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What makes a great Doctor Who companion?


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Despite what the title of the show may suggest, The Doctor is not the most important character in the long-running science fiction show Doctor Who.

For many reasons, the most important character is in fact his companion, the person who travels with him on wonderful adventures in time and space.

The companion is essential for both on and off screen reasons, so it is vital that the show's producers create a character with the right balance of qualities. Off screen, all companions must be an audience surrogate, which, for anyone not familiar with the term, is the character with which the viewer can most closely relate. It is the companion who must ask the questions which the audience has, and must channel our own wonder onto the screen.

For this reason, the main companion is typically a (human) person from present day earth, with their extreme normalness emphasised in order for the audience to feel immediately involved in what is otherwise a highly unusual show. When Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, the choice of companion was, as ever, essential. Rose Tyler, who travelled with the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, was a very modern teenager: in a middling relationship with a middling boyfriend, going through the motions in a dull shop job, and generally bored with her life - until the Doctor comes along.

A journey in the TARDIS would seem like the trip of a lifetime for any human, but the Doctor has his own reasons for inviting guests to join him in his adventures. He is the last of his species, his home no longer exists, and he travels through all of time and space in a small box, as he has been doing for hundreds of years. Not only is he prone to feeling lonely, but is also quite long in the tooth. He's been around the block a few times, you could say.

This is why the most important trait in a good companion is deceptively simple - they merely need to be a good companion. Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor once said that if you made the universe your back yard, all you have is a back yard, by which he meant that as well as needing company, he also needed someone who hadn't seen it all before. The wonder a companion would feel upon seeing a distant planet or a collapsing star would rekindle the wonder in himself.

Secondly, a good companion must be able to bring their own qualities to the fore. Rose's humanity, Martha's medical skills, Sarah Jane's investigative talents, Donna's fearlessness in the face of terrifying monsters - different companions have different strengths, the Doctor only selecting the friends he believes exhibit the best of human nature. This means he has had to weed out a few bad apples over the years, such as Adam Mitchell from the 2005 series, who nearly brought about the destruction of Earth due to his own selfish curiosity.

A good companion must also mitigate the Doctor's weaknesses. On the rare occasions in which he travels alone, the Time Lord has often let the title go to his head, causing him to do dangerous, cruel and sometimes plainly stupid things. The Tenth Doctor blatantly meddled with history whilst his predecessor was willing to destroy the human race just to eradicate the Daleks. Only after, when the damage has been done, does he remember again what Donna Noble once told him, that he 'sometimes needs someone to stop him.'

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, a good companion should be a woman. Although there have been some memorable male sidekicks, such as Captain Jack, Mickey, Rory, and, for older viewers, Adric or Ian Chesterton, the Doctor has almost invariably travelled with a woman by his side in the past 50 years. This has led to accusations that the show is inherently sexist, which may be partially true, even though the women are generally portrayed in a positive light.

Besides, the recent announcement that Peter Capaldi, the first Doctor to face a female Master, will stand down at the end of 2017 has prompted speculation that the Time Lord's gender may change along with his face, perhaps meaning that the main companion will be a man for the first time. That is, depending on how long the Doctor's latest companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie) survives. 

A reversal of the genders of the two main roles would be a bold step, but Doctor Who is often at its best when pushing the boundaries of both storytelling and popular culture, of which it remains an essential part.

Doctor Who will return for a tenth series from 15th April on BBC One.

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