Since the 1996 movie and now with the return of Doctor Who in 2005, it seems the companion is actually making a much better audience identifier. My original concern may be forever waylaid by the creative team behind Doctor Who since its glorious return!
Picking up from the Ninth Doctor’s companions, we’ve already seen how Rose is very strong for audience identification. Her influence on Mickey becomes more pronounced now as he raises the bar to become worthy of the woman he loves. He becomes more identifiable as the series goes on and we learn that he has a grandmother he loves (although before ever fixing her steps, he runs off to France with a guy he just met). But Mickey’s involvement with the Doctor does make him a better person, more confident and more self-aware. And eventually he decided to join the fight, defending the Earth. The payoff for the bravery and the character arc we see him on is that he gets to live with Rose for quite a while before making his way back to our universe. Maybe after not fixing that step, he lost has grandmother again; we may never know. But his transition is a very positive one and we can see the hero’s journey. It’s a good message.
Jack is back with the 10th Doctor and has experienced a lot since their last meeting, but he too has become the hero that he never was prior to meeting the Doctor. We have to rely on what we knew of him before (or from watching Torchwood) to truly know if we can identify with him, but from what we do know, he’s a little hard to relate to in that he’s immortal and dies at least once an episode. Not something we can relate to. But his metamorphosis is impressive enough that I’d concede that the audience can identify with him in that special way that says “the Doctor makes us better people.”
These are all carry-overs from the 9th Doctor. It’s not until we meet Martha and Donna that we get some new blood.
Martha is a medical student. She has a family, albeit somewhat dysfunctional. She’s absolutely relatable as a regular person. When she meets the Doctor, her world expands and she tries to take it in her stride, thinking through the wonders she’s seeing. She continues to grow throughout her time with the Doctor until eventually she proves to grow beyond her need for him. She decides to stay with her family and help them heal rather than be the girl who pines after a man who seems never to notice her. In every way, Martha proves to be relatable and a good role model. Message to all the fans, boys and girls alike: find yourself, find your own identity. Don’t live in the shadow of someone who doesn’t notice you! A good message! (Martha proves her worth and then spends some time working for Torchwood!)
Donna is another story altogether. Donna is like many people: she’s self-centered, the rest of the world doesn’t matter, and she’s petty and lives a petty little life. She is a difficult woman to put up with. Her family life is far from perfect. Her mother is domineering and smug. Her grandfather is one of those amazing grandfathers that we hopefully all have or had. (I did!) She is someone we can all relate to. Then she meets the Doctor and he makes her so much more. She grows and learns and just becomes something so much better than where she started. She offers a stark contrast to how she started out and it’s never more apparent than in her final story of season 4. Donna is one of the most authentic audience identifiers the series has produced and she works well as a message for all: no matter what baggage we carry, we can choose to be better!
Tennant had a handful of brief encounters unlike most other Doctors. Let’s take a quick look at them:
Astrid Peth works on a cruise ship and wants to travel. Relatable, certainly. She meets the Doctor and sees something so special in him, she gives up her life to save him. She’s a solid audience identifier, but there’s an underlying theme that not everyone is made better when meeting the Doctor. Another who suffers the same fate is Adelaide Brooke. She’s an austere commander of a mission to Mars. She’s a little too controlled to be relatable, and her interaction with the Doctor also leads to her death. Both she and Astrid die by suicide, though arguably Astrid was not planning on dying, she merely accepted it as the only way to save the Doctor. For Adelaide, this is when the Doctor loses his own moral compass and tries to dominate Time, so perhaps Adelaide is not to blame completely; she just fails to understand Time.
Christina de Souza is a cat burglar and comes with the title of Lady. Again, not particularly relatable. She does go above and beyond for the Doctor, but how much of that is out of necessity and how much based on the Doctor’s influence? I’d argue the former motivates her and it’s why the Doctor does not accept her as a companion. The underlying message could be that being out for yourself is not a quality worthy of traveling with the Doctor, no matter how much you do along the way. Much like Adam’s expulsion, in fact.
Jackson Lake is a man who lost his family and his memory. He is suffering the emotional stress of losing his wife and child. Hopefully, very few of us can relate to that, but it’s something that does happen. His involvement with the Doctor brings back his memory, his son and his hope for a better future. At least one of those brief encounters turns out very positively (which is why I went out of order for them). He does not leave to travel with the Doctor but now has his son back, which is victory enough for him.
So it does appear that the rebooted Doctor Who has taken the companion to a new level and given meaning to Audience Identification. But we’ll still jump into Smith’s era next and see if that holds up. ML