Over more than half a century, female characters have featured heavily in Doctor Who. Occasionally they are villains but the majority of the time they fill the role of The Doctor’s companion. The portrayal of female Doctor Who companions have often reflected attitudes of the time. Fortunately, the progression of the series has seen those characterisations evolve. From the companion in constant need of rescue the companions are now in many ways an equal to The Doctor. They have also laid the foundation for the first female Doctor; Jodie Whittaker.
Female Doctor Who companions were installed from the beginning with not one but two. Barbara Wright was a history teacher at Coal Hill School. Together with her colleague Ian Chesterton, they discovered the mysterious ship and it’s evasive proprietor. She was a strong character, brave in the face of terrors including the Daleks, Sensorites and the Voord. Overall Barbara was a positive female character who performed a specific role in the TARDIS quartet. The other female companion was of course the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan. During the early seasons of the show a young female character allowed Hartnell’s Doctor to portray the grandfather figure. His protective nature to his young companion allowed younger members of the audience to connect with the mysterious alien.
This began with Susan but after her departure from the TARDIS she was immediately replaced by Vicki, played by Maureen O’Brien. Shipwrecked and orphaned in the future, Vicki was suddenly in need of a family which she found in the form of the TARDIS crew. Vicki’s very chic costume in ‘The Rescue’ was also influenced by the Earth fashion of the time. A return to the surrogate granddaughter mould was found with the short lived Katarina and then Dodo Chaplet. Much like Vicki, Dodo also donned the iconic miniskirts synonymous with the 1960’s. Influential designers such as Mary Quant used fashion to signify the new era of freedom and liberation. Unsurprisingly, this led to some very stylish female companions.
The social and political changes of the 1960’s influenced other shows, not just Doctor Who. Honor Blackman played Cathy Gale in ‘The Avengers’ and a similar character was subsequently seen in Doctor Who. Sarah Kingdom appeared in the epic ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ and was a Space Security Service agent. Dressed in a full black uniform, akin to The Avengers, clutching a futuristic weapon, she was an all action woman. Unfortunately she meets quite a horrific demise at the hands of the Time Destructor. Following Sara Kingdom would be Polly who defined swinging sixties London. Debuting in ‘The War Machines’ and with a return to the miniskirts, this trendy blonde was even seen frequenting a nightclub. Polly’s successor was a step back into the past, from this very modern 20 something to a Victorian teenager.
Damsel in Distress
Victoria Waterfield was another case of a surrogate granddaughter role, needing the protection of The Doctor. She quickly fell into the category of a companion in need of rescuing. Although on the surface, this seems like a backward step from the progressive roles female Doctor Who companions had been making, Victoria was often key in driving the plot forward. She was also brave in the face of foes including Daleks, Ice Warriors, the Yeti and the Cybermen. It is no wonder she screamed so often with that cavalcade of monstrosity! Mel Bush, perhaps the ultimate scream queen, harked back to this former companion. But once again even if she was in peril Mel was uncovering the Vervoid pods, for example, helping to tell the story. Fortunately female Doctor Who companions developed further as the show entered a new decade, building upon the steps made during the Sixties.
Genius and Scientific Understanding
Following Victoria’s departure and embracing the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960’s, a new trend of female companions began to develop. This began with Zoe Heriot, played by Wendy Padbury, who was a gifted mathematician and astrophysicist. Of course she was still a character of the 1960’s and donned a rather fetching catsuit or two. As Doctor Who entered the 1970’s another intellectual woman joined the cast, now with new Doctor Jon Pertwee. Liz Shaw was drafted from Cambridge University to provide Scientific Advice. Her brilliance was wanted by UNIT and together Liz and the Third Doctor proved to be a formidable partnership.
In the 1980’s the character of Nyssa became an extension of Liz Shaw and Zoe before her. She too was intelligent with a good understanding of the scientific world. Together with the Fifth Doctor she was comfortable building the device used to destroy the android in ‘The Visitation’ or in the lab on ‘Terminus’. Liz Shaw’s immediate successor was Jo Grant. This casting helped cement the ideal format of Doctor plus a female companion which continued throughout the majority of the show. Although initially young, ditsy and inexperienced, Jo grew and this culminated in her decision to leave and fight for the planet with Cliff Jones. This type of character development was another positive move, indicating that more thought was now being given to the female companion in Doctor Who. Even when fulfilling the role of asking questions on behalf of the audience plausible reasons were found.
Following Jo was Sarah Jane Smith. A journalist with an inquisitive mind, she quickly became The Doctor’s best friend. Brave and loyal she was a positive role model for young female viewers. Her passionate enthusiasm for women’s liberation also proved useful in ‘The Monster of Peladon’. Faced with a Queen unsure of herself, Sarah was able to provide a positive pep-talk expounding the benefits of gender equality. Another spirited and independent woman was Tegan Jovanka. An air-hostess who stumbled into the TARDIS, Tegan was feisty and quick to point out the Fifth Doctor’s failure to return her to Heathrow.
Perhaps the best example of the independent woman as a female Doctor Who companion was Leela. A warrior of the Sevateem Leela could legitimately take care of herself, usually with her knife or janus thorns. A new relationship was also established with The Fourth Doctor becoming a tutor to Leela. The Time Lord was able to teach this unsophisticated savage, growing the mind that had been primitive and superstitious. Often instinctive, she had a very different set of skills to any companion that has gone before or since. Ultimately she would end up on Gallifrey and be replaced by a female Time Lord, or Time Lady if you will.
A female Time Lord
Building on the success of Leela was a new companion for The Doctor, one from his own race. Romanadvoratrelundar was a development from Rodan seen in ‘The Invasion of Time’. In Gallifreyan terms she was even more brilliant than The Doctor, graduating from the Academy with a triple first. Despite all her plaudits Romana had no experience of the real universe. In a similar way to Leela, The Doctor became a mentor, expanding her horizons. Although at times both incarnations of Romana were required to scream in horror, they alluded to a female Time Lord travelling the universe in the TARDIS.
River Song would prove to be similar to Romana and perhaps the closest to a female Doctor so far. Skilled at piloting the TARDIS, perhaps even more so than The Doctor himself, with an ability to regenerate she was an early precursor to the Thirteenth Doctor. As with all the female Doctor Who companions before her, River was a strong and intelligent woman. She had a complicated timeline but possessed the characteristics of her parents, being flirtatious and cheeky but also stubborn and compassionate. Whilst in the 21st Century River fitted the mould of a modern female companion who could challenge the Doctor, the 1980’s saw two companions who challenged the Time Lord in other ways.
As the 1980’s and the Classic era of the show drew to a close, Peri and Ace provided another take on the women of the time. Peri was an American student. She too had an inquisitive mind with an interest in botany and archaeology. Dorothy, or Ace, was another youthful companion for the centuries old Time Lord. In a change from Peri, Ace presented a tough, streetwise exterior. This hid her fears and insecurities which over the course of her televised adventures were faced with a baseball bat or can of Nitro 9. Like many companions, Ace was fiercely loyal to the Professor and was broken by his manipulation. It seemed only right that the classic series ended on television with Ace and The Doctor united and walking off into the sunset. Fortunately, Doctor Who did return to our screens in the 1990’s but sadly Ace did not.
During the one-off TV Movie, starring Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, we were introduced to Doctor Grace Holloway. Although she failed to navigate The Doctor’s complex cardiovascular system she was a skilled surgeon on humans. She also openly discussed her failed relationship with Brian, openly weeped at the opera and became the first companion to kiss the Time Lord onscreen. Never before had a romantic relationship between Doctor and companion been approached or even alluded to. By 1996 however it felt perfectly natural to approach romantic themes in the show, adding depth to the traditional science-fiction based drama. This theme went up another level with the introduction of 21st Century female Doctor Who companions.
When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, writer Russell T Davies made the companion central to the stories told. Episodes such as ‘Father’s Day’ put Rose Tyler front and centre to the action. Since then we have had multiple brilliant and fabulous characters. Martha Jones was a doctor of the medical kind in training, with the intelligence of a Liz Shaw or a Nyssa. Donna Noble had the fiery vibrant energy of a Tegan. When Steven Moffat took over he introduced us to Amy Pond and Clara Oswald.
Finally our most recent companion was Bill Potts. Once again she was a positive reflection of the women in our modern world. Some heralded the fact that Bill was the first openly gay female companion as a significant step forward. But in truth it was a simple reflection of the modern world. All of these 21st Century female Doctor Who companions have also been positive role models. They have reflected the strong modern women who have taken their rightful place in society. They also have laid the foundations for the ultimate acknowledgement of gender equality in Doctor Who; a female lead.