Martha: Superior Second Best

marthaCompanion Tropes 29

Martha Jones becomes the Doctor’s new companion at a particularly difficult time.  There had been gentle hints at romances for the Doctor in the past, including a one-off kiss with Grace, but something very different had just happened.  Although he never quite said the words, the Doctor was clearly in love with Rose, and had just lost her.  Added to that, Rose was the first new companion since Doctor Who returned in 2005, she had been around for two whole seasons and a Christmas special, and was enormously popular with the viewing public.  It is not exaggerating to say that her popularity came close to eclipsing that of the Doctor himself.  Following in her footsteps was always going to be a near-impossible task, and that task fell to Martha Jones.

The first thing to notice is this: as potential companion material, Martha is apparently superior to Rose in every way, and by that I mean how useful she is to the Doctor as a person to have around.  We could imagine a scale of usefulness that has the likes of Dodo and Victoria at one end, and hyper-intelligent Zoe and Romana at the other.  Rose has no special abilities or qualifications (apart from gymnastics), so theoretically she belongs in Dodo Land on that scale.  Martha, on the other hand, is a doctor and is highly intelligent and resourceful.  She’s not quite Romana-level brilliance, but she’s certainly rubbing shoulders with Scientist Liz and Computer Expert Mel (probably somewhere between those two).  And the Doctor recognises it straight away.  One of his first lines when he meets Martha is to recognise her brilliance:

Very good point. Brilliant, in fact. What was your name?

But when it comes to the time for Martha to join the Doctor in his travels, he is guarded.  He makes her only a sort of half-companion, while he continues to pine for Rose:

MARTHA: Where is she now?
DOCTOR: With her family. Happy. She’s fine. She’s. Not that you’re replacing her.
MARTHA: Never said I was.
DOCTOR: Just one trip to say thanks. You get one trip, then back home. I’d rather be on my own.

This is a problem that festers for a while, and it is not until the end of The Lazarus Experiment that Martha is finally accepted as a full companion, after he first offers her “one more trip”, something she refuses to agree to.  Even worse for Martha, she clearly fancies the Doctor, and it is entirely one-sided.  That scene on the bed in The Shakespeare Code is gut-wrenchingly sad, with Martha trying to flirt, while the Doctor just compares her unfavourably to Rose and tells Martha he’s going to ditch her soon:

MARTHA: Budge up a bit, then. Sorry, there’s not much room. Us two here, same bed. Tongues will wag.
DOCTOR: There’s such a thing as psychic energy, but a human couldn’t channel it like that. Not without a generator the size of Taunton and I think we’d have spotted that. No, there’s something I’m missing, Martha. Something really close, staring me right in the face and I can’t see it. Rose’d know. A friend of mine, Rose. Right now, she’d say exactly the right thing. Still, can’t be helped. You’re a novice, never mind. I’ll take you back home tomorrow.
MARTHA: Great.

I would argue that all this is not the best writing in the world.  Yes, it plays very effectively on the emotions, but it also paints the Doctor in a very harsh light.  He’s cold, and he’s mean, and it’s hard to believe that a man who has lived for so long doesn’t actually understand her feelings in that moment, and isn’t just wilfully stomping all over them.

So Martha is a superior second-best.  When we identify what kind of character we are seeing in a drama, the next useful thing to do is ask why.  What is the point of all this?  It is a question you will have read several times before if you have been following this series of articles, and we are going to keep asking why.  So why is Martha Jones the superior second-best?  What is the point of this kind of character?

The rules of good writing dictate that a character needs to have a character arc, and this kind of character offers an opportunity for her to rise above her second-best status, and prove her worth.  Martha certainly does this, in the most epic way imaginable, travelling the Earth and turning the name of the Doctor into a legend in order to save him.  It is an extraordinary achievement.  She then becomes a key member of UNIT, after she leaves the Doctor.  But in one very important respect, she never rises above second-best status: romance.  She never wins the Doctor’s heart.  Eventually she has to watch while the Doctor gets Rose back, and then Rose is the one who gets to live her life with human/Doctor.  Martha is never anything other than the runner-up.

The excellent website “TV Tropes” has a page on “Romantic Runner-up”, and I will quote directly from there an important point about this kind of character:

The reason this character shows up so often in stories is likely to make a statement about the mysterious ways of love and about how the chemistry between two people is something that cannot be predicted. This message is a little undercut by the fact that certain people seem to be exactly the type to be cast as second-runner in a romance. Perhaps the chemistry is not so mysterious, after all.

I’ll leave that hanging there.  “Certain people” get cast as the romantic loser.

For all the positive vibes about Martha Jones being the “first black companion”, as the papers kept saying at the time (she isn’t, by the way – that would be Mickey, whom she clumsily gets married off to in the end), her status as second-best and romantic loser to Rose, despite being utterly brilliant in just about every way, is something that is open to a particularly troubling interpretation.  I don’t think for one minute it was deliberate, but the best we can say is that the Doctor’s rejection of Martha, hot on the heels of his loving devotion to Rose, stands as a slightly uncomfortable moment in the history of Doctor Who.  Superior?  Maybe.  Second best?  Never.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Companion Tropes, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Science Fiction, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Martha: Superior Second Best

  1. DrAcrossthePond says:

    Not only could I not agree more, but I feel exactly as you do about it. And it’s unfortunate, to say the least! ML

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      Martha, in the wake of Rose, had certainly proved that all the 10th Doctor’s leading ladies in some sense would gradually influence his moral delicacy. So much so that his sidekick for The End Of Time wouldn’t be a leading lady, but the heart-of-gold of Wilfred Mott which (in the sense of male-bonding between male Doctors and male companions) proved to be consequently more appropriate than how the 9th Doctor made his sacrifice out of his love for Rose. Freema deserves great credit for that and so I totally agree that she was never second-best in any sense.

      Thank you, RP, and thank you, Freema. You were also very integral to Law & Order UK.

      Liked by 1 person

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