Doctor Who has seen many different faces over the years, and I’m not talking about his own new countenance after regenerating. I’m talking about the numerous companions and individuals who’ve helped the good Doctor through thick and thin.
It could be debated what constitutes a true companion—especially when considering those who only lasted for one tour of duty, or who had frequently helped the Doctor but for one reason or another weren’t given the esteemed title (like Rose Tyler’s mother, Jackie), or the ones that never even stepped foot into the TARDIS. With all these variables to process, it would take the sonic screwdriver a couple hundred years to calculate an accurate companion tally.
In any event, while most of these helpful souls can be divide among the best (Sarah Jane Smith, Rose Tyler, Amy Pond) and the worst (Adric, K-9, Mel), there’s also the contingent that can be placed in the category of unsung heroes—those who don’t garner the attention of the favorites but have delivered the goods when the chips were down for the Gallifreyan native—or perhaps, as in one case, good riddance.
Wilfred “Wilf” Mott
Companion of the Tenth Doctor—portrayed by Bernard Cribbins
Wilf first appears in the 2007 Christmas special “Voyage of the Damned,” then throughout Series 4,and finally figures into the pivotal “The End of Time” which sees David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor regenerating into Matt Smith’s Eleven. Wilf is the grandfather of popular companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), and even after Donna loses all memory of the Doctor, Wilf continues to assist the time traveler quite well until the Doctor sheds his tenth skin. A loyal subject of the Queen and an amateur astronomer, Wilf is a bit off the wall and thoroughly entertaining in every scene. When he meets a green alien with sharp thorns covering her head, he’s mortified: “Oh, my lord… she’s a cactus!” Later, in the same adventure, when he begins defending the salvage spaceship that Ten is piloting into the earth’s atmosphere by manning a gun turret a la Han Solo, he gleefully cheers, “I wish Donna could see me now.” A sharp, compassionate, well-written character. When Ten sacrifices his own life to save the grandfatherly man by saying, “Wilfred it’s my honor,” it all makes perfect sense. My favorite companion of recent memory bar none.
Trivia: Wilf and Donna Noble were the first companions to be related. (Source: Tardis Data Core)
Companion of the Tenth Doctor—portrayed by David Morrissey
Jackson Lake appears in only one episode, “The Next Doctor”—one of the most imaginative stories in the show’s fifty-one year history. Ten (David Tennant) arrives in London circa Christmas 1851, commenting that it is a boring period of time. But that’s really what he wants because, deep down, he’s worn out from recent adventures and aware his time is slowly coming to an end. His tranquility is short lived as he soon discovers a 19th century ‘Time Lord’ named Jackson Lake, who has a companion named Rosita (Velile Tshabalala) and has built a “TARDIS” (actually a hot air balloon that is a “Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style”). Ten assumes the man is a future version of himself with amnesia. He joins Lake and Rosita in their fight against a Cybershade while he attempts to unravel the secrets of this mysterious gentleman. My favorite scene has Ten questioning Lake’s commonplace screwdriver. Lake taps the tool against a doorframe explaining, “It makes a noise. That’s sonic, isn’t it?” In a bit of trivia from Wikipedia, actor David Morrissey’s spot on portrayal was influenced by Doctors William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, as he saw “a truth” to their performances, adding they “never saw [Doctor Who] as a genre show or a children’s show.”
An argument can be made that Jackson Lake and Rosita are not Ten’s companions, but rather Ten is a companion to Lake’s doctor. You be the judge. Either way, a helluva lot of fun.
Companion of the Ninth Doctor—portrayed by Bruno Langley
Here’s the scoundrel on the list but before anyone berates him too harshly, how many viewers thought at one time or another that with a time machine I could get bloody wealthy. To the Doctor’s good fortune, he picks truly idealistic companions whose contemplations never seem to stray on the darker side. But as Donna Noble showed us that companions can be more down-to-earth, Adam was proof in “The Long Game” (2005) that a companion can be fueled by basic human emotions like greed. The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) is skeptical of Adam (described as a genius for, among other things, hacking into the US Department of Defense when he was eight-years-old), but Rose Tyler takes an instant liking to the boy wonder and convinces Nine to bring Adam along. His journey is short lived, though. When they arrive at a space station in the year 200,000, he scans a computer for the history of the microprocessor and then, using Rose’s special cell phone, he leaves a message on a 21stcentury answering machine that will make him rich. Nine eventually finds out, and Adam is unceremoniously left behind at home on Earth, as the Doctor tells him, “I only take the best. I got Rose.” Adam Mitchell is an essential character in the show’s history, demonstrating the self-serving motivations a companion might exhibit.
Companion of the Fourth and Fifth Doctors—portrayed by Sarah Sutton
I always felt Nyssa was overshadowed by the charismatic Tegan and the know-it-all Adric, plus she came on the heels of the popular Leela and Sarah Jane Smith by a few short years. But Nyssa was a steady, reliable companion whereas Tegan mocks the Doctor for not finding Heathrow and Adric is a continuing pain regarding every little decision the Time Lord makes. Nyssa is a Trakenite, first seen in 1981’s “The Keeper of Traken,” who’s resourceful in many adventures—in “The Visitation” she constructs a sonic booster that enables their survival. Nyssa says her goodbye in the episode “Terminus” (1983) because her scientific skills are needed to turn a leper hospital, where radiation is chaotically used as a cure, into a functioning facility. In a final emotional scene, her fellow companion worries that Nyssa could die. She replies, “Not easily, Tegan. Like you, I’m indestructible.” Then, in a show of genuine love for the Doctor, she affectionately kisses him goodbye.
Note: Sarah Sutton has continued to occasionally voice Nyssa in audio plays alongside Peter Davison that are produced by Big Finish Productions.
Companion of the Fourth Doctor—portrayed by Ian Marter
Harry was a very popular character from 1974-1975, but I don’t hear as much about him these days compared to other companions from the classic era. Harry traveled with The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and everyone’s beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—poor Harry he continually tried to hit on her, in a courteous way, to no avail. He actually ‘appears’ during the third doctor’s reign when a “Doctor Sullivan” is telephoned but then not needed. Harry’s a gentleman in the oldest English sense of the word and is a nice juxtaposition to the alien and aloof Fourth Doctor, who belittles Harry calling him (in “The Ark in Space”) a “clumsy ham-fisted idiot.” Another classic line from this period is when the Doctor shouts, out of frustration, “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!” Hardly. Four counted on him to fight Sontarans, Daleks, Zygons, Androids, and Cybermen, and during his brief tenure as a regular, he never faltered in the face of overwhelming odds. He is briefly mentioned in The Sarah Jane Adventures (“Death of the Doctor”) with Sarah stating he had a successful medical career.
A Whovian uploaded a Harry Sullivan tribute video to YouTube with backing music of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for Hero.” So very appropriate. Actor Ian Marter died much too young, in 1986, from a heart attack. Rest in peace, Harry.
Companion of the Eighth Doctor—portrayed by Daphne Ashbrook
The 1996 TV film is slowly coming up in stature and a lot of that has to do with Paul McGann’s excellent turn in 2013’s “The Night of the Doctor” (if only he’d had more time on camera because based on his two filmed performances, he would have ranked quite high among outcasts of Gallifrey) and his outstanding Big Finish Productions radio shows. In the Doctor Who movie, Grace is a cardiologist from 1999 San Francisco. She assists in the attempt to save the seventh doctor’s (Sylvester McCoy) life after he’d been shot in the chest while exiting the TARDIS. Seven dies on the operating table and later regenerates in the morgue. It takes some effort for Grace to get used to the fact that Eight is not from this world, but once she does, she is pivotal in preventing The Master (Eric Roberts) from killing the Doctor and destroying the world (and universe). Her professional skills help her keep her cool while rewiring part of the TARDIS to save the day.
Holloway as a companion has been derided in some fan circles because she became the first to romantically lock lips with the time traveler and, of course, that led much later to Rose Tyler and Martha Jones and their romantic infatuations. And she decided not to go with him at the end of the adventure, choosing to stay on Earth and resume her work. Still, with the chips way, way down and the Doctor’s life on the line, Grace Holloway was a first-rate one-time companion.
Those are my top picks for the underrated and forgotten. Who do you consider an essential companion in the series’ long history that could use a spotlight?
David Cranmer is the publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and editor of the recent collections The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories and A Rip Through Time: The Doctor, the Dame, and the Device.