Doctor Who got a severe revamp when it crossed into the 1970s. There was a new lead actor, Jon Pertwee; the show was in color for the first time; and, due to budget concerns, he had been exiled to Earth for the foreseeable future, working with the military organization UNIT, or United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. It also severely cut down the number of companions, something that would more or less continue throughout the decade until the early 80s. The companion makeup during this period is largely responsible for modern Doctor Who’s formula of having a single, young, pretty female companion, someone “for the dads.” They became much more like assistants. There are also, mainly during Pertwee’s tenure, characters whose companion status is hotly debated.
Played by Nicholas Courtney
Let’s jump right into the controversy – Is the Brigadier a companion? He initially appeared as Col. Lethbridge-Stewart in the Patrick Troughton story “The Web of Fear,” fighting the Yeti in the London subway and then, in the following year’s The Invasion, promoted to his current rank as head of UNIT to fight the Cybermen. When the Doctor was exiled to Earth, it was decided that he should work alongside UNIT protecting the planet from all manner of bad stuff. The Doctor and the Brigadier had an adversarial respect for one another, with the Brig usually choosing to resort to military action while the Doctor would choose the more enlightened, diplomatic approach. As the stories progressed, the two developed a bit of Sherlock and Watson dynamic with the Brig’s stuffy demeanor usually made the butt of the irreverent Doctor’s jokes. Despite the differences in approach, the two were firm allies and friends and the Brigadier was present during his regeneration into the Fourth Doctor. What makes the Brigadier’s companion status tricky is that he isn’t beholden to the Doctor’s whims the way his female assistants often were, as well as the fact that, aside from a brief jaunt during “The Three Doctors” (and his two guest appearances in the ’80s), he never traveled in the TARDIS, being firmly an Earthbound defender. If traveling in the TARDIS is a prerequisite for companionship, then the next character isn’t one either.
DR. ELIZABETH “LIZ” SHAW
Played by Caroline John
The Doctor’s first assistant during his exile and work with UNIT was Liz Shaw, a scientist fresh out of the University of Cambridge drafted to become UNIT’s scientific advisor. She had great knowledge of both physics and medicine and could generally comprehend most of the alien activities she faced. She faced Autons, Silurians, and flesh-melting Martians as well as helping to prevent the complete destruction of Earth by a drilling expedition. Throughout, Liz proved both smart and capable, often delivering a wry retort to both the Doctor and the Brig and keeping the two from beating each other up. Due to the Doctor’s TARDIS being unable to fly, she never went anywhere in time and space, and didn’t even set foot inside of it to see its bigger-on-the-insideness. Season 7, the only season featuring Liz, is largely considered one of, if not the, very best seasons in all of classic Who, and Liz is a big part of that. However, the production team believed she was too smart and capable, and therefore wasn’t asking “What’s that, Doctor?” enough so the kids at home could learn what was happening. And so, unceremoniously, Liz was written out before Season 8 even began.
Played by Katy Manning
First appearing in “Terror of the Autons,” which also introduced the Master, Jo and the Doctor did not start off on the right foot. This was during the time when the Doctor was angry at everybody all the time, of course. She had been assigned to replace Liz as the Doctor’s lab assistant because her uncle was some high-ranking official somewhere. Nepotism is a good way to endear us to her for sure. She’s very green, bubbly, and somewhat out of her depth; however, she soon forms a very strong bond with the Doctor. She’s smart, in her own way, and is certainly one of the most compassionate companions ever. She had a good rapport with the UNIT chaps and was every bit a part of the team. Jo is a bit of a divisive figure on the show, as she sat right between two of the strongest female companions ever and comes across as flighty, screamy, and overall damsel-y. During her final story, “The Green Death,” Jo meets a young Welsh environmentalist named Dr. Clifford Jones, falls in love, gets engaged, and agrees to accompany him to the Amazon. The Doctor is very saddened by this, and the final scene of the serial is the Doctor leaving her engagement party by himself and driving off alone in his car, Bessie.
SGT. BENTON & CAPT. MIKE YATES
Played by John Levene and Richard Franklin
14 and 9 Stories, respectively
Now, if the Brig isn’t a real companion, then these two definitely aren’t; still, I thought I’d mention them. Benton first appeared in The Invasion and then came on as a regular halfway through Season 7. He was goofy and screwed up quite a bit, but was still a stalwart soldier and a brave comrade of the Doctor. Mike Yates joined the show during “Terror of the Autons” as the Brigadier’s second in command. He was a fairly nondescript character, making the odd joke here or there and carrying out and giving orders efficiently. He was heroic and was a somewhat romantic character, having a bit of a flirt with Jo and even asking her out once, though we never know if they do go out, since she gets taken along with the Doctor to Peladon (“The Curse of Peladon”) before she can. Mike has an interesting fall from grace, as he gets brainwashed during “The Green Death” and then takes up with a mad scientist who wants to revert the Earth to a new “golden age” in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” at the end of which he is removed from UNIT. He returned in Jon Pertwee’s final story “Planet of the Spiders” and redeems himself, helping the Doctor foil the plot of the fiendish alien spiders.
SARAH JANE SMITH
Played by Elisabeth Sladen
The longest-serving companion in terms of years, Sarah Jane was an investigative journalist who first met the Doctor while pretending to be her Aunt Lavinia, a famous virologist, to get into a top secret government project. She stows away aboard the TARDIS as the Doctor tries to discover the source of temporal anomalies and is taken back to medieval times and meets a Sontaran (“The Time Warrior”). Sarah Jane is introduced as an ardent feminist who is always taking a stand against sex-based impropriety, though that does soften somewhat as she goes along. She traveled with the Third Doctor for a whole season and was present, along with the Brigadier, for his regeneration at the end of “Planet of the Spiders.” She then goes off with the Fourth Doctor for another two and a bit seasons, forming one of the best loved Doctor/companion pairings of all time. Sarah Jane was always brave and kind and stood by the Time Lord on some of his most dangerous adventures, even witnessing the creation of evil itself during Genesis of the Daleks. Sarah Jane is eventually forced to leave the TARDIS when the Doctor is called back to Gallifrey and he drops her off nowhere near her home (we learn from the new series it was actually Aberdeen). Sarah Jane proved so popular that she was given two spinoffs, the never-got-past-the-pilot K-9 and Company playing the eponymous “Company,” and the much more successful The Sarah Jane Adventures, which Sladen was still doing at the time of her sad passing.
Played by Ian Marter
Harry was the UNIT medical officer tasked by the Brig to look after the Doctor post-regeneration. This proved a bit difficult as the Doctor’s fourth incarnation was more than a little bit spontaneous. The Doctor and Sarah Jane coax Harry into coming with them aboard the TARDIS where he goes to the future and meets the likes of the Sontarans, the Daleks, and the Cybermen. Harry was a very old-fashioned kind of Englishman and sometimes referred to Sarah Jane as “Old Thing,” much to her chagrin. He was also more than a little clumsy, but always well-intentioned. When looking at who to cast as the Fourth Doctor, they initially thought it would be an older actor and so they wrote in the character of Harry to be the action man, like an Ian or a Jamie; however, when Tom Baker was cast, the youngest Doctor to date, he proved he could easily do stunt work and Harry was written out after the first story of Baker’s second season. This is a bit of a shame, as the dynamic between the three characters was fun and refreshing and, far from being just a third wheel, Harry proved himself to be a brave and upbeat figure on the adventures.
Played by Louise Jameson
Going a completely different direction from Sarah Jane, Leela was a warrior woman from a far-future planet. Though human, she was of a primitive and violent society. Despite knowing little about the ways of the universe, and assuming the Doctor had an evil face (“The Face of Evil”), Leela was bright and willing to learn. The Doctor and Leela had a kind of a Pygmalion relationship with the Doctor acting as mentor to help refine Leela’s more base instincts. Leela uses lethal force when necessary and has no qualms about inflicting physical harm to people when necessary, something of which the Doctor is not a fan. More so than some of the other characters, Leela was especially dressed to be a sex symbol, usually adorned in what basically amounted to a leather bikini. Louise Jameson and Tom Baker did not get along very well and Jameson asked to leave the show at the end of Season 15. She gets a pretty ridiculous exit as she decides to stay on Gallifrey with a Time Lord she apparently fell in love with during the 3 minutes of total screen time they had together.
Played by John Leeson & David Brierley
The BBC decided that the show had gotten far too dark during producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s time, and so when Graham Williams took over, Doctor Who was made much more child friendly. Enter K-9, a robot dog who could basically do anything – open doors, solve complex equations, shoot laser beams; what kid wouldn’t like him? The Doctor gives K-9 to Leela at the end of her final story, the supremely bonkers “The Invasion of Time”; however, a K-9 Mark II is waiting for him in the TARDIS. The tin dog began to be more trouble than he was worth, though, and increasingly he’d be left aboard the ship, both for logistical reasons (like he didn’t drive too well on uneven ground) and story reasons (there’s no tension if the damn dog can just shoot everybody). Tom Baker also disliked having to kneel down next to him for scenes, though he got on well with John Leeson (he was replaced by David Brierley for 3 stories). Eventually, during Baker’s final season, K-9 the second is given to Romana when she goes to E-Space.
Played by Mary Tamm & Lalla Ward
Romana is the first of the Doctor’s companions since Susan to be of his race. Asked by the White Guardian to assist the Doctor as he searched for the six pieces of the Key to Time, Romana was a young (only 140) Time Lady fresh off of being top of her class at the academy. She initially finds the Doctor silly and unfocused, which at that point he certainly was. However, Romana may have had book learnin’, but she lacked in space smarts, which the Doctor had in spades. Romana was very much an intellectual equal, and often superior, to the Doctor, and the further along she went, the more she took a more dominant role in the action. At the end of the “Key to Time” season, Mary Tamm didn’t want to play the role anymore, so instead of having a totally new character, they figured, “Hey, she’s a Time Lady; how ‘bout she just regenerate?”
During the opening minutes of “Destiny of the Daleks,” the first story of the notoriously silly Season 17, Romana decides she wants to change her look and eventually settles on looking like Lalla Ward, who had played a different character in Tamm’s final story. Ward and Baker had a love/hate relationship, culminating in her leaving the TARDIS at the end of the E-Space Trilogy in Season 18. Ward and Baker got married immediately thereafter and then got divorced two years after that.
Romana II and K-9 finished out the 1979/1980 season and left at the beginning of 1981. At this point there was a massive overhaul of the series yet again to accompany new producer John Nathan-Turner. With JNT came a whole slew of new companions and 3 Doctors to finish out the classic series’ final decade. Hang on, folks, next week we’re going ’80s!