There is at least one former Doctor and three former Doctor Who companions returning between now an 2023. But this is not the first time old friends have returned to embrace the show’s legacy…
It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on in the world of Doctor Who right now, with a wealth of news circulating about the Thirteenth Doctor’s finale, next year’s 60th anniversary, and the Fourteenth Doctor beyond that.
But one of the emerging themes is the return of old friends (or, in Neil Patrick Harris’ case, possibly an old enemy.) And this is not the first time the show has reached into its own history to make an episode extra special.
‘The Three Doctors’ was the first time Doctor Who looked to its own history
Before 1973, Doctor Who had only flirted with featuring recurring characters beyond the current TARDIS team themselves. Professor Travers from ‘The Abominable Snowmen‘ returned for a sequel later that same series, ‘The Web of Fear.‘ And Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart from that story had returned as the Brigadier in the following year’s ‘The Invasion’ before becoming a series regular in the Third Doctor era. But it wasn’t until tenth anniversary story ‘The Three Doctors’ that returning stars were used to mark out a story as a special event.
William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton both returned to the show for encores as the Doctor, even if Hartnell’s advancing illness limited the role he could play. It was an idea that had been showing up in letters to the production office for years, but its time finally came as Doctor Who Season Ten went into production. It also set the template for how the return of Doctors, or even companions, could pave the way way for Doctor Who to have a dialogue with its own history. That said, it’s a shame that an early plan for a cameo by the then longest-serving of the Doctor Who companions, Frazer Hines’ Jamie, didn’t happen.
Doctor Who companion the Brigadier became an icon, returning regularly to unite past and present
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s status as an iconic piece of Doctor Who’s history is taken for granted, so it’s easy to overlook how huge his presence in the show actually is. He appeared in at least one story every year between Season Five and Season Thirteen, a run longer than even Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor, albeit it as a recurring character rather than one of the regular-style Doctor Who companions. Ever since, he’s been the perfect reminder that the iteration of Doctor Who you’re watching is the same show that featured the previous Doctors.
He returned not once but twice for Doctor Who’s 20th anniversary, helping the Fifth Doctor uncover the mysteries of ‘Mawrdyn Undead’ in Season Twenty’s opening story, before reuniting with the Second Doctor to be swept away to Gallifrey to play the deadly Game of Rassilon in ‘The Five Doctors.’
The Brigadier was also called out of retirement to save the world alongside the Seventh Doctor in ‘Battlefield’ during Doctor Who’s final season before its long hibernation. It made for an appropriate farewell, even though nobody yet knew that cancellation was imminent. But it wasn’t the end for the beloved character.
The character returned in the 21st century as the knighted Sir Alistair in spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, using his influence to help his old friend when UNIT seemed compromised. Though, sadly, actor Nicholas Courtney was too ill to take part in episode ‘The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith,’ which had been planned to team him up with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor.
The Brigadier has met so many different Doctors that he probably has more reason than most to claim to be the Time Lord’s true best friend. Just as people refer to each Doctor needing to have their own first meeting with the Daleks to truly settle into the role, there’s a sense of needing their own team-up with the Brigadier too. The 1993 Children in Need ‘Dimensions in Time’ minisode made a point of having the Sixth Doctor briefly encounter the Brigadier to tick that box, as a huge number of former Doctor Who companions, including Susan, Victoria, Liz, Leela, Romana, Nyssa, Peri, Mel, and Ace for brief, and slightly bewildering, cameos.
The two later had a full adventure together in Big Finish’s ‘The Spectre of Lanyon Moor.’ Similarly, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor met his old friend in the audio company’s ‘Minuet in Hell.’ Meanwhile, Doctor Who Magazine‘s comic strip ‘The Warkeeper’s Crown’ featured him meeting the Tenth Doctor.
Even since the death of Nicholas Courtney, the Brigadier remains a consistent presence in other media. Christopher Eccleston recently performed in the Big Finish audio box set Old Friends, for instance, opposite impressionist Jon Culshaw’s take on Sir Alistair.
The Five Doctors featured more Doctor Who companions than ever before to mark the 20th anniversary
The 20th Anniversary story ‘The Five Doctors’ emulated ‘The Three Doctors’ but on an even more epic scale. Patrick Troughton returned once again to meet the current Doctor Peter Davison, as did Jon Pertwee. Tom Baker cameoed too, via unused archive footage from ‘Shada‘ while Richard Hurndall took on the late William Hartnell’s place as the First.
Not to be outdone, the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough also got to meet some former companions. We’ve already mentioned the Brigadier, but Sarah Jane made the first of many returns too, while Carole Ann Ford returned as the very first of the Doctor Who companions, Susan.
Yet more companions got quasi-returns, as the Death Zone conjured up illusions in the forms of Jamie, Zoe, Liz and Captain Yates. It all added to the sense of occasion with ‘The Five Doctors’ becoming a bubbling champagne explosion to celebrate the landmark event.
Patrick Troughton enjoyed making the special so much that he returned just a couple of years later to join forces with the Sixth Doctor in ‘The Two Doctors.’ It’s a rare case of a multi-Doctor story of no great significance to have a fun with two contrasting incarnations. But there’s no doubt that Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker spark off each other magnificently.
Sarah Jane Smith was the first of the classic Doctor Who companions chosen to unite New and Classic Who
As a newly reborn show, it was understandable that Doctor Who didn’t want to delve too deeply into decades of continuity in 2005. So it wasn’t until Series Two’s ‘School Reunion’ that we first learned of people the Doctor had travelled with before Rose Tyler. Unsurprisingly, the person chosen was Sarah Jane, regarded by many fans as definitive among the classic Doctor Who companions. Moreover, she had K9 in tow – the robot dog that is indelibly linked to the Fourth Doctor.
The story deftly moves Sarah Jane onto a new phase in her life while still being absolutely true to the character that fans originally fell in love with. David Tennant’s transparent joy at working with Elisabeth Sladen also shines through, leaving a new generation of fans invested in the Doctor and Sarah Jane’s friendship. It was the start of a whole second act for Sarah Jane, with the five series of her own spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures coming soon after. Her special place in the Tenth Doctor’s hearts was also underlined by her further return appearances in ‘The Stolen Earth’ / ‘Journey’s End’ and ‘The End of Time.’
It’s also testament to how crucial Davies saw the companions. In his time, he created two spin-offs that were built around former Doctor Who companions, the other being Torchwood which began in 2006.
‘Time Crash’ remains the only time a classic incarnation of the Doctor has returned to the modern era
A year after ‘School Reunion,’ Steven Moffat took full advantage of Children in Need’s request for a Doctor Who minisode as part of their charity telethon to have the classic and modern Doctors collide at last. ‘Time Crash’ may be less than ten minutes long, but it manages to hit the right note as a reminder of why fans love classic Doctor Who, and multi-Doctor stories. The back and forth between Peter Davison and David Tennant is huge fun, and it still remains the only full appearance by a classic Doctor as their original character.
‘Journey’s End’ and ‘The End of the Time’ proved modern Doctor Who could now generate its own nostalgia
Series Four climaxed with the ‘Stolen Earth’ / ‘Journey’s End’ two-parter and assembled several Doctor Who companions like Rose, Mickey, Sarah Jane, K9, Martha and Jack as a deft way to underline that the stakes were higher than ever.
In addition, the following year’s ‘The End of Time’ had to do double duty as both a farewell to the Tenth Doctor and Russell T Davies (or so we thought at the time.) It did so by including cameos from all the Doctor Who companions of the Davies era. Rose, Mickey, Jack and Martha all appeared during the regenerating Doctor’s big goodbye, alongside Sarah Jane and K9. It was a strong indication at how far the revival had come under Davies’ careful eye, that it could now back reference itself and its own characters in such an effectively way.
Jo Grant returned for ‘Death of the Doctor’
One of the most remarkable feats of Doctor Who’s revival has been how much it has embraced its own past, bringing multiple new generations of fans to all eras of the show. There are fewer more powerful signs of that than The Sarah Jane Adventures, a spin-off about one of the 1970s Doctor Who companions, itself bringing back an even earlier companion as a special guest star. ‘The Death of the Doctor’ featured a suspicious Sarah Jane attending the Eleventh Doctor’s alleged funeral, and finally meeting her immediate predecessor Jo Jones (nee Grant) among the mourners.
Both Jo and Sarah Jane represent the ideal Doctor Who companion, yet they couldn’t be more different. Even working together, and sharing their love of the Doctor, the contrast between level-headed, thoughtful Sarah Jane and the emotional, slightly scatty Jo makes the interplay between them a joy, and more than enough reason for younger fans to seek out the rest of the Third Doctor era.
The 50th Anniversary celebrations brought back more former Doctor Who companions and Doctors than ever before
It’s incredible to think Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary is itself almost ten years old. These golden celebrations sought to embrace the whole of Doctor Who’s legacy while also summing up the Doctor’s fundamental essence. Just one of the ways it did this was by pairing the incumbent Doctor Matt Smith with his predecessor David Tennant for a brilliantly charismatic partnership.
Through them, and John Hurt’s newly-created War Doctor, the story explored just how different each Doctor could be, while revealing the core, unchanging essence that made them all ‘the same software, different case.’ Tom Baker himself, one of the definitive classic Doctors, even turned up in a cameo as the mysterious Curator. In fact, every Doctor appeared in some form, thanks to old footage that was incorporated into the Time Lords’ War Council. Even the Twelfth Doctor had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, and he wasn’t even the Doctor yet!
Billie Piper represented the Doctor Who companions even if she was playing the new character of The Moment, symbolically drawing together the Time Lord’s past and future at the conclusion of the epic Time War.
The wider series of programmes marking five decades of Doctor Who also used classic Doctors in various ways. The docudrama ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ cast David Bradley as William Hartnell in the story of Doctor Who’s earliest days, from Sydney Newman’s assigning fledgling producer Verity Lambert to the very first regeneration. Meanwhile, the hilariously anarchic ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’ brought more Doctors into the fold as Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy played heightened versions of themselves as they tried to infiltrate the filming of ‘The Day of the Doctor.’
With cameos from Paul McGann, Janet Fielding and more, it’s a fun and self-referential way for Doctor Who to celebrate its own history.
The Thirteenth Doctor era has already seen returns for Captain Jack and Kate Stewart
Originally introduced in Series One as a companion to the Ninth Doctor, Captain Jack made a couple of return appearances during the Tenth Doctor’s time in the TARDIS. That seemed, however, like an extension of his original run on the show, especially as they overlapped with his successful spin-off series Torchwood. It wasn’t until his surprise appearance in Series 12’s ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ that his appearances began to feel like nostalgia.
The immortal former Time Agent returned again in New Year’s special ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ as he broke the Thirteenth Doctor out of space jail before teaming up with the Fam to stop an army of Dalek clones taking over the UK. Last year’s Flux brought back another familiar face, this time from the Moffat era: Kate Stewart. After initially striking out on its own path in Series 11 with all new characters and monsters, these guest appearances, along with returns for classic monsters, represented the Chibnall era’s growing engagement with the show’s rich tapestry.
Tegan, Ace and Donna are among those returning to our TVs soon
This brings us right up to date with the latest set of Doctor Who companions and Doctors. Later this year, the Thirteenth Doctor’s final episode will feature Tegan and Ace. We don’t know how or why they’re encountering the Doctor once more, but we do know from the trailer that they’ll be firing big guns at… something!
Even more excitingly, next year sees the return of David Tennant and Catherine Tate for the 60th anniversary. As it should be, we know even less about the details of that so far. It’s not even clear who exactly Tennant is playing. Is this the Tenth Doctor, some placeholder Doctor between the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, the Meta-Crisis Doctor, or someone else entirely?
One thing’s for sure: there will be plenty of room for both 1980s and 2000s nostalgia as the show once again looks to Doctor Who companions of the past to celebrate its long history.
Which has been your favourite return appearance of Doctor Who companions or Doctors? And which characters do you think are overdue a return? Let us know below!
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