A common criticism of Doctor Who since 2005 has been that it is a “soap opera”, which is shorthand really for the inclusion of some powerful emotional scenes. For fans who like their Doctor Who to be pure sci-fi, all spaceships and villains, this is a bad thing. But Doctor Who has always been a series that tugs on the heartstrings from time to time, albeit at a lesser frequency during the classic run. Let’s set aside the revived series of Doctor Who for now (after all, we could find strong emotional moments in just about every episode) and take a look at the big tear-jerker moments in the classic run of Doctor Who, which are often all the more powerful for their rarity.
Funnily enough, the Hartnell era was probably the strongest at showing emotional dramas, most commonly in the departure of companions. This took on a special significance for the First Doctor. His original companion was his granddaughter so it was a big deal to travel on without her. The strongest emotional beat is not his farewell speech, which is tainted by the fact that he is chucking her out, but that quiet moment at the start of The Rescue when the Doctor asks Susan for help, forgetting for a moment that she is gone. The same story introduces Vicki, a friendless orphan whose pet gets brutally murdered by brutal Barbara.
Then losing Ian and Barbara was also a bitter pill to swallow, as they had been the Doctor’s first true friends on his travels, and had also helped him to grow beyond his selfish head-bashing origins. Similarly, Vicki taught him to be a thrill-seeking anarchist in space, so her departure was also a major one. Then after suffering endless defeats and the death of three short-term companions (Katarina, Bret and Sara), the Doctor gets defeated again in The Massacre and Steven walks out on him.
Now they’re all gone. All gone. None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan, or Vicki. And as for Barbara and Chatterton. Chesterton. They were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now, Steven. Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can’t. I can’t.
This was the tragedy of the First Doctor. He had a couple of stable years with long-term friends, and then was suddenly hit with a rotating door of friends who never stuck around for long. Dodo didn’t even bother to say goodbye.
As the classic series progressed the departure of companions became a little more of a routine thing, and those moments didn’t tend to linger on the emotional aspects. For example, Harry, Leela, Romana, Turlough, Mel: their departures don’t exactly go unacknowledged, but they are over and done with in the blink of an eye. The stronger ones are where there is some undertone of unrequited love: Jamie’s misery when Victoria leaves, after plenty of hints that he had feelings for her; the loss of Jamie after science-fiction’s greatest ever bromance; Jo going off to marry a younger version of the Doctor; even Sarah Jane, a moment that gets retconned later when we find out that she stayed single because nothing could compete with her time with the Doctor.
Then there are the other companion deaths, highlighted by the reactions of Nyssa and Tegan, in the case of Adric, and the Doctor, in the case of Peri. Even crueller than death in many ways is the memory wiping of Jamie and Zoe, and for long-term viewers the moment where they turn up again in the Death Zone, only to turn out to be phantoms.
Apart from their departures, the companions sometimes have to go through some big emotional stuff while they travel with the Doctor. There is a running theme of companions who start out as orphans, or separated from their own people in some way. Before the days where the companion’s reason for travelling with the Doctor was because he’s the Doctor in the TARDIS and that’s amazing and who wouldn’t, the Doctor tended to pick up waifs and strays and basically adopt them. Vicki is an orphan, Steven is rescued from prison, Dodo has an aunt and that seems to be about it, poor Victoria suffers the death of her father and then ends up finding an adoptive family. Her status as somebody who has seen her father killed isn’t forgotten after her first story, either, as is often the way with tragic figures in Doctor Who. In The Tomb of the Cybermen we get this touching moment:
DOCTOR: You miss him very much, don’t you?
VICTORIA: It’s only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man, I shall never forget him. Never.
Nyssa has a similar arc, but turned up to eleven, with her father killed and then the Doctor’s arch-enemy strolling around in his body. Other misfits and orphans who end up with the Doctor are Zoe, Leela, Adric, Turlough and Ace. Of course, by the time we get to Ace we are finally getting to something approaching post-2005 mature storytelling, and she goes through a rollercoaster character arc, manipulated by the Doctor and having to face her childhood fears and come to terms with her broken relationship with her mother.
Doctor Who can’t fail to pack a punch when it comes to tragedy, with the Doctor himself dying every few years. The Third Doctor’s regeneration is played with powerful emotion for the first time, with Sarah Jane in tears, and this is foreshadowed in The Monster of Peladon. Then from the Fourth Doctor onwards, right into the new series, the regenerations tend to be moments of thinking back to all the Doctor’s friendships.
And there are plenty of tragic deaths of supporting characters throughout the classic series, such as Binro in The Ribos Operation, following on from his heretical beliefs being validated for the first time in his life, and Doctor Who can even make the deaths of robots (D84 in The Robots of Death, the giant robot in Robot) or “monsters” such as Sandy in The Rescue or Aggedor in The Monster of Peladon, big tear-jerking moments.
But perhaps the most emotional moment in the whole of the classic run was the one that only took on special significance in retrospect and doesn’t hit so hard nowadays as it used to, now that Doctor Who is firmly back as part of the television landscape. We might not have known it at the time, but this was the moment where it all ended, and we would have a long time to wait:
There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.