Choosing a favorite companion is like being asked to choose between your children. It just can’t be done. So when Erin and I put this challenge together, I already knew there would be a fair amount of agonizing in my future. How can you possibly choose only one favorite? How can you land on a single name and block out all the amazing women who came before or after her?
That being said, I decided the best way to go about making this first–and frankly evil–choice was to lay down some ground rules for choosing a favorite companion, be it male or female or robot dog or shape-changing android. Otherwise I’ll sit here waffling for all eternity.
- Does the companion get to be more than a “damsel in distress” or simply someone for the Doctor to explain things to?
- Does the companion get to be clever and solve problems on their own?
- If the Doctor wasn’t in the show, would I still want to watch it?
This, I admit, doesn’t narrow down the field as much as I’d hoped, but after several days of agonizing, I realized there was only one name I kept returning to more than any other.
It has to be Liz Shaw.
Why? Well, how could she not be?
Early Doctor Who did better with creating strong female characters than they’re often given credit for. Or at least they start out that way. Often times, yes, the writing did go downhill very quickly after a strong start. But they did get their moments.
Think of Barbara, for instance. Or that time Polly figured out how to kill Cybermen with nail polish remover. Even some of the one-off characters did pretty well for themselves. For those who have braved it, I’m guessing a lot of people will now be thinking about Sara Kingdom in “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” But aside from her, does anyone remember Astrid in “The Enemy of the World?” Or Dr. Anne Travers in “Web of Fear”?
Well, you should.
The women kept getting cleverer and cleverer, especially by the end of the Troughton era. Zoe was amazingly brilliant and still kind enough to concede that the Doctor was almost as clever as she was. She set a much higher standard for what a female companion could–and SHOULD–be. And I think that may have influenced the creation of the next companion.
Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, played by Caroline John, was an accomplished and brilliant scientist that UNIT nabbed from Cambridge–mostly against her will, really. You can see how pissed off she is on her car journey into UNIT HQ during “Spearhead from Space.” Her introduction scene is probably one of the sassiest in Doctor Who‘s history. Right off the bat, she is SO DONE with the Brigadier and doesn’t particularly want to be helpful to him.
Fortunately for us, however, she gave in and stayed awhile. She may have only appeared in four (televised) stories*, but she certainly left an impression. Liz is everything you could want in a companion. She’s independent, brilliant, brave, sassy, strong enough to hold her own when the Doctor wasn’t around (which was fairly frequently during her time with him), and tougher than anyone (read: The Brigadier) ever gave her credit for. And, since it was a prerequisite especially in those days, there’s no getting around the fact that she’s beautiful.**
Liz is a woman who gets shit done. Despite her skepticism when the Doctor first turns up with a new face that the Brig isn’t entirely sure about, Liz just shrugs off all the alien talk and gets back to work with her new colleague. And together they save the world WITH SCIENCE. Later in “The Silurians” (yes, I’m calling it that because the “official” title should never ever be spoken of), she goes down into the caves at Wenley Moor with the Doctor (after the Brig told her not to), she gets attacked by a Silurian in a barn (and then gets up and carries the hell on), and then uses the Doctor’s notes to figure out a formula to save the world’s population from the Silurian plague. Then, in “Ambassadors of Death,” after a hell of a chase, she gets kidnapped by the baddies to help an ex-colleague deal with mysterious radiation creatures. She works at every turn to stop them, knowing how likely they are to kill her. But does she whimper and whine and cower? No.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on Inferno.
Liz is a badass. She’s unafraid to go toe-to-toe with any bad guy or monster they can throw at her. To say nothing of the Doctor or the Brigadier. Her tenure is a masterclass in what a companion ought to be, and if you look closely, you can still see that resonating in the companions of today. No one will convince me otherwise.
It’s sad that she never got a proper goodbye onscreen as she left UNIT to go back to her work at Cambridge. But she did leave us with a parting gift, in a way. Liz apparently told the Brigadier that the Doctor didn’t need another scientist. She said he only needed someone to pass him his test tubes and to tell him how brilliant he was. This, of course, is the job for which Jo Grant was hired. Like Liz, she too turned out to be so much more than that in the end. And I believe Dr. Shaw paved the way for that to happen.
So, really, I shouldn’t have worried so much about who to choose.
It was ALWAYS going to be Liz Shaw.
Who is your favorite Classic female companion? Let us know in the comments!
* Liz does, thankfully, appear in some of the novels, comics, and audios. I can personally recommend her Companion Chronicles stories from Big Finish. She also gets a proper goodbye scene with the Doctor at the end of The Scales of Injustice by Gary Russell.
** Despite everything Caroline John says in the commentary during that first scene. I would also like to point out that this is the same commentary where Nicholas Courtney complains about how his arse looked in those early UNIT uniforms. Caroline–on behalf of us all, I suspect–refutes this by simply saying “gorgeous” repeatedly. Lovely woman.