In Praise of Martha Jones, the Oft Unappreciated Doctor Who Companion
One could argue that, of the long list of criticisms we can aim at the modern Doctor Who revival, many of them could be funneled through the Doctor’s companions who, at best, are sometimes derivative, and at worse, downright insufferable.
I say “one could argue”, because opinions on companions are as passionate as those surrounding the Doctor himself (or rather herself, I should now say). They are, also, as numerous as they are debatable.
We can agree on one thing, however: companions are central figures, and much of the show’s stakes often depend on their likability. And while I am not always comfortable with linking the (often female) companions’ existences to that of the Doctor’s, it has been inferred that they are his Foil, manifestations of his conscience, of the humanity he tries to conceal.
But above all, while their roles in the show would want to see them boxed into remote and boilerplate classifications — the name itself, “companion”, suggesting an accompanying, ancillary function —, they are people first and foremost, with actual lives and personalities.
In the last fifty years or so years, their role has gradually taken on a substantial weight, often eclipsing that of the titular character himself: gone are the days of the companions who stood idle, while things happened to them, waiting for the Doctor to figure it out and save them in the process.
This, of course, contrasts with the way they are often cast off the show: because while the Doctor’s cycles are obviously changeable, the companions’ runs are even less substantial. They’ve been killed off, left behind, had their memories erased (some even carted off to other planets), and been otherwise maltreated, sparking outrage and heartbreak depending on how beloved they were…
… all of which brings us to the matter of a companion’s popularity with fans.
Since 2005, their roles have been even more heavily scrutinized than usual. It is telling that the very first episode of the revival was named after one of them, Rose Tyler, and this set the tone for how the showrunners would handle the companions’ parts going forward.
Since Rose Tyler, there have been at least seven other, each more beloved or polarizing than the previous one: Rose is as worshipped as she is despised; Donna is almost universally (and rightfully) acclaimed, although one could claim that she was under-utilized; Clara Oswald’s stellar start on the show was ruined by sloppy characterization toward the end: and Amy and Rory Pond’s arc suffered from convoluted writing. Bill Potts, on the other hand, was written off with an almost slapdash flick of the wrist, the last insult to a run that was (in my opinion) slightly underwhelming.
But of all the modern Doctor’s many companions, none have been as criminally underrated or overlooked as Martha Jones, the second companion who held her own, but was ultimately as cast aside by the writers and the fans as she was by the Doctor himself.
Martha Jones’ relationship with the Doctor begins almost haphazardly. They practically crash into each other in “Smith and Jones”: she, a doctor in training, finds herself (and the hospital in which she is working) uprooted to the Moon.
He, incorrigibly inquisitive, has infiltrated the hospital, determined to find the alien he suspects is hiding under a human disguise. Both of them, on a mission to investigate, cross paths, and realizing that they are of similarly sharp minds, team up. Their complicity is immediate: it is of an intellectual nature, first and foremost, and while Martha is obviously intrigued by the mysterious Doctor’s charm, it is clear that he is as impressed by her, and her fearsome intelligence.
I loved their witty banter: it was as charming as it was a breath of fresh air. But there was also, underneath the affinity, something laced with suggestive undertones. It became clear, especially in following episodes, that Martha Jones’ arc would be romantically inclined.
Indeed, Martha ends up falling for the Doctor, a feeling he is unable to reciprocate, and this not only becomes one of the biggest focuses of her tenure on the show, it also became, in retrospect, what many Doctor Who fans ended up resenting her.
Martha’s stint has since been reduced to that of a tragic girl who pined for a man who did not want her back. Whether this was intentional for the showrunners, or whether this is an idea that ended up leaking into the writing, and the way the Doctor saw her, the results were the same: the repercussions were immediately felt after her departure, and can still be felt years after.
The following companion, Donna Noble, veered the show in a completely different direction, namely that of lighthearted comedy and platonic friendship, which both parties were sure to make evident. At the end of “Partners in Crime”, the episode that officially begins the Doctor and Donna’s companionship, the two have the following (hilarious) exchange:
Donna: Would you rather be on your own?
Doctor: No. Actually, no. But the last time, with Martha, like I said, it, it got complicated. And that was all my fault. I just want a mate.
Donna: You just want to mate?
Doctor: I just want a mate!
Donna: You're not mating with me, sunshine!
Doctor: A mate. I want a mate.
Donna: Well, just as well, because I'm not having any of that nonsense….
Doctor: There we are, then. Okay.
Martha, in this context, is treated as the awkward elephant in the room, the condition that will now dictate whether others are allowed to come along with the Doctor, although, by his own admission, it was his fault that things did not end well.
The others are filtered in comparably similar ways through Martha. Amy Pond’s time on the show begins with similar romantic undercurrents: she nearly tosses out her relationship with her fiancé Rory (choosing to skip out the day before her wedding to run away in the TARDIS instead), but just as we are preparing to roll our eyes, the dynamics are rapidly recalibrated. Her romance with Rory Pond is strengthened, and the Doctor gladly accepts his role as the endearing third wheel.
Clara Oswald not only maintains the careful platonic dance with Matt Smith’s Doctor, she is also given a romantic interest (in the form of wet blanket Danny Pink). And anyway, by the time Peter Capaldi’s iteration comes along, the dynamic has changed, from potential romance to a "mentor-mentee" kind of rapport.
Bill Potts continues that aforementioned rapport, and being a lesbian, on top of it, dashes all possibilities of her falling for the time-traveling alien.
Martha Jones, compared to all this, looks inevitably, painfully pathetic.
But it’s not fair.
Martha didn’t ruin the show by falling in love with the Doctor. If anything, Rose Tyler should be the one to blame, having started that trend in the modern revival. Rose was the one who treated every potential threat to her link with the Doctor with barely-hidden vitriol, abandoned her loved ones to pursue him into increasingly reckless ventures, and of course, infamously retorted “So?”, when told by the Doctor that worlds would collapse if he tried to cross over to her (after they are separated by parallel universes).
All Martha did is pay for Rose’s mistakes: her role doomed her from the start and she was not given the chance to win over anyone, because she was the rebound, for the Doctor and for the fans — and rebounds, obviously, never look good. The Doctor treated her the way one would the girl who followed a passionate, symbiotic affair. He took her to the same places he once brought Rose, mentioned Rose’s name often, compared the two women, and emotionally shut himself off at any mention of love or infatuation. He had obviously not gotten over her, and Martha paid for it even though she had nothing in common with Rose.
Being the second companion in the widely-acclaimed revival, also, meant that Martha had big shoes to fill: she was bound to be the “replacement”, the second place, the nameless protagonist to Max de Winter’s Rebecca. She spent an entire season trying to outshine her predecessor, trying to stand her ground: but despite her absence, the specter of Rose loomed nonetheless, invading Martha’s season, and tainting it irreversibly.
In many ways, this made sense: the show had to address the gaping absence of Rose and honor her presence, after all. Russel T Davies couldn’t just pretend Rose and company hadn’t just been ripped from the show in an abrupt manner. But for this to happen at the expense of another well-rounded character was — and still is — one of the greatest injustices of the show.
Despite being pigeonholed as the lackluster follow-up to Rose Tyler, Martha Jones was so much more.
She was the first black companion (if you don’t count Mickey Smith), and with her, the show attempted to address issues of race and bigotry (see “Human Nature”, “The Family of Blood” and “The Shakespeare Code”).
She was believable, realistic: a young adult struggling with work, a messy family, and an otherwise chaotic life, but who still fangirled over historical figures and made giddy Harry Potter references.
She was fiercely smart, and fiercely independent: it is notable that she was a doctor, and thus, symbolically stood on a same footing as the Doctor. She was his intellectual equal, and this was impressive, considering that the Doctor’s brains and cunning are his greatest weapons.
She was fair and open-minded, even when others were not. She took no nonsense, but never directed her anger at those who didn’t deserve it: Rose often slut-shamed other companions, and Amy could be unintentionally unkind, but Martha got along with everyone, even past companions like Sarah Jane Smith.
She cared about her family, which is not something most companions could say: even when they were overbearing or got her in trouble (Martha’s mother was notoriously disapproving of the Doctor, and her suspicions caused more widespread troubles than was necessary), she never abandoned them or left them behind. Her priorities always rang true, as did her loyalty.
She certainly loved the Doctor, but she did not idolize him, the way the others did. Clara, for example, was frequently disappointed by him because she held him at the highest standards. Amy was similarly let down, because the Doctor was more than a friend, he was a childhood hero she continued to look up to even as a cynical adult. Donna relied on him so much that his occasional lapses in judgment and kindness wounded her irremediably. And Rose, of course, worshipped the ground the Doctor walked on, and would have gladly enabled his toxic tendencies. Martha, in that way, was unafraid to call him out and tell him uncomfortable truths, even if it made him angry.
Martha, most importantly, was not a damsel in distress, nor was she a Mary-Sue. The world did not revolve around and point to her in increasingly glaring ways: she was not the “Bad Wolf”, the Impossible Girl, the Girl Who Waited, and other variations of the Doctor like the Doctor-Donna. She was just an ordinary girl who did extraordinary things (like save the world), and for that, remains the most relatable of them all.
Above all, however, when the time came to choose between a life of swashbuckling adventure with the Doctor (which would tether her to him in obvious ways) or something less exciting (on the surface), not only did she choose to stay back with her family, become a proper doctor and help defend the Earth: she confronted him before he left, in one of the most powerful moments of the show.
Pretending to speak about a friend at first, she tells him:
He never looked at her twice. I mean, he liked her, but that was it. And she wasted years pining after him. Years of her life. Because while he was around, she never looked at anyone else. And I told her, I always said to her, time and time again, I said, get out. So this is me, getting out.
And, like Angela Basset walking away from the car she set on fire in Waiting to Exhale, Martha Jones walks out on the Doctor, and with it, reclaims the dignity that has been trampled tenfold.
It feels strange and uncomfortable to be picking apart female characters, especially when it is against other female characters. But to me, it is mostly about giving credit where credit is due, and in that perspective, Martha has often been shortchanged. I think that pop culture has not been as kind and lenient with her as it has been with the others of her ilk and that is an absolute shame, considering the great things she did in her short run.
Maybe if he hadn’t been in such a bad place, after Rose’s departure, he would have been kinder to Martha, which would have, in turn, strengthened fans’ appreciation of her.
Maybe if the order of her appearance on the show had been flipped, it would also have altered the way she was received. In other words, had Donna been the second companion, Martha’s arrival as the third would have been a great medium between the two extremes before her: Donna’s extremely funny, extremely blunt platonic friendship, and Rose’s obsessive, devoted, passionate love for the Doctor.
Martha would have shined as the level-headed, generous soul she was, and she would have been the moral compass Tennant’s Doctor needed before his heartbreaking exit.
So the next time we fawn over Rose Tyler’s problematic role, dissect the intricacies of Clara Oswald or gripe about River Song’s head-spinning arc on the show, let us take a moment to remember and appreciate Martha Jones, the unassuming badass who saved the world, and whose only crime was that she loved a man too much.