Ranking of Doctor Who's 10 Best (and 5 Worst) Companions
Regular followers are probably aware that we here are at Sound on Sight are more than a little fond of an obscure British science fiction program that celebrated an anniversary of some kind last weekend. Anniversaries are always an excellent time to reflect upon and celebrate a show’s history and the lead up to last Saturday’s “The Day of the Doctor” saw the entire Whoniverse coming together to share their thoughts on everything from their favourite episodes, most beloved eras, and of course, “their” Doctor. I just love that a top ten list can be the beginning of a good conversation or a great fight, and I find that the most heat, and some of the best light, is generated when Whovians start talking about their favourite Companions. A Companion is more than just our surrogate, they’re a gateway and guide to the series who helps us find our own way through the barking mad universe that is Doctor Who. It’s no wonder then that our attachments to them are passionate, personal, and gloriously partisan, especially when we try to educate normally well-informed Whovians who disagree with us on just how wrong they are.
Therefore to celebrate 50 wonderful years of Who, I thought we’d invite some luminous Who-ficionados on to natter on about some of the men, women, and various multiforms who helped make the show what it is. I’d like to thank Terry Lightfoot, Kyle Anderson, Luke Harrison, Heather Maloney, Phil Cannon, Neil Perryman, Steven Schapansky, Erika Ensign, Chip Suderth, and my colleague Kate Kulzick for all their wit, wisdom, and patience in helping me to arrive at what I can only describe, in all humility, as The Definitive Doctor Who Companion Countdown of ALL TIME. For those inclined towards pedantic polemical podcasting, this article will be accompanied by a series of three podcasts where we go into greater depth over our thoughts on who made the final cut, but without further ado here is the list itself. Enjoy!
First, the Worst…
In a vast Cosmos full of infinite wonder, even the Doctor crosses paths with people who just don’t work out. Whether poorly conceived, poorly realised, or just plain unlucky to join the show during a less than stellar period, some Companions were born awful, some achieved awfulness, and others had awfulness thrust upon them. Bear in mind that sometimes no amount of charm can rescue a truly lousy episode, and I really do believe the following actors all did their best with what they were given.
On that conciliatory note, here are our contributors’ choices for the Worst Doctor Who Companions:
5. Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding)
A contentious and by no means unanimous inclusion, Tegan actually made several of our Contributors’ “Best of” lists. However, those who dislike her were strident enough in their ranking to push this gobby Australian flight attendant to the bottom. It’s not hard to see why this “mouth on legs” gets under some people’s skin; she’s brash, sarcastic, and not too shy at times in expressing disappointment when traveling with the Doctor. Personally, I rather enjoy her time on screen; she’s quite funny and was much more down to earth and relatable than some of the child prodigies that she was lumped with. At the very least, one could say that she kept the Doctor centred and was a fearless friend with a clear sense of right and wrong.
4. Perpugilliam “Peri” Brown (Nicola Bryant)
I kind of feel bad for Peri. Among other traits, she is a loyal and sympathetic character that compliments Colin Baker’s more abrasive Doctor rather well. When you consider that previous Companion Turlough spends the better half of a season debating whether or not to kill the Doctor, Ms. Brown is a welcome departure from some of the more antagonistic relationships typical of the Companions of the 1980s. And yet the character is still more of a throwback to a time in television when you could get away with a scantily clad, screamy co-ed without any sense of irony. I rather like her first appearance in Planet of Fire when she stands up to The Master, and I must admit she was given a fantastic death scene, which sadly was retconned into an unfortunate life sentence with Brian Blessed. At the very least I feel I must offer kudos to Ms. Bryant for her patience and good humour over the years, as she took a lot of our teasing in stride and was a great ambassador for the show during a rather turbulent and uncertain period.
3. Adric (Matthew Watterhouse)
Alas, poor Adric, we never liked you. Was it our jealousy? Was it the badge for mathematical excellence? Were you just poorly written or were you an annoying twerp from the start? The answer is yes. Originally a sorcerer’s apprentice to Tom Baker’s mad wizard, the character became more of a petulant stepson when the TARDIS started seeing Peter Davison. Instantly unpopular with a fanbase that wished they were traveling with The Doctor instead, Whovians seem to have mellowed a bit over the years, overcoming an initial hostility and appreciating some of his better qualities. Some have even come to be moved by his dramatic death trying to save a world not his own. I on the other hand can’t help but watch the end of Earthshock and cheer every time.
I thought the clapping was only in my head. Now I’ll never know if I was right.
2. Kamelion (Gerald Flood)
I’m still not entirely convinced that Kamelion didn’t start out as a dare. Basically, some wag managed to convince Executive Producer John Nathan Turner that they created a working, movable robot, a feat that Toyota still has yet to achieve three decades and billions of dollars later. Wanting an anthropomorphic K9 of his own to play with, ol’ JNT jumped on it immediately and then quickly realised that he couldn’t work the damn thing. Out of ideas, he then proceeded to lock Kamelion in one of the TARDIS’s closets, even though the character was a shape-shifting being that could assume literally any form. After a year of the old R. Kelly treatment, JNT decided to kill it off just to clean house before Peter Davison left the program. A testimony to a lack of imagination on JNT’s part, Peter Davison admitted in a DVD commentary that the fact that he could emote at all to this faulty prop during its “death” scene proved that he was one of the greatest actors of his time. I tend to agree.
1. Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford)
A perpetual fan non-favourite, this high screamin’ carrot juice pimp only barely came out ahead of the robot for the unprestigious title of Worst Companion ever, and with good reason. This irritatingly cheery ginger moppet was the brainchild of, wait for it, John Nathan Turner. His only idea for the character seems to have been that she should be a redhead and that she should be played by Bonnie Langford, a precocious child star who haunted the dreams of an entire generation of British children and is still not allowed into New Zealand. The last of an almost decade-long drought of great Companions, she was replaced by the entirely awesome Ace. Poor Mel never had a chance.
And speaking of awesome Companions… Drum roll please:
10. Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart AKA “The Brig” (Nicholas Courtney)
I’m going to skip the normal debate as to whether or not The Brig even counts as a Companion because that’s time I’d rather spend writing about just how awesome he is. Can’t we just all accept that the Doctor would have a lot of “It’s Complicated” on whatever the Gallifreyan equivalent of Facebook is? The Brig is more of a colleague than a Companion, acting as Watson, and occasionally Lestrade, to the Doctor’s Holmes. Of vastly different temperaments and outlooks, they could occasionally butt heads, and yet underneath it all there is a warmth and mutual respect like none other. I’m really hoping that Jemma Redgrave will get a few more chances to shine as his daughter Kate, if only because the Whoniverse will always need UNIT and the Doctor should always have at least one Lethbridge-Stewart in his corner.
9. Leela (Louise Jameson)
After the departure of Elizabeth Sladen in 1976, the daunting dilemma facing Doctor Who was how to replace the much beloved Sarah Jane Smith. Here kudos must go to the show’s creators for the inspired choice of replacing the compassionate and contemporary Everywoman with a deadly, knife-wielding huntress from beyond the stars. An Eliza Doolittle with janis thorns, Leela is no screaming ninny, but an utterly fearless warrior, more at ease stalking her erstwhile predators than interacting with “civilised folks” and their silly rules (why do we need so more than one knife at the dinner table?). The dramatic and often comedic tension that comes in pairing a sophisticated yet roguish Time Lord with the primal yet cunning savage is just plain fun, and was no doubt dialed up by some of the behind the scene tension between Jameson and Tom Baker. Sexism raised its ugly brainpan early on regarding her character’s, um, minimal wardrobe, but Jameson handled the demands of the role rather ably with an energy and versatility that quickly proved that Leela isn’t just “one for the dads”.
8. Liz Shaw (Caroline John)
Jo Grant usually gets most of the spotlight during the Pertwee era, so I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that Liz, a personal favourite, made the cut. A brilliant mind and one of the world’s top scientists, Ms. Shaw is more of an “associate” than an “assistant”, who, like Pertwee’s Doctor, initially resents being saddled with some of the less than bright lights working at UNIT. Usually the smartest ones in the room, Liz and the Doctor quickly bond as allies and co-sufferers during a period of alarmingly frequent extraterrestrial and intraterrestrial invasions. It really is a pity then that the show’s writers didn’t quite know what to do with her and quietly replaced her with Jo, a more conventional Companion, the following year. A strong and capable friend, as well as thoroughly contemporary woman, her time with Doctor Who is short but brilliant, and she proves to be a precursor of what we could expect from future Companions.
7. Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill)
There is a lot (or a lot more) that could have gone wrong during Doctor Who’s first years. Its creators had only to create a vast and new universe on the fly and on the cheap. With all of time and all of space as a backdrop, it was crucial that the audience have a character they could identify with. Enter Barbara Wright, history teacher and voice of the quasi-educational mandate of the first seasons, before the bug-eyed monsters won out. Barbara quickly established herself as a moral counterpoint to William Hartnell’s enigmatic and cantankerous Doctor and in many ways smoothed out his rougher edges. Though the early years of Doctor Who are not to everyone’s taste, I’m really rather glad that the fandom has embraced Ms. Wright, giving her the appreciation and respect that she deserves, though she is often lumped together with Ian Chesterton as a single entry in most “Best of” lists. I chalk it up as a way for reviewers and blowhards such as myself to cram more than ten favourites into a Top Ten (admit it). Whether or not they settled down together as couple after leaving the Doctor (clearly they did), I believe that both Jacqueline Wright and William Russell’s unique contributions to the show’s early history demand individual places on this list.
6. Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines)
The original Bromance, the comedic stylings of the plucky Highland Scott and the Cosmic Hobo would have sold out comedy clubs across the galaxy, if only those clubs didn’t always come under siege by killer robots. Marking a new chapter in the show’s history, Jamie is the perfect Companion for Troughton’s Doctor: he’s brave and loyal, if not always the sharpest knife, er, “sqian-dubn” in the drawer, er, kilt. The delightful chemistry between Hines and Troughton allows the show to juggle a variety of tones, particularly comedy and horror, that proves a winning formula for the show. Simply put, Jaime is an integral part of what makes the Troughton era succeed. His relationship to the Doctor (tender, playful, and often bumbling) allows Troughton the perfect space with which to redefine the role as his own and allow the audience to accept regeneration, er, “renewal” as a core concept of Doctor Who. Is he the most complicated or nuanced of characters? Did he get a compelling character arc? Maybe not, but sometimes a classic schtick should just be enjoyed for its magical simplicity.
5. Dorothy Gale McShane (Sophie Aldred)
That’s “Ace” to you, Bilge bag! My favourite Companion, Ace somehow manages to improve any episode she’s in and when you consider the troubled period during which she joins the Doctor, this is no mean feat. A rebel, free spirit, and more than a little bit of an antisocial misfit, Ms. McShane is a breath of fresh air after many of her recent predecessors (see our “Worst Companions” list). A true badass, after nearly being killed by an invasion force of Daleks in Remembrance of the Daleks, she actually taunts the pepperpots, screaming “Wimps!” when they are forced to withdraw from the area. It is more than her attitude and penchant for explosives that makes Ace stand out though, for Ace is a troubled girl with a troubled past. Her development, under the tutelage of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, into a mature and confident young woman breaks new ground for Doctor Who and actually feels strangely contemporary alongside the new series. During my awkward teenage years, I sort of looked up to Ace, and not just because she was a punk rock arsonist like I wanted to be, but because the show that I grew up with was also growing up. Doctor Who was on its last legs and did not seem to have too many friends at this point, but it was during this time with Ace’s character that some of the more interesting and challenging ideas of the classic series were explored. I mean come on, she was awesome. How many Companions’ action figures come with their own bazooka?
4. Ian Chesterton (William Russell)
“Wanted: One Science Fiction Action Hero / Bookish Hunk. Must be prepared to stand up to lead Antihero and wrestle Aztecs in Jaguar costumes. Looking sharp in an ascot a plus. Flexible hours.” To say that Ol’ Chatterton here had a difficult job description would be a huge understatement. Part action hero, part moral counterpoint, and occasional foil, Coal Hill High’s manliest chemistry teacher brings a human dimension to a TV show that was in the process of defining itself. A relatable Everyman in a fascinating and at times perilous universe, William Russell somehow manages to handle the role with both grace and aplomb, warmly inviting us into a barking mad universe full of genocidal pepper pots, giant talking insects, and bloodthirsty Jacobins. He even makes chemistry sexy.
3. Romana I (Mary Tamm)
I rather like it when the rug (or his own scarf) is pulled out from under The Doctor’s feet, and what better way to trip him up than stick him with a by-the-book, know-it-all do-gooder that is actually smarter than him, and on a mission where the fate of all Creation hangs in the balance, no less! This “book smarts vs. street smarts” dynamic is rife with a comedic tension that wonderfully highlights some of the more roguish (as well as oafish) qualities of Tom Baker’s Doctor and is a great follow up to his relationship with the more intuitive and occasionally reckless Leela. Now I must admit that if we included both Romanas as one character on this list, she would have given our #1 a run for her money as Best Companion. However I believe that the brilliant performances of both Ms. Ward and Ms. Tamm deserve to be recognized on their own merits, even though I believe they really are the same character, with Lalla Ward’s version a more well-rounded and experienced Time Lord whose horizon has been broadened by her time with the Doctor. At any rate, Ms. Tamm is one of the highlights of season 16 and even though I enjoy Ward’s Romana, I know I’m not alone in wishing Tamm had stuck around for another season or so.
2. Donna Noble (Catherine Tate).
The sole companion from NuWho to make our list, Chiswick’s sassy super temp is a wonderful and complex character that marks a return to a more traditional (read: less romantic) dynamic between Doctor and Companion. Now I know many newer fans will always have a spot in their hearts for Rose and Martha, but as an older fan of the show who was getting a little tired of all the pining and the swooning, a character like Donna was a welcome relief. But there is more to Donna than her rapport with the Doctor, because Catherine Tate, an accomplished actress with an impressive range, takes an initially brash character and infuses her with a charm and complexity all her own. Occasionally an abrasive and comical character, there is a vulnerability that comes with experience and disappointment in life that I could relate to a lot more than the Doctor’s previous modern series Companions, especially during her exchanges with her Gramps, Wilf. The Family Noble take Doctor Who into new territory in terms of character development, a journey that is compelling, nuanced, and ultimately heartbreaking.
1. Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen)
It was not even close, and it usually never is. For many the archetype of a Companion, Sarah Jane consistently tops “Best of” lists for one simple reason: she’s fantastic. SJS is hardly the fearless heroine, but she’s a tenacious friend and confidant who overcomes terror, madness, and heartbreak through her own wits. Sladen’s onscreen chemistry, particularly during her time with Tom Baker, infuses nearly every scene with a playful charm that enhances what many consider the show’s Golden Age. Sladen went on to captivate whole new generations of Who Fans when the character returned in 2006’s “School Reunion” and eventually her own series, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Whovians often passionately disagree about many aspects of the show’s long history, but even new Who fans who don’t care for the Classic series usually have room in their heart for Elizabeth Sladen and all the wonderful memories she has given us over nearly three decades of Doctor Who. There will never be another like her.
So those are our thoughts on the best and worst Doctor Who Companions ever. Have a different list of your own? (Of course you do!) Stay tuned for our upcoming MMORPG (that’s Massive Multiplayer Online Refined Podcast Gathering), a series of three podcasts where I chat with all of our contributors at length to hear why we chose who we chose as well as some of our thoughts on those who didn’t quite make the list.