in the new universe. Parents who, along with the wonderfully sculpted village of Leadworth that disappeared after The Eleventh Hour.

The waves of continuity and importance that wove around Amy and her husband Rory are too complicated to summarise here, although Jokerside’s Eleventh Doctor Whovember was obsessed with them. While the Sixth Series nominally focussed on the show’s most complicated arc of the Doctor’s death, it still couldn’t avoid being inextricably linked to the Pond family. And when the Doctor wasn’t planting memories in the young Amelia Pond, this came through River Song – daughter of Amy and Rory who’d appeared before either and moved slowly from future wife of the Doctor when we first saw her in Silence in the Library to hybrid brain-washed assassin in Lets Kill Hitler and then back to affable, if not snoggable, ghost.

River will of course reappear in the 2015 Christmas special, while gaining an extra lease of life in Big Finish’s audio range. But when it came to her parents exit, it was their extraordinary and unprecedented entanglement in the Doctor’s life that made their departure all the stranger. The series decided to link them inextricably to the Angels. Moffat’s first companions and his greatest monsters. And For a companion born out of and manipulated by the Silence that just didn’t feel right.

Space-timeshares

The choice between two lives comes to define them…

The Ponds played a huge role in introducing the concept of timeshare companions. Where the Doctor was happy to head out into time-space on his own, sometimes for a great number of years, and then pick them up to continue where he left off. It was melancholy, when Amy and Rory had to confront their traveling before their friends noticed their accelerated ageing. It was also a format breaker, where Companions could be rooted in two lives. Where the choice between those two lives would come to define them. Without the permanent companion, this where the Doctor also started to lose a human touch. And strangely, it’s a trait the Doctor carried across two very different incarnations.

Clara Oswald

After the Ponds, or during, come the New Series’ longest serving companion. In her guise as the Impossible Girl, her birthday a strangely familiar date of 23rd November. Clara’s story was heavy, smothered in mystery, and come the end of her first half season it was completed. In many ways, Clara is the anti-Rose. Having traversed the Doctor’s whole timeline there’s no secret in waiting, nothing about the Time Lord that should perturb her (although that didn’t excuse her an extended regeneration story). She was there at the beginning to push the First Doctor towards the right Type-40 capsule when he made his escape from Gallifrey. That contradiction of the TARDIS/Idris’ claim that she chose the Doctor in The Doctor’s Wife presumably part of the reason why the TARDIS found it so hard to take to her.

Clara is the Impossible Girl, a greater riddle than Amy in that it connects to the Doctor’s across his entire life. And now, two seasons after reaching the end of her Impossible Girl storyline she’s about to leave the TARDIS crew. And that meant a long time has been spent replotting her. The central arc to Series Eight’s story resolved on Missy, who we found out had brought her and the Doctor together in the Bells of St John. The return to a Bad Wolf-style arc that ran concurrent to Missy’s appearance saw the Doctor facing up to his warful past and relationship to the military. That ended with the Doctor strangely condoning a soldier’s self-sacrifice while saluting a horribly misplaced Cyber-converted corpse of his old comrade the Brigadier. Of course, that first soldier was the love of Clara’s life. Doctor Who series often find space for that reset button before a series premiere.

By the quick discovery and rapid exit of Danny Pink reinforced Clara’s two lives, at the end of that rather morbid series. Now in more buoyant times, Series Nine has seen her rise to supernatural levels in her efforts to keep the two lives going. We’d seen Clara rise to commanding armies before, for instance the beleaguered troops of Nightmare in Silver. We’d seen her rush from her school job to the Doctor at the drop of a note in Day of the Doctor. Every time that happens there seems to be a new 20-something male teacher at Coal Hill School to pass on the message, perspiring as much from the speed he’s rushed to Miss Oswald’s classroom as his infatuation with her.

Clara is able to take any situation in her stride. She even overcame the effects of what ‘destroyed’ the Great Intelligence. She’s an incredible teacher and able to keep every plate spinning in the air while rising to the head of military units. Amy may have become intricately involved with the Doctor’s past and future, Rose may have killed one incarnation and saved the Earth more than once, but Clara is the most accomplished companion. To the point of superhero. And that was no more evident than in The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon inversion. She almost stole the show.

The Zygon Invasion: Taking Control

“Once upon a time…”

Yes, it started like a fairy tale. That was the running issue come the end – peace is more than difficult: is it even possible? Are we truly in an endless loop of unsolvable crises? The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion posed a number of challenges in terms of Doctor Who structure, that hide just behind its welcome political barbs and topicality. The format issues are to be expected in one of the show’s rare direct sequels – to none other than the 50th anniversary episode – and a bold twist in the grand tradition of UNIT invasion stories. But it’s also a key story in terms of the companion’s role.

By the time of The Zygon Invasion, the Doctor’s happy to appear in the 21st century and phone Clara without caring for the month. While the Clara that we know is removed from the picture at just over 10 minutes into the story, that revelation’s kept for the cliff-hanger so it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor and Kate Stewart happily grant her absolute authority. Indeed we later learn that she is one of the few to have Black Archive access. The reason remains unclear come the end, unless she is always predestined to be the weak link in getting the Zygons to that endgame.

“Clara, Jac – you stay here. This is your country. Protect it from the scary monsters. And also from the Zygons”

We see the Doctor preening as he boards his POTW plane while Clara heads to the underground to investigate. Clara perhaps more than any companion, bar those who gained abilities like the Doctor‑Donna or Bad Wolf, is a Doctor by proxy.

Unstoppable Clara

“There is something very wrong happening underneath London”

Elements of the story suffered in translation. The idea that Zygons assumed duplicate appearance of populations of the UK but were placed elsewhere doesn’t come through, nor how the Zygons can steal faces from memories at long distance, or why Clara’s duplicate is called Bonnie.

But what didn’t get lost was the idea that Clara was unstoppable.

“It’s not paranoia”

In fact it’s was a strained difficulty come the end of the episode. Clara is the ruse, once the Doctor is away from the country. But that can’t deny her assuming his role. Underneath London, it’s Clara handing out orders to the troops. And of course, that’s the perfect disguise – a Clara who can control squadrons as effortlessly as classrooms. “We have to neutralise these before they hatch” she says at one point. Just before, “Do you know what? I’m enjoying this…” Until the killing, when she is fully revealed to be a Zygon, there is nothing out of character that would put the audience or her companions off the scent in that behaviour. And the Zygons realise this power – hers is the identity that the top ranking Zygon chooses to assume. And yes, in that respect, Jac is her companion.

“Get to the TARDIS. Get yourself safe”

The cliff-hanger of The Zygon Invasion wasn’t jumped, but it was stretched. The threat of Clara’s demise hangs over the story, but only for the Doctor. As soon as we realise that Clara has been duplicated, or perhaps once our suspicions have been confirmed, we can see that she’s safe. Crucially within minutes of the revelation that Zygons now have no need to retain their human originals. Clara’s death is never in doubt for us, and never truly explored – even in the glimpse of the Doctor who looks to have lost hope – especially come the Doctor’s throwaway line come the end.

The Doctor’s throwaway line has a point, one that ties right back to the opening concept. But in suggesting this was the fifteenth time that both parties had come to the Osgood solution it renders all the tension and drama moot. The endgame gives us a get-out of an aeroplane explanation for the Doctor’s nonchalance during the adventure, reckless nonchalance, as it’s a game he’s run through many times. But it sticks. Not only does the Doctor does look genuinely sceptical at the idea that Clara has survived halfway through, but he would also have to accepts the deaths that come with it as inevitable. And that’s not very Doctorly, especially in a sequel to Day of the Doctor. It isn’t his only stray out of character. As soon as the Doctor lands brashly in his Union Flag parachute, as soon as he hands his sonic specs to Osgood, he has very little control.

“I’m awake”

Some of his role passes to Osgood, steering the Doctor in Clara’s absence and making deductions, including the one that Clara’s alive and able to communicate. Kate Stewart also takes on the mantle of powerful sub-companion, defeating and fooling the Zygons just like Queen Elizabeth I before her. Although Elizabeth never fell for a line as mind crunchingly inexplicable as Kate’s appropriation of her father’s order “Five rounds rapid”.

The Inversion

“Then we’ve got a game”

But the main inversion falls on the battle between Clara and Bonnie. Clara’s breaking through from her slumber to influence Bonnie – by definition a powerful and motivated Zygon – is a far more significant factor in the plot’s resolution than the Doctor. It reminds of (a) Clara’s first appearance in Asylum of the Daleks where she was unusually resistant to Dalek conditioning. Although that time of course she didn’t survive…

Much of The Zygon Invasion is about Clara’s personal war to regain control and save the day, mostly cockily (“I am a brilliant liar”). Again, come the end that’s a moot point. Surely it hasn’t unravelled the same way 15 times before, but it does make Clara’s actions a painful part of reaching the end revelation. And come the end game Clara, now released and walking, couldn’t be more of an emphasis. But the Doctor’s praise like, “The mind of Clara Oswald – she may never find her way out!” perhaps it’s no surprise that she’s so uncharacteristically quiet during the closing stand-off and speech in the Black Archive. But the Doctor’s confidence is based in knowing how Bonnie, the episode’s aggressor, thinks because she possesses Clara’s face. Clara’s facial expressions helps to save the world (not that there is actually any threat posed in the Archive). Which is no woollier and overly emotional than the fact that the unconscious companion has carried the weight of this story far more than the Doctor.

It’s difficult to build up the departure of a companion who’s already expired twice. But her last great invasion adventure on Earth saw Clara show everything. Most of all, as we approach her departure, it makes you wonder what will happen during that situation in future. And how on Earth will the Doctor cope when Clara’s not around.

“I let Clara Oswald get inside my head – trust me, she doesn’t leave”

Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will continue with a trip to the future and a date with Mr Sandman…

Read the complete set of Doctor Who Series Nine essays.

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