Back in 2015, a single image convinced me I would never watch Doctor Who. An older man running away from a giant explosion, pulling along a much-younger woman gazing at him in pure adulation. It exemplified everything that frustrated me about gender representation in film and TV. I’ve since learned the ways of the Whovian—and while I still have concerns, which I’m hoping the new season addresses, I’ve come to see the strength in the modern Doctor Who companion.
Doctor Who has returned for season 11 with a bang. Not only do we have the first female Doctor, played by the effervescent Jodie Whittaker, but she also comes with a posse of companions. It’s true that each previous Doctor has had a circle of friends and allies, but typically, the main team for modern Doctor Who has been the Doctor and one main companion. To be clear, I’ve not watched classic Who, so my impressions come from the 2005 relaunch forward.
When I was a young girl attending church, one of the women once said to me: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, but I distinctly remember replying to her: “Why can’t I be in front by myself?” She didn’t have an answer, at least not a good one. It should come as no surprise, then, that I’ve long had issues with narratives that perpetuate the idea that women exist to support men. This can be through their behaviour or actions, or simply how they’re framed. There’s Joi from Blade Runner 2049, who is K’s property, but is framed as a love interest. Chris Pratt destroys Jennifer Lawrence’s life in Passengers, but she supports him right until the very end. Hell, Aaron Sorkin built an entire media empire around this kind of story. (There’s a reason Amy Schumer did a whole parody sketch about it.)
The usual companion dynamic in modern Who didn’t sit right with me because it’s played on traditional, binarized gender stereotypes. Until now, the Doctor has always been a man, and his main companion has been a woman. Typically younger, conventionally attractive, relatively naïve, and without serious attachments to the world she’s leaving behind. Also, Captain Jack Harkness, while never labelled on the show, is pansexual, and last season’s companion, Bill Potts, was openly gay but every other companion has been presented as straight. And a good chunk of the modern companions—Rose, Martha, and for a brief moment in time, even Amy—have developed intimate feelings for their respective Doctors.
It might be unfair to judge something based on optics before really giving it a chance, I recognise that. But there were also facts to back up my fears. A lot of criticism has been aimed at now-former showrunner Steven Moffat for how he handles gender representation (more so than Russell T. Davies, the showrunner before him). The Guardian blasted the series in 2014—in particular, Moffat’s vision—of fostering an environment where many female characters “don’t, or can’t, exist without a male presence in place to guide them.” This isn’t surprising; Moffat spent years saying his lack of a female Doctor was the result of everything from “tradition” to Brexit, and also said the six-year period from 2009 to 2015 in which the show didn’t have any female writers was because women kept turning down the job. A very common excuse.
This lack of female writers correlates to the years when Doctor Who failed to get a passing grade on the Bechdel-Wallace Test. A film or TV episode passes this test if it has two or more women who speak to each other about anything other than a man. On Amy Pond’s first season, which was also Moffat’s first as showrunner, the character (played by Karen Gillan) only passed the test in a little over half of her episodes—a failing grade if you go by educational standards. And all of her seasons, most notably season six, were dominated by episodes where women barely said three or four lines to each other. Unsurprisingly, all 13 episodes of that season—of which Moffat wrote six—were written by men.
As a whole, though, Doctor Who’s modern companions have averaged fairly well (but not great) when it comes to meeting that base requirement for gender representation. According to rather detailed research from a Doctor Who Tumblr account, companions as a whole (minus Bill Potts and the new season’s companions) have passed the Bechdel-Wallace Test in 80 per cent of their episodes. Donna Noble got the top spot.
So yes, I spent many years being frustrated at a show I’d never seen, based on a combination of bad optics and legitimate criticisms from the public. However, after spending years bashing Twilight based on nothing but shitty comments on MySpace, I decided to start giving movies and shows a better chance before cutting them out of my life. Twilight stayed stupid, Suicide Squad was incomprehensible, and Doctor Who became a beloved part of my life. How was my mind changed? It took me through watching every modern companion’s journey, from Rose Tyler to Bill Potts. Because, even with all their problems, they mattered.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test isn’t the only known way to check female representation in media. A few years ago, comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick coined another test, lesser-known but also vital: the Sexy Lamp. If a female character can be replaced with an object without affecting the plot, then that piece of media has failed her. It may sound dramatic, but sadly, this happens more often than you think. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane from the DC Universe is often criticised as being a glorified Sexy Lamp. Sure, she does stuff, but you could take her out of the films and it wouldn’t really change Superman’s story or journey. As much as the writing or portrayal of Doctor Who’s modern companions have frustrated me at times—like how Amy debuted as a “kissogram”— none of them could ever be replaced. They are all essential parts of the Doctor’s life, coming into his world for a reason and changing it for the better.
This didn’t always happen right away, and sometimes the companions suffered for it. After the tragedy of losing Rose (Billie Piper), David Tennant’s Doctor went through a really dark period. His new companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) was effectively ignored due to his own misery—something she stopped tolerating, leading her to walk out on him. The Doctor learned from his mistakes, discovering and embracing a perfect comedic foil in Donna, a character who played to actress Catherine Tate’s strengths. And later, after Peter Capaldi’s Doctor lost Clara (Jenna Coleman), who had a fun and quirky personality, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) was the laid-back friend he needed.
This doesn’t mean these women are strictly defined by the Doctor and his needs—though sometimes it can seem that way. They are all there at the behest of the Doctor, seeing his familiar world through new eyes. It’s a wash-rinse-repeat cycle. However, all of Doctor Who’s companions have managed to come into their own over the course of their journeys, making choices that have frustrated the Doctor or even defied him. For example, during the Pompeii episode, Donna challenged the Doctor to save just one person from the volcano. It wouldn’t change history, but it would be something good.
Of course, there are exceptions. Moffat’s later “prophecy” plots involving Amy and Clara leaned heavily into the stereotype of having a woman exist to help a man’s journey, to the point where it ventured on “spawned from Adam’s rib” territory. The biggest victim would be Clara. Coleman was fun and expressive, and I liked her quite a bit, but she was given a bum deal. Clara wasn’t a character so much as an idea the writers thought was clever, leaving her with little to work with afterward. What value does “The Impossible Girl” have after she’s no longer impossible? The writers didn’t really think it through, and her storyline suffered until her character’s death.
When it comes to the media we consume, sometimes appearances can be deceiving. Josie and the Pussycats was marketed as a dumb comic book movie for kids, but it actually has some decent commentary on social consumerism that I still think it doesn’t get enough credit for. And for me, Doctor Who might have some gaffes, but the Doctor and their companion are something to behold.
At the same time, liking something doesn’t erase its problems. As much as we like to think we have to either love something or hate it, that there is no in between, we can enjoy shows or films while noting where they could be better. The companions on Doctor Who are complex and interesting women, but they also can be held back by the nature of their purpose: the companions are there to follow the Doctor. Until recently, it’s been a woman behind the thousand-year-old man. That stereotype the woman in my old church told me I had to obey. It wasn’t ok then, and it’s not ok now.
Season 11 is changing that norm by expanding the Doctor’s circle with Yaz, Ryan, and Graham, and I feel it’s for the better. We’re in new territory, coming on the heels of a sometimes concerning origin. The history of the modern Doctor Who companions may have their complications, but they’re still vital to a show about a time-travelling alien—both for the Doctor themselves and the audience. That’s a trend I really hope continues.