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Jul 07

Doctor/companion dynamic in New Who

One of the marked differences between Classic Who and New Who is the role of the Doctor to his companions. Companions of the Doctor have always been made better people because of the Doctor, but in Classic Who, the Doctor was more of a father figure and mentor to his companions rather than New Who’s companions who are treated more as potential romantic companions or at the very least lifelong travel companions. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the more emotionally charged New Who, but as i watched the series four finale this past weekend, the fate of Donna made me realize how Russell’s more emotional treatment of New Who over the past four years corners some of the writing into a path that’s hard to wrestle away from.

Half a year ago, when Voyage of the Damned aired, fans knew that Kylie Minogue’s role as the Doctor’s companion was for the Christmas special only. So the moment the Doctor smiled his Doctor smile and agreed to let Astrid travel with him in the TARDIS, i knew it was the kiss of death – i would have been surprised if her character didn’t die by the end of the episode. In mid-series four, the Doctor expressed a similar approval for Jenny to travel with them in the TARDIS, and although that had more potential to go the way of Adam Mitchell, the attachment that the Doctor ended up developing for her throughout the episode made her death not only unsurprising, but the circumstances contrived and utterly ridiculous.

In a couple of episodes in series four, Donna put forth a sentiment that she would travel with the Doctor forever, and even though the relationship between the Doctor and Donna didn’t have that sense of sexual/romantic tension that Doctor and Rose had, the comfort that had developed between the two made it similar enough that it was virtually impossible for Donna to be written out of the series as a voluntary separation.

All of this to me is evidence that the New Who Doctor/companion dynamic has a negative side effect, a writing trap. Throughout New Who, travel with the Doctor has been greatly romanticised and glorified, a fantasy turned reality. And even though the adventures have their dangers and perils, you have the Doctor (and his sonic plot saving device) and you have the TARDIS – two things that represent a large degree of safety and security amongst all of the potential chaos around that kind of lifestyle. Given that set up, it’s no wonder that anyone who is blessed enough to become the Doctor’s companion would never want to leave. Martha is an exception to this, but I strongly feel that if Martha hadn’t felt like she was constantly living under Rose’s shadow, she similarly would have had no reason to leave.

Resultingly, it feels like there’s only three options for a lead companion’s end to their stint on the series: 1) Rose – alive, but separated with no possibility of return, 2) Astrid – death, or 3) Donna – retcon. And all of those options in the series have been set up as such Tragic Events whose dramatic effect on screen may be somewhat effective but ultimately and retrospectively prove to be more annoying than anything else, particualrly the retcon/reset button approach with Donna.

There are a couple of reasons why the resolution of Donna’s character angered me. First, we had just come off of a series where the resolution to the conflict was a large scale retcon (blow up the Paradox machine, and miraculously the events never happened, the ultimate deus ex machina). I’ll give credit to Russell for not resolving the Reality Bomb crisis with a similar “let’s break into the Time War and prevent Dalek Caan from rescuing Davros so that none of this ever happened”, but the fact that the answer to Donna’s fate as a human/time-lord hybrid was a “and then she woke up” felt like a cheap way to get her out of the series and also a cheap way to answer the implications of her demise given first by River Song and then by Dalek Caan – particulalry since i can’t reconcile that the human/time-lord Donna wouldn’t be able to handle it, yet the time-lord/human Doctor could.

Secondly, i was angered because i felt that the character deserved better. Not, understand, that i think that there shouldn’t be times when tragic things happen to good people. But in this particular case, it felt like it was more a product of the logistics of Tate’s contract that drove that decision rather than the dramatic effect retconning Donna would have at the end of the series. And of all of the ways they could have dealt with Tate’s role of companion only being for a single year, the way they handled it felt like a writing blunder. One of the big things that New Who has touted itself on is character growth and development. One of the reasons we go on journeys with fairy tale characters on the telly or in books or in comics is to see how people change either for better or for worse. Rewind to what Davies had said in Confidential at the end of series two – that the journey of Rose from her introduction to her departure was supposed to show how being with the Doctor turned her from random teenager who worked in a shop to a driving force in the alternate world’s Torchwood. That the Doctor would be more cautious with his travels and with his companions because of the huge loss he had suffered when he lost Rose. At the end of it all, you could see the bookend of how those characters would move on and become something new..

(Never mind that the Doctor never did seem to learn how to not neglect his future companions all that well, and never mind that Rose’s interactions with the Doctor in series four seemed to be no different than series two lacking the supposed maturity she had gained after suffering such a huge loss two years prior.)

Now look at the end of series four. Not only do we have a situation where the retconning of Donna makes her forward character movement null and void, but retconning in this instance felt like all of the character development for everyone seemed to go back to ground zero. Donna, the clear best companion of New Who, forgets everything that happened and goes back to assumingly her shallow office temp life. The Doctor’s judgement against Sylvia and her reaction to his harshness show that unlike the prior companions’ families, she hasn’t changed her attitude about him nor Donna. The Doctor himself goes back to being the “lonely god” and because of the way things have gone thus far (although who knows what will happen with Moffat at the helm), any change to his character as a result of having travelled with Donna will be lost because of the current companion and current crisis. The one character that seemed to go through a proper change was Wilfred, and thankfully so, but amidst all of the other characters that went absolutely nowhere in their growth and development (which includes Rose, Jackie, Martha, Jack, and Sarah Jane, whose characters in these episodes felt like too many people crammed into a lift), it left me thinking yet again, “oh, is that it?”

One thing that i therefore wish with the new series in 2010 is for Moffat to create a companion storyline in which the relationship between the Doctor and his lead companion be one similar to that of the Classic series or that of Martha but done better – a storyline where the companion decides that their time with the Doctor has come to an end for no real reason other than the fact that the journey is over, and they say goodbye with no big emotional tugs and sweeping string soundtrack by the melodramatic Murray Gold.

One can hope.

6 comments

1 ping

  1. borgseawolf

    One could argue that romance ‘brings all the fangirls to the yard’. One of RTD’s discoveries was that female audience drives the tv ratings these days – which is why Queer as Folk was such a huge success. Consider how much of the fandom these days are new fans, or ‘shippers’ (that’s a logical or, not implying all new fans are shippers), concerned mostly with the Doctor/Companion relationship… so it’s as much a marketing decision as a writer’s decision. Two things sell on tv the best: love and death; and new Doctor is full of both.

  2. darknote

    a good point, as much as i wouldn’t want it to be. ;)

  3. amber

    i really miss the father-like relationships of the classic who. only because i’m a little over the romantic interests in the new series. i still love it, of course, but really that’s sort of why i liked donna. she had NO romantic interest in the doctor. i feel that a little more time can be spent on the actual week to week story, and less on the doctor to companion relationship if they were to reel the sexual tension in a bit.
    many MANY people disagree with me, but to each his own. :)
    good post!

  4. tamburlaine

    This is a great little bit of commentary. New Who writes itself into corners, which is sort of funny, considering that with so much time and space to explore… the writers keep running out of plot options. ;)

    Borgseawolf is totally right-on with his/her comment. Doctor Who is one of the hugest television shows in England. In America, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a television show airing SATURDAY NIGHT getting 9.4 million viewers.

    The reason: RTD has a massive PR machine in his pocket, and he’s being coached the whole way as to how to best manipulate the audience to watch his show. Of course you have to do that — that’s entertainment! This all of course led to the viewer response from women 18-39 (notoriously the hardest demographic to get) because of all that romantic blah blah, all the while maintaining the “family friendly” vibe of the show through emphasis on the Doctor’s pacifism and his reaction to the relatively benign concept of “death”, which in the show is treated as the WORST POSSIBLE THING even if the alternative is much more torturous (see: Donna). Death is scary and mysterious to children, so it seems that someone is whispering in RTD’s ear that anything but death can be an acceptable conclusion to a beloved character’s storyline. This ending with Donna, however, seems like it would be more confusing and scary than death; the Doctor wiped her memories against her consent and all the positive growth of Donna’s character was wiped out in a split second without any catharsis. Yeah, you avoided the PR-forbidden death scene, but Donna’s conclusion was so much more macabre. Martha had the most dignified end to her run, and the most pro-female (and I find this show to be incredibly sexist): She CHOSE to leave, and then she went on to be a powerful and successful professional, a “modern woman.” That’s the kind of thing you want to teach girls.

    Frankly, I think all that PR-coaching is rather insulting to the audience because it is so overt. And if anything was a grievous compound insult, it was “Journey’s End”, which grotesquely exploited both the “anti-death” and “pro-romance” agendas of New Who. Those agendas could have been handled much more subtley, but we had it rammed down our throat, damn the plot continuity and character growth!

    One redeeming thing about this finale is the lack of a universal reset button. I hope that in the episodes to come, the Doctor is going to have to deal with knowing he really has reached God Status with humans now. Maybe a right-wing fanatical Doctorist group will be terrorists? HOW TOPICAL! Heh.

  5. Pat

    That was a well-thought-out post–thank you for writing it. I agree with almost everything you said, especially why Donna’s ending was just wrong. The only (minor) quibble I have is that Mickey did change, even without the “benefit” of being around the Doctor–he goes from being a shallow, clingy wuss to being a badass in Pete!World. That was good to know, even if we didn’t see most of it.

    Maybe Mickey is the exception that proves the rule.

  6. darknote

    i agree that mickey went through a lot of change, and that change was awesome. I was speaking more about change from series two to series four. It was awesome to see him again, but he (along with the others) didn’t contribute much to the new story.

  1. Doctor/companion dynamic in New Who at A Better Half

    […] Doctor/companion dynamic in New Who Half a year ago, when Voyage of the Damned aired, fans knew that Kylie Minogue’s role as the Doctor’s companion was for the Christmas special only. So the moment the Doctor smiled his Doctor smile and agreed to let Astrid travel with … […]

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