I've been trying to catch up on Doctor Who lately. More specifically, "nuWho," the series starting with the 9th Doctor. Currently, I've finished Season 4. So note that this post will contain spoilers for events through where I am. If you don't want Doctor Who spoiled, turn back now.
Moving on. Doctor Who was a show that kind of had to grow on me. And it's also a show that changes. It's got a small core cast that keeps changing--even the protagonist himself, thanks to regeneration. So how do the first three "companions" I've encountered hold up? What do I think of them so far? Well...I'm going to tell you. Right now.
Don't you just love awkward transitions?
Anyway, Rose Tyler was a character who had to grow on me, much like the show itself. For me, there were no "previous companions." There was Rose. I got what I got, and she was sort of just the standard. However, Rose got some good development. She went from being some woman tagging along with the Doctor to, well, his companion. As time went on, she was able to hold her own more and more alongside the Doctor, and their relationship developed gradually from "we're not together; why does everyone keep saying that?" to clear implications of love that went unspoken.
I remember enjoying her as a character at the time, but when she came back in Season 4, I have to admit that I found her kind of bland. That's probably because Rose was the one character who's almost a necessity in science fiction and fantasy: the one who's ignorant of the larger world. The audience surrogate. I find her kind of bland in retrospect because she exists to introduce the audience to the world of Doctor Who. She asks the questions we need answers for. She stands there with us in awe and wonder at the world we don't understand. As an audience, we need to be able to identify with her, so she can't stand out too much. So for two seasons, I liked her just because she was a blank slate that I could identify with even though she was British and female.
Then Rose got stuck in an alternate universe and the Doctor had to find a new companion. And the one he chose was Martha Jones. Now, Martha's the real reason I'm writing this. Because I thought Martha was a terrible character and I was stunned when I found out she had a sizable fandom. I watched a few of her episodes with my best friend and some of his friends, and when I asked how much longer until Martha was gone, they all agreed that the answer was "too long."
So what makes Martha so much weaker of a character than Rose? Well, for starters, she doesn't much do anything. Rose soon became a competent aide to the Doctor, and had several characters who emphasized her competence. Mickey, Jack Harkness, Jackie...all people who Rose could either outperform or hold her own with. And none of these characters were particularly useless either (Jackie, despite her nagging, managed to successfully help the Doctor a few times). Compare that to Martha. Martha really doesn't do much throughout most of her season. In fact, in "42," when there's a situation where it looks like she'll be useful (bypassing a lock with Earth trivia from her relative time era), she opts instead to call her mother and make her do it instead. Martha's family, incidentally, is portrayed as largely incompetent. They throw a spanner into the situation more than they ever do anything to resolve it. So to see Martha relying on these incompetent characters only serves to make her look more incompetent. What's more, we later see a competent side character in "Blink," but Martha barely even appears in that episode so instead of watching Martha play off of someone else, the audience just gets to say "hey, someone other than the Doctor is actually doing something for once!"
What's more, by all means, Martha should be a strong character. After all, she's a medical student, and doctors are some of the most competent people there are, aren't they? I mean, she's aiding a Doctor herself! But no, instead of making use of her talents, they use it as a reason to make her a haughty character. Rose would get indignant about people's period-based opinions on occasion, but Martha gets far more indignant. It seems like every episode sees her saying something along the lines of "a black woman can too be a doctor!" While she's well within her rights to be upset, she shows a complete inability to shrug it off, expecting the people of the time period to conform to her ideals instantly, and her insistence on her rights are slightly offset by her actions, or lack thereof. While it's fine (and even wise) to portray a competent black woman, it's unwise to have said black woman preach be a mouthpiece about it and simultaneously not do anything of particular value. Martha is a character is a character who chooses words over actions. She's not even a character who chooses to act with words, just someone who will say but not do.
Finally, there's her relationship with the Doctor. While Rose's relationship with him developed naturally, Martha instantly and immediately loves him. While this isn't bad itself, it's written incredibly poorly. Martha doesn't care that Rose's disappearance hit him hard. She just expects him to fall in love with her. While unrequited love can be a sad and tragic plot device (and one of my favorite series actually focuses heavily on it), it doesn't work for one reason: Martha feels entitled. While I certainly won't begrudge her wishing that the Doctor would love her back, it comes to a head in the episodes where the Doctor temporarily gives up his memories and becomes human. I lost any respect for Martha that she had built up with a single line: "You had to, didn't you? Had to go and fall in love with a human. And it wasn't me."
Martha, with this line, reveals that she doesn't care about the hurt the Doctor will cause for the woman he fell in love with. How much hurt he'll cause for himself. How complicated it will make things when he needs to become the Doctor again. She only cares about how she feels. She's the one who's hurt. She's the one who deserves to have the Doctor fall in love with her. Think about how people would react if their genders were reversed: people would be enraged that a man would be so entitled to think that he deserves to have the woman he has a crush on to fall in love with him. People blast into "nice guys" (note that this phrase is used to refer not to legitimately nice guys but to guys who feel that they're entitled to more than friendship just because they're not dicks) all the time. So talking about Martha's feelings for the Doctor as "tragic" is kind of a double standard.
The worst part of this is that this is the point where Martha goes from tagger-along to someone who actually does something. She should be gaining respect, not losing it. But no, her selfishness loses any respect she gains. Fortunately, she does turn things around in her last few episodes, and I was actually happy to see why she left: she realized that the Doctor wasn't going to fall in love with her and that it was unhealthy for her to stay around someone who would never return her feelings (a fact that she had been obnixiously blind to all season). I'm not making a "I'm glad to see her go" joke. I was legitimately happy that she was maturing as a character. It was only at this point that I truly warmed up to Martha a bit. She made a few more appearances, in which she finally had a few characters who complemented her well. Somewhat ironic: it was only after she was demoted to a supporting character that she got the chance (in my eyes) to finally shine.
With Martha out of the way, let's look at Donna Noble, who's probably my favorite of the 10th Doctor's companions. So what made Donna my favorite of the three? Well, admittedly, I didn't like her that much in her first appearance. Sure, she was decent as a bumbling comic relief character, but nothing special. But then she showed up again after Martha left. Maybe the first thing that endeared Donna to me was that she instantly did something that I felt Martha didn't: get things done. Her very first appearance, she was looking into the exact same thing the Doctor was, completely independently of him, without his arsenal of tools. She consequently introduces herself as a character who is not only competent, but who can hold her own with the Doctor. This is an incredible accomplishment, but she continues to be a fairly strong character throughout. Instead of a medical student like Martha was, she was merely a temp. However, those skills came in handy several times, like when she found out what was amiss by checking records or identified a series of numbers as a calender.
Finally, I liked Donna because they did something different with her relationship with the Doctor. See, after watching Rose and the Doctor become an item and Martha drowning in unrequited love, it was really refreshing to see both Donna and the Doctor insist on keeping their relationship professional. Donna wasn't after the Doctor. She was after the adventure. And sure, the producers teased some romance between them at times, but that's all it was: teasing. It was clear that nothing was actually going on. Donna's role was to be "one of the guys." That's what the Doctor needed most at that point. He needed company--rather, a companion. He needed someone to keep him stable. So as a companion (and in my opinion, a character), she was definitely the best of the three.
I know that a lot of people don't like Donna because they think that she was annoying. I probably can't argue that. She could be pretty damn annoying at times, and people who aren't able to look past or her abrasive nature probably won't like her. But Donna was what, in my opinion, what a companion should be. Not a sidekick or a love interest. A partner. She wasn't afraid to call the Doctor on what he said or did. She had the audacity to attempt to stand as his equal instead of just following him around, even when she lacked the experience to do so. That's why, in my opinion, we ended up with the Doctor-Donna instead of the Doctor-Rose or the Doctor-Martha. The other two wouldn't have worked, because Donna was, from her second introduction, like the Doctor. Rose and Martha were decent as foils for him, but Donna was he only one who I really think shared his ingenuity and attitude.
Sadly, from what I can tell, the arcs of these three characters have ended. We're not going to be seeing more of them. Maybe I'll put up a post about Amy, Rory, and River Song (and any other companions that might show up during Season 5 and 6 that I don't know about) and/or one comparing the S1-4 companions to the S5-6 ones.