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TARDIS Team Dynamics in Doctor Who: How Many Companions Are Too Many Companions?

There have only been a few times in the history of Doctor Who when there was a four person crew inhabiting the TARDIS for any substantial amount of time.

Sydney Newman created the basic concept, where an old man called the Doctor travels through time and space in a machine with his granddaughter, and two teachers. It was to be an educational program that entertained within the the realm of science fiction. He handed it to Verity Lambert to produce, who cast it and turned to Waris Hussein to direct the first story. 

Apart from these creators being brilliant, the crew of the TARDIS was just as important. There was a comprehensive cross-section within these four travelers. 

Two men, two women. 

One old, two adults, one youngster. 

Two aliens, two humans. 

One student, two teachers, one tetchy scientific genius. 

The specific crafting of the crew was very important to how the stories were told, and who they would provide for the audience to identify with. The Doctor was a brilliant and aged mystery man who sometimes schemed and manipulated. Ian Chesterton was a science teacher, whose knowledge would come in handy during their adventures as would his ability to utilize judo or deliver a right cross. Barbara Wright was a history teacher, whose knowledge was also valuable as the team traveled back through Earth’s history. Susan mostly screamed a lot but the kids could identify with her as they hid behind the couch. 

This team dynamic had something for everyone to like, admire, and identify with. 

Ian and Barbara were initially whisked away in the the TARDIS against their will by a fearful Doctor, who didn’t want them ratting Susan and him out to the authorities! The internal conflict was in place immediately, and played out through the months to come. The team itself often bickered amongst itself, but there was just as much care and admiration as time wore on. After a while, they actually became a family, having shared so many trials and tribulations together. And when Susan left, Vicki came in, and nicely filled out the roster.

This expertly-crafted crew was mostly down to the wonderful Verity Lambert and her team. Turns out, it was really the last time the application of a four member TARDIS crew was successfully accomplished in the past 60 (ish) years. There were brief, transitional quartets, but nothing really long-standing or planned for. 

As to the show’s other notable quartets…

After initial hesitation, I purchased the Blu-ray set of Season 19, or as my USA version declares it, “Peter Davison, The Complete Season One.” Yeah, I know.

This gave me a good excuse to rewatch a season which I felt for decades was uneven at best.

Thanks to the somnambulistic scripting of Christopher H. Bidmead, I once again fell asleep during Castrovalva Part 3. Wish I had a Zero Cabinet. Still annoyed that JNT’s crew couldn’t even get the continuity on the Doctor’s footwear right, from the Fourth to the Fifth.

I found myself far more impressed with Four to Doomsday (believe it or not) — this was the first story they filmed, thus giving Peter some time to get settled before his premiere story. The interesting thing is, I enjoy his Doctor more here. He reminded me of the early days of Tennant and Smith , when they just got there and hadn’t quite gotten the handle on the part yet. He wasn’t quite as polite yet. More on that later. 

Kinda. Stark, stylish, highly thought of. Overrated?

The Visitation is a far more solid entry, maybe my favourite of the season. Complete with Terileptils — wonderful, colourful monsters. Wouldn’t mind seeing them come back. 

Black Orchid was proof that you could do an interesting historical.

Earthshock has aged pretty well, even if a lot of the acting hasn’t. 

Time Flight. Season 19 may win the prize for most boring first and last stories. 

But one thing that struck me was the team dynamic. 

During his time as producer, John Nathan-Turner was not known for his expertise in casting or fashion choices. Perhaps the only things he really had going for him was his love and devotion to the show, and that’s to his credit.

But he brought Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, and Janet Fielding in to greet Peter Davison’s Doctor when he arrived. It’s a remote and lonely theory that the Fourth Doctor actually jumped off the radio tower just to get away from Adric and the newly arrived Mouth On Legs. It’s a theory.

The conversation with the Watcher on the bridge might have gone something like:

“Listen, normally, I don’t mind questions, but something about the way the boy pads around in his pyjamas, asking such stupid ones… and the Australian! Ooooh, like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I think my inner ear is bleeding! I need out, do you understand me? I’d even welcome going back to the kneeling two shots with K9! If I’m lucky, something disastrous will happen, and I’ll regenerate into someone with more patience, serenity, and a predilection for wearable vegetation.”

Tegan was absolutely horrible through most of that season: non-stop complaining, and yelling. She was also dumb as a post. She kept screaming she was late and going to lose her job, etc. Never mind that she was in a time machine which could eventually get her back on time, no matter how long they were out and about. (True, he never did, but he could have. Probably.) She was much more agreeable by the season’s end.

Adric was the epitome of the bratty, too smart for his own good, annoying younger brother. And the questions! Usually, the companion asks questions on behalf of the audience, so the Doctor can inform us. Somehow, no one was more aggravating while doing it than Adric. Except maybe Tegan — when she yelled them. 

And Nyssa. Sweet, sedate, robotic Nyssa. Always very smart, pleasant, helpful, and often emotionless. She may have been going for a Spock vibe.

But the Doctor’s reaction to them, his attitude, how he handled them…

In Four to Doomsday, during one of Tegan’s tantrums, he told her point blank to shut up! He was often very sarcastic with Adric and trying to keep his temper in check with Tegan in general. A few times during the story, you could tell he wanted to throttle them both. The internal conflict here wasn’t handled quite as deftly as during the Hartnell era, but I suppose a TARDIS with the Doctor and Nyssa sitting around reading or chatting about science might have been a bit too serene. This was mostly loud and chaotic. 

One wonders if at some point, he fantasized about finding another tall radio tower. 

At the end of Season 19, after the conclusion of Earthshock, he conveniently sidesteps the possibility of saving Adric, even though last minute rescues before imminent destruction are kinda SOP by now (except when someone’s JUST GOTTA GO!). At the end of Time Flight, the Doctor then utilizes the confusion at Heathrow to leave with Nyssa, stranding Tegan. Coincidence, or the first good night’s sleep the Doctor got in ages?

There are even a few parallels between this Peter Davison TARDIS team and the Jodie Whittaker “fam”. The quality of casting for one (Chibnall actually gets a gold star for Bradley Walsh as Graham though). Some might have thrived under different writers. Anything’s possible. 

Then there’s the “too many companions for the average writer” complaint. This is perhaps down to substandard producers and writers. If you’re not capable of coming up with stories for your entire TARDIS team, don’t make the team so big in the first place! Verity Lambert and her team managed a four person Hartnell TARDIS team quite nicely, and they had about 40 weeks a year to fill. 

Davison often acts like a frazzled, divorced dad who has his kids full time. Whittaker often acts like frazzled, clueless single aunt who’s been forced to look after someone else’s kids (or pets) full time. 

Beyond that, there are the differences. 

Adric and Tegan usually go rushing into trouble to help. To their credit, they’re always taking the initiative and pitching in. Adric and Nyssa are basically orphans, and have nowhere to go anyway, so they appreciate being able to stay, have a home by the grace of the Doctor. Tegan just wants out at first, but eventually softens, warms to the adventures and family, and wants to stay. Adric and Tegan would often bicker, moan, and complain, not like Nyssa, the good child. They often got treated as children because most of them were. Although it should be noted that, after Adric died and Tegan mellowed, things went much more smoothly all around. Later on, Turlough was a weasel, but no team’s perfect.

Conversely, we’re never quite sure if Graham, Ryan, and Yaz are enjoying themselves in the TARDIS. The fam mostly just follow along behind the Doctor in a triangle formation and follow orders. Upon their initial meeting, they all got yanked into space and then the fam were basically just The Guests Who Never Leave.

Personality-wise, there’s not a lot to work with here. While Graham is a delightful man (even nicer than Nyssa!) who’s just happy to wander around, his grandson Ryan is… complicated. Always tough to get a read on him, as he might act tough (“we’ll sort this!” — but never does), but is basically a surly teenager with a chip on his shoulder and seemingly none too bright. His annoyance factor is mostly consistent with that of Adric. And for most of her journey, Yaz was simply in the background, getting little notice, or characterization. 

The trio suffered mostly from miserable writing at the hands of their creator, who declined to develop them as characters. A few seasons in, after no development, we’re told to believe that they all think each other are amazing people, and as close as any family. We’re just never shown how or why they got to that understanding.

Bottom line, an amiable enough trio, but often treated like baggage. They needed to be hauled here, there, and everywhere, and quite often, forgotten by the Doctor. It can be said they behaved more like pets, and were treated like same. 

The Thirteenth Doctor was just as impatient and intolerant with her crew as the Fifth was with his, the difference being, at least Davison’s crew was mostly a temperamental lot that needed a time out. Whittaker’s crew just needed to be put back in the pen. 

As for special skills and abilities, both Ian and Nyssa had science backgrounds, and as far as intelligence goes, Nyssa was almost up there with Romana. Barbara was very accomplished in history. Adric was a maths genius — no need to ask him, he’ll show you the badge. Tegan can show you where all the emergency exits are on most aircraft, as well as make you a Harvey Wallbanger. Susan… screamed. In any case, each of their respective Doctors were very cognizant of exactly what these individuals were capable of.

As for the fam, I can’t remember what Graham did for a living (bus driver?). Ryan might have worked in a factory. Yaz was ostensibly a police officer. She put a guy in an arm lock once. The Thirteenth Doctor apparently thought the fam, and later Dan, were truly amazing, dynamic individuals capable of doing virtually anything. There was never much proof of this. They may as well have been wearing perception filters around their necks for all the times she forgot about them.

Departures? Susan stayed on future Earth to be with a fella (albeit a forced departure), Vicki stayed in ancient Troy to be with a fella, and Barbara, finally, simply went home with her fella, Ian. 

Adric died; Nyssa stayed behind to help lepers, bless her; and Tegan just couldn’t take any more bloodshed, and left. 

Ryan stated with much conviction that the Earth needed him (more likely, it was his couch), and Graham went with him. And I hear Yaz is supposed to join UNIT, but I guess we’ll see.

In the end, JNT and Chibnall wanted to bring another successful quartet into the TARDIS, much like the original crew under Verity Lambert’s stewardship. 

I think they both found out the hard way that neither of them were in Verity Lambert’s class.

Will we see a new TARDIS quartet in the future? That’s anyone’s guess, but if it’s the right writer or producer, obviously it can work. Time will tell. 

Rick Lundeen

TARDIS Team Dynamics in Doctor Who: How Many Companions Are Too Many Companions?

by Rick Lundeen time to read: 8 min
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