The five best companion departures in Classic Doctor Who
I recently re-watched The Hand of Fear, a Doctor Who story from 1976 most famous for the departure of long serving companion Sarah Jane Smith. Actress Elisabeth Sladen had been with the show for three years during a time when each episode would routinely get 10m-11m viewers. She had become a huge star and the announcement of her departure even made the front pages of national newspapers. And yet, on the night, her exit from the show was both sudden and low key. Sarah Jane’s farewell felt, dare I say, little more than ‘tagged on’ to the end of The Hand of Fear’s concluding episode.
But this was so often the way in the old days; a companion’s narrative rarely had a clear beginning/middle/end. Instead when an actor playing a companion decided to leave, their character would typically make a knee jerk decision to exit the TARDIS at the end of a random story – and the Doctor would shoot off without giving them a chance to reconsider.
And so Sarah Jane is unceremoniously dropped back on Earth because the Doctor has a sudden solo adventure to take care of. With even greater haste, Leela is left behind to marry a man she’s known for, what, a few hours? Traumatised Tegan elects to stay in London following a terrifying adventure involving the Daleks and, goodness, the Doctor can’t dematerialise the TARDIS quickly enough.
I still haven’t a clue why Mel leaves at the end of Dragonfire. She just …. leaves. And let’s not forget poor old Dodo Chaplet who doesn’t even get a farewell scene; she just vanishes half way through The War Machines and makes an off-screen decision to stay on Earth. The grumpy First Doctor says “Oh, sod her then” (I’m paraphrasing) and leaves with his shiny new companions Ben and Polly. He doesn’t even take the time to check if Dodo’s really ok.
I hope you can see that, in Classic Who, there was a tone of brutal abandon in the manner with which the Doctor’s companions were often dispensed with. But every now again a companion’s departure, either purposely or accidentally, was handled extremely well showing great respect for both the character and viewers. I want to pay tribute to those occasions, and so here are my five personal favourite companion departures from Classic Doctor Who.
Ian and Barbara
In the show’s early days, the Doctor could not control the TARDIS and so Ian and Barbara travelled with him for two years mainly because he was repeatedly unable to return them to 1960s London. Their wish to return home was often mentioned, as was the Doctor’s inability to fulfil that wish. And so, when presented with an opportunity to use an alternative time machine to make that trip, Ian and Barbara choose to do exactly that. “I want to sit in a pub and drink a pint of beer again,” shouts Ian, angrily, when the Doctor calls them “idiots” for wanting to use dangerous Dalek technology to make the trip back to their own time. “I want to walk in a park and watch a cricket match,” Ian continues. “Above all, I want to belong somewhere. Do something. Instead of this aimless drifting around in space.”
After a more conciliatory conversation with them both, the Doctor agrees to assist and uses the Dalek’s ship to successfully return them home. And although one could argue this falls into the ‘tagged on’ category of companion departures, it absolutely fits Ian and Barbara’s characters and their story. Of course they would grab the first opportunity to get home, no matter how suddenly it presented itself. And the Doctor’s objections, whilst presented as being concern for their safety, has a subtle undertone of sadness; he just didn’t want his friends to leave him.
The Time Lords assigned Romana to aid the Doctor in his pursuit of The Key to Time. When that quest was over, she (and we) knew it would only be a matter of time before she was summoned back to Gallifrey. But what we witness with Romana, and particularly with her second incarnation, is her absolute joy in accompanying the Doctor on his travels through time and space. And so at the conclusion of the story Meglos, when she finally receives instructions to return home, it is no surprise that she does not wish to go. But fate intervenes and she and the Doctor find themselves trapped in another universe known as E-Space.
This is fortuitous indeed, as it gives Romana the perfect opportunity to evade the Time Lords for good. She chooses to stay behind in E-Space and commit herself to a great cause; helping free a race called Tharils from slavery. Although her departure in the concluding moments of Warriors Gate is undeniably swift, I like that it is foreshadowed throughout this season – it certainly feels as though the writers were planning the method of Romana’s departure in advance rather than just tagging it on to the end of a story. And so of course Romana did not go back to Gallifrey. Why would she? And good for her!
In 1982, millions of Doctor Who fans watched open mouthed as they witnessed a very rare thing; the Doctor failing to save the life of a companion. Adric, the boy genius from the planet Alzarius, dies whilst foiling a Cyberman plot to destroy the Earth. The reason I like Adric’s departure so much isn’t just because, as a 12-year-old, I watched in raw and unbridled shock as one of the Doctor’s companions is killed (although I did). It is because, in retrospect, we can consider the very real possibility that Adric was always going to die; his heroic demise was predestined, and his fate was sealed the moment he first met the Doctor.
For context, Adric died preventing a space freighter, controlled by Cyber-technology, from crashing into 26th century Earth. By using his unparalleled mathematical skills, he was able to override the Cybermen’s device, but this sent the freighter hurtling back in time. And so instead of crashing into 26th century Earth, it crashes into pre-historic Earth; it is the freighter that causes the extinction of the dinosaurs. All of human history and, indeed, the reality the Doctor knows and loves is entirely dependent on Adric’s death. And I do realise this is something of a retro-fit and was probably not something the writers at the time did on purpose, but I love the idea of pre-destination in Adric’s story. And so perhaps the TARDIS did not enter into E-Space randomly, and perhaps the Doctor’s trip to Alzarius was far from accidental. In subsequent stories, it is mentioned how often the TARDIS keeps landing on Earth, even when The Doctor isn’t aiming for Earth.
And so perhaps this isn’t the TARDIS malfunctioning, but trying to get Adric to the right time and place to fulfil his grim destiny. Even the opening episode of Earthshock, Adric’s final story, alludes to his fate; as the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa review the fossilised remains of a dinosaur, the Doctor admits he does not know what collided with the Earth to cause their extinction. “I've always meant to slip back and find out,” he says. Three episodes later, he does exactly that. Predestination is, of course, a topic the new version of Doctor Who would fully embrace (Rose and Bad Wolf, for instance, or Donna and the Doctor/Donna). But, now, I cannot watch episodes with Adric without seeing all sorts of clues as to his final fate.
Nyssa, for me, is the perfect example of how companions in Classic Doctor Who did not always get the attention they deserved from the writers. The emotional impact of their adventures with the Doctor is rarely explored, and any grief they might experience through the loss of a loved one is quickly dispensed with. And, by anyone’s standards, Nyssa is certainly put through the wringer; her step-mother and then her father is murdered by the Master (who also steals her father’s form) and then she watches helplessly as the Master’s machinations spiral out of control and her entire home, the planet Traken, is destroyed. Orphaned and homeless, young Nyssa joins the Doctor on his travels but her grief and her feelings about being the last of her kind are never explored. What we do see, however, are the best of her qualities; her incredible scientific expertise and her immense kindness, and this is why I lover her departure at the end of Terminus. Yes, again, one could argue it was a little sudden.
But throughout Terminus we see Nyssa using her Traken scientific knowledge and her great compassion to help improve the outcomes for a group of people called Lazars, who are suffering from a leprosy-like disease. And in the end, she elects to stay on Terminus in order to transform it from a leper colony into actual hospital, with Nyssa working to perfect a cure. “I've enjoyed every moment of my time on the TARDIS, and I'll miss you both,” she says, “but here I have a chance to put into practice the skills I learnt on Traken”. Her tearful farewell with Tegan was particularly touching, but her argument that she could finally put her Traken knowledge to good use is compelling. And there is certainly a sense that much of this episode was created to provide a positive reason for her decision to leave.
The mysterious Vislor Turlough was an unusual companion, even by Doctor Who standards, because when he first joins the Doctor on his travels it is with the express intention of murdering him. In return for the Black Guardian saving him from certain death, he accepts his dark mission but, of course, eventually comes good and saves the Doctor instead. Throughout his travels with the Doctor we actually know little about Turlough, apart from the fact he’s an alien who is essentially in-hiding at a public school on 20th century Earth. Clearly, he’s from a scientifically advanced world and is unphased by the sudden reality of time travel. But that’s pretty much it and it is not until his final story, Planet of Fire, that we discover the truth about him. The reason Turlough’s departure is one of my favourites is that, unusually, the writers focus almost entirely on him and his mysterious past for his last appearance.
No tagged-on exit here! And so it is revealed Turlough and his family were involved in a civil war on his home world of Trion. His mother was killed whilst he, his father and brother were sent into political exile, which is how Turlough came to be on Earth. By the end of Planet of Fire he is reunited with his brother and finds they are both able to return to their home world as free men, and so elects to leave the Doctor and go back to Trion.
Many people will remember Planet of Fire for other reasons; new companion Peri appears for the first time, the villainous Master seems to be permanently killed off, and the Doctor’s rarely seen robot companion Kamelion is destroyed. But for me, there is a completeness about Turlough’s farewell that few other Classic Who companions enjoyed. Here we see a companion whose story has that all important beginning/middle/end. “I don't want to go, Doctor,” he says. “I've learnt a lot from you. But I have to go back to Trion. It's my home.” And with that, Turlough’s story is complete.