Doctor Who is returning this Saturday, April 15th, with its 10th season and a brand new companion: Bill Potts. Given the occasion, we take a look at the role of companions in Doctor Who, what they mean to the story, and especially to the audience.
It is not uncommon for main characters of fictional stories to be written as self-insert characters. A self-insert could be described as an idealized character for the author (and the audience) to self-insert as by imagining themselves in the character’s situation. They are also commonly referred to as Mary Sues or Gary Stus. Generally speaking, these are the type of characters we all aspire to be like. It’s not only their appearance and attitude that are idealized, but also their circumstances, their actions, and the role they play in the story.
In the case of Doctor Who, this role doesn’t necessarily fall on the protagonist, but on the deuteragonists: the companions. In the series, companions are human beings who have a thirst for adventure and are actively looking for escapism. Since one of the reasons why people get invested in fiction is also escapism, it could be said that both companions and viewers are looking for the same thing: to break from the routine and live a different experience. In the case of companions, that experience takes the form of leaving everything behind to go on an adventure – sometimes without the commitment! You can go visit other planets and stay there for weeks, and yet come back at the same time you left. Who wouldn’t want that?
On the other hand, the Doctor could hardly be considered a self-insert. For starters, most of the Doctor’s identity is still an enigma, and relating to a mysterious alien is not as easy (unless you identify as an alien, of course). Furthermore, the Doctor usually plays the role of being someone to admire and look up to (or to look forward to). In fact, hoping to hear the TARDIS noise outside your window could be compared to waiting for your Hogwarts letter to arrive. It shows in a young Amelia Pond waiting for the TARDIS to come back, or in Donna actively looking for the Doctor in the Adipose episode. Being a companion is a possibility that we have all at least considered at some point.
Just like the Doctor changing appearance with each regeneration, companions also change now and then. Counting only New Who (2005-), there have been five companions: Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, Amy Pond, and Clara Oswald (and that’s not counting other occasional ones like Captain Jack Harness, or Rory Williams). Each one of these companions had a different lifestyle, a different personality, and a different way of traveling with the Doctor. The fact that their experiences are so diverse is what makes these characters even more self-insert material. Some fell for the Doctor; others would have none of his alien BS. At the same time, all of them influenced the Doctor in one way or another. And contrary to popular belief, these companions are rarely ever portrayed as Mary Sues. As a matter of fact, what makes them so appealing is that, like humans, they are flawed. It’s not that they deserve to fly on the TARDIS because they happened to be special: everyone is extraordinary in their own way, and everyone equally deserves to join the Doctor.
And that is why we are so excited to be getting a brand new companion! Series 10 will be welcoming Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie. (S10 mild spoilers ahead): So far, some of the things that we already know about Bill is that she’s a lesbian (first queer companion!), she knows her sci-fi references, and she’s an adventurer. Out of all the companions, she has been compared to Rose Tyler for her thirst for adventure. On the matter of companions being relatable to viewers, Mackie recently stated:
“What it boils down to is that Bill is a real person and very relatable. She gets things wrong, everything is not happy-clappy all the time. It makes her accessible and that helps to make the world of Doctor Who accessible to potentially new viewers, because you see this magical world through the eyes of this girl who is very down to earth and is very grounded in reality.” (source)