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It’s been a truism of Doctor Who ever since it began that the audience identification figure isn’t the Doctor himself, but the companions who travel with him in the TARDIS. After all, there’s only one Doctor—but the companions offer us the chance to dream that one day, we might be the lucky soul judged brave and pure of heart enough to be whisked away on an adventure in space and time.
Identifying so closely with so many of the Doctor’s companions means that choosing a particular favorite is almost as strong and personal a choice as a favorite episode or even Doctor. In fact, even deciding whether or not a particular character counts as a companion inspires fervent debate. Once again, our jury nominated between them a wide array of characters, with very few being left off the ballots altogether (yes, even Adric got his due—although perhaps unsurprisingly, Kamelion did not). So who made the all-important top ten? Read on to find out…
We actually counted together those who voted for one incarnation of the Doctor’s favorite Time Lady over the other—she is still the same character, after all—but for the sake of completeness we’ll note that more people voted for Mary Tamm‘s Romana I than Lalla Ward‘s Romana II. It’s rare that the Doctor has a companion who is not only his intellectual equal, but actually his superior —but that’s what happened when the Time Lords assigned him the Lady Romana as his companion on his quest for the Key to Time. The first Romana had a haughty air but equally a mischievous air, teasing the Doctor about her superior academic results. After regenerating into her second (on-screen at least) incarnation, the relationship between the pair becomes more relaxed—with even a frisson of romantic tension (furthered by the fact that Ward would later marry Tom Baker).
Erika Ensign of podcast Verity! says, “She’s as smart as the Doctor (if not smarter), she’s witty, she’s sophisticated, and she’s glamorous as all get out. And most importantly, she never lets any of that get in the way of being a kind and reasonable companion.”
Dan Williams of PopCulturePreview.com adds: “When first introduced, she had such an arrogance, but during the course of her time on the show her character does such a change and the end result is the perfect Scully to Baker’s Mulder!”
9. Captain Jack Harkness
One of the most enduring characters of the New Who era, Captain Jack was only actually a full-time TARDIS crew member for a relatively short period of time – three episodes, to be precise. Yet the dashing, sexually ambiguous, cocksure con artist from the future, brought memorably to life by John Barrowman, was simply too good not to survive beyond his apparent extermination by Daleks partway through “The Parting of the Ways”. This is what happens when a character is created by the perfect confluence of Russell T Davies (who came up with Jack initially) and Steven Moffat (who wrote his first appearance in the “Empty Child” two-parter). As such, Jack was promptly spun off into his own series quicker than you can say “resurrected and made immortal by Rose’s absorption of the time vortex energy”, and Torchwood was born. He’s made fleeting appearances in the main show since – but although the spin-off appears to have run its course (at least for the moment), it’s hard to shake the feeling that the story of his life before meeting the Doctor is waiting to be told one day…
Alex Zalben of MTV News offers a simple reason for nominating the good Captain as his favorite companion: “Because he’s Captain Jack! He’s John Barrowman! He’s the most charming, swashbuckling rogue of ‘em all!”
8. Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart
There are those who would claim that “the Brig” doesn’t count as a proper companion. We don’t want to be rude, but… well, alright, we do want to be rude: that’s utter poppycock. The Brigadier is one of the Doctor’s oldest and dearest friends, and holds the unique distinction of having appeared in episodes with the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Doctors, as well as turning up in The Sarah Jane Adventures. The late, great Nicholas Courtney was a perfect foil for Jon Pertwee‘s Doctor, with whom he shared the most screen-time in the Earth-bound UNIT stories of the early 1970s, as an authority figure for the Time Lord to naturally rebel against, while being able to take difficult actions and decisions that he could not. Both men learned a lot from each other during their time working together, and their mutual respect and affection is best shown by the scene in “Battlefield” in which the Brig knocks out the Seventh Doctor in order to take on the terrifying Destroyer himself, despite the risk of self-sacrifice.
Long-time UNIT fan Laura Palmer writes, “For a character whose primary dramatic function is to fail, the Brigadier maintains a great deal of dignity. Nicholas Courtney portrayed him with a lovely mix of aplomb and comic frustration.”
In 1977, the show’s producers had the difficult quandary of replacing Sarah-Jane Smith, perhaps the most popular companion there had been up to that point, and certainly the quintessential example of the classic companion archetype. Their solution was to think laterally in the creation of the next companion, and so in many ways Leela was a shift away from the norm. Firstly, as a fierce tribal warrior, she was much more capable physically than any of the previous female companions up to that point—meaning that frequently, it would be her job to protect the Doctor, rather than vice versa. Secondly, as an unsophisticated but intelligent primitive, there was room for character development in which she gradually learned to understand and learn from the Doctor.
Christopher Bahn of The A.V. Club says, “Leela is fierce, smart, sexy, bracingly honest and direct, and just simply cool. Her origin as a master huntress from a primitive alien jungle planet makes her utterly unlike any other companion, and a great contrast to the Doctor. Louise Jameson’s performance never lets you forget Leela’s dignity or intelligence despite the skintight leather outfit, and she knew how to let her character be funny or naive without sacrificing Leela’s dignity or dangerousness.”
6. Jamie McCrimmon
Male companions tend to lag behind their female counterparts when it comes to popularity, but a notable exception is the 18th-century Scottish piper played by Frazer Hines. Appearing in all but one of the Second Doctor’s stories, he also has the highest number of episodes under his belt – 116 – of any companion. Despite sharing so many adventures with the Doctor, however, his memories – along with those of fellow companion Zoe – were erased by the Time Lords while punishing the Doctor at the end of “The War Games”, and his fate after being returned to his own time remains unknown – although his popularity means that several writers in spin-off fiction, including comic book legend and fellow Scot Grant Morrison, have been moved to have a crack at explaining it.
“Frazer Hines is an amazing actor,” writes Heather Maloney of Examiner.com. “His slapstick and touching relationship with The Doctor have not been seen since.”
5. Rose Tyler
For a while, it looked as if Rose Tyler would be the ultimate New Who companion. With no disrespect intended to Martha Jones, it just seemed as if the show had captured a certain kind of magic in the way Rose was introduced to us, how she developed as a character, and in the intensity of her relationship with the Doctor. She at once set out a firm template for how modern-day companions should be, and yet at the same time made it seemingly impossible for anyone else to successfully follow that template.
This would later change, when some of the companions you’ll see later in this list came along – but certainly, when the revived series was launched, popstar-turned-actress Billie Piper was as much a part of its early success as Christopher Eccleston. Russell T Davies was determined to make Rose even more of an entry-point character than companions had been before – the perfectly ordinary girl with an extraordinary heart underneath, who could meet the challenges of traveling the universe with the Doctor head on, and best them. The fact that she’s still making guest re-appearances now, eight years later, speaks volumes for the impact she had on the series.
“Rose was the perfect companion to introduce Doctor Who to a new generation of fans,” says Earl Dittman of Digital Journal. “Like the viewer, she was always amazed and in awe of the Doctor’s abilities, while always maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism. She allowed fans to emotionally invest themselves in the Doctor’s adventures and his emotional plight, and assisted devotees in understanding (as much as possible) what made the Ninth and Tenth Doctors tick.”
4. Amy Pond
It’s such a brilliantly simple idea that it’s a surprise nobody had thought of it before—and yet no surprise whatsoever that it would be Steven Moffat who eventually thought of it. The Doctor is already the best imaginary friend there could be for countless millions of children the world over—so why not bring one of them into the show? And better yet, why not have them grow up playing at being the Doctor’s companion (with home-made toys that it’s really quite astonishing nobody thought to officially license and reproduce in the real world), before actually, finally as a young adult getting to become the Doctor’s companion after all those years?
Of course, this was just the start of what would become one of the most rollercoaster stories a companion would ever go through. Bringing her fiancé—and later husband—Rory along for the ride, becoming the first companion (that we know of) to fall pregnant while traveling in the TARDIS, and as a result giving birth to a part-Time-Lord child who would ultimately go on to regenerate several times and marry the Doctor. Not to mention yet another truly heartbreaking departure, albeit one that had the relatively happy ending of getting to be with Rory. Played to sardonic Scottish perfection by Karen Gillan (and as a child by Gillan’s cousin Caitlin Blackwood), Amy set a tough act for the Eleventh Doctor’s next companion Clara to follow.
Haley Grogan of LiterallyDarling.com says, “I like that Amy doesn’t take crap from anyone – not from Rory, not from River, and not from The Doctor. She’s feisty, creative and independent, and was the Doctor’s best friend rather than a love interest, which I was a little tired of by the time we’d cycled through Rose and Martha. I like that she finally chose between the Doctor and Rory and stuck to her choice.”
Dorothy Gale McShane, better known by the nickname Ace, was introduced in the final episode of season twenty-four, “Dragonfire”, as a somewhat stereotypical street-talking London teenager (albeit one who’d found her way into waitressing on a far off ice planet) played by Sophie Aldred. By her very next story—the season twenty-five opener “Remembrance of the Daleks”—she was already beating Daleks to pieces with a baseball bat. Had the show not been cancelled at the end of the twenty-sixth season, the writers had the intent of having her leave the Doctor to join the Prydonian Academy and become a Time Lord. She was just that good.
Inadvertently setting a trend that would heavily influence the revived series almost two decades later, Ace was a character who was eventually as much the focal point of the stories as the Doctor himself—particularly in season twenty-six, where “Ghost Light” and “The Curse of Fenric” drew heavily on her own backstory and inner demons, and placed her in a position where she was no longer sure she could even trust the man she insisted on calling “Professor”. It’s only a shame that her adventures were cut short by the cancellation of the series—and that, despite hints in assorted spin-off media, we’ve never learned exactly what the circumstances of her leaving the TARDIS ultimately were. Perhaps one day…?
“A companion completely different from any other,” says Johnstone McGuckian of WhatCulture.com, “with a great personality and the ability to actually fight baddies as opposed to just screaming at them.”
Paddy O’Meara and Shelley Duncan both cited the aforementioned Dalek-meets-baseball-bat incident when nominating Ace, while Paddy also adds: “And yet, as a pre-cursor to the modern companions, she actually had a proper back-story.”
2. Donna Noble
Casting Catherine Tate as the guest companion in the 2006 Christmas special “The Runaway Bride” was a notable piece of “stunt casting” by showrunner Russell T Davies – at the time, Tate was at the height of her popularity thanks to her eponymous sketch show. Yet casting someone so known for playing loud, abrasive characters caused disgruntlement among some fans – and although she was well-suited to the part as written in that episode, there was yet more uproar when it was announced in 2007 that Donna would be coming aboard the TARDIS full-time for season four.
What those fans didn’t realize, however, was that Davies had a plan for Donna – and that the fourth season would be the story of how a mouthy, annoying office worker from West London would gradually, through her experiences with the Doctor, reveal the intelligent, sympathetic and warm character underneath. All hints of a romantic attraction to the Doctor were averted entirely – instead, the relationship between the pair was one of a pair of joking friends, helped enormously by the natural chemistry between Tate and David Tennant.
“Donna is the perfect companion,” says Laura Byrne Cristiano of Hypable.com. “Cheeky, daring, funny, compassionate and not too overly impressed by the Doctor.” Meanwhile, Jack Bowman, contributor to Blogtor Who, describes Donna’s story as a “Well-rounded, great character arc that went from broadly comic to a genuinely heart-breaking end.”
“She was a perfect fit for the Doctor’s personality,” adds Paula Luther of WhatCulture.com, “and it was an example of a symbiotic relationship. Donna needed the Doctor to show her just how much more there was to life and that she possessed greatness herself, and the Doctor needed Donna to help him heal from losing Rose and his mistakes with Martha.”
Finally, Jessica Naki of ScienceFiction.com says, “She was full of life, snarky and just absolutely wonderful. I would watch a series of just the adventures of Donna!”
1. Sarah Jane Smith
When Sarah Jane was introduced in 1973 as the final companion of the Third Doctor, few could have predicted the impact she would go on to have. In her four years traveling first with Jon Pertwee and later Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen quickly became, for many fans, as much a reason to watch the show as the Doctor himself. She was a strong, fiercely independent and fascinating character in her own right, a huge step up in terms of the way female companions were presented, and one that would be massively influential in the years to follow.
It was no surprise, therefore, that she became the first companion to be offered a spin-off series – and although 1981’s K9 and Company was an unsuccessful pilot, Sarah would still be introduced to a whole new generation of fans courtesy of her appearance in the 2007 episode “School Reunion”. She was a natural choice to bridge the gap between the classic series and the new – particularly after having been given a somewhat abrupt departure scene – and her renewed popularity quickly turned into a brand new spinoff series. The Sarah Jane Adventures was a huge success, achieving the remarkable feat of making a middle-aged woman the star of a show aimed at children – and even attracted guest appearances from the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors. Sadly, the latter of these stories – 2010’s “The Death of the Doctor” – would be the last time Sarah Jane and the Doctor would appear onscreen together, due to Sladen’s sad passing away the following year – but her position as Doctor Who‘s most beloved and lasting supporting character will surely never be challenged.
“Not many actresses could do frightened and feisty at the same time,” says Keith Miller of the Official Doctor Who Fan Club, “but Lis Sladen nailed it.” “She has the perfect combination of intelligence and spunk,” adds James Dailey of BlogCritics.org. “She understands the Doctor as no other, and makes a life apart from him after enjoying his company for many years.”
“No one can or ever will compare,” says author Arnold Blumberg. “She came along so many years after the show debuted and yet she is the template, the perfect example of how to write and perform a best friend and traveling companion for our Time Lord hero.”
Anglophenia’s Fraser McAlpine adds: “She has the relationship with [the Doctor] that makes the most sense. She’s as inquisitive as he is, as argumentative as he is, and more moral than he is.”
Finally, Paul Murphy of BBC Three Counties Radio distills Sarah Jane’s popularity down to the power of the actress’ performance, stating simply, “Elisabeth Sladen made you believe it.”