If you stopped to really consider it, being a companion of the Doctor can be a rather dangerous adventure. Despite the best-laid plans, the Tardis will take the Doctor, whether by accident or design to a time or place that needs his help and the companion of the time just follows in his steps. With all the adventures the doctor has, the enemies he meets, the odds, in reality, are against the companion living that long. The companion just doesn’t have the inbuilt resilience of a Timelord to regenerate when mortally wounded unless they are Romana. However remarkably very few over the years have actually died.
Maybe it is just me but if I stepped outside the Tardis onto a new world I’d guarantee I’d be the first one to fall down the mountain. I don’t have any survival skills training, know how to fire a gun against a Cyberman or use martial arts against an Exxilon. It would be thank-you but good night.
The killing off of a companion in Doctor Who hasn’t happened very often. I am referring here to physically and for good, so exclude mind wipes and alternative realities from your memory. It has only happened three or four times in classic Who over 26 seasons, with Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) in 1982’s ‘Earthshock’, Peri (Nicola Bryant) in 1984’s ‘Mindwarp’ and the short-lived Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) and Katarina (Adrienne Hill) in 1965/1966’s blood-thirsty ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’. In New Who it has happened twice so far, in series 9 Clara died in ‘Face the Raven’ and in series 10 Bill died in ‘Fall of the Doctor’.
Don’t wander off
Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily cast the Doctor as the typical hero archetype in the mould of the Arthurian knights of the round table there would be something very wrong in the series if the Doctor let all his companions die on these journeys. He behaves like a hero and tries to mediate and save people and bring peace to planets. We have seen that he has been a warrior defending Gallifrey but he takes that role on himself and distances his companions from any participation. Leela was for some reason the exception perhaps because she was a Servaten tribe warrior who could look after herself?
He also tells the companion his rules of travel. Jackson Lake, when he believed he was the Doctor, told his companion Rosita ‘The Doctor’s companion does what the Doctor says’ The fourth Doctor told Romana to stay close to him, do exactly as he says and to let him do all the talking. The seventh doctor told Ace he was in charge and more than one Doctor in the New Series has told the companion to not wander off. The Doctor is the main character with the magical box who invites the companion along. So, it is implied by the structure that it is his duty to try his hardest to protect his companion.
But there is the possibility that his companions might die and their families wouldn’t know. Ian, Barbara, Tegan returned to London many months after they left with the Doctor and I do wonder did no one from their family or friends whilst they were away wondering what had happened to them? People disappear and normally they are missed and I thought it was really inventive that Russell T Davies in ‘Aliens of London’ actually tackled the issue of what happens when someone just disappears off with the doctor. Jackie Tyler was beside herself with grief thinking the worst when Rose had been missing for a year. With an acknowledgement that life with the Doctor was dangerous, this led to her begging Rose not to go back out to the stars with the Doctor. She questioned the Ninth Doctor whether her daughter was safe travelling with him, he couldn’t guarantee it but that discussion pricked his conscience enough to protect Rose by sending her back to Earth in ‘Parting of the Ways’ to her mum Jackie rather than let her die as the Delta wave hit the space station.
A daughter of the gods
The killing off of a character is a dramatic device used in a lot of television series whereby a character dies, but the story continues. It can be an effective tool although the structure of Doctor Who doesn’t seem to support it happening too frequently as the companion is normally our eyes into the story. Katerina was the first companion to die in the programme and what I like is she was an experimental type of companion as she wasn’t representative of the audience. This was partly why she was written out of the programme so quickly by the writers because they thought it limited her possibilities but I rather like her. She believed she was dead already and the viewer was far more knowledge about the Doctor and his machine than her. But if the doctor is a hero then a companion’s death can also be heroic and she fulfils a purpose within the story as the innocent who saves their lives. Katarina’s kind nature provided a real contrast to Sara’s hard-faced exterior and as she tried to make sense of the Tardis ‘the temple’ it is probably the first time so far, that the Doctor was seen with a new perspective through her eyes. She gives him a due deference with a title as a ‘lord’ It’s an unfamiliar concept now in our secular knowing world but Katerina being from ancient Greece makes it an agreeable idea and her sacrifice became so moving as she must have eventually realised she wasn’t already dead and would die but did it anyway.
The Doctor: [On the death of Katarina.] “She didn’t understand… She couldn’t understand. She wanted to save our lives. And perhaps the lives of all the other beings of the solar system. I hope she’s found her perfection. We shall always remember her as one of the daughters of the gods. Yes, as one of the daughters of the gods.”
‘You killed Peri ’
I quite admire John Nathan Turner that he had the gumption to take that most dangerous of paths, killing off a regular character not once but TWICE namely Adric and also Peri. When done successfully it can provide a boost to a programme because of the emotional investment audiences make in characters and the shock value for the viewer. When I watched ‘Mindwarp’ recently as part of the 23rd ‘Trial of a Timelord’ season it was really interesting that it still gave me chills, even after all these years, to see Peri Brown sit up, taken over with the brain of Lord Kiv calling for the guards in that cold alien voice https://youtu.be/e20Wn7Z7uAI and to then be killed by King Ycranos.
Apparently, Nicola Bryant had requested of John Nathan Turner that her companion Peri leave in dramatic fashion. She had seen the filming of the departure of Tegan Jovanka (played by Janet Fielding) https://youtu.be/yHjr4JusPA8 and hadn’t liked what she felt was a rather low-key exit for Tegan after seeing all the wonders of the universe. What a way to go that she was given. For a modern audience now, her death may seem a bit tame but for me, at the time of original transmission, it was shocking to see Peri killed off in this way. What made it genuinely thrilling as a viewer was that the Doctor was taken away and placed in a situation where he couldn’t do anything to save Peri. It adds a real peril to the drama. Events played out without the Doctor able to exert his usual influence over the outcome. The hero has abandoned the princess. There isn’t a happy ending.
As well as killing off a sympathetic character and giving the viewer a jolt, her death also allowed the story to continue, advance and change direction as the Doctor became determined to uncover the plot against him.
Four’s a crowd
The departure of a companion can be due to other issues besides the actor wanting to leave. Peter Davison’s first season, the 19th, had three companions which caused the writers a headache in giving them all enough to do. It was decided to reduce the number of companions by one by the end of the season. Originally it was going to be Nyssa but I can see why it became Adric. I don’t dislike Adric actually but this was Matthew Waterhouse’s first role and his lack of experience was exposed when the writing made Adric immature and annoying at times (He reminds me a little of Luke Rattigan in ‘The Sontaren Stratagem’). Both he and Nyssa were characters whose thought relied on logic but Adric always seem to side with the villains (State of Decay and Four to Doomsday) whereas Nyssa had a natural sympathetic affinity with the Doctor due to a shared scientific knowledge. There was an unwillingness to retain the actor on the production side which then led to that character being written out. Its a shame in a way. With a more experienced actor, Adric, who was a rebellious Artful Dodger type, could have been played with a more nuanced performance as he learned from being with the Doctor. Perhaps to grow to become a younger Jamie type character more protective of the female characters.
Saying that though Adric’s death was quite skilfully done within the whole storyline of ‘Earthshock’. The ending partly due to great direction, music and storyline is fantastically set-up and it primes us for a dramatic conclusion. The doctor although he tries to pilot the Tardis back to the bridge to rescue Adric finds the controls are damaged due to the fight with the Cyberman and then the same situation happens to Adric as the Cyberman there shoots within the control deck of the freighter. Adric doesn’t die as a natural hero through his sacrifice but more due to his stubbornness in refusing to leave in the escape pod because he thinks he can defeat the locks on the freighter. Sadly, it is never proven if he could have been right. So we have the lost potential of youth.
‘The rumours of my death’
I mentioned earlier how it’s a risky road to decide to kill a character. This is because they normally don’t return from their ‘demise’ and if they do it is not without losing some credibility. Soaps have regularly cast new actors to bring back old characters or brought back characters from the dead with the same actor. In 1986, in the US soap Dallas, Bobby Ewing returned to the series in a notorious shower scene with the explanation that his accident and death the year before and a whole season’s events had been a dream. It took the suspension of disbelief that audiences have to have for certain genres to absurd heights from which the show never fully recovered.
Sci-fi is as flexible a format as soap opera if the audience is prepared to hold back any scepticism. The death of a companion is usually seen as final but Steven Moffat in the new series has managed to twist the convention somewhat with companion Clara to give for her a curiously happy ending. Whilst the deaths of Oswin in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ and Clara, the governess in ‘The Snowmen’ were suitably as sad as 21st century Clara dying in place of Rigsy, accepting her fate it was a shame she wasn’t left as such. Some of you will say but Clara’s death has happened and she will go back at some point to fulfil it and on a logical level I understand the argument but the death of a companion is an emotional affair. We invest time and energy in Doctor Who and when a companion dies it raises the dramatic stakes for the audience but if the companion doesn’t stay dead the event loses its meaning for the audience. Did Clara’s death, the result of her own recklessness, become less effective because she came back in ‘Hell Bent’ held between heartbeats deciding to travel with an immortal? In my opinion yes although some may disagree.
The audience is in a sense being cheated as our emotions are toyed with. When Adric’s death occurred, the episode ended in silence with a final shot of the mathematical star of excellence he had. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten, as important and final as it was. Adric didn’t pop up again in the next story and the 5th Doctor was firm with Tegan and Nyssa when they begged him to do something. He couldn’t go back in time and rescue Adric. It would just break too many rules of time travel and fixed points. But it’s also about showing the truth to the audience that actions have consequences. Bring your companion back the next story and it negates all the grief and emotion spent mourning that character. Did Peri’s death lose impact when the Master later advised she hadn’t died but was alive and well married to Brian Blessed’s King? Certainly. Blame Colin Baker here as he asked JNT what happened to Peri afterwards on Thoros Beta and the production team decided to quickly back-peddle on her demise!
VALEYARD: But Peri died, Doctor, because you abandoned her. We had to end her life because your negligence had made it impossible for her to live.
But JNT inadvertently set a pattern with Peri’s death that the modern series has followed. The show hasn’t been brave enough to do a companion death properly in the new series. RTD used misdirection with Rose as she ‘ died’ in one universe ( on the list of the dead) but was rescued to a parallel world. I do wonder are the BBC worried about offending their target family audience? I’m not necessarily saying that writers are reluctant to show that death occurs in the show but it is a sign of our times as a society. Are we now in the 21st century becoming delicate little flowers unable to accept seeing the final loss? Steven Moffat believes that Doctor Who isn’t the type of show where companions should truly die and so he enjoyed resurrecting his characters such as Clara, River and Bill. Although to be fair to River she was meeting the Doctor in an opposite direction to him (but she did turn up a few too many times after her death to labour the point ….ahem ‘Name of the Doctor’ ) Companions are threatened that they will ‘die’ but they don’t not really. Companions have mind wipes, get frozen in time or are transformed after death. But then it is also a risk to go mad with the ploy as employ it too often and then the drama is lessened considerably. Look at how many times Rory ‘died’ and kept coming back….. Get up Rory!
I suppose one reason the death of a companion in Doctor Who is rare because we need the companion who is symbolic of us to enjoy their travels with the Doctor. I do accept in many ways it’s a life-affirming show most of the time and whilst many companions have had their lives changed forever meeting the Doctor (I’m thinking of Sarah, Jo, Donna and Rose) this show isn’t the bloodthirsty Game of Thrones. Maybe we should all just want to believe most of the time ‘everybody lives ‘in Doctor Who including the Doctor’s friends. It does make probably for a better more enjoyable experience. I do rather like the explanation from spin-off material about Peri that due to the Timelords interference in events on Thoros Beta multiple alternative realities were created and the version of Peri we saw did die but there was also another alternate version of Peri alive having noisy children with King Yrcanos . I can live with that.
You know I never even got started about the evergreen Captain Jack Harkness… he is a whole other story…
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Until next time…