11. Ian Chesterton
Ian and Barbara are the first humans in Doctor Who to explore the universe in the TARDIS, taken away by force when the Doctor kidnaps them. Initially they want to return home, but this desire fades. However, when they’re presented with a chance they take it. As a contrast to Susan’s departure, Ian and Barbara’s departure is joyful as it turns out that you cantravel with the Doctor and leave on your own terms as richer, fuller people.
10. Rose Tyler
Rose and the Doctor. The Doctor and Rose. It’s easy to lose track – amidst the melodrama, epic gestures and various tensions – of the way Series 2 sets up Rose and the Doctor being torn apart almost straight away. They’re so wrapped up in how much fun they’re having that it stops them from noticing other people’s feelings. It becomes clear that had the Doctor and Rose done this, the Torchwood Institute wouldn’t exist, so Harriet Jones wouldn’t have had a weapon to fire at the Sycorax in the preceding Christmas episode. However, the show is also telling you that Rose and the Doctor being split up is a colossal tragedy; performances, visuals and music tell you this is incredibly sad while the stories are reminding you they’ve contributed to their own downfall.
This is a companion departure with the heartbreak turned up to 11, to the point where the pretty loud “Brought this on themselves” track can get lost in the mix. Here’s the beginnings of companions burning out rather than fading away.
There’s also the unfortunate business where Rose Tyler, the beloved character who helped bring Doctor Who back as a critical and popular success, rips holes in the universe to find the man she loves.
Said man takes her back to the place she had the worst time of her life, gives her a genocidal sex clone and then quietly leaves when she’s making out with it.
Bearing in mind that Ace has left Doctor Who in so many different canons over the years, it’s specifically her departure in ‘Survival’ that I’m taking as her final story. I’m heavily indebted to Una McCormack’s book on ‘The Curse of Fenric’ here, as it makes the very good point that for everything that could happen to Ace – whatever fates spin-off media has in store for her – there’s nothing quite as perfect for where Ace has reached at the end of Season 26 as the promise of further adventures, the possibility of joy rather than darkness, an ellipsis rather than a full stop.
Why is Barbara’s departure better than Ian’s? Because:
In ‘An Unearthly Child’ the Doctor asks them “What is going to happen to you?”, the single most important question in the entire series. Firstly because that is half the format of Doctor Who, and secondly because the other half is the same question in reverse. If Barbara Wright doesn’t happen to Doctor Who, then Doctor Who is a short lived 1960s sci-fi show about a cantankerous old git who kidnapped some school teachers (Missing presumed wiped).
7. Zoe and 6. Jamie
Zoe and Jamie both leave suddenly at the end of ‘The War Games’. Patrick Troughton was leaving and the actors decided to go with him, and that sense of an era ending bled into the fiction.
At the end of ‘The War Games’ the Time Lords are named and appear for the first time, represented by a group of solemn men in robes who wield immense and ineffable power. The Doctor is put on trial for stealing the TARDIS and interfering on other worlds. His companions are returned to a time after their first meeting with the Doctor, their memories of their travels erased. This isn’t built up to, but there’s a general sense of unease in the final few episodes and the Time Lords seem aloof enough to mete out this sort of punishment.
Jamie and Zoe try to escape with the Doctor, but when they’re recaptured he gives up. With Patrick Troughton’s Doctor this is especially shocking, and it’s only his melancholy resignation that convinces them to give up too. Zoe ends up back on a space station, and knows there’s something she can’t quite remember, but with Jamie – who has been with the Second Doctor for almost the entire incarnation – he ends up back at the aftermath of Culloden, charging a redcoat. In a kind touch, the redcoat turns and flees, suggesting Jamie might be alright in the aftermath of the battle.
Doctor Who wasn’t really huge on tearjerkers until 2005, but it was very, very good at quiet melancholy.
5. Martha Jones
Martha is in love with the Doctor. The Doctor spends the entire series pining for Rose and being oblivious to this fact.
Martha Jones puts up with a lot, looking after the Doctor while in his human John Smith guise and having to restrain herself while being continually patronised, racially abused and treated like an idiot. She then spends a year travelling the Earth avoiding capture as the Master enslaves and murders the population, holding Martha’s family captive while she does this.
So frankly when Martha says she’s leaving and the Doctor still doesn’t understand why (“Is this going anywhere?”) it’s hugely cathartic for the audience and for someone who deserved better. Some people do get to choose when being with the Doctor stops, and it’s usually great when they do.
4. Jo Grant
However muddled the reasoning behind Jo Grant’s existence, the casting was inspired. Essentially a remix of Jamie (which suggests that Jo and Liz could have worked if Jamie and Zoe did), Jo Grant wasn’t the brightest but wasn’t stupid, and was incredibly loyal and brave.
With the Doctor’s paternal streak fully activated, the production team decided that Jo falling in love and telling the Doctor “he reminds me of a sort of younger you” would be exactly what the Doctor didn’t want to hear. In contrast to Victoria’s departure and the Doctor’s selflessness there, the Doctor doesn’t do what Mike Yates does when marriage is announced (looks upset and does his best to mask it) but instead quietly slips out and drives away by himself. The fact that he leaves in a way that suggests jealousy or loneliness is a huge change; now we see the Doctor closer to Susan’s position and he does not like it.
Coming at the end of ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, where she’s seen a lot of people killed and the Doctor pick up a gun and announce that he’s going to kill Davros (who Tegan presumably hasn’t heard of), Tegan’s leaving scene is very close to being perfect.
Firstly there’s the line “It’s stopped being fun”, which begs the question of when it started being fun for her, but that’s ignorable. Secondly, and this is more about personal taste than an inconsistency in characterisation, there’s a case to be made for Less is More here. Tegan runs from the Doctor and Turlough as he begs her not to leave “like this”, which causes the Doctor to consider his actions before he and Turlough leave in the TARDIS. As it’s dematerialising, Tegan runs back in has one final line. For me it’s just a line too far, and Tegan being unable to say anything at all would have been more powerful, especially for the self-described “mouth on legs”.
However, that’s more window dressing rather than substance: the reasons for Tegan leaving are excellent: it’s a commentary on the stories and Doctor we’ve seen recently, and a plausible emotional response to them. It sets the Doctor on his way to ‘The Caves of Androzani’ where the show comes even closer than ever to paying off a sustained period of grimdark storytelling. Adric’s death might be more famous, but Tegan’s departure is much better writing from Eric Saward and deserves more plaudits for it.
Actor Deborah Watling wanted to leave, and so Victoria goes in ‘Fury from the Deep’. Here the character has a plausible response to screaming at monsters and getting into trouble: she leaves. She says that she’s having a miserable time screaming and getting into trouble, but isn’t sure if she can go: her father died saving the Doctor, she’s an orphan out of her own time. The Doctor intervenes and suggests a family she can stay with.
Most importantly, the Doctor and Jamie stay an extra day to give her time to think it over, and the Doctor stresses that it must be her decision. On top of this, the final scene of the episode is the Doctor quietly trying to make Jamie feel better about her leaving. Rather than the usual one scene and gone deal we have something drawn out, stemming from character, full of warmth and empathy.
1. Clara Oswald
Potentially eternal life you say? A walking dead person? Maybe lose the dead body aspect of it and this idea has legs. ‘Hell Bent’ is a divisive episode (referential meta-commentary on Doctor Who isn’t what everyone was looking for from a season finale) and the ideas in it are incredibly pointed: the grieving Doctor overthrows Rassilon, shooting a potential ally to retrieve Clara from a moment before her death, and tries to wipe her mind to save her life, addressing the long-term trends of companion departures head on.
Rather than a Gallifreyan epic, this is focussed on one relationship and the shade it casts on the Doctor’s behaviour, all the while dancing in and around threads from other plotlines. The Doctor wanted Gallifrey back so badly, but now it’s simply a means to an end for him to bring Clara back.
Clara’s final story is often compared to Donna’s departure because of the mindwipe element and the idea of Clara being a Doctor-like figure in her own right – here realised rather than excised – but looking at this list you can see how it harks back all the way to Susan: the Doctor thinks he knows what is best and often gets it wrong, and what seems like extreme behaviour in this story is actually pretty standard. Here he gets properly called out on this behaviour, the show finally able to address this in an intimate rather than epic setting.
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