Why do Doctor Who companions leave?

If you got the chance to travel in time and space, with an immortal alien, and got to rescue the universe again and again - would you ever give up that life? Would you be content to go from unravelling the mysteries of the universe and fighting DALEKs to, I don't know, marrying a stranger or going back to your old life?

The joy of Doctor Who is that we - the viewers - are the constant companion. We might be able to take a little break now and again - but the Doctor is always waiting to take us on another adventure. There is no way that we would voluntarily leave. Given half the chance, I dare say most of us would jump in the TARDIS without even saying goodbye to our families.

The classic era of Doctor Who treats the characters as amnesiacs. Very rarely do they learn or develop from one story to the next. There is hardly ever a character arc and so, it seems, companions wander off with no real motivation1. In some cases, they literally say "Well, time for me to be going then!" and head off into the universe.

Part of me thinks this is because a lot of the men who wrote Doctor Who didn't really understand that other people are people. If you're the sort of person who loves sci-fi and hates dealing with reality, it's easy to miss that your friends are changing. When they announce one day that they're not coming round to watch TV and, instead, they're going out with a girl it can come as quite a shock.

In the modern era of Doctor Who, the characters are a bit more fleshed out. They grow as the series progresses and, for the most part, have somewhat believable reasons for leaving.

I'm slowly working my way through the episodes of the 20th century TV show that I missed. So here's a quick look at the companions and why they left. It only looks at the companions who leave during a TV show. I've also ignored those who come back for specials, or who only stay for a couple of episodes. It's the classic era because Captain Jack Harkness is too complicated. And River Song is complicateder.

Where possible, I've linked directly to the companion's exit scene.

Susan - The Dalek Invasion of Earth

This one kind of disproves my thesis! The Doctor's grand-daughter falls in love after spending a brief amount of time with a rebel fighter. But, crucially, she doesn't choose to leave. It is The Doctor who locks the doors of the TARDIS and, essentially, forces her to go. Perhaps, he thinks, as a Gallifreyan2 she will eventually regenerate and / or build her own TARDIS?

Their parting is oddly touching. The Doctor knows immediately that this is the end of their journey. Barbara too spots the romance. Only blundering Ian is oblivious; just like all boys are to the feelings of their female friends.

"Don't make me choose between you and him. Please!"

Susan's heartbreak is evident. If only all other companions got the emotional farewell she did. Susan sets the template for how hard it must be to leave. Just like her, we've grown up with Doctor Who. And all of us eventually need to grow out of the show and forge our own way in the world.

Ian and Barbara - The Chase

There's no particular reason for Ian and Barbara to leave. This is an adventure like any other; they're in no more peril than normal. Ian nearly prat-falls off a tower, as does Barbara, but that's about it.

"Ian, do you realise... we could get home?" It comes out of nowhere. It isn't built up, it just happens.

The Doctor is explosive in his fury:

Doctor: You'll end up a couple of burnt cinders flying around in space. You idiots! You are absolute idiots!"
Barbara: We are not idiots! We want to go home!

The 1st Doctor is a grumpy sod, but this is on another level. It is abuse, pure and simple.

The Ian♥Babs montage at the end is particularly lovely. We also get a glimpse of the pain felt by The Doctor. Not at his actions, oh no! His pain is about his personal grief. Other people are toys - handed back once they're no longer fun.

When fans decide to leave, The Doctor discards them. If we don't enjoy the ride any more, he certainly isn't going to change in on our behalf.

Vicki - The Myth Makers

In the improbably titled "Horse of Destruction" - a missing episode - Vicki leaves us. A girl from the 25th century falls in love with 8th century BCE warrior Troilus. Reinforcing the Doctor Who stereotype that girls are fickle-friends who will run off with an unsuitable boy at a moment's notice. They always go for rough boys who probably play football, rather than the quiet and sensible boys who watch Doctor Who.

At least Vicki's romance develops throughout the story, it isn't sprung on us.

Steven: You'd better go. In any case, Troilus will die of jealousy if he knows you're with me.
Vicki: And what is that supposed to mean?
Steven: Oh, come off it Vicki. The way you two were carrying on...
Vicki: Troilus has been very kind to me and I'm very fond of him. And if all you can do is make fun...

She never actually gets to say goodbye to anyone, which is a pity.

Katarina - The Daleks' Master Plan

Literally no-one remembers Katarina! She starts out thinking The Doctor is a God and, but a few episodes later, is killed off. Again, the episode is missing, but there are audio versions.

Katarina fucks up. There's no other way to put it. She's trapped in an airlock with her hostage-taker. She momentarily breaks free and, rather than opening the door back to the ship, she spaces herself and her captor.

That's our greatest fear, isn't it? We're too primitive to travel with The Doctor. We know that we'd constantly be asking annoying questions and we'd screw up massively.

The Doctor allows himself - and us - a brief moment of delusion:

Steven: She pressed the wrong button, Doctor.
Doctor: She may have wanted to, dear boy. She wanted to save our lives.

A moment later, he confesses the truth:

Doctor: She didn't understand. She couldn't understand.

He is utterly irresponsible.

Steven - The Savages

In his first appearance, Steven says:

Help yourself to a piece of eternity.
- Steven, The Chase

And that is where his character now rests. The Savages is another one of many missing stories. There is a brief clip on the Lost In Time DVD box set with some off-air audio mixed with a snippet of 8mm footage, so we get a tantalising snippet of his departure.

It does rather feel like The Doctor tricks Steven into staying. Steven spends most of the previous episodes moaning and complaining. So The Doctor disposes of him, much to Dodo's distress. She knows - and we know - exactly what fate awaits her.

Dodo Chaplet - The War Machines

Dodo is our contemporary. She's a girl from the Swinging Sixties. And she is discarded like a ragdoll.

Partway through the story, she is hypnotised by WOTAN. The Doctor figures this out and deprograms her. He knows that she is now a liability and sends her away. He flings her off the country, never to be seen again. It's eerily similar to what happens to Donna much later.

Towards the end, Polly brings word from Dodo saying she'd rather stay home thank-you-very-much. The Doctor makes a great show of pretending to be upset. He has dispatched her effortlessly. Doctor Who relentlessly drives away those who aren't able to handle it.

Polly & Ben - The Faceless Ones

Polly & Ben are both drugged and frozen for the majority of this story. And then they just walk away. Because they've landed in London in the 1960s and:

Ben: It's good to feel normal again.

It's a neat out. They've returned to the same date that they left. They are older and wiser, but the world hasn't moved on without them. Is that when you'd choose to go? You survived the terror and have a chance to restart your life from where you left off. Perhaps they are sensible.

Ben sums up their dilemma:

Ben: We won't leave Doctor. If you really need us.

But The Doctor doesn't need them. He's spent several episodes without their help and, apparently, not really caring much about where they are.

Ironically, it's Jamie who has a touch of romance which looks just for a second like it might cause him to stay.

Victoria Waterfield - Fury from the Deep

Again, like Katarina and Jamie (and Leela to come) she's a girl from the past. Adorably, her screams are so piercing that she can drove away the monsters!

Which is just as well as that's pretty much all she gets to do in this story.

Oh? Like you'd do any better?

In the end, she is traumatised. She has spent weeks ripped out of time and being terrified.

Victoria: I'm always frighted! Oh Doctor, I can't!

The Doctor is very tender with her. Far more than he has been in the path. He even repeatedly chides Jamie that Victoria has to make her own decision.

Jamie McCrimmon & Zoe Heriot - The War Games

Jamie is a throwback to Katarina. The modern show has never had a "historic" companion - and for good reason! It does become tiresome having The Doctor explain the simplest bit of technology to a companion who doesn't even understand electricity.

Zoe is another girl-from-the-future. Together they make an uneasy cipher for the viewers' desires.

Transported to (the as-yet unnamed) planet of Gallifrey, theirs is one of the cruellest exists from the show. Jamie and Zoe are exiled from heaven by a set of cruel gods. They repeatedly beg the Time Lords to let them continue the adventure.

And that, in its own way, is the perfect ending. We, the constant companion, don't want Troughton to leave us. Change is far too scary. Of course, we didn't like him a first - but we've grown to love the shambling little clown. And now it is over.

Doctor: Well, goodbye, Jamie.
Jamie: But Doctor! Surely we could...
Doctor: [Firmly] Goodbye, Jamie.
Jamie: I won't forget you, you know?
Zoe: Goodbye, Doctor. Will we ever meet again?
Doctor: Again? Now, Zoe, you and I know, time is relative, isn't it?
Doctor: (To the Time Lord) They'll forget me, won't they?

Will they? Yes. It is only when you rewatch Doctor Who that you realise just how little of it you remember.

Liz Shaw - Inferno

Doctor Who's first in-colour companion. She's feisty! She's a scientist! She's capable of so much!

She doesn't even get a send-off.

Dr Shaw is everything the fan wants to be. If we were a companion, we'd be just as good as Miss Shaw. She's able to understand the technobabble and willing to stand up to the Brigadier. So would we!

And at the start of the new season, she's gone. I don't think Pertwee's Doctor ever mentions her again.

Jo Grant - The Green Death

Jo is the opposite of Liz. She's a ditz. I remember when the "fans" started squawking about how Billie Piper was too girlie to be a companion - they obviously didn't remember Jo.

Unlike earlier companions, Jo isn't thrown through time 'n' space on her adventures. It is perhaps rather charming to think that her work with UNIT is just a job to her.

At least Jo's love affair doesn't come out of nowhere. She does spend a lot of time being a nursemaid to a man she known for a handful of days. She seems distraught that her incompetence might have caused the whole sorry mess. Perhaps it is guilt that drives her away?

The Doctor looks genuinely confused at her announcement. How could anyone give up a life of excitement for the boredom of domestic bliss?

Jo: You don't mind, do you?

The Doctor takes the English farewell of leaving without saying goodbye. He too is tired of the trope of girls leaving the game to go and play with boys.

Harry Sullivan - Terror of the Zygons / The Android Invasion

Harry just... nopes out. He's offered a return trip in the TARDIS with The Doctor and Sarah Jane and simply says:

Harry: I think I'll stick to Intercity this time, Doctor.

And that's it. He shows up a few stories later in yet another body-snatcher story. He gets untied by Sarah-Jane and is never seen again.

How many of your friends just drift out of your life? You say "see you later" and then never see them again. It is the way of all adult relationships - work colleagues who leave you there number, but you never call.

At the end of The Android Invasion, Sarah-Jane appears to mock Harry's former exit:

SJS: I'm going home. And I'm going by taxi!
Doctor: I'll make you an offer; I'll take you home.
SJS: How can I refuse?

It's an uncharacteristic and mean little jibe. Harry deserved better.

Sarah Jane Smith - The Hand of Fear

SJS's departure is often mis-remembered as being another character who doesn't want to go. She - like so many others - is traumatised. Towards the end of the episode she says:

SJS: I must be mad. I'm sick of being cold and wet and hypnotised left right and centre. I'm sick of being shot at, savaged by bug-eyed monsters, never knowing if I'm coming or going or been ... Oh, and boy am I sick of that sonic screwdriver! I'm going to pack my goodies and I'm going home. I said, I'm going to pack my goodies and I am going home!

She literally packs her things and is prepared to storm out. The Doctor, who hasn't really been listening to her, is recalled to Gallifrey and has to abandon her - like an unwanted puppy. At that moment, Sarah-Jane is distraught. She was only having a tantrum, she didn't expect consequences.

SJS: I was only joking, I didn't mean it.

It is grimly pathetic. It isn't the way any of us would want to go. She is kicked out without warning. She's done nothing wrong. The Doctor just has somewhere better to be.

Leela - The Invasion of Time

Leela joins a long line of girls who just want to settle down with a man. The Doctor is a boy having adventures - adventures which absolutely do not including kissing.

The problem is; Leela is thick. But, to The Doctor, all of his companions are barely above the level of savages anyway. So her motivations makes sense within the confines of this story. She doesn't understand the game that we're playing and wants to play with someone else now.

At least K9's explanation for leaving - to look after Leela - makes a funny sort of sense

Leela: Will he be lonely, K9?
K9: Insufficient data, mistress.

Romana - Warriors' Gate

Romana's leaving is such a disappointment. As I wrote in my review of Warrior's Gate, Romana's story comes to an abrupt end. Her frustration at being recalled to The Division Gallifrey could have been an important emotional arc for her. As could her abhorrence of the Lion-Folk's enslavement. Instead, she just says "Byeeeeeeeeee!"

There's a whole arc of stories which could have been a build up to her expressing her frustrations with The Doctor. Or her slow descent into resentment. Or she could have opposed the way The Doctor dealt with the situation. But there's nothing.

Adric - Earthshock

The hate directed to Adric is directly proportional to the loathing nerds have for seeing themselves presented accurately on screen. He is Wesley Crusher - a plain mirror to reflect our neuroses.

Adric is, I think it is fair to say, bullied and derided by the other companions. Adric chooses to stay behind on a spaceship as he's the only one who can unlock the controls. He is too slow. You can dress up his exit as noble self-sacrifice - but it is probably suicide. He'd rather die on a crashing ship than return to the constant humiliation on the TARDIS.

Adric: Just leave!

His death does reverberate around the companions and The Doctor. Their guilt at his exit is directly proportional to their complicity.

Nyssa - Terminus

Nyssa's defection happens in the background - literally. She has a tête-à-tête with Tegan in the background while The Doctor is moralising.

Her departure almost makes narrative sense. She is a scientist who is frustrated at not being able to do proper science on the TARDIS. She gets a chance to practise her craft on... a derelict space-station full of the murderous and infectious!

Just as in previous departures, it is the other companion who feels the loss more keenly. The Doctor makes a half-hearted effort to check she understand the ramifications, but there is no talking sense into her. She trades the universe for a minor clerical position.

It is a deeply disappointing end to her story.

Tegan Jovanka - Resurrection of the Daleks

Tegan wasn't even supposed to be here today! She is the opposite of a Doctor Who fan. All she wants is to go home. She is desperate to escape from this madman who kidnapped her. Tegan's arc is one of trauma. She is suffering from PTSD and one day the damn breaks.

Tegan is the closest we ever see to the horrors inflicted on the companions. As such, hers is one of the few departures that makes narrative sense.

Tegan: I think I'm sick of it
Doctor: You think I wanted it this way?
Tegan: No. It's just that I don't think I can go on [...] It's stopped being fun, Doctor.

That's how fans leave the show too. When the story outpaces what we can stand, we quit.

For once it seems The Doctor is saddened by the departure. Not for the loss of his companion, but because of what he has lost of his identity. All he can say is "It seems I must mend my ways". Which, of course, is how the show survives. Casting off old fans and reinventing itself for a new generation.

Vislor Turlough - Planet of Fire

I wish the modern series would have a "baddie" companion. Someone to make the audience boo their screens.

Turlough goes home. The Doctor doesn't seem at all interested either emotionally or intellectually about the departure. As for our interest, well, like Tegan it makes narrative sense. He is no longer an outcast at home and can start his life again.

Peri Brown - Mindwarp / The Ultimate Foe

There are two ways to look at Peri's exit. In Mindwarp Peri is beaten, tortured, and has her mind wiped. She is utterly destroyed. It isn't a noble or self-sacrificing death. It is the realistic fate of all who travel with The Doctor.

The devastation felt by The Doctor is evident. First Katarina, then Adric, and now Peri.

And then "The Ultimate Foe" plays on the producers' worst instincts; Peri got married. Yes, we're back to this old trope. I guess most of us would prefer being hitched to Brian Blessed rather than death. But it seems a bit of a narrative cop-out.

Mel Bush - Dragonfire

Mel's exit makes no sense. She decides to go off with Sabolom Glitz - a man with whom she quarrels endlessly. Perhaps this is the writer not understanding why some people stay in toxic relationships? Why do girls stop playing with us and go off with ruggedly handsome boys? Mel is buzzy and happy, and not overly traumatised by her experiences. But she acts like this departure has been a long time coming. It's just baffling.

She literally says:

Mel: Well, I suppose it's time.
Doctor: Time? Funny old business, time. It delights in frustrating your plans. All Kane's bitterness and hatred thwarted by a quirk of time.
Mel: No, I meant I suppose it's time I should be going.

Mel is the casual fan. Getting to the end of one season and going "That was all well and good, but I've better things to do. What's on ITV?"


Perhaps it is for the best that we never see Ace leave. She lives on in our memory. It is impossible to watch the old Doctor Who once you've been exposed to the new ones. It is ploddingly slow and the characters have very little motivation other than to move the plot forward. Are the sets and special effects a bit dicey? Yes, but that doesn't excuse the fact that the companion - our cipher - is constantly treated with disdain.

Ace's immortality allows us to believe (just for a second) that we can stay with "our" Doctor forever and nothing will change.

And now?

Perhaps I was too harsh. In my memories, the companions leave because they're bored. But true-fans like us can never really get bored, can we? As we grow older we recognise the horror of being a companion. That's something the modern era does much better - we see the trauma inflicted on the companions and their families.

Imagine the TARDIS materialised in your back garden. Would you enter it? Would you willingly allow yourself to be abducted knowing the fate of the average companion, the brushes with death, the studied indifference of The Doctor, the pain it would cause?

  1. Obviously, in the real world, actors want to leave or are fired or die. But there's no excuse not to make the character have an interesting motivation. 
  2. And direct descendant of The Timeless Child. 

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5 thoughts on “Why do Doctor Who companions leave?”

  1. said on mstdn.social:

    @Edent Having watched the (extant) original series from cover to cover for the first time recently, I think I agree with almost all of this. The "oh, I'm staying to marry Z" thing was unbelievably arbitrary in almost every case (with the possible exception of Jo, where there was at least some attempt at increasing chemistry after an inauspicious start.

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  2. said on mstdn.social:

    @Edent However, I'd like to object to the comparison between Adric and Wesley Crusher. Wesley was, I think, massively maligned. I watched TNG with the expectation of a truly irritating character, but he really wasn't. Adric, however, was intensely irritating (with Victoriaaaaaaaa! a close second). Not particularly for the ubernerd personality, but for the combination of utter naïvety and/or self-interest. He was less trustworthy than Turlough, but without the plausible motivation.

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  3. said on bsky.app:

    There's a fairly important factor here that unlike the modern show the companions often end up in the TARDIS against their will, or by accident. Ian & Barbara wanting to get home is (just about) a recurring thread - The Chase is their first opportunity to do so. Ditto Polly & Ben.

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  4. said on bsky.app:

    It becomes less of a thing in later years when the Doctor can to some extent steer the TARDIS but you get it a bit - e.g. him trying to get Tegan back to Heathrow in Season 19. Harry Sullivan actually only travels by TARDIS twice and the first time it's by accident.

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  5. said on bsky.app:

    The thing about Mel, is we never see her arrive. On screen, anyway. She's brought in as a witness in ToTL having already been with the 6th Doctor for some time. So we don't know how long it's already been when she leaves. Filled in later, books? Audio? Probably. But not at the time.

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