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In essence, that's what it's about, but as with most good shows, it's also about far more. For some it's about being yourself, for others it's about what it means to be human and for that you really do need the assistants on the series. The assistants are the supporting cast of the show, picked up by the Doctor on his time-travelling adventures. The stories depend upon the Doctor (the show is called Doctor Who, after all), but in order for him to function, the assistants are integral; that's why the assistants on Doctor Who serve such an important function. It is easy to think that they are just there to get rescued by the Doctor and look pretty. This Entry has been written to debunk that myth. Before we go any further it would be wise to consider what to call those that travel with the Doctor. Some choose 'Assistant', some choose 'Companion' and some just settle for 'Friend'.
Whatever you choose to call them, the assistants serve as an important entry point into the stories for the viewers. They're often just 'ordinary people' thrown into extraordinary situations and they have to cope with everything they encounter. Their insecurity and disbelief when they first join the Doctor on his travels is something we can all relate to, but more importantly they are there as a grounding influence, merely because they are human, whereas the Doctor might look human, but he's an alien. He is often unpredictable and occasionally difficult to understand, and this means the companions have the vital role of asking all of those questions the average viewer might possibly be asking.
If the Doctor chooses stupid people to be with him, it makes him look stupid too.
- Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor.
Before we assess the qualities of the Doctor's assistants, it should be pointed out that not all of them are female: Jamie, Adric and Turlough are just a few of the men who have travelled with the Doctor. Regardless of gender, the assistants must have certain qualities, beginning with intelligence, an important requirement for any time traveller. Though it may not be conventional intelligence, it could be argued that it's the potential for intelligence that's key. Take Rose Tyler (The Ninth Doctor's assistant) as an illustration: she did not have much of a formal education (having bailed from her A-level course to get a job in a shop to pay off debts) but is capable of thinking fast on her feet.
A few of the Doctor's assistants were formally educated. Sarah Jane, the fourth Doctor's companion, was a journalist and presumably had to study hard to become one. Whether this intelligence manifests itself academically (Liz Shaw helping the Doctor with his scientific experiments) or in basic common sense and resourcefulness, whichever way you look at it, their intelligence will be tested to the limit as they try to keep up with the Doctor. This intelligence is very much a double-edged sword - through a desire to prove themselves (and often out of curiosity), assistants have a nasty tendency to wander off and get themselves into danger, causing all sorts of trouble. But this independence is still an important quality for an assistant to possess if they want to be of any use. As the Ninth Doctor says to Adam in 'The Long Game':
Go and find out, stop bugging me. Thing is, Adam - time travel, it's like visiting Paris. You can't just read the guidebook, you've got to throw yourself into it, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers, or is that just me? Stop asking questions, and do it!
This principle is a very good one to adhere to. The assistants need an element of independence because they can't just sit around and wait for the Doctor to save them; they've got to do something! This often provides an important narrative function, especially in the case of Rose, who saves the Doctor in more ways than one. Without independence the assistant would merely be a burden to the Doctor, and not of any use or help.
Compassion is also an essential element of a good assistant's character. Generally the Doctor prefers to talk himself out of situations but occasionally he must resort to violence if there's no viable alternative. The assistants serve as the Doctor's moral conscience at times, and compassion comes to the fore on these occasions. The prime example of this is 'Dalek'. In this episode the Doctor comes very close to destroying a Dalek in an act of revenge, which would totally undermine who he is, what he does and everything that he stands for. Rose Tyler, his assistant at the time, steps in and shows him the error of what he is about to do, because she can feel compassion for the Dalek, even after all that it has done, and understands that it is not the right thing to do. She saves the Doctor from a very grave error.
Though this entry is about assistants in general, it is important to highlight that each of the assistants is unique in their own way, and that some are more suitably adept at coping with their trials than others.
A Female Perspective
Though some assistants occasionally fall into the trap of acting like the traditional 'damsel in distress' so common in science fiction, generally these are few and far between. A successful assistant has to be strong-willed and prepared to stand up for themselves. Take Peri for example, as she's shouting down the Master:
I can shout just as loud as you can!
She reveals that she is tough and yet she never loses an ounce of her 'feminine' qualities of compassion and kindness. This is important because generally in science fiction, if a woman acted in a way that a man would normally act, she somehow became less than female (see, for example, how Ellen Ripley in the Alien films becomes more androgynous as the films proceed). This wasn't often the case on Doctor Who, where the assistants need the best of both 'male' and 'female' qualities to function, just as in real life. A prime example is Romana, who was the fourth Doctor's intellectual equal and on occasion, it was she who would 'solve' the mystery while the Doctor was reduced to a less central role - such as in 'The Horns of Nimon'. Though Romana was less well travelled than the Doctor, and therefore had less experience, she was still just as capable at saving the universe as he was - and she often managed to perform all the running about while wearing evening dresses and heels. Just because she's a brainbox doesn't mean she can't be glamorous too!
Rose Tyler is another possible example, a headstrong woman who never thinks twice about arguing with the Doctor if she disagrees with him. She may only be 19 but she certainly knows what she thinks and takes great delight in expressing it!
The Doctor is also interesting to consider from a female perspective, because he is not your typical sci-fi hero. The Doctor is intelligent and compassionate, almost to a fault; it's very rare to see him turn to violence except as a last resort when the world is in danger. So you have a lead male who embodies the best of both characteristics, compassionate yet tough when he needs to be. This is one of the many things that make Doctor Who unique - we can learn the best characteristics of humanity from an alien - but that is also part of the programme's appeal. The assistants and the Doctor play such a huge part in what makes the show special.
Assistants and Their Doctors
The dynamic between the Doctor and his assistants is always fluctuating. At first we have what some refer to as the 'Granddaughter Figure'. The most obvious example being Susan who the viewers are told is actually the Doctor's granddaughter in the series, though this does raise the question of nature versus nurture. Vicki, Dodo and Victoria fall into this model.
With the older companions, the Doctor serves as a kind of mentor - the likes of Sarah-Jane, Ace and, to a lesser extent, Romana spring to mind. Their main function in the story is to have the concepts of a storyline or science explained to them, and so by proxy the audience knows what's going on. Though it's not just about teaching them: the Doctor has genuine enthusiasm for the universe and wants to share it with them. Not all assistants appreciate the Doctor's approach though. On arriving on the alien world Midnight, Donna Noble elected to relax in the hotel rather than join the Doctor on a sightseeing trip. She also enjoyed popping the Doctor's pomposity at times, such as when he waxed lyrical about the significance of giving Donna her own key to the Tardis, while Donna pointed out that, as they were being suffocated by poison gas, the ceremony could be postponed until they were both at less risk of being choked to death.
Not all assistants are as capable as others, just as not all those that help the Doctor necessarily go on to travel with him. The most obvious example is Sara Kingdom, who is often included as an assistant, despite only appearing in one story, because she travelled in the Tardis to many different locations. But if travelling in the Tardis was a factor, Liz Shaw would have to be discounted as her time with the Doctor was spent solely on Earth.
An interesting recent example is Adam, who is basically 'the companion who couldn't'. He shows exactly what an assistant shouldn't be. He meddles with time, and even sends a message back to the past for his own gain. Needless to say the Doctor finds out and Adam is tossed out of the TARDIS unceremoniously. Continuing the earlier discussion of Romana, she even gets her own assistant of sorts, in the form of Duggan, for an episode entitled 'The City of Death'.
Then there are those characters who we see as series regulars but don't quite make it to full companion status. Sergeant / RSM Benton, Captain Mike Yates and Corporal Bell all helped the Doctor as staff-members of UNIT, but only Benton worked alongside three Doctors and got to travel in the Tardis. Rose's mother Jackie also became an infrequent flyer with the Doctor, twice finding herself an unwilling accomplice fending off Daleks and Cybermen. Rose's father Pete died when she was young, but on a parallel world he survived and, alongside her boyfriend Mickey, ran Torchwood there. In fact, since 2005, the Doctor's decision to take on a companion has usually resulted in him having to accept their family members into his life - and his time machine - too.
Since Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, we've seen a number of characters who might be treated as 'Special' companions - so called because they appear in the stand-alone specials at Christmas, or in the run of episodes in 2009. The first of these, Donna Noble, helped the Doctor defeat the Racnoss, but elected not to join him on his travels (although she later regretted the decision and when their paths crossed again a year later, she jumped at the chance to become a proper member of the Tardis crew). Astrid Peth was a waitress aboard the starship Titanic in 'Voyage of the Damned' and seemed all set to become the Doctor's companion before she sacrificed her life to save the Doctor's. Jackson Lake appeared in the 2008 Christmas special, a complex character who initially thought that he was the Doctor, until the genuine article arrived to put things right. Lady Christina de Souza was a cat-burglar who fate put alongside the Doctor on a London bus that fell through a wormhole and ended up on an alien world, while Captain Adelaide Brooke encountered the Doctor on a research base on Mars - although her story ended tragically.
Despite the many who never cut it as assistants, there are many who did.
Susan Foreman - the Doctor's granddaughter, who claims to have made up the name 'TARDIS' herself.
Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton - teachers at Coal Hill, a London secondary school - whose curiosity about Susan leads them into becoming reluctant time-travellers.
Vicki - an orphan trapped on the planet Dido who is adopted by the Doctor.
Steven Taylor - a space pilot originally from Earth who the Doctor and his friends rescue from the planet Mechanus.
Katrina - a Greek handmaiden whose tragic destiny is foretold before she enters the TARDIS to help a wounded Steven.
Dorothea 'Dodo' Chaplet - a cheeky teenager with a peculiarly shifting accent1 who mistakes the TARDIS for a real London police box.
Ben Jackson and Polly2 - sailor Ben met secretary Polly in a bar. The duo helped the Doctor defeat the War Machines before joining him on his travels and witnessing his first regeneration.
Jamie McCrimmon - a rebellious Scot plucked from the post-battle fields of Culloden in 1746.
Victoria Waterfield - orphaned when her father was killed by the Daleks, the Doctor took the emotional Victoria under his wing.
Zoe Heriot - a teen genius from Earth's future.
Alastair Lethbridge Stewart (The Brigadier) - Lethbridge Stewart first met the Doctor when he was a corporal investigating the Yeti invasion of London. Later promoted to Brigadier, he headed the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) and employed the exiled third Doctor as his scientific advisor.
Liz Shaw - a scientist assigned to UNIT who becomes the Doctor's assistant after his second regeneration.
Josephine 'Jo' Grant - an enthusiastic but clumsy trainee secret agent who joins UNIT (and the Doctor) thanks to getting her uncle to pull a few strings for her.
Sarah Jane Smith - a journalist who travelled with the third and fourth Doctors.
Harry Sullivan - a Naval officer seconded to UNIT who joined the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane on their travels.
Leela - a savage, intuitive alien who pushes her way into the TARDIS rather than become the leader of her own tribe.
K-9 - a robotic computer in the shape of a dog, given to the Doctor by his inventor Professor Marius. When the original K-9 chose to stay on Gallifrey with Leela, the Doctor built himself a copy - K-9, mark II. He also made a version that was sent to his old friend Sarah Jane Smith.
Romanadvoratrelundar - Romana for short, and a Time Lord, like the Doctor. Initially a tall, brunette, she later regenerated on a whim into a haughty but mischievous blonde.
Adric - a mathematical genius from the planet Alzarius who stowed aboard the TARDIS.
Nyssa - when her father was murdered by the Master, the regal Nyssa of Traken was brought to the Doctor to look after.
Tegan Jovanka - an Australian with a big mouth and feisty attitude, she was looking forward to her first day as an air stewardess when she came aboard the TARDIS by accident.
Vizlor Turlough - an alien from the planet Trion posing as a schoolboy who was employed by the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor. When he eventually chose to betray the Black Guardian, the Doctor allowed the boy to join him and Tegan on their travels.
Kamelion - a shape-changing android from the planet Xeriphas, Kamelion came aboard the TARDIS when the Doctor stole him from his enemy the Master. However, the android failed to join the TARDIS crew on their adventures until the Master tried to reclaim him once more...
Perpugilliam 'Peri' Brown - an American botany student who decided to travel with the Doctor instead of going back to college. She was surprised when, shortly after, her new friend regenerated into his brash, aggressive sixth persona.
Melanie3 - how Mel came to travel with the Doctor is never fully explained. She apparently joins the Sixth Doctor at some point in the future, but their first meeting was never shown on television.
Dorothy, aka 'Ace'4 - a tomboyish and enthusiastic teenage girl, Ace first meets the Doctor and Mel in a futuristic cafeteria on an alien world, where she found herself one day after being caught in a 'time storm'.
Dr Grace Holloway - a surgeon whose ignorance of Gallifreyan physiognomy resulted in the death of the seventh Doctor and the birth of the eighth. She helped him defeat the Master but chose not to travel with him.
Rose Tyler - a shop assistant who chooses to travel with the Doctor after he blows her shop up and saves her from the Autons. Rose leaves her hairdresser mum and listless boyfriend Mickey to face adventure and monsters. But even the thrills of time travel can't stop her from popping home occasionally.
Captain Jack Harkness - an omnisexual time-traveller who leaves a life of con tricks to experience travels aboard the TARDIS.
Mickey Smith - having stayed at home and watched his on-off girlfriend run off with the Doctor, Mickey eventually became a companion - for a short while - after helping out with an infestation of Krillitane at Defry Vale school.
Martha Jones - a medical student who joins the Doctor after they save each other's lives during a Plasmavore attack on the hospital she is working in.
Donna Noble - a secretary who begins her association with the Doctor after accidentally being pulled into the TARDIS on the day of her wedding.
Wilfred Mott - Donna's maternal grandfather who, after making several appearances, achieves honorary companion status through the part he plays in the Tenth Doctor's final adventure, 'The End of Time'. Wilf is present as the Doctor defeats the resurrected Time Lords and inadvertently prompts his regeneration into his 11th incarnation.
Amy Pond - the headstrong young companion of the 11th Doctor.
... and this only covers those lucky companions in the TV adventures. There have also been companions in comic strips (including John and Gillian, Sharon, Frobisher, Izzy and Majenta), in the movies of the 1960s (the Doctor's niece, Louise), in novels (notably Bernice Summerfield, Sam and Fitz), on audio (Dr Evelyn Smythe, Erimem, Hex) and in webcasts (Alison).
In whatever form he appears, the Doctor knows he'll need help, someone to show the universe off to, to share his crazy life and experience his mad adventures. In some ways though, the only companion who's been with him throughout all his lives and exploits breaks every rule we've discussed here. She's not feisty or courageous, nor even human. She's almost as old as he is, is a bit battered around the edges, and groans every time he takes her out. But for a thing that looks like an old London police call box, the Doctor's Tardis is remarkably enduring.