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The Biggest Problem With Doctor Who Companions Isn't What You Think

One of the main themes of Doctor Who, the long-running British sci-fi series chronicling the heroic adventures of the time-traveling alien known simply as the Doctor, is reinvention. The central character is able to regenerate at the end of each life, which has allowed the show to not only run for more than half a century (albeit with a break between the classic series and the 2005 revival) as new actors stepped into the role, but also reinvent itself in the process. In addition to a new Doctor, a new TARDIS set, and sometimes even a new tone, the show also has a revolving door of companions — human friends who tag along on adventures through time and space and assist the Doctor in saving the day.

Since the show was revived in 2005 by Russell T. Davies there have been several companions — Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) all accompanied the Ninth (Christopher Eccleston), Tenth (David Tennant), Eleventh (Matt Smith), and Twelfth Doctors (Peter Capaldi) on their journeys. Sometimes friends and family also accompanied them, like when Rose's friend Mickey (Noel Clarke) traveled with the duo for a little while, or when Rory (Arthur Darvill), Amy's husband, eventually became a permanent fixture in the TARDIS. Other times, characters who popped up during the Doctor's travels became secondary companions, like Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). But most of the time there has only ever been one "official" companion.

That all changed in season 11 when Jodie Whittaker took over the role of the Doctor and Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner from Steven Moffat, who had been with the show since it was first revived. Chibnall introduced three companions for the Thirteenth Doctor — Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), and Graham O'Brien (Bradley Walsh). Unfortunately, it proved to be too much.

Three companions was too many for Doctor Who to handle

Companions don't always change when a new actor takes over the role of the Doctor — Rose was a companion to both Eccleston and Tennant's Doctors, while Clara was a companion to both Smith's and Capaldi's. There are likely numerous reasons for this, with actors' contracts being the biggest and most likely culprit. But there is another reason as well, and it's stability. After all, it's not easy to reinvent a show over and over and over again. While there is a pattern the show follows each time it resets and introduces a new actor as the Doctor, by maintaining one or more characters during this period of transition, the show is able to remain familiar and fairly stable. It also means there's only one new character to develop at a time.

Now, that's not to say the revival of Doctor Who, known amongst fans as NuWho, has never successfully introduced a new Doctor and a new companion at the same time before. Season 5 introduced fans to both the Eleventh Doctor and Amy while Moffat took over behind the scenes. It was a complete overhaul over the show, and it was wildly successful, with Doctor Who finally becoming popular in the United States during their time in the TARDIS. But the same cannot be said for season 11's creative overhaul. With four new characters to introduce and develop at the same time, and with a new showrunner in place behind the scenes, the series lagged in the core development of Yaz, Ryan, and Graham as it attempted to welcome the first female Doctor in Doctor Who history. Halfway through that season viewers still knew quite little about the people who had signed up to travel with the Doctor. It's not like there wasn't potential either. Graham and Ryan had both lost someone close to them, and grief is a powerful story engine, but the series took a long time to explore their emotional development.

What this means for season 13 of Doctor Who

In the end, three companions proved to be too many for Doctor Who. The writers were not able to service their individual stories the same way they were when it was just the Doctor and one official companion and their occasional friends aboard the TARDIS. With Graham and Ryan having departed the series in the 2021 New Year's Day special, Doctor Who fans were hoping that this would open the door to more fully explore Yaz as a person, as well as her relationship with the Doctor. Unfortunately, that line of thinking hit another snag when it was announced the show was introducing another companion in season 13.

John Bishop has joined Doctor Who as Dan, which means that the series will once again be undergoing a period of reinvention as it introduces him, his story, and how he fits into the ongoing narrative. Hopefully the writers do a much better job this time around. Working in their favor is the fact that after two full seasons, we do have a good idea of who the Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz are, even if we still believe they could have benefited from more one-on-one time. With only one new character to introduce and develop at this time, hopefully things will go much smoother.

Doctor Who will return for season 13 later in 2021.