Doctor Who - The Companion Ship

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

In a recent interview with Digital Spy regarding Doctor Who, Steven Moffat said that the companion was “the main character” in the series. This was a comment that the website chose to run as the headline and that instantly got fans’ backs up, their contention being that the Doctor himself was the main character. And although I might have had one or two problems myself with how Amy Pond has been written (not enough of a problem to ruin my enjoyment of what has been one of the most entertaining periods in the show’s history, however), I do feel that among the hyperbole that has followed Moffat’s declaration, the meaning of his statement has been lost and that, basically, people have been protesting the wrong end of this particular stick.

For Moffat’s meaning was quite plainly not that the Doctor is anything less than the most important character in the series, simply that in order to tell a story in Doctor Who (especially when you consider the distinction between ‘story’ and simply ‘plot’; with ‘plot’ being what happens in an episode, and ‘story’ referring to whom it happens and for why and with what consequence), then you must do so from the perspective of a character who is not a constant within the series’ framework. The companions come and go, yet the Doctor always remains. Moffat even makes this distinction himself: “The story begins again, not so much with the new Doctor, but with the new companion,” he says. “It’s the story of the time they knew the Doctor and how that began, how it developed, and how it ended. The Doctor’s the hero, but they’re the main character.”

There’s a little ‘media studies’ speak in there, with Moffat identifying the word ‘hero’ with a definition more along the lines of ‘central character’ (in other words, somebody who is threaded throughout the entire piece and is at the core of resolving the story – and yet conversely, who can only fulfil a fairly two-dimensional aspect within that story, on account of his heroism), while using the expression ‘main character’ to mean something different (our eyes and ears into the story, and the character for whom change and development is more of a likelihood; ultimately more three-dimensional, by way of their having almost by definition to go through changes and developments). I’m not going to argue with the fact that Moffat might not have handled some of these aspects particularly well with Amy (and making her the mother of the Doctor’s wife certainly hasn’t helped us to see Moffat’s words for what they actually mean, rather than jumping to the wrong conclusion), but he wasn’t talking to Digital Spy specifically about his own take on Doctor Who, more about how the series works in general. And he’s not necessarily talking about ‘audience identification’ characters (as some have assumed; although that does come into it), nor is he referring only to the modern series (as others believe, although this is because the distinction is more of an obvious one in the 21st Century).

When Doctor Who began, it did so from the point of view of two young teachers investigating some anomalies that had come to light concerning one of their pupils, their investigation leading them to the junkyard wherein the TARDIS was to be found. Immediately (and conventionally) we meet the Doctor (and his equally alien granddaughter) by seeing them from Ian and Barbara’s perspective, helping to cement the two Time Lords’ ‘otherness’ – along with the sense of danger that the very early Doctor engendered. And so the first two series of Doctor Who continue, with Ian and Barbara being our touchstones and along with their ongoing acceptance of the possibilities of time (and space) travel, so too the Doctor mellows into something more like the character we know and love today.

I’m not going to argue that there’s never any development in the character of the Doctor, but during the tenure of Hartnell’s first interpretation, once that mellowing has occurred (and the Hartnell interpretation is more or less settled by the time Ian and Barbara come to bid their farewells), there’s little more for the actor to really accomplish with the part. Which is not to say you can’t have a ball playing it (and Hartnell was loathe to let it go, even in spite of his onsetting illness), but the Doctor is the Doctor and, with one or two readily identifiable exceptions, so it has been these past 49 years. However, a closer inspection of those first two series of Doctor Who throws up any number of interesting insights into the role of the companion figure; given that the stories which deal specifically with character development in the eponymous role can be numbered on the fingers of about half a hand, it’s astonishing to note just how many stories there are which either focus almost exclusively on the introduction or removal of a companion (The Rescue being the most blatant, The Chase being almost six episodes of an excuse to see Ian and Barbara safely home). Indeed of the first sixteen Doctor Who stories, fully a quarter of them deal with companions either leaving or arriving, and it’s very rare that these changes are incidental to the stories being told, more often the episodes concerning arrivals and departures being tailored to achieving just those things.

This has always been the case (just check out the number of comings and goings between Season 18 and Season 21 for proof; while an average of a story per year of that period deals with either a departing or arriving Doctor, fully thirteen stories during that time depict companion changes, or concentrate rather more fully on the companion’s development than the plot in which it takes place – Tegan has four arrival/departure stories and Turlough pre-empts the arrival of Ace in the manner in which his character is the focus of anything from Enlightenment to Frontios; there’s nothing new about the way the new series concentrates on Rose or Amy to the apparent detriment of the character of the Doctor), and although because of the way the series was and is made, there has always been a problem with incoming writers sidelining companions and their development from time to time (although even this wasn’t always so, as a look at Season Eight and its story of how Jo Grant develops from experiment-ruining novice to self-sacrificing and world-saving indispensable will show), the most cursory look at the numbers will demonstrate that there are any times as many stories dealing with the companions and their baton-passing as there are about the Doctor and his changing face.

Because for the writer, or the showrunner these days, that’s always been the same problem with the Doctor: he’s always there. He’s always been the ‘hero’, he’s always been on the side of good, and he always saves the day. And he’s always been there, the series’ one constant (in ‘human’ terms at least). Tom Baker often complained, especially latterly, that his stories were always the same and as an actor, he never had anywhere to go, and the same is more or less true of all the actors who’ve played the part. Colin Baker might have begun from a similar place to Hartnell, with an intended mellowing to come, but he was still playing ‘the Doctor,’ the eccentric, alien and unknowable – but most certainly benign – hero of the series, and David Tennant was given a year’s worth of Specials (well, The Waters of Mars and The End of Time anyway) with which to enhance his portrayal of the part before his own departure. There’s no doubt that the character of the Doctor is a fun and in many ways rewarding role to take on, just as there’s little doubt that it can also be rather frustrating for an actor with ambition in his craft. In fact, there have only been two Doctors who haven’t suffered from playing the role in a manner making development (and actorly expression) unlikely, and one of those was Paul McGann, who was the Doctor (on television) for a little over an hour.

Christopher Eccleston was probably the luckiest actor to take on the part, his single series on the show being deliberately geared towards taking the Doctor from an outsider who we might not necessarily take to as an audience (the war-damaged survivor with the guilt conscience to match), to the Doctor that we knew and remembered from years gone by. There had been a gap of a decade-and-a-half without regular production before Eccleston appeared on the screen, and so fifteen years’ worth of development was channelled into his thirteen episodes. Had he stayed on for another series (and this might very well be the reason why he didn’t), all that development would have been over and the actor would have been back to playing a (relatively-speaking) generic interpretation once again.

The only time the Doctor really sees any development is generally in his regeneration story, during which the writers can develop the character in any way they see fit (often assigning to him some kind of ‘conversion’ – Planet of the Spiders being a prime example), before hitting the reset button as the actor regenerates into a new, and ostensibly slightly different (but always the same underneath) version. Terrance Dicks has made great play of the fact that he can write ‘any’ Doctor, he just writes ‘the Doctor’ and it’s the actor who brings the definition to the role. It’s the companions who can, and will, allow the writers the opportunity to try different things, and to achieve different ends.

The modern series has placed great store in the need for the companions to prove themselves to the Doctor, to show their worthiness as fellow travellers. Both Rose and Martha (and particularly Amy in The Beast Below) had moments (Pop Idol-style moments, in fact – but that’s an essay for another time) in which they had to demonstrate to the Doctor that they were worth their place in the TARDIS. The Doctor never has to prove himself to us.

And of course, beyond that, beyond the companion proving that they’re worth our investment in the programme, we also need to know where they come from, and why the Doctor notices them in the first place, and subsequently there needs to be a good reason for their not wanting to continue their travels. The Doctor is an entirely fixed point in the series; this sort of thing is never in need of explanation with him. You never need a rationalisation for why he is there.

That’s the distinction Steven Moffat was making when he said the companion was “the main character.” He meant from a writer’s perspective – and also from the perspective of an audience who need verisimilitude and validation when it comes to wanting to continue watching the adventures of such companions. We all know that Doctor Who will have the Doctor in it; that’s very rarely a reason for wanting either to watch or not to. But for the more casual viewer, the one who might get hooked if there’s a storyline in place that will make them want to tune in again the following week – and the week after and the week after that – it’s the companion, their charisma, and their relationship with the lead character, that’s more of a hook. We saw it absolutely with Rose – in the way the nation took Billie Piper’s portrayal to their collective heart and turned her into a television icon, over and above Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor – and it’s what Steven Moffat was talking about in that interview.

The companion isn’t the most important character necessarily – you couldn’t have Doctor Who without the Doctor – but the companion is, as far as the writers of the series are concerned, the one they must spend the most time understanding and the most attention to getting right. Thus from Steven Moffat’s point of view, the companion is the main character. And that’s what Steven Moffat meant.

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