As a show with a revolving cast of characters, Doctor Who has a number of “one-time” companions, who only appear for an episode or a story, and after making their impact on the Doctor’s life they disappear and aren’t heard from again. Sometimes, however, the presence of these would-be companions lingers in the imagination of the Doctor and/or the fans. Even after their story has ended their memory lives on the show, sometimes entire seasons later. And yet, many of these characters never get a chance to become a true member of team TARDIS. Each potential companion who does not become a Rose or a Martha or a Bill has their own reason for doing so, but unfortunately many of those reasons are stunningly tragic.
Doctor Who is a show full of dangerous adventure, and so it is only natural for there to be casualties among the cast of characters in each episode. The problems start when we take into consideration how many female and BIPOC characters meet tragic ends, simply to serve the narrative of the Doctor and other white, particularly male characters.
“Voyage of the Damned” is an episode which epitomizes this issue. As an episode, it aims to reteach and remind the Doctor the lesson that he cannot save everyone. He is not a God. He makes the bold claim that he is in charge of the group because he is going “to save all their lives.” But he fails. In practice, the deaths of all of the women and people of color in their group save him and the other white men on the ship.
Morvin, a Black man, is violently killed by one of the robot angels; Bannakaffalatta, an alien and a cyborg, sacrifices his life for them and they continue to repel the angels with a piece of his body; Foon, a white woman, sacrifices herself to destroy an angel after the death of her husband; and Astrid, whom the Doctor promised to show the stars, sacrifices herself to kill Max Capricorn, the “Big Bad.” That way the Doctor is free and clear to save the Earth with no interference.
One of the most frustrating elements of “Voyage of the Damned” is that Astrid did not need to die. The episode perfectly primes us for her survival in the form of the teleport bracelets, but in a cruel twist of fate, the ship does not have enough power to fully restore her to life. This moment is what teaches the Doctor his lesson; he cannot save everyone, and he sometimes has to let people go.
There is nothing wrong with the Doctor learning that he cannot save everyone in the universe. Obviously there are casualties in Doctor Who, it comes with the territory. But that lesson falls flat and sour because all the people in the episode who were women, BIPOC, fat, or disabled died so the white men—who all ended up rich and/or recognized as heroes—could live.
While Astrid’s story is one of the most notable instances of this trope, she is far from the only character who suffers in order to further the Doctor’s narrative. This point hits home during “Journey’s End.” Davros invokes the memories of many characters, Astrid included, lost in the Doctor’s name. Of the characters we see, some of them are men, such as Luke Rattigan of “The Sontaran Stratagem” and Sir Robert of “Tooth and Claw.” But the majority of those the Doctor sees dying for him are women. We revisit Jenny dying in his arms; River wiring herself into the library; the unnamed Hostess from “Midnight” launching herself and a possessed Sky Silvestry into x-tonic sunlight; Jabe burning alive to give the Doctor time to reset the shields of Platform One.
The issue with these deaths is not just that people have died—as Sarah Jane says in “School Reunion”: “Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship, everything has its time. And everything ends.”
And yet so many of these deaths feel either pointless, or only occurred to prove a certain point. When Jabe dies it is before the Doctor makes it past the last wind turbine, and he makes it past the fan without her anyway—to say nothing of how he makes it past them on the way back. He also wastes time he could spend getting past them staring at her giving her life for him, which only emphasizes how needless her death is.
In the case of Midnight’s Hostess, her death hits eerily close to home. The fact that an unnamed Black woman gave up her life to save a group of primarily white people is noticeable, especially when the show calls attention to the fact that none of them knew what her name was, but fails to show a scene where they rectify that oversight.
Another “death” to examine is that of the Doctor’s daughter, Jenny. While the audience knows she is not actually dead, the Doctor’s belief in her death proves the point that he is the “man who never would.” That is what the Hath and the humans need in order to build their joint society; this conviction props up the entire legacy of their planet. Jenny would have made an excellent companion; the fact of the matter is that her entire existence is a plot device. And part of the function of that device necessitated her death.
So why does Doctor Who do this? To what end do the writers force us to watch these women die over and over again? Even when they subvert the trope and have a man die to motivate the reckless actions of a woman, the victim is Danny Pink, a Black man. From this it is clear that Doctor Who has a serious problem when it comes to gender and race, and the most recent two series and showrunner are certainly not exempt.
The most egregious example of this trope comes from the very first episode of the Chibnall era and reverberates throughout in the form of Grace O’Brien. Grace is everything we want to see in a Doctor Who companion. She’s smart, caring, creative, and quick to action. She is fiercely protective of her family and her planet. Grace does not hesitate to do what she must while also taking time to pay her respects when due.
Despite all of Grace’s courage and candor, she dies in that first episode. But the show repeatedly invokes her name and at times even visage as a means of character development for Ryan, Graham, and Aaron. Over and over, the show retraumatizes and reminds us of her death to serve the narratives of the men in the series. That Graham, a white man, receives the bulk of this character development over Ryan adds insult to injury.
One counterargument to this is that there are men who sacrifice themselves; characters such as Sir Robert, Luke Rattigan, and Danny Pink. Danny is a Black man, though, which again negates his inversion of the trope somewhat. However, Doctor Who’s problem isn’t just that women and BIPOC die, their narratives swallowed by those of men and white characters. There are just not enough women and BIPOC characters to counteract this point. The most recent two seasons have done better in terms of female representation, now that the Doctor is played by a woman. That said, even with the Doctor and Yaz as main characters, they do not pass a basic Bechdel test. Furthermore, although Yaz and Ryan are in every episode, not every episode passes the newer DuVernay test, where a Black or minoritized character has a realized life outside whiteness.
Before Yaz and Ryan, some episodes had no BIPOC at all, and before the 13th Doctor sometimes the companion would be the only woman. And still, when those characters do appear, they often die. For example, in both 42 and Orphan 55, aside from team Tardis only white men are left alive. Doctor Who needs to think more critically about its casting of supporting characters, and it needs more women writers and especially BIPOC writers. There have been 155 episodes in the new series of Doctor Who. Two episodes written by a man of color, Vinay Patel, (one of them co-credited with Chibnall) and two episodes written by women of color, Malorie Blackman and Charlene James, both co-credited with Chibnall. A total of fourteen episodes have been written by women, including those previously mentioned.
Doctor Who is a legendary show that has existed in the world of sci-fi for almost 57 years. We must hold it accountable, and it must do better.
Featured Image: BBC