Spoilers for “Revolution of the Daleks” (2021 New Year’s special) follow.
In its 58-year history, very few episodes of Doctor Who have featured the titular Doctor on her own. Human companions serve an important role in grounding the Doctor and serving as the lens through which the audience experiences the zany journeys. Without companions, the Doctor is just some inscrutable alien, and she has no reason to explain the many bizarre things she encounters in her travels through space and time.
In addition to serving as audience avatars, the Doctor’s companions act as teammates and, on the many occasions where the Doctor gets in over her head, rescuers. This formula has worked consistently for decades, yet there has been some evolution here and there. Under the Thirteenth Doctor, the companions have reached a new stage of development that is both similar to and yet different from the relationship they shared under previous incarnations of the Time Lord.
Companions as Moral Compasses
It seems a foreign concept, but originally the Doctor was kind of a bad guy. Other than his granddaughter Susan, he traveled with humans because he kidnapped them. When Susan’s teachers first entered the TARDIS, he rocketed them back to a prehistoric era to prevent them from exposing the hidden Gallifreyan technology to other Earthlings.
In the show’s second serial, “The Daleks,” the Doctor put everybody on board—including himself and Susan—at risk by pretending that the TARDIS had broken down so he could explore an alien planet filled with deadly radiation. In the next serial, “The Edge of Destruction,” the paranoid old man threatens to throw his companions into the Time Vortex because he blames them for a TARDIS malfunction caused by a simple stuck button. Only when Barbara proves him wrong and convinces him that the ship has intelligence does he soften and start accepting his companions as equals worthy of respect.
The Doctor quickly softened after those early serials, and future companions didn’t have to deal with an irascible, hostile old man. But when the show got a revival in the 21st century, it did touch upon the idea that the Doctor, for all her kindness, is not human and tends to get out of control without somebody to guide her. This was most notable with the introduction of Donna, as she witnessed the Doctor coldly murder a bunch of alien children and managed to snap him out of his fury just in time to keep him from drowning himself—both metaphorically in his fury, and literally in the rapidly draining Thames.
As the show continued, the idea that the Doctor needed human contact came up again and again. The Eleventh Doctor traveled on his own for centuries, and became less human the longer he went without returning to the Ponds. When the Twelfth Doctor comes to Clara with a wild theory about aliens who cannot be seen or detected by any means, her first question to him is, “How long have you been traveling alone?”
During the Thirteenth Doctor’s era, the audience has so far rarely seen her away from her companions. And yet, she has spent a lot of time without them, especially after the fresh destruction of Gallifrey, which has led her to return to her ruined home repeatedly and to hunt the elusive Master.
The Thirteenth Doctor hasn’t shown the bloodthirstiness of her predecessors (although she still has no problem killing Daleks and didn’t show much mercy to the Skithra after they taunted her about seeing a dead planet). However, the Doctor on her own becomes colder and more withdrawn, lost in her thoughts and the newfound mysteries of her past. “Revolution of the Daleks” highlighted this with a poignant scene between her and Ryan, where she tried to smooth decades in prison and away from her companions as no big deal, only for her young companion to force her to confront it.
The current Doctor, while not as at risk of giving into her fury, still has an edge to her that her companions soften. In this case, without her companions it seems very probable that the long years and many lies about her own identity would lead her to withdraw into herself, possibly never returning.
What Does the Doctor Give Her Companions?
So the Doctor needs companions to save her life and keep her on the side of the angels. But what does she give to them in return?
The first four series of the revival made the answer to this question a recurring theme: the Doctor makes her companions better. This culminated in “The End of Time,” where a dying Tenth Doctor visits all of his old companions and sees how they have changed because of him. Since that era, the theme has remained, albeit not quite as deliberately emphasized. Amy, Clara, and Bill all came into the series as isolated, lonely people with (except for a very brief bit in “Time of the Doctor” for Clara) no families. Through their journeys with the Doctor, they found direction, purpose, and family—all despite “dying” in their own ways, with Amy sent back to the past with Rory, Clara left traveling the universe before destined to return to the fixed point in time of her death, and Bill leaving her physical body behind after she was converted into a Cyberman.
The Thirteenth Doctor era has developed this theme further. In the case of Yaz, the show has peeled away some of the layers of her past, showing how she has dealt with bullying and mental illness and is a changed woman with the Doctor at her side. It’s even more notable in the case of Ryan and Graham, who departed at the end of “Revolution of the Daleks” but now seem confident and equipped to solve mysteries and problems all on their own.
Traveling with the Doctor transforms a person, opening them up to the vast possibilities of the universe. The journey is not always easy, and sometimes ends in tragedy. Despite that, each long-term companion who has traveled with the Doctor has always ended their travels with her as a stronger and better person.
The Fam as a Team
Multiple companions used to be fairly commonplace in Doctor Who. The First, Second, and Fifth Doctors all traveled long-term with a team of two or more companions. For whatever reason, single companions became more popular as the show went on—possibly because it was cheaper to pay fewer regulars, or maybe just because it’s easier to give two main characters something to do than to juggle three, four, or five.
One of the notable ways in which the Thirteenth Doctor called back to the classic series is through the use of multiple companions. That decision has also formed the backbone of one of the most common critiques of the current show: a larger TARDIS crew means fewer chances for individual characters to shine.
I’m not entirely sure that I agree with that critique, though it certainly is a hard balance to strike and there are several episodes where it feels like a character didn’t get an opportunity to do as much. But balancing that team dynamic has led to an interesting development for the Doctor: she now incorporates her companions more fully into her plans.
In the past, the Doctor sometimes relied on his companions for something, but they often wound up getting involved in a story’s resolution because the Doctor needed bailing out or because they wandered off on their own and got in trouble. That still happens to an extent, such as the entire fam rushing off during “The Timeless Children” to save the Doctor from the Master. But the Doctor is now more prone to flipping the script, directly using the team she has to help save the day.
“Revolution of the Daleks” represents a prime example of this, where the Doctor sends not just Jack but also Graham and Ryan aboard a Dalek ship to blow it up. Sending Jack makes sense—he can’t die. But the inclusion of two normal humans is enough to surprise even Jack. Time and again, the Doctor has made a point of working with her fam as a team. She still has a habit of pulling back and taking on the most dangerous stuff alone, but she’s finally taking into account that, “Don’t wander off” is poor advice for the type of people who want to travel aboard the TARDIS.
Obviously, this isn’t a completely new development. There’s this person named Martha Jones who saved the world from the Master based on a plan that the Doctor hatched. But that was a contingency created after the Doctor had already failed—his initial plan involved Martha as a spectator while the Doctor saved the day.
The Inconsistency of Character Development
In any long-running franchise with multiple changings of the guard, there’s bound to be hiccoughs and reversions. Maybe the next showrunner wants one companion again. Maybe a future screenwriter sees the Doctor sending companions on dangerous missions as hypocritical. There’s really no way of telling how things will develop years from now.
But for now, in this incarnation, the Doctor has decided to treat her companions less as tourists and more as equals. It’s a change that’s been a long time coming, because the companions usually wind up saving the day as much or more so than the Doctor herself. It’s nice to see that she’s finally starting to realize the potential aboard her own ship.