The current Doctor Who reboot has chugged along for over 10 years now, and with Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner for the venerable series drawing to a close, let’s take a moment to examine how the Doctor’s companions have left the TARDIS. After 10 seasons and two showrunners (first Russell T Davies and then Moffat), the show has said goodbye to major companions six times. It’s always a melancholy thing when a companion leaves, but Doctor Who is a show specifically about change and rejecting complacency, so a companion’s exit is as inevitable as the Doctor’s regeneration.
The ranking is based on the level of emotions evoked by the exit, as well as the level of satisfaction for the end of the companion’s storyline. In other words: how many tears are shed upon viewing the scene and how easy it is to step away from this companion’s life knowing you’ll probably never see them again.
With profuse apologies to Catherine Tate, who portrayed Donna with vivacious energy and drive, Donna’s farewell lands at the bottom. She constantly strove to be the Doctor’s best friend, which to her meant that she had to be his equal. She had to be just as compassionate, just as clever, and just as heroic as the Doctor, if not more so. Eventually, her desire to become Doctor-like led her to absorb the knowledge of a Time Lord into her human brain. Result: one fried human brain and the complete loss of Donna Noble’s identity.
“For her own good,” the Doctor removed all memories of their travels together. Even thinking about the Doctor might bring all those memories back and destroy her brain. All those times she helped save people, gone. Vesuvius. The Ood. Agatha Christie. The Adipose. All destroyed in a bid to protect her. All Donna was, all she learned, all she believed herself to be, lost. Of course, the Doctor made sure she got the life she always wanted. She got her perfect wedding and her fabulous husband, and she got a winning lottery ticket so that she’d never need to be an office temp again.
Donna’s agency was unceremoniously stripped from her, under the pretense of trying to help her. The most spirited and headstrong companion was suddenly shackled to Earth, without a clue about her wonderful adventuring past with a time-traveling alien. This is the Russell T Davies era at its worst point.
Emotional Level: ALL THE FRUSTRATED TEARS
Satisfaction Level: Meh
Despite being a fan favorite, the Doctor’s first modern companion fared only slightly better than what happened with Donna. Sure, Rose was allowed to keep all her memories of the Doctor and their adventures together, but is being trapped in a parallel universe after falling head over heels for a guy really that fulfilling, especially after you realize that the guy can never truly be what you want him to be? The Doctor is the exact opposite of settling down. So what happened with Rose? She got a human clone of the Doctor, a clone who shared his memories and personality and his feelings. She got a version of the Doctor who’s able to grow old and experience normal, boring human life with her forever.
Rose couldn’t be with the Doctor, so she ended up with his clone, and she’s supposed to accept this because that’s the way things are. She has to live with this weird doppelganger who is exactly like the person she fell in love with, but deep down it’s not the same person. Rose fell for the Doctor because of their adventures together. She saw his heroism and his kindness firsthand. Strip away the traveling and helping people and you strip away a large part of who the Doctor is. Sorry, Rose, you followed your heart and fell in love, but you ended up in a parallel universe with a human version of the Doctor because ... reasons? Rose settled for the next best thing, and that is supposed to be fine. It’s not fine. It undermines the relationship between Rose and the Doctor and lessens its impact.
Emotional Level: SO MANY FRUSTRATED TEARS
Satisfaction Level: Like craving ice cream and then settling for froyo. I mean, it’s really good froyo, but you keep thinking you should’ve splurged and gotten ice cream instead.
Amy and Rory Pond
The Ponds had a really dramatic exit, mirroring the constant, exhausting high-stakes plots they found themselves in when traveling with the Eleventh Doctor. After figuring out the origins of River Song and doing epic things like punching Hitler, the Ponds end up sacrificing themselves to the Weeping Angels despite the Doctor’s constant protests for them to stop. The Eleventh Doctor wanted them both to stay with him, but naturally, circumstances prevented that from happening. Faced with a universe-destroying paradox or simply getting popped into the past by the Angels, the Ponds gave up their lives with the Doctor so that the universe could remain intact. The Ponds were companions who left on their own terms, with their own ideas, despite what the Doctor wanted. “Together, or not at all.”
The Ponds ended up living a full and happy life in past New York, but the narrative put most of the suffering and angst upon the Doctor. He failed to protect his companions, and he felt awful for it, taking all the blame. He isolated himself for decades because of his perceived failure, and despite the fact that it was the Ponds who got sent to the 1930s, the Doctor made their fate somehow all about him. This is Moffat at his most convoluted and frustrating. The Doctor couldn’t risk landing the TARDIS in New York so he never saw the Ponds again? Couldn’t he have landed in New Jersey and take a train over like everybody else?
Emotional Level: *INTERNAL SCREAMING*
Satisfaction Level: Like not being able to get to New York City even though you can make it to Jersey.
Martha came into the TARDIS knowing full well that the Doctor was hurting. His relationship with Rose had just collapsed and he needed someone to bounce around the cosmos with, no real strings attached. Unfortunately, Martha still fell for the Doctor pretty hard. But Martha, fabulous Martha, had the self-awareness and maturity to figure out that she was only going to be the rebound companion. Some of her best adventures happened without being by the Doctor’s side, and she eventually learned that she could be a hero even without the Doctor’s help and guidance. She figured out that she was damn good, and more importantly, she was too damn important to spend another moment stuck in a blue box with someone who couldn’t see her awesomeness and couldn’t reciprocate her love. So Martha got out. There was no crying and no drama. The Doctor wasn’t forcing her to leave, and there were no extenuating plot points preventing her from staying. Martha left the TARDIS of her own accord, promising that the Doctor hadn’t seen the last of her.
Emotional Level: no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.
Satisfaction Level: like slipping on a favorite pair of shoes
Clara wasn’t even a character when she was first introduced. She was simply presented as a weird mystery for the Doctor to solve, something to snap him out of the decades-long haze of self-loathing he disappeared into after what happened with the Ponds. The Impossible Girl wasn’t given much of a personality apart from “spunk.” Luckily, once the mystery of why she was bopping around the Doctor’s timeline was resolved, she became more of a true traveling companion. But then she developed a recklessness that rivaled the Doctor’s, an eagerness to help no matter what the cost to life and limb, and it got to the point where the Doctor feared that she might end up killing herself if she wasn’t careful.
And she wasn’t. Her carelessness got her in trouble, and in a last-ditch effort to save her life, Clara was snatched from her timeline, just before her death, in between heartbeats. The Doctor and Clara were given a warning: The universe would suffer if they remained together and continued to be reckless and arrogant. The Doctor figured out that perhaps Clara would be better off having never known him. Another mind-wipe, but with a spectacular twist. Only one of the pair’s memories would be removed, and the person would be chosen at random because Clara refused to be the one whose memories were taken away. “Tomorrow is promised to no one Doctor,” Clara said, “but I must insist upon my past.”
The Doctor’s memories of Clara were removed, and Clara became a pseudo-Time Lord herself, with her own TARDIS, her own companion (Ashildr/Lady Me), and a level of immortality afforded someone whose death is a fixed point in time. She was unable to die until returning to that moment. Clara became the Doctor, as she always wanted. Until Clara, the modern companions have ended up in some kind of domestic bliss: Rose with the Doctor clone, Martha with Mickey, Donna with Shaun, and Amy with (obviously) Rory. Clara changed it up by choosing to copy the Doctor, by developing longstanding relationships with companions that aren’t necessarily romantic, and by not choosing to settle down.
Emotional Level: SO MANY HAPPY TEARS
Satisfaction Level: Like running your fingers through kinetic sand.
We first met Bill as she searched for love and acceptance. She found acceptance in the presence of the Doctor, who thought her inquisitive nature was refreshing. She struggled to find love but lost it because she believed that she’s not entirely ready for a relationship. Understandable, considering said relationship was with an alien/human hybrid. However, after an avalanche of adventures with the Doctor across time and space (and essentially dying after getting transformed into a Cyberman), Bill became mature enough to accept Heather’s love and to show Heather around the universe. Now, that’s a relationship.
Bill was in very real danger of being a victim of the “bury your gays” trope, but it was Heather’s love for her that rescued her from a fate as a Cyberman and restored her body and her memories. Here’s a message for the rest of television: It’s time to unbury your gays. Bill got her happy ending and the girl. She left the Doctor knowing that there was nothing else she can do for him as he lay dying. All she could do was offer him hope. And when Bill and Heather stepped out of the TARDIS together hand in hand, it seemed like a celebration of new beginnings.
Emotional Level: Where there are tears, there’s hope.
Satisfaction Level: Like that video of the knife slicing the corners off a thick stack of paper
From the lack of agency to characters who left on their own terms, there’s been a noticeable evolution in the companion farewell. Surprisingly, it’s during the Moffat era (he of the much-derided, convoluted writing) where the female characters began to consistently decide to leave on their own terms. With a new showrunner on the horizon, and with Jodie Whittaker set to be the first female Doctor, there should be brighter days ahead for anyone who travels in the TARDIS. And here’s hoping, when they finally need to leave, that all the tears are happy and all their endings are satisfying.