Thursday, August 21, 2014

Companions, Ranked

Misogyny, brutality, torture, Porco Rosso still hasn’t come to my mailbox, the rest of the world appears to be falling apart, and it’s nearly premiere day, time to lighten up again, and you know what that means. But this time, it means something a little different.

My Unsound Methodologies-
Here are some of the guidelines, rubrics, and rules I chose to employ:

  1. I may choose to view things from any perspective, textual, subtextual, or extra-textual, at any moment at any time.
  2. Endings are hugely significant.
  3. I may be as capricious as I choose.
  4. A “major companion” is defined by me as a character who consistently travels with the Doctor for an extended period of time, one who I’d have a reasonable expectation of seeing week to week, storyline to storyline, who is an indelible part of a Doctor’s tenure, and might be said to have an “era.” When asked to identify them, I would say “They are one of the Doctor’s companions” rather than “They are a Doctor Who character.” While this eliminates beloved figures such as Captain Jack, Wilf, and River Song, and the somewhat dubious Mickey, it also means I don’t have to deal with the also-rans like Adam the Sleaze, Kylie Minogue, that guy who was The fucking Governor on Walking Dead, and Penelope Wilton.

This last rule means we are dealing with, in my first act of capriciousness, what I’m calling five characters—they are, in order of major appearance, Rose, Martha, Donna, the Ponds, and Clara.

5- Martha Jones
            So, get ready to roll your eyes, but I feel a bit bad that Martha is the companion I would say is the most problematic. See, because there is something Martha possesses that makes her unique among the companions that makes me reluctant to criticize, and if you look at the pic above, you’ll see it. That’s right, the bright red leather jacket.
            Well, that and a non-European descent.
It’s doubly too bad, because just based on given background, she should be great. Martha, when she crossed the Doctor’s path, is a doctor herself, making her the most successful companion careerwise, with all the capability, intelligence, and confidence that comes with her profession. She has divorced parents, an ambitious sister, and a distant brother. On paper, she’s perfectly set for some traipsing through space and time. So what happened?
In short and in my view, Martha got let down big time by the way she was written. The biggest, most obvious, and most frequently cited issue is that they had her do a lot of pining. Early on, she was made to be intensely infatuated with the Doctor. But the Doctor didn’t just not reciprocate, he remained blithely unaware because he was still pining for his previous companion, Rose, who got separated from him due to sci-fi bonkerness. Martha, it was clear, was a “rebound” companion. Admittedly, at first, I thought that was a pretty good joke. Problem is, the joke just keeps going with no real change or development. Nearly all of Martha’s episodes feature a scene where the looks sad after she and/or the Doctor are reminded of Rose (who, incidentally, Martha didn’t meet during her season), or she has a scene with someone where they discuss having feelings that aren’t reciprocated, or both, which really cut off the character at the knees.
            Martha rarely got to do any doctoring, and when she did it was usually to no avail due to alien hoodoo or, in one case, witchcraft. And she wasn’t provided with many alternative opportunities to prove her smarts. Indeed, the show would, on occasion, bafflingly undermine them. When the two meet Shakespeare, the Doctor whips out his psychic paper, a handy bit of gear that tricks whoever looks at it into thinking it’s whatever credential the Doctor finds most handy, be it a reference from the Archbishop of Canterbury to babysitting certification. But with his titanic brain, Shakespeare sees straight through the illusion to the blank sheet. For her part, Martha sees what the paper wants, and even says there’s writing all over the sheet.
            Now, granted, there are three people in the scene—one of them’s Shakespeare, one’s a 900-year-old alien who pilots a time machine, so it’s not exactly a great shame to not be the smartest among them. But, really, was it necessary to draw attention to it? Especially in a way that virtually brays out “Haw, haw, she’s dumb!” If it’s so necessary to establish what the psychic paper does, couldn’t the barmaid who just left the scene have stuck around long enough to say “Cor blimey, Shakespeare, the words be on that page plain as day?” The best way to service a smart character is not to make them look dumb.
            Perhaps most vexing is that even the Doctor doesn’t treat Martha particularly well, vacillating from prickly, to mean, to even perhaps cruel.
            So, let’s brush against the issue of race. Despite what the great scholar Louis CK says on the matter, generally, the show decided to not have Martha’s skin tone be a hindrance to time travel in the same way that the clothes both Doctor and companions wear aren’t a hindrance. Martha does express some concerns when they arrive in Elizabethan London, but the Doctor tells her not to worry, and for most of her run, that was pretty much that (the fully integrated Hooverville of the Dalek episodes was a little much, but that’s hardly the biggest problem with that arc). Except for in the much vaunted two-parter “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood.” In those episodes, the Doctor chooses to hide from some bad guys by becoming a human for a while, and he chooses the years just before the Great War to do it in, somehow setting himself up as a teacher at a boarding school, and Martha as…a maid.
            Needless to say, I find this problematic.
            While back in the Elizabethan Era, Martha briefly dealt with racism in the form of being considered an “exotic,” 1910 was a much different time, and there, she encounters racism fueled by centuries of colonialism and belief in Anglo superiority, compounded by the classism tied up in her role as a maid. And they spend three months there. If it were any other companion, I wouldn’t have worried much, but placing Martha in such a precarious and demeaning position doesn’t say much good about the Doctor (which is kind of an issue I have with this particular phase of the show).
            What does it say about Martha? Well, you can read it as a sign of her loyalty and her resilience—even though it would take loyalty and resilience to endure living in a time not her own, whether she was a maid, or had parleyed her medical knowledge into a position as the school nurse. But given all the pining, it’s hard not to see her circumstance as yet more being a doormat, especially when she gets a scene where she pines that the Doctor “fell in love, and it wasn’t with me.”
            This wouldn’t have been so troubling with just about any other companion, who are generally too tied to a modern service economy or are what labor markets would classify “unskilled.” But Martha was expressly created with knowledge and skills that have social cachet in any era, and indeed, she does finally use that knowledge to show a small-minded obstacle how badly she’s been misjudged. Shame she didn’t do it sooner.
            You’d think Martha would get afforded some dignity in her departure. After all, she has been the only companion to actively choose to part ways. It’s not a decision I entirely agree with, but she at least had good cause in that her family had been specifically targeted and traumatized by the big baddie of the season. But that isn’t enough of a reason, apparently, because the show insists on punctuating the scene with her turning back to deliver a homily about her pining, which she should have done in episode 5 at the latest.
            Watching Martha is very frustrating, in no small part because she’s being played as she was made—confident, intelligent, put-together, and capable, which just makes me want to yell “Stand up for yourself!” all the more. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
            Scope of Travels: 1599 AD – 100 Trillion AD
            Eps I Quite Like: “Gridlock,” “Blink,” “Human Nature/The Family of Blood,” “Utopia”
            Major Feats: Spent a year wandering a hellish, conquered Earth. Unfortunately, it happened mostly off-camera, and the purpose was to tell people how wonderful the Doctor is, which ends up saving the day over her own inspiring acts of daring. Sadly, this is par for Martha’s course.
4- Rose Tyler
            So, this might be a rather controversial choice.
            Rose is one of the most popular, if not the most popular companions, and there’s a strong case to be made that she’s the most important one of the show’s whole 50 year history. As the first companion of the revived series, she had to ease modern viewers into this very old show, and to prove this very old show could work with contemporary story paradigms. Both of which, she did. In a lot of ways, Rose proved the show could be viable in the modern day more than the Doctor did. For a lot of viewers, she was first, and accordingly all of the other companions have been overtly or subtly a reaction to her. She set the standard.
            It’s helpful to look at Rose in two phases (which will also help explain why she ranks much higher for many than with me), as she alone (until this week) traveled with two Doctors. In the first, she was with the manic and haunted 9th Doctor, unwittingly helping him deal with his traumas and figure out how he could still be a hero, while at the same time she figured out the rules of her universe, while also at the same time she helped we the viewers figure out what sort of show we were watching and giving us some sort of anchor. All of this was pretty great.
            In the next phase, she traveled with the charismatic and dashing 10th Doctor, and in some episodes it seems like that incarnation’s frivolity has infected Rose. The wonders and dangers of the universe have become old hat in a way that was frequently unappealing, as she sometimes treats things like a joke. This was hardly the only dynamic shift. It becomes clear that Rose and the Doctor are in love—pardon me, I mean luuuurv. Forever luuuurv.
            Lots of fans heavily buy into this, as is their wont. I, however, have never especially bought those ultimate May-December relationships, those between mortals and immortals or nigh-immortals (outside of tragic myths and fairytales, at least). There’s just too much of a power imbalance to overcome the sense of impracticality and paternalism. Those are my prejudices, but they really deflate the Rose/10 Era for me, which isn’t helped at all by being very frequently bad, featuring both the squiggle and the ass monster episodes.
            Rose didn’t cease her travels by choice—she got sucked into an alternate universe which the TARDIS could not reach. It’s fine, or it would be, if it weren’t for her teasing “This is how I died” speech at the beginning of the story, resolved when we’re informed she’s “listed as officially dead,” which, come on, fuck you, Davies. Anyway. Point is, she’d keep jaunting around with the Doctor if she could. Her awful, rather dumb mother, though, tries to convince her to stop. While mother Jackie speaks of nonspecific changes in Rose, there’s an undercurrent of fear of her daughter expanding her horizons, that taking in the wonders of the universe will inevitably make Rose dissatisfied with a chav life in a council block with a job in a shop and a waste of a boyfriend—you know, the sort of thing a parent might hope their child might be dissatisfied with. Rose, to her credit, brushes this off.
            Scope of Travels: 1869 AD – 5 Billion AD
Eps I Quite Like: “Dalek,” “Father’s Day,” “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,”
“The Parting of the Ways,” “The Girl in the Fireplace”
            Major Feats: Saved the last (not the last) dalek. Kicked Satan out a window. Absorbed
the totality of space and time and was briefly a god. Made Captain Jack immortal. Wiped all (not all) the daleks from existence.      
3- Clara Oswald
            My second controversial choice. The fan culture around the show is fractious and loud, and some of the loudest camps don’t care much for her. I, however, am not among them.
            As expected, Clara is a lot of things that make a good companion. She’s smart, and clever, and perceptive, and open, and brave, and loyal, good at running, and good at getting into trouble. But she’s also distinctly sensible—the Doctor is amusingly surprised when he asks her to stay put, and she does—a bit awkward, forward, internal, reflective, philosophical, can be pleasantly poetic (I’m a big fan of her line about “the days that never happened”), and, as a character or two notes, is much more scared than she lets on. It’s a pretty endearing whole. However, she thinks whisky is gross, but then again, what character doesn’t have their tragic flaws? And without getting too detailed and lost in the convolutions of the space-time ball, I dug the unconventional structure of her arc, wherein, long story short, we see her first a long way into her arc (twice), then encounter her again at an earlier point, and watch her catch up to where we first meet her.
            I’ve seen some take issue with what they perceive as Clara’s lack of motivation—why aren’t we shown (which, I’ve found, is usually a synonym for “told”) why she would travel with the Doctor? For me, the answer is obvious—she got offered the chance to use a time machine/spaceship. That’s a motivation every sci-fi fan should understand. At one point, the Doctor outlines their itinerary—ancient Mesopotamia, then the Mars of the future. She asks if they’ll be having cocktails. “On the moon,” he says. What further motive would one need? Clara’s a regular person who wants to see things and explore, no angst required. It’s refreshing.
            In particular, though, I like the relationship between Clara and the Doctor. At its most basic, I just like that the Doctor is nice to her. As I alluded to previously, the Doctor can be pretty indifferent, dismissive, or even outright cruel towards his companions—especially if you’re named Martha. But he ends up seeking out Clara as a companion (mostly/kinda) instead of her blundering into the role, and, well, accordingly he treats her like he wants her to stick around. He’s concerned with her well-being, quick to make sure she’s ok, and reassuring without being over-protective. When she blacks out after having her brain partially downloaded into an evil internet, he makes sure she’ll have flowers, a glass of water, and some Jammie Dodgers when she wakes up, and when she later blacks out so she can take part in a transtemporal telepathic conversation, he does her job in the way he thinks she would until she wakes up. It’s a nice side of the character to see.
            Most of all, Clara is very intelligent in a particular way. Again, as I discussed while discussing Martha, the issue with pairing the Doctor with a character who has a lot of science knowledge is that such knowledge is unnecessary, or even a detriment in his presence. But Clara has an intelligence the Doctor lacks—emotional intelligence. She’s bestowed ultimate hacking skills through sci-fi fiat, but she doesn’t bust through the impenetrable firewall to locate the evil internet headquarters, but has the insight that she can exploit the human, social behaviors of the people who work in said headquarters to locate it (the small difference between a plot contrivance, and a character action). When I think of your quintessential Clara moments, they’re largely heart-to-heart conversations where she instills someone with an important confidence, insight, decency, or resolve. She’s the one who knows the War Doctor hasn’t taken his terrible, fated act yet, because his eyes are so much younger than his youthful-seeming future incarnations, and later, she’s the one who’s able to entreat through the 11th Doctor’s despairing acquiescence so he can escape an impossible situation.
            Of all the companions, I think Clara understands, truly understands the Doctor the best, which makes that last moment possible, and allows him to be open with her in a way I don’t think we’ve seen before. In explaining some wild events, she mentions the planet where the Doctor knows he will finally die, and when she turns to him, she finds him crying because he’s afraid. We’ve seen the Doctor cry man-tears plenty, over loss and whatnot, but I don’t recall him ever allowing himself to seem this terrified and vulnerable, even momentarily. One recurring theme of the show is that the Doctor needs companions, but Clara is the one who made me believe it.
             Clara hasn’t had an exit yet (but she is there for the 11th Doctor’s departing, and gets a meta-tinged line that still crushes me). There’s a chance, if that inevitable leaving isn’t as bad as some others, she could easily jump up a rank for me. And, spoiler alert, she could fall through a trap door and never be seen again, and it still wouldn’t be the worst.   
            Scope of Travels: 4.5 Billion BC – 5 Billion AD
            Eps I Quite Like: “Asylum of the Daleks,” “The Rings of Akhaten,” “Cold War,” “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” “Nightmare in Silver,” “The Day of the Doctor”
            Major Feats: Brought the 1st Doctor and the TARDIS together. Defeated dalek transformation. Beat a planetoid psychic parasite with a leaf, and stopped Armageddon with a chair. Found mercy in Grand Marshall Skaldak. Led the punishment platoon against 2 million Cybermen. Turned down a proposal from the Emperor of the Universe. Met all the Doctor’s incarnations. Saved Gillifrey. Can close the TARDIS doors with a snap. Traveled through the time vortex, outside. Is why there are gifs in here, because I liked the dubious thumbs up too much.
2- Donna Noble
            I didn’t think this would be a particularly controversial placement, but after looking around some, turns out it may be.
            The obvious reason to like Donna is that, coming as she did after Rose and Martha, it was nice to have a companion who wasn’t dropping the L-word all the time for a change. In theory, I agree, but in practice, the weird “straight panic” scene the two repeat nearly every episode are as annoying (though not nearly as character-deflating) as the repeated scenes of Martha’s pining. I have a low tolerance for repeated declarations of status-quo, I guess. There are other differences, though, that make Donna special.
            Of all the companions, Donna seemed the most in crisis. Not in the same way that a mannequin invasion, or being stuck on the moon with a bunch of rhino cops is a crisis, obviously, but in a much more personal crisis. Unlike her fellows, she’s not a dewy beauty of 19 to perhaps 28, but is close to one side or the other of 40 (actually, given her characterization, I feel certain she’s on the far side, but will insist she’s on the near), and is painfully aware that life is passing her by. She’s also stuck doing temp work, and dealing with a mother who, amazingly, is worse than Rose’s. Furthermore, when we first meet Donna, she’s not a particularly good person. She’s screechy, demanding, ignorant, self-centered, needy, catty, attention-seeking, and dull, too self-pitying and uncurious to appreciate the wonders of the universe without some prodding. We also learn, in a handy alternate reality, she’s not averse to using bigoted language (though she becomes accepting in time), and…I don’t want to necessarily call her dumb, but it doesn’t occur to her that her neighbors might be getting carted off to concentration camps until the military trucks they are loaded onto by grim soldiers are actually driving away. But all that just gives her more room to grow than anyone else.
            All the companions change, but Donna’s changes were extra poignant. The others are young people figuring out who they are, but Donna was old and set, but she was prompted to examine her life, and found it lacking. Over the course of her travels, she didn’t get her rough edges utterly sanded off—she remains abrasive and brassy, and regularly throws the Doctor’s smugness back at him—but she did become a better person, far more sympathetic and courageous than she ever had been.
            And then.
            I’m not going to mince words—Donna’s departure is odious. It makes me furious. I despise what it does to the character I loved, and I refuse to rewatch the episodes leading up to it, which aren’t great, but were fun until the end, because that end makes me so, so, so angry. It is bullshit. A bullshit, useless fridging of a great character.
            Due to sci-fi wackiness, Donna ends up with a Time Lord mind occupying her human brain, and she uses her now gargantuan intellect to save the day. But, that gargantuan intelligence is too much for her body, and will burn her up. The only way the Doctor can save her is by wiping away all of her memories of their time together. Why is this the only way? Who the fuck knows. So, the Doctor erases her brain, over her objections, undoing her arc, and reverting her back to what she was before they met—which, you may recall, I noted was, while not a monster, not the sort of person anyone would willingly want to be. “Don’t make me go back!” she pleads over and over again, but, I say again, the Doctor proceeds over her objections. Then he’s sad. It is appalling and grotesque. I hate it. I fucking hate it.
            As far as I’m concerned, the last Donna episode is “Turn Left,” and then sometime before “The Next Doctor,” she gets lost in the TARDIS somewhere. I half expected Clara to bump into her during “Journey…” to be honest.        
            Scope of Travels: 79 AD – 51st Century AD
            Eps I Quite Like: “Partners in Crime,” “The Fires of Pompeii,” “Planet of the Ood,” “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” “Turn Left”
            Major Feats: Infiltrated a villainous lair, unaided and unequipped. Saved a family from Mt. Vesuvius. Earned the trust of the Ood. Cleverly died to set a timeline right. Had the fucking worst fucking departure seriously fuck you Davies I can’t believe people elide over this shit!
1- The Ponds
                Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m counting two characters, Amy and Rory, as one. Shut up. It’s my ranking. Anyway. I’ve gone on a fair bit about why I like the Ponds so much—their fire and ice dynamic, their modern feel, their effortless charm, Amy’s ferocity and Rory’s kindliness—so how about I tread some new ground, especially since what I’ve said is now out of date.
            So, there is a reason I choose to read the previously mentioned scene between Rose and her mother as a scene of a child dismissing borderline abusive advice from a parent, and that is because otherwise it is a scene of a false dilemma. Wander the stars, or go back to a tacky council flat? That’s not a choice. The arcs of Amy and Rory are both refutations of false dilemmas. Amy runs off with the Doctor on the eve of her wedding to forestall growing up and settling down and giving up her dreams, but learns she doesn’t have to give up those dreams just because she’s maturing. Rory isn’t sure if Amy loves him, or if he was just the best of limited options in their small town, but learns that he was a pretty great option the whole time.
            Refreshingly, time travel never became old hat for the Ponds, they just got seasoned and competent, best displayed when Amy had to lead her own pair of compatriots through a fantastical adventure (“I will not have flirting companions,” she ironically says), while Rory reveals he’s been collecting useful medical supplies from the future for his first aid kit, which might just be the smartest thing I’ve seen a character do in anything. Both of them can use a sonic screwdriver, and Amy’s even able to make one. Over two and a half seasons, they become cool in a lot of the same ways the Doctor himself is.
            In stark contrast to that disagreeable scene with Rose and her mom, Rory and Amy get a great scene with Rory’s dad, where, having seen what they do when they’re traveling with the Doctor, he tells them they should keep on traveling, because not only is it something very few people get to do, they’re saving worlds while they do it. Another false dilemma sailed past.
            Because I like these characters as I do, I bristle pretty sharply when I run across someone calling Amy a sex object, or worse, a slut. Why would someone do such a thing, you may ask? Good question. Is it because, unlike previous companions who were proper ladies and wore ultra-wide legged jeans (befitting 2005), she wears tights and skirts, like a harlot (yes, I have seen this sentiment expressed, even though Amy typically wears too many heavy layers to be dressed all that scandalous)? Except for that one time Rose was in tights and a skirt…Anyway, I could go into “Why,” but I’d end up doing some air-chair psychoanalysis, which is never a good idea, so I’m going to stick to “what element of Amy might cause such an unjustified response.”
Some have said they were scandalized by Amy being a sex worker when she was introduced. And she was, specifically, she says she’s a “kissogram,” which I had to look up, just to see if it was what it sounded like. And it is—a message delivered with a kiss. If we reduced sex work to booze, this would be a spritz of Binaca. She also has some not particularly explicit fantasies (though one is likely some ribbing at Rory) and shares an active sex life with her husband, who isn’t afraid of expressing his attraction to her (what a floozy, right?). Once she got to flirt with herself. Primarily, though, I think people are reacting to the time she tried to have casual sex with the Doctor, which admittedly isn’t fair to Rory (unless they have agreed upon Free Lists—yeah, they’re usually jokes, but you never know), but they weren’t married at the time, and she was nervous on the night before he wedding. All those things, incidentally, are things I like about Amy—she feels very modern. It’s more than a little disgusting that some will jump at this sort of minor bawdiness and say the character is a slut or she’s only meant as a sex object, especially since it makes her so much richer.  
            It’s perfectly in keeping with his hapless lot that Rory would get zapped back in time where he can’t be retrieved (the idea is that he lived a long life and died in New York, and should he be saved, he would almost certainly die not in New York, which would be one paradox too many for the temporally ravaged city—which is acceptable enough for me, not so much for others), leaving Amy with a choice, well after the episode “Amy’s Choice.” This, naturally, is another false dilemma. Over the Doctor’s protests and pleas, she allows herself to be zapped back in time so she can find him. Which is why I had to consider them together—Amy wouldn’t let it be any other way.
            Scope of Travels: 102 AD – 51st Century AD (Amy visits the 171st Century AD)
            Eps I Quite Like: “The Eleventh Hour,” “The Beast Below,” “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone,” “The Vampires of Venice,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon,” “The Doctor’s Wife,” “A Good Man Goes to War,” “The Girl Who Waited,” “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” “The Angels Take Manhattan”
            Major Feats: Saved the last starwhale. Gave Vincent Van Gogh a moment of joy. Successfully gathered intel across an invaded United States. Had sword-fights with vampires and pirates. Waited 2000 years and blasted the time apart to be together. Remembered the Doctor back into the universe. Died a bunch, but it took a while to stick. Terrified the Twelfth Cyber Legion. Saved the Earth from the Shakri. Wiped all (but one) of the Weeping Angels in New York from existence by cleverly dying. Are the Doctor’s in-laws.

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