There have been many Doctor Who companions over the years, with teachers, computer programmers and bomb experts joining the TARDIS team. We look back at some of the Doctor’s earliest friends.
The idea that the Doctor would be joined by companions on his travels dates back to the series’ inception. Even in the earliest discussions, it was clear that Doctor Who would have a relatively large supporting cast, and the very first Doctor Who companions were more of a ‘family’ than the line-ups that followed. In later years, it would become traditional for the Time Lord to travel with a single female, although there have of course been many exceptions.
But in the early days, the Doctor Who companions consisted of two younger adults, and a teenager. This teenager was originally called Biddy, whilst the two adults were named Miss Lola McGovern and Cliff, both of whom taught at Biddy’s school. Biddy, of course, would later evolve into the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan Foreman, but it’s interesting to note that, in the early stages, she bore no relation to him at all. This was quickly amended as the producers wished to avoid any suggestion of sexual impropriety between the two characters.
The other Doctor Who companions, meanwhile, went through a less radical transformation. Lola McGovern, a history teacher, became Barbara Wright, whilst the aforementioned Cliff became Ian Chesterton. Here’s the lowdown on these iconic characters…
Primarily, Doctor Who companions are intended to offer a ‘way in’ for the viewer, to be identifiable and to make sense of the Doctor’s alien, scientific ramblings. For this reason, the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan was designed as the typical sixties teenager, who enjoyed pop music and adventure. She was an alien, though, and we know from the very first Doctor Who story ‘An Unearthly Child‘ that she came from the Doctor’s home planet. She had scientific knowledge that was way beyond anything that a typical teenager could possess.
At the same time, the producers didn’t want Susan to be too ‘weird.’ Despite her intergalactic origins, Susan was there for the younger viewers and, to some degree, had to represent them. She had a vulnerability, and a thirst for mild rebellion and exploration. She was there to be protected by the Doctor, and to be instructed by him – to be led by his paternal wisdom which, in turn, would filter down to the younger viewers.
This wasn’t always the case, though. In the Doctor Who pilot episode, Susan was considerably more ‘unearthly’ than she was in the reshoot. There was one particularly odd moment where she slinked into a quiet corner of a chemistry lab and drew a strange Rorschach-style image with ink blots. Nobody quite knows why, and this scene was omitted from the broadcast version.
Ian Chesterton was undoubtedly the father of the Doctor Who companions – albeit a young, dashing father with heroic tendencies. He taught science, but he was also part of the TARDIS team to protect the others and fend off evil. The Doctor, after all, was a much older character and wasn’t meant to be getting into fist fights, even if he did whack the occasional Voord with his walking stick. Ian, to put it candidly, provided the brawn in this roster of Doctor Who companions.
He was not too dissimilar from his first draft counterpart of Cliff, although he was less violent. Ian Chesterton had a big heart and a tenderness; he could be particularly affectionate, and was especially protective of his friend and colleague Barbara, and throughout the series there is a mild suggestion of a love interest between them.
Certainly, by the time the two Doctor Who companions left the TARDIS in ‘The Chase,’ it is strongly implied that they became a couple. This was backed up in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, where it was revealed that the pair had married and hadn’t aged since the sixties.
However, this notion was debunked in 2022’s ‘The Power of the Doctor’ where a much older Ian was seen at a gathering of Doctor Who companions. Interestingly, the actor William Russell broke a Guinness World Record with this scene as, at 57 years and 120 days, it represented the longest gap between appearances for any character in TV history. Indeed, the actor was 97 when he shot that scene.
The next of our Doctor Who companions was originally pitched as a timid, 24 year old woman who was “capable of sudden courage.” In the end, the character of Barbara was a little older than this, and certainly not timid. Barbara (while pleasant) was assertive and fiery and had no compunction with squaring up to the Doctor.
There is a classic moment in ‘The Edge of Destruction’ where she tells the Doctor to stop being stupid. “How dare you!” she yells. “Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you’d have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?… You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either!” Ouch.
At the same time, Barbara Wright performed the ‘function’ that was true of many Doctor Who companions in the Classic series. She was there to be rescued! Indeed, she and Susan did considerably more screaming than the Doctor and Ian, but that is not to say that she was incapable. Far from it. She was a history teacher, for one thing, and could be an incredibly brave one.
Barbara’s shining moment is in ‘The Aztecs’ when she is mistaken for the reincarnation of the god Yetaxa – a role she plays brilliantly. At one point, she takes on the story’s antagonist Tlotoxl by holding a knife to his throat, and later foils an attempt to poison her. Undoubtedly, Barbara was glamorous and occasionally frail, but there is no denying that she packed a punch.
Over the years, the role of the Doctor Who companions would evolve and it would become rarer for the TARDIS to be so ‘crowded.’ But there’s no denying that, along with the TARDIS, Daleks and the Doctor himself, these characters were instrumental in the series’ early success.
Who is your favourite of the first Doctor Who companions? Let us know in the comments below.