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That time the Doctor traveled with a knife-wielding huntress from the future

Contributed by
Nov 7, 2018

All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.

Before Xena, Buffy, or even just slightly before Princess Leia, there was Leela: a scrappy fighter of the Sevateem, the regressed descendants of a team of future space-travelers. Conceived as an Eliza Doolittle type and named after Leila Khaled, the famed Palestinian liberation fighter known for two separate plane hijackings, Leela is the uncivilized antithesis to the typical female Doctor Who companion. As such, she remains one of the most unique companions of the show’s entire history.

While she’s not the only warrior to travel with our favorite Time Lord, the Doctor’s typical pacifism has made it a rarity. The occasional friend may pick up a gun here or there, often to the Doctor’s chagrin, only Jamie, the kilted Highlander, and BFF to Patrick Troughton’s Doctor could likely give Leela much of a challenge in a contest of blades. In fact, so outside the box was Leela that actress Louise Jameson even had to challenge the writers when they attempted to create scenes where her character was supposed to scream in terror the way previous companions had.

Leela isn’t a screamer, she’s a fighter. Plenty of companions butt heads with the Doctor, but few are as immune to their verbal games and rhetoric expertise as Leela. Where the Doctor values rationality, Leela is a woman of instinct. This leads to character conflicts within the TARDIS that we rarely see. When typically the Doctor is faced with the prospect of traveling with a soldier type, the answer is a resounding no. Leela doesn’t even give him the option. When she asks to travel with him, refuses her, but she walks on into the TARDIS anyway and he relents. Likely not very reluctantly, of course.

There’s a lot of production aspects of the show stacked against Leela. The show frequently seems to present her as the “beautiful savage.” With rare exceptions, her outfits are always very skimpy, it’s been joked about that she was brought in to keep “the dads” of the U.K. watching the show with their children. She’s usually covered in some sort of dirt as if to imply that despite traveling in the TARDIS, she’s still stalking through the bush like back home. When she is dressed in a more contemporary look, it’s meant as a joke, including a scene in The Talons of Weng Chiang almost directly harkening back to her Doolittle DNA.

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The thing about Leela is that she’s often misunderstood. Yes, she’s more of a scrapper, and yes she’s more driven by instinct, but she does have immense empathy, she does care. She’s on her way to figuring out the mystery in her first story, The Face of Evil, and seeing through the lies about her society well before the Doctor arrives. She also respects him enough to maintain her faith in him as he acts completely against character and actively pushes her away during the Invasion of Time. She knows something isn’t right about her friend and refuses to turn her back to him even when he’s the one telling her to.

There are other companions during the series’ long run that break from the typical “contemporary, plucky, and usually British” mold. Usually, they’re members of some advanced society, like Romana, a Time Lady who serves as the Doctor’s next companion. Or they’re someone displaying great intelligence, like gold star space genius Adric. Both of these things are actually true about Leela as well. She’s descended from humans who have touched the stars, and she has a definite spark of intelligence and has simply lacked the access to a formal education to cultivate it. The Doctor clearly sees this in her as well, leading to why he doesn’t really fight her when she insists on coming with him. She could have easily been out of her depth, but she never ever was. She often kept the Doctor on his toes, and she always had his back.

Leela’s run on the show wasn’t very long, only nine stories, compared to the multiple seasons that Sarah Jane Smith and Romana had immediately before and after her. During that Jameson dealt with illness while filming, as well as having to wear painful contact lenses to change her eye color for a few episodes. She also didn’t immediately get along with co-star Tom Baker, until reportedly she challenged him on a repeated effort to upstage her, which gained his respect and warmed their relationship.

Still, Leela remains a popular character. Jameson was offered multiple opportunities to return to the show during its classic run, and while they never panned out she has ended up coming back for several of the Doctor Who audio dramas for Big Finish. While she may have been unfairly dismissed as eye candy “for the dads,” she has definitely earned her place among the Doctor’s toughest and brightest companions, and her place in the show’s history helped set the table for the many other powerful women who would follow in her hide-wrapped footprints.

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