A cast of literally thousands has paraded across our screens in the 50 plus years that Doctor Who has been on our screens. Add to that the vast universe of spin off material, from comic books and comic strips, audio adventures and dodgy computer games, Doctor Who is chock full of characters, both large and small. From companions to returning villains, an elite few have embedded themselves in not only the fan consciousness, but also the collective memory of the general audience. What makes a recurring character so memorable they come back again and again? Here, you will find my top five returning characters, their most memorable moments, and why you should seek out their appearances.
The decision to present a creator of the Daleks was a masterstroke by the production team headed by Producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Prior to this, the leadership of the Daleks was usually represented by a Dalek Emperor (Evil of the Daleks) or a Black Dalek (Day of the Daleks). This innovation enabled the villainy of the Daleks to be presented in a more human form, which made them even more menacing.
The genius of Davros in his first appearance in Genesis of the Daleks lies with the actor beneath the mask – Michael Wisher. Wisher’s Davros rises above the limitations of the make-up and makes him more than simply a cartoon villain, but instead a fully realised character with moments of light and shade. Not just simply insane or evil, Davros is motivated by a morally blind intellectual curiosity which leads him inevitably to what he regards as the destiny of the Kaleds – their inevitable mutation from human form into a green gibbering globule of hate. By marrying these mutants to the Dalek travel machine, and removing all sense of conscience of guilt, Davros becomes the progenitor of the greatest evil in the Doctor Who universe.
Subsequent appearances on television, without Michael Wisher in the role, led to varying performances. Terry Molloy in Revelation of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks comes closest to Wisher’s performance. His appearance as the Great Healer in Revelation of the Daleks presented an even more manipulative side to the character, as well as a gift for capitalist exploitation based on turning the dead into food for sale to a starving galaxy.
The return of Davros in the new series’ episode The Stolen Earth was marked with one of the most iconic moments as he appears out of darkness. Sarah Jane Smith’s horrified realisation of his return ensured in the mind of the audience that Davros was a foe to be reckoned with. Julian Bleach, underneath the mask, turned in a performance that combined Davros’ genius with his continued descent into madness, re-establishing Davros as a formidable foe of the Doctor.
Davros – evil genius, or savior of his people? Only history, and the fans, can decide…
- Genesis of the Daleks
- I, Davros (Big Finish Productions four part audio adventure)
- The Stolen Earth
Sarah Jane Smith
There have been many, many actors who have played the role of companion to the Doctor. But there was only ever one Lis Sladen, and only one Sarah Jane Smith. Day of the Doctor aside, Sladen became one of the few actors to reprise her role from the classic series in its 21st century continuation, returning for the first time in School Reunion. Only an actress as accomplished as Sladen, having fashioned a companion as well loved as Sarah Jane Smith, could’ve pulled it off. And didn’t she pull it off! So much so that a spin off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, came about due to the popularity of her return, and the genius of then showrunner Russell T Davies.
A keen mind and a boundless curiosity marked journalist Sarah Jane Smith for greatness. Originally introduced as a quasi-militant feminist to Jon Pertwee’s patrician Third Doctor, Sarah Jane became one of the integral and highly regarded companions over three seasons. After Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan left at the end of Tom Baker’s first season, Sarah Jane and the Doctor formed a formidable duo, taking on mad scientists with a bent for Frankenstein (The Brain of Morbius), a trapped cosmic God (Pyramids of Mars) – watch for Sarah Jane and her rifle skills, and a rampaging alien plant monster (The Seeds of Doom). Such was her popularity that after the character left the Doctor, there was a spin off pilot (K9 and Company) a return in the 20th anniversary special (The Five Doctors) and her famed return to the new series.
A willingness to pitch in, a sense of humor in the face of the Fourth Doctor’s more mordant tone, a keen sense of justice, and a burning desire to uncover the truth, all established Sarah Jane as the most loved companion in the show’s history. The sadness at her passing several years ago not only marked the end of an era, but also the end of childhood for many a fan who grew up watching her on television in the 1970s.
- The Time Warrior
- Pyramids of Mars
- School Reunion
Picture this: it’s 1977 and Star Wars has blown up so big it’s all people can do not to talk about it. Then Doctor Who producer Graham Williams sees the potential in creating a kid-friendly companion for the Doctor, pivoting off the craze for all things
Star Wars, particularly the droids. Enter long-term writers Bob Martin (co-writer of the Wallace and Grommit shorts) and Dave Martin, and K9, a robotic dog, is born.
K9 rapidly became a foil for the Doctor – someone whose analytical brain rivalled the Doctor’s knowledge and scope. The built in laser weapon in the robot dog’s muzzle also came in handy against rampaging monsters, such as the Mandrels in The Nightmare of Eden. The popularity of the creation grew to such an extent that when it was announced in 1981 that K9 was being written out of the series, the British tabloid, The Sun, started a campaign to change.
The fact that Doctor Who would venture down the path of having a non-human companion for the Doctor demonstrated the show’s willingness and ability to think outside the box. Even though K9 would sometimes devolve into a plot device designed to escape that week’s cliffhanger, there was no denying the inbuilt charm and innocence around it. Even if the prop became problematic to control and sometimes became the target of fan ire (it’s amazing how swiftly teenage fans turn their backs on their childlike sense of fun), there’s no denying that K9 became embedded in the general public’s memory of the show. So much so that K9 featured with Lis Sladen in the pilot ‘A Girl’s Best Friend’ to K9 and Company, reappeared with her in The Five Doctors anniversary special and School Reunion, before venturing off into not one, but two K9 centred children’s television shows in the last decade.
- The Invisible Enemy
- K9 and Company
- The Sarah Jane Adventures
There was a disturbing tendency in the early years of the new series’ return for the Doctor’s companions to fall in love with him. Rose loved the Tenth Doctor, and Martha Jones’s unrequited love for him burned a hole in the hearts of many fans. Latterly, Amy Pond vacillated between her boyfriend, Rory, and the Eleventh Doctor. Happily, for old fogeys like me, this romantic inclination of the series was ditched when Catherine Tate’s bold and brassy Donna Noble came onto the scene. Donna was soon insisting she was having no shenanigans with the Doctor, instead determined to just be his best friend.
Fervently independent, Donna lived a boring life of office work and a nagging mother. Her upcoming nuptials with Lance quickly became a fight to survive the Racnoss invasion, as she partnered up with the Doctor in The Runaway Bride. Prone to telling the Doctor exactly what she thought of him, Donna did what few characters have done before, and chose not to travel with the Doctor.
That soon changed when Donna encountered the Doctor again, while investigating the strange goings on at her new role with Adipose Industries. Tate’s background as a comedian came in to good effect during the episode Partners in Crime, particularly the dialogue free scene where Donna and the Doctor realise they are investigating the same mystery.
Amidst the brashness, there was time for some tender moments and poignancy. The alternate history story, Turn Left, puts Donna front and centre in a tale where reality warps and the Doctor dies, leaving the Earth exposed to the multiple invasions he was there to stop. London is destroyed, a fascist government rises to power, and her family is displaced. Only Donna’s bravery and common good sense, enables the situation to be saved.
Donna’s departure was doubly poignant. In the two part finale to series 4, Donna become imbued with the Doctor’s essence. While she relishes his knowledge and his enormous viewpoint, tragically, this threatens to burn up her mind. Filled with anguish, she begs the Doctor not to take her new gift away from her, but he chooses instead to wipe her memories of him, and thus save her from death. She returns to her quiet life, not remembering any of the marvels and adventures she had been a part.
Fondly remembered and a key part of the new series greatest popularity, Catherine Tate is held in high regard by fans of that era, a brave actress capable of more than making people laugh, but also giving Donna Noble great heart and personality.
- The Runaway Bride
- Turn Left
- Journey’s End
I don’t think it is a surprise I’ve chosen so many female characters for my top five. Certainly, there’ve been more of them, but they tend to provide more nuance than the male characters, who variously fill the villain and heroic companion molds. I could just as easily have chosen Barbara Wright from the first Doctor’s era, or Romana from the Fourth’s. I’ve chosen Bill Potts, because she presents a very definite take on the ordinary companion made good through their own brilliance.
With the Doctor in self-imposed exile as a university professor after the traumatic, if largely incomprehensible events in ‘Hell Bent’, it falls to enterprising student Bill Potts to drag him out of his funk. Only a very few people are worthy of the Doctor’s attention, and Bill is one of those people. She is one of the workers at the university, and not a student, but the Doctor certainly recognises her potential. In short order, she joins him and Nardole in the TARDIS and adventures ensue.
A woman of color and gay to boot, Bill is a trailblazer in the traditionally white middle class world of Doctor Who. While Stephen Moffat was quite happy to shout from the rooftops Bill’s personal circumstances, it is Pearl Mackie’s fine performance in the role that deserves all the attention. While their certainly shouldn’t be any reason why it couldn’t be covered before, Mackie’s presence did bring discussions of racism into the series with an authenticity previously lacking. And for all those LGBTQI+ fans who had waited for this moment for such a long time, a gay companion provided the sort of validation that only pop culture can bring to the millennials amongst us.
Whereas Jenna Coleman’s Clara was a little fey and upper class, Mackie’s Bill Potts is earthy and direct. Like all previous companions, she doesn’t suffer the Doctor’s more outrageous moods, but does display a level of sympathy for his plight that Clara often didn’t.
In the last two episodes of season 10, with the Doctor combatting the Cybermen, the Master and his own impending regeneration, it is Mackie who shines the brightest. She brings real pathos to Bill, who is badly injured, then fitted with an artificial heart and forced to wait for the Doctor to ascend the starship and rescue her. It is the character’s reaction to their plight, of the loss of Bill’s physical humanity, that Mackie imbues with a tragic sense of loss and denial. While Moffat does, once again, wave his magic wand and restores Bill, it takes nothing away from her performance.
- The Pilot
- Thin Ice
- The Doctor Falls