If it’s true that the Doctor’s choice of companion reflects the audience that is watching the show, the change from Jo Grant the ‘dolly-bird’, to Sarah-Jane the investigative journalist, to Leela, the primitive warrior (and on to Romana, the actual Time Lord, nominally on an equal footing with the Doctor) is a pretty interesting hint that the role of women in TV drama was changing in the Seventies. By the end of the decade, you couldn’t get away with expecting the women in your story to simply ask silly questions, have the plot explained to them and then scream at the first sign of trouble.
As a character, Leela – played by Louise Jameson – appears most of the way through this upheaval. She’s capable of acts of extreme violence, always carries a knife, wears far more sensible travelling shoes than Jo Grant ever did, but also (and this can’t really be ignored) she displays far more flesh than her predecessors. So as far as feminism goes, what the show gave with one hand, they took away with the other.
Leela also continues the fine tradition, which seems to have now been abandoned, of picking up people from further back in humanity’s past (or the present of a humanoid race whose culture descended back to savagery) and bringing them into the future. If you look at it from the Doctor’s point of view, we’re all behind-the-times, so bringing aboard the TARDIS a noble savage like Jamie, or a fiery Amazon like Leela, is exactly the same as throwing open the doors to Mickey or Donna. He still needs to educate them on the etiquette and history of space travel. He’s always Henry Higgins, they’re always Eliza Doolittle.
The difference for us, as an audience, is that we’re mid-way between the two extremes, so we can watch the Doctor attempt to improve her – he did at least manage to change the color of her eyes – and feel a little smug, but then she also turns out to be deadly with a knife and a janus thorn, which of course we’re not. So she’s not really us, even though she is still more us than the Doctor is. Plus being able to kill and skin your own dinner is a side to the Doctor’s companions we hadn’t seen before.
Or indeed, kill and skin the Doctor:
And did I mention Eliza Doolittle? Well, even though she’s got the right sort of costume, as far as Leela’s concerned the rain in spain falls mainly on the pain (in the neck, that is).
She’s got the number of those scary robots in The Robots of Death too. Better than the Doctor, truth be told:
And she got on better with K-9. The original K-9 this is, not the Mark II version, or the one who ended up with Sarah-Jane:
And here they are again, the cute couple:
Here’s how she left, choosing to stay on Gallifrey (of all places) with her faithful metal dog:
Love this dialogue:
“Where will he go now, I wonder”
That’s classic Leela. She speaks the simple truth, and carries a big knife.