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The ten greatest ‘Doctor Who’ companions

Welcome back to my column of random ramblings about “Doctor Who,” as we gear up for the show’s 60th anniversary in November. Today, we will be discussing “Doctor Who” companions. For those who do not know, a companion is the character who travels alongside the Doctor. They are usually an audience surrogate, the character you really want to root for and the Doctor’s best friend. There’s a good amount of variation in who companions are, particularly in the classic series. Because every companion is different, every fan has different favorites. This article will feature my personal ten favorite companions.

Now, for this article, I am only considering true companions. That means that recurring characters like the Brigadier, Jack Harkness and River Song will not be included. Yes, they are very important characters, but they are not true companions. I am also not considering Big Finish companions or one-off companions. I will simply be discussing these companions in chronological order, rather than ranked order, because picking my absolute favorite is just too difficult. Rest assured, all ten of these companions are fantastic.

Ian and Barbara – I am considering Ian and Barbara to be one companion because they are very much a unit. Ian and Barbara are the show’s very first companions, and in my opinion, they remain two of the best. Both are schoolteachers from the 1960s. Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara is a history teacher, and William Russell’s Ian is a science teacher. The original concept of “Doctor Who” was that Ian and Barbara could explain the science of futuristic stories and the history of, well, historical stories respectively. However, their characters quickly grew to be so much more than that. Barbara led the early show, and the First Doctor grew to be who he was based on her example. Ian was the heart and humor of the show. Plus, Ian and Barbara have an adorable love story together (shut up, it may have been hard to make overt in the 1960s but it was there!), they carry the early show through its rough patches and are so fantastic that they are still massively beloved by fans today.

Jamie McCrimmon – Played by Frazer Hines, Jamie McCrimmon is the companion to the Second Doctor. But he’s so much more than just a companion—he is with Two for almost the entirety of Two’s tenure, with the exception of Two’s post-regeneration story. Jamie becomes almost as important to Two’s era of the show as Two himself. Jamie is a Scottish Highlander rescued from the Battle of Culloden. As he travels in time, his worldview is expanded beyond all recognition. Jamie is very noble, sometimes stupidly so, but that just makes him even more charming. Hines’ chemistry with Troughton is second to none. And what makes Jamie so great is the way he assumes a duty of care for everyone he encounters (except for villains, of course). Jamie’s moral code is fantastic, his sense of humor is wonderful and he’s a character you just love to root for. And the way Jamie’s story ends is just so incredibly tragic it will make you sob like a baby.

Jo Grant – Ian, Barbara, and Jamie don’t resemble modern companions the way we’ve come to know them. The companion who really set the blueprint is Jo Grant, the Third Doctor’s definitive companion. Jo is with Three from Season 8 to Season 10. She starts out as a bit of a ditz, having been nepotism-ed into a position with UNIT that she’s not qualified for. Over time, she grows to be a match for the Doctor in her own right. She’s brave, an outspoken Women’s Lib activist, kind-hearted and a passionate environmentalist. The father/daughter Three and Jo have is incredibly heartwarming. But what really makes Jo great is the thoughtful and charismatic performance of Katy Manning, who really makes the character leap off the screen. Jo is a character that you can really see travelling with the Doctor forever—until she meets the man of her dreams and goes off to save the Amazon rainforest, of course.

Sarah Jane Smith – Sarah Jane Smith is one of the show’s most iconic companions, played by the equally iconic Elizabeth Sladen. While Sarah isn’t my all time favorite, I do love her. She joins the show for Three’s last season, then travels with Four for two seasons and a bit. What I love about Sarah is her outspoken feminism. She’s probably one of the most political companions the show has ever seen. She’s a driven career-woman who takes no shit and speaks truth to power. She’s able to have fun banter with her Doctors while still telling serious stories when need be. Sarah did suffer from some slight character assassination when the leadership of the show changed, but Sladen’s performance keeps the character consistent and fantastic.

Leela of the Sevateem – Louise Jameson is arguably the greatest actor to have ever played a companion. This is mainly because of the nature of the character she played, which could have so easily been a disaster. Leela is a “savage” from an alien planet. Initially, the character was conceived to be wearing blackface (thankfully this idea was scrapped). But still, Leela could have easily been a caricature, a flat character or straight-up racist. Thankfully, through Jameson’s measured and clever performance, Leela becomes an absolutely fantastic character. Leela acts almost entirely on instinct while the Fourth Doctor (whom she travels with) relies on his intellect. She’s tough as nails and fiercely independent, and there’s something really fun about watching Leela discover things like modern technology, stuffy conventions and the vast complexities of the universe. Leela’s costume is a little bit unfortunate, but Jameson’s performance more than carries the character through some sticky patches. And if I was compiling a list of the best quotes from “Doctor Who,” Leela would definitely feature heavily.

Romana I – Romana I is another Fourth Doctor companion, arriving right after Leela. Played by Mary Tamm, Romana I is with the Doctor during his quest for the Key to Time. Romana is another Time Lord, fresh out of the Academy. Because of this, she is much more of an equal to the Doctor, while still being his mentee in many respects. There are two incarnations of Romana (denoted by fans as Romana I and Romana II), but personally, I prefer Romana I because of her acidic wit, her fabulous style (shoutout to her “Ribos Operation” dress), her confidence and her hilarious reactions to non-Time Lord cultures. Watching Romana I’s “book smarts” clash with the Fourth Doctor’s “street smarts” is hilarious, and Tamm and Baker bounce off each other very well (even though they didn’t particularly like each other). 

Ace McShane – After Romana left the show, “Doctor Who” suffered through a series of companions who were bad, mediocre, underdeveloped or just didn’t have chemistry with their Doctor. All this was solved with the classic series’ final companion, 16-year-old Ace McShane, played by Sophie Aldred. Ace is fantastic. She’s a blue collar London teenager with a propensity for blowing stuff up with homemade explosives. When we meet Ace, she’s stranded on an alien planet pouring milkshakes on the heads of annoying customers. Ace is rescued by the Seventh Doctor, whom she calls “professor,” and the two of them go off to wreak havoc (sorry, save lives) across the universe. Ace does such fantastic things as beat up a Dalek with a baseball bat. She also really brings out the best in Seven and breathes new life into the show. Plus, Ace is canonically bisexual (making her the show’s first canonically queer companion), which is amazing, especially for the 1980s.

Donna Noble – It took the revived series team a few seasons to hit its stride with companions, but boy did they nail it with Donna Noble. Like Louise Jameson, Catherine Tate is a contender for the greatest actor to play a companion. She delivers laugh-out-loud comedy, high drama and everything in between. She elevates the Tenth Doctor from being a character I’m lukewarm on to one of the show’s best characters. The banter that Donna delivers is second-to-none. Even though the show seemed desperate to overshadow Donna during her series, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her while Tate is onscreen. And the ending—oh, the ending. If I think of how Donna departs the show, I’m going to tear up. Luckily, Tate is back for the 60th anniversary, and I am beyond thrilled about  it.

Amy and Rory – Like Ian and Barbara, I am counting Amy and Rory as a unit rather than as separate companions. Amy may get a bit longer on the show than Rory, but she truly comes into her own once Rory joins the TARDIS. Commonly known as ‘the Ponds’ by fans, Amy and Rory really know how to capture your heart. Karen Gillan’s Amy grows from an irresponsible young girl to a clever, witty and responsible woman. Arthur Darvill’s Rory grows from an awkward boy to one of the show’s best heroes. Both really bring out the absolute best in the Eleventh Doctor, and while the Ponds are on the TARDIS (along with occasional appearances from River Song) the show has a real familial, warm vibe. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get serious or dark, but it does mean that it takes the ‘found family’ trope and runs as far as it can with it. It’s incredibly heartwarming. Plus, we get Rory saving Amy and their daughter from abduction in the guise of a Roman, and Amy murdering a woman in cold blood as revenge for kidnapping her daughter. Which is very cool.

Clara Oswald – Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald is a love/hate companion. Fortunately, I am one of the fans who loves her. Clara does get off to a bit of a slow start with Eleven, but she is absolutely superb with Twelve. Coleman’s acting is some of the most polished of the show, and when paired with Capaldi there’s absolute magic onscreen. Plus, Clara’s arc is one of the most complex and beautiful pieces of writing and performance the show has ever seen. Clara is a school teacher with a dangerous addiction to travelling with the Doctor. She gets more and more reckless, pushing the limits as far as she can until they finally snap. But this is Clara we’re talking about, so of course she’s able to find a way out. Clara’s wry sense of humor and giddiness for adventure make her quite a bit of fun to have on screen as well. But what really makes Clara great is the journey she goes on, aided along the way by Coleman’s brilliant performance.

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