Martha, Clara, and the Curse of the Rebound Companion
Doctor Who is a great show because of its constantly changing cast. Because the Doctor lives for much longer than the average human, and also ends up in very dangerous situations, the people he travels with often change after a while. Adding in his own regeneration – and therefore the changing of actors playing him – and the Doctor Who of ten years ago hardly looks the same as the Doctor Who of today.
Still, some runs are better than others (I, myself, am partial to the Tenth Doctor) and some companions are better than others.
I got the idea for this post in part because of the announcement that this is Jenna Coleman’s (who plays Clara Oswald) last season – and people’s relief around it – as well as a conversation I had with Robyn about Martha Jones, the companion of season 3 and occasional traveller of season 4. Martha isn’t Robyn’s favorite companion, but she is mine.
Initially, when watching Who for the first time, I liked her for the simple reason that she was black. That may seem superficial, but to me the idea of a black girl traveling in time is revolutionary. There are so few spaces (especially in the past) that are safe for black women, and for Martha to still travel with the Doctor – and eventually save the world –is amazing to me.
After having watched all the episodes, I get why Martha isn’t often at the top of people’s lists (it’s difficult when you have the Ponds and Donna Noble to contend with) but she is still my favorite.
While rewatching some of her episodes, I realized that I also love her because even without the Doctor she is sure in herself. She is studying to be a doctor and while she travels in the TARDIS, she is clear that being a doctor is her overall goal. Unlike pretty much every other companion – except for maybe Clara – she is the only companion who doesn’t look into her future and see only the Doctor.
However, like Clara, Martha suffered from another issue, one I like to call the Curse of the Rebound Companion. Martha Jones came into the Doctor’s life – and onto our TV screens – after the heartbreaking departure of Rose Tyler. Now, after all this time, Rose is my least favorite companion but she is still the first companion of the Doctor Who reboot, and therefore holds a special place in the hearts of many, namely the writers of the show at the time. At the beginning of season 3, the Doctor is mourning the loss of Rose, but it is clear that the writers were too. They had a hard time with Martha’s characterization, giving her a crush on the Doctor after he’s just lost the woman he loved. It forces Martha to become the whiny sidekick, jealous that the Doctor doesn’t like her like he liked Rose, which makes it hard to watch season 3 without getting annoyed. Luckily, they are able to rectify it once Martha becomes a recurring character in season 4, as they are able to ditch the crush and just have her be the valuable asset that she is.
A similar thing has happened to Clara Oswald, the current companion of the Doctor. Clara came after the devastating departure of the Ponds, who were the Eleventh Doctor’s companions during most of his run. Clara came in the midst of the Doctor mourning the loss of his best friend Amy, and it almost feels like his letting Clara on the TARDIS – to find out why she keeps popping up all over his timeline – was mainly just a distraction from his grief over losing Amy. For the last half of season 7, we are bored with Clara and her “mystery” because it’s clear that the writer’s aren’t fully invested either; they too are dealing with their grief over losing Amy and Rory.
Only in season 8 – once the Doctor has regenerated – do we really get to see who Clara is, and (with the exception of the Danny Pink subplot) who she is is badass. She is very similar to Martha in the aspect that she has a life outside of the Doctor. Season 8 is much more about balancing those two lives, but that is actually interesting – especially when you take out Danny (who, if you can tell, I really don’t care for). Clara doesn’t take anything from the Doctor, and is – as she puts it in one episode – his “carer,” meaning that she cares so he doesn’t have to. Clara is a good fit with the Twelfth Doctor because of his dark and seemingly uncaring nature – something much different from Eleven’s incarnation. I actually like season 8 for this reason (though I dislike it for others): Clara is able to get out from under the shadow of Amy Pond. Unfortunately, the writing of her still wasn’t consistently great, but it felt much less like a mourning and more like they just didn’t know what to do with her.
One of the difficulties of having beloved characters in a show that changes it’s characters so often is the pressure of creating a new one just as interesting while also getting over the old ones. Both Martha and Clara embody this struggle, though I still love one more than the other.
1. Martha Jones
2. Amy and Rory Pond
3. Donna Noble
4. Clara Oswald
5. Rose Tyler
*Though River and Missy will forever be at the top.