(I couldn’t find a decent trailer of the documentary, so here’s a Chameleon Circuit song for you instead.)
So in leading up to the seventh season of Doctor Who (the seventh season since the revamped version in 2005; also see Doctor Who series re. timey-wimey terminology) BBC America’s doing a bunch of documentaries highlighting the different aspects of New Who. So far, they’re released two: The Science Behind and The Women of Doctor Who, respectively.
There’s this quote floating around in my mind, though I can’t remember who initially said it, but basically, to paraphrase, “Doctor Who has always been the story of the companion.” And to a certain extent, that was the reason behind the inclusion of a companion in DW: to provide an audience stand-in and ground the show even as it was exploring the whole of time and space. Whether it’s Susan or Leela or Adric or Ace in Classic Who or it was Rose or Martha or Donna or Amy in New Who, it’s always been about the adventures during their stay on the TARDIS. We rarely see the Doctor travel on his own, and the times when we do, it usually ends rather disastrously (see “Waters of Mars”).
And let’s face it, most of the companions have always been women. Say what you want about it, but I always thought it was a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, i.e. when the women were included, people complained; when they weren’t included, people complained. To me, it’s just, hey, the Doctor likes pretty women who never act like the damsels in distress, and to me, this speaks volumes about the capabilities of these companions rather than anything else.
Anyway, so the documentary focuses on the women of New Who: from Rose to Amy, from Idris to Sarah Jane to River, and even the main “villainess” of the series: Yvonne Hartman and Lady Cassandra. And it’s interesting, because once you line them all up and explore the roles of these women, it becomes very clear that the core of Doctor Who is always the narrative of the companion. It’s how they grow and change and leave the TARDIS and the Doctor and be their own persons - whether willingly or unwillingly. And this is part of the audience’s emotional investment as well: because you see why the Doctor chose these people as his companions, why they were given a spot on the TARDIS and a copy of the key. You understand why Rose was chosen, why Martha earned her place, why Donna was given a second chance to come onboard, why Amy waited. Because if you were given an opportunity to see the whole of time and space, why would you even hesitate?
But like what the documentary also tried to point out was the role of women in science fiction television, and how DW gave us a chance to see these women as capable and brave and oh-so-human, and how they formed part of the foundation that pushed for a heroine and not just a hero. There’s a sense of equality there - she is no longer an “assistant” to the Doctor, but a companion. There’s a sense that it’s all on equal ground, that the companion is no less important than the Doctor. And while it skimmed on the surface — after all, it was only shy of an hour’s worth of programming — it also delivered an unequivocally clear message: the women of Who matter. They are important. They are written into the story to provide commentary or critique of the Doctor and his actions or his decisions.
An aside: as an observation, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot more emotional weight in RTD’s companions than in SM’s companions. Like, I teared up when they were replaying clips from Bad Wolf Bay and when Donna lost her memories; while I appreciate Amy as a shiny, pretty thing, I still have trouble following her journey. (And I do not like River.) You could see how Martha Jones was strong enough to walk away from what was becoming a toxic relationship with the Doctor; contrast that with Amy, who was characterized as “the groupie” in one of the interviews in the documentary, and to a certain extent, kept on returning to the Doctor even though he left her and Rory on Earth before they were hurt. I think this speaks more of the way each show runner characterizes the companion and what they mean, and of how they handle the show.
Another aside: (and I am having trouble articulating this) whenever someone — usually a dude — says that their favorite companion is Amy Pond because she’s pretty, it’s a disservice both to Amy and to previous companions. Like, Amy has her moments, and I don’t think the Doctor chose her just because she’s beautiful, because all of the companions are beautiful in their own way. I mean, sure she’s aesthetically pleasing and the mini-skirts and leggings certainly help her cause, but she’s not just on the TARDIS because she has a pretty face. And this kind of reductionist thinking goes against the whole point of Doctor Who: that in all the histories of all the worlds the Doctor’s ever seen, he’s never met anyone who was not important or special in their own way. And to reduce Amy to just another pretty face is to do a disservice not just to all the companions but to the Doctor himself. So give me a better reason than that - tell me you like Amy because she’s brave and she’s fearless and she’s capable of surviving on her own (see “The Girl Who Waited”) or because of the strength of her faith in the Doctor (see “The God Complex”). But not just because she’s beautiful — because they all are.
At any rate, it became clear to me, as a fan, why the show is important. And it’s not just because it’s about time travel and adventure and crazy-ass stories about a madman in a box. It shows us that the possibilities are endless. It shows us, to quote Craig Ferguson, that “it’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” And in an increasingly gendered world, where binary opposites are becoming more and more fluid and at the same time, enforced, Doctor Who shows us that you — whoever or whatever you are — are important, because your presence has an impact in the universe, and that the universe would be a little bit poorer and a lot sadder if you weren’t in it.