There are quite a few excellent females characters who briefly wound through the Doctor’s story, but for this list the main criteria criteria was really that they could only appear in one story (there’s a couple 2-parter character in here, but other than that they only appear in a single episode. So no Osgood, Missy, Ashildr/Me, Tish Jones, Jackie Tyler, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, etc.) And there are 11 because, well, I bloody well felt like it, and it’s my list.
And after consideration…yeah. I’ll allow historical ladies that actually existed (because there are a couple I just HAD to mention. And, GOD! Can we please have more historical women on the show? Ada Lovelace, Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, you could probably do something really cool with Mary Anning, Frida Kahlo, Sally Ride, Sacagawea, Harriet Tubman. Maybe I’ll do a list for that too.
11. Queen Elizabeth X/Liz 10 (The Beast Below) Played by Sophie Okonedo
*SIGH* Okay, yes, she’s in “The Pandorica Opens” too, so I’m slightly breaking my own rule already, but she’s only in it for a second, so I’m squeezing her in at 11.
To start, this was just a cool idea. What appears to be a masked vigilante is actually the Queen, protecting her citizens from dangers on the street. She’s confident, self-assured, and handy with a weapon, all of which are exhibited in her line “I’m the bloody queen, mate. Basically, I rule.” So she’s down to Earth and talks like a normal person, but she also manages to be elegant and cool at the same time. They should have done more with her in “Pandorica” and maybe beyond.
That doesn’t mean that her character is perfect. She allows the systematic torture of a rare animal. And then, rather than facing the problem head on, she chooses to be routinely brainwashed. But she can still sense that something’s wrong and is clearly looking out for the good of her people.
10. Joan Redfern (Human Nature/Family of Blood) Played by Jessica Hynes
So I’m very biased. See, there’s this show called Spaced and Jessica Hynes co-created, co-wrote, and co-starred in it (with Simon Pegg), and I’ll love her forever for it, and she makes it really easy by being really awesome in everything else she stars in. Including Doctor Who. She’s very quietly commanding. And she keeps herself together, despite the fact that her life REALLY starts to suck when the Doctor shows up. Or, rather, when John Smith does. After the Doctor returns to his normal state he even offers to take her with him, but she declines. It would just be too hard for her Martha should have been taking notes. Or maybe she was). And Joan was clearly still on the Doctor’s mind when he visits her descendant in the future just to be sure Joan had a happy life after he left.
My only quibble is that she doesn’t treat Martha well. She’s constantly reminding Martha that she’s a servant, and clearly just doesn’t like her. But that makes sense. There’s this other woman that seems way familiar with the guy she’s in love with, and, oh yeah, Martha’s in love with him too (when he’s not all human-y wuman-y).
Oh, and shout out to the other servant, Jenny, who was a great character until her unfortunate possession.
9. Madame de Pompadour/Reinette Poisson (The Girl in the Fireplace) Played by Sophia Myles
Right, so this is another pseudo love story with 10. I promise the rest of the list isn’t like this. This is interesting, because, aside from evil robots, the story seem to focus more on Reinette (who becomes Madame de Pompadour) than the Doctor, sometimes choosing to leave the story of what’s happening to the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey on the ship, instead focusing on the action happening in France. And it’s a sticky bit of character development, because it creates a sort of love triangle, where the Doctor has been traveling with Rose, and there’s definitely something there (and this is write on the heels of “School Reunion,” which brought up some questions), but he’s prepared to cut himself off from her to save Reinette.
It’s also one of the few times we see the Doctor jealous. When Reinette introduces her lover as the King of France, the Doctor gives him a condescending look and retorts, “Yeah? Well, I’m the Lord of time.” In the end, the Doctor is running late again and loses her. Oh, and that chemistry? That was real. Tennant and Myles were dating at the time.
8. Queen Nefertiti (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship) Played by Riann Steele
This is a fun episode. It’s dinosaurs in space. My two favorite things brought together. The only thing that could make it better is if some Egyptian element like Queen Nefertiti were brought into it. Then they pick up Queen Nefertiti for the trip. Brilliant! And they did it without it feeling overstuffed or just tossed in for no reason. She has purpose and added a sense of style to the episode. She shows up Amy just by existing, and also makes Amy up her game. But they aren’t competitive. On the contrary, the female characters get along (which unfortunately doesn’t happen all that often).
They do a good job of balancing the fact that Nefertiti is both from way in the past with the fact that she’s progressive and forward thinking. She never seems like anything less than a Queen, but works well as part of the Doctor’s team (or, as he puts it, gang). And she’s always working for the greater good of the group, even if it means sacrificing herself.
That being said she certainly doesn’t take being captured lightly, and when she’s face to face with the evil mastermind, her fury and strength come out. Luckily, she’s one of the kickass women on Doctor Who that gets to live to fight and flirt with Lestrade (or whatever his name is in this show) another day.
7. Adelaide Brooke (The Waters of Mars) Played by Lindsay Duncan
This episode is one of the most highly regarded, partly because of it’s dark story. And it wouldn’t have worked without Adelaide Brooke. She’s established as cold and strict, greeting the Doctor by pointing a gun at him. Not that it deters him (Jamie held a knife to the Doctor’s throat when they first met, and his ex-best friend, the Master, is always casually trying to murder him, so the Doctor probably thinks this is a perfectly normal way for friendships to form).
It turns out they do get along, and as the Doctor is traveling solo, she becomes a (very) temporary companion. Or rather he becomes hers. She takes the lead. She’s a little older than companions tend to be too, which I really liked and was important for this episode.
Adelaide is a historical figure, or would be, if you knew her future, and the Doctor is delighted to meet her, before realizing this is the mission that she’s supposed to die on, her death leading to a string of important events. When the point comes that he has to leave her to her fate, he instead rescues her. But Adelaide finds out she was meant to die, inspiring her family to continue her work. She confronts the Doctor, tells him he was wrong to save her. He scoffs at this, so she walks into her house and shoots herself. Because she needed to. For the good of the future.
6. Ida Scott (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit) Played by Claire Rushbrook
Ida Scott gets forgotten. I forgot her. She’s in two seriously wacky, but, like, dark whacky, episodes. But I rewatched these episodes recently, and what a cool character! She’s the science officer on the doomed Walker Expedition of a planet orbiting a black hole. She’s a good leader in a bad situation. She’s always moving forward, but you can see the pain she has when a member of the crew dies.
Near the end, when she expects she’ll die herself, she is prepared to do so with grace and calm. She’s a space adventurer. What better way could there be for her to go? She only hopes that she won’t have to do it alone, and when she and the Doctor journey to the surface of the planet (yes, SHE’S the member of the crew that goes down), she appreciates it’s majesty, and doesn’t take what she’s seeing for granted.
This episode has some really wonderful moments. It has my favorite Rose moment, my favorite TARDIS moment, and the exhilarating appearance of the Doctor after it seemed he was surely defeated. But he’s not alone. He has Ida Scott with him, and that makes it all the more wonderful.
5. Jabe (The End of the World) Played by Yasmin Bannerman
This was the first time I discovered that Doctor Who would kill off characters you liked. Bastards. And while about half the characters on this list meet that same terrible fate, she was the first for me, so it won’t be easily forgotten.
It was also her making the choice to sacrifice herself to help the Doctor, a heavily recurring theme throughout the series. Others have to face their deaths so he can continue saving people, and he has to face an unending life, losing those people and feeling guilt of it. It was the first time I’d encountered that as well.
She was also one of the first real alien beings in the new series, and they handled her very suitably and creatively. I mean, they had to make a tree person pre-Guardians the of the Galaxy.
She gets along VERY well with the Doctor, and it’s interesting to see their interactions, because he’s still pretty fresh off the Time War, and last time he made a friend he asked her to go traveling with him. If it hadn’t been for her death, reminding him what so often happens to people who fall in with him, we may have again wound up with the 5th Doctor’s revolving door policy towards companions (a.k.a. Who are you? Who cares! Come on in). That definitely wasn’t the 9th Doctor’s style.
4. Agatha Christie (The Unicorn and the Wasp) Played by Fenella Woolgar
“The Unicorn and the Wasp” is my favorite episod,e and I’m often taken to task for it, but you needed look much further than the historical figure the episode revolves around. And I’m not a huge Agatha Christie fan (if only because I’ve read precious little of her work), but the way they used her in this episode is so great. It’s just what I want from Doctor Who, creating a reason for a mysterious historical event that we never got answers for.
Bonus points for being set at a 1920’s socialite party that I’d give my eye teeth to attend (yeah, I like “Black Orchid” too! Deal with it!).
Agatha Christie acts just like a detective in a mystery novel. Which is lucky because the cast is essentially trapped in a game of Clue (or Cluedo if you’re British). She gets just as much to do as companion Donna (who is ON POINT in this episode). She’s sniffing out clues left and right, questioning suspects, and driving after baddies, even when it means she gets into a dangerous car accident.
Christie has taken a hard hit after recently being left by her husband, but she seems confident and self-assured, though she is clearly hiding a hurt, and it seems to bring out a certain amount of determination. She has the emotional depth and entertaining spirit that creates such vivid Doctor Who characters.
3. Rita (The God Complex) Played by Amara Karan
One of the first things that always strikes me about Rita is that she dies. WHYYYYYYYYY?!
Rita’s definitely one of those “what could have been” companions. The Doctor is clearly saving her in his memory banks as soon as they meet. You can tell he’s thinking, “oh, she’d be good. She’d be very good” (and basically says as much). He even jokes that he’s firing Amy as his companion in order to take on Rita (or is he joking?). She’s competent, clever, and proactive. She even has medical experience.
And she’s so well rounded for appearing so brief a time. We know a bit about her family based on it being the thing she fears (and what’s in her nightmare room) and how it’s impacted her since.
But I think her death was actually very important. There’s a whole mess of stuff that’s actually happening in that episode, and I think Rita’s fate is part of the reason for the Doctor dropping off Amy and Rory at the end. He wants them to have a happy ending after seeing a “what could have been” companion reaching her inevitable end. This is what happens to people who travel with the Doctor. And it’s a shame she didn’t get to have a few adventures in the TARDIS. I’ve gotta agree with the Doctor on this one: Rita? She’d be good. She’d be very good.
2. Sally Sparrow (Blink) Played by Carey Mulligan
Well. Duh. You can’t have a list like this without mentioning Sally Sparrow. It’s tempting to say she IS a companion. Just one that never traveled with the Doctor, and only barely met him. She certainly acts like one. She goes adventuring without too much hesitation, wandering off and doing, quite frankly, some very dumb things, while still clearly being incredibly bright.
In a way, she’s like the Doctor too, having companions of her own (the first two of who she loses, much like the Doctor): Kathy, then Billy, then Larry. It’s funny that with all this time travel affecting her and being the motivation for most everything she does, Sally is the one person who never actually travels in time. And while she’s briefly inside the TARDIS, she doesn’t actually get to take a trip in it.
Sally does occasionally lose her cool, but it’s always under appropriate circumstances, as things move from mysterious to unnerving to perilous. And she has a better handle on time travel and the crossing of multiple timelines in a non-linear, non-subjective, big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey way than most companions.
Part of what makes this story so creepy is that it’s what happens when the Doctor doesn’t show up. Because he can’t always be there. So we have people like Sally Sparrow instead, who find themselves in incredible situations, and just by doing what is right manage to save a little piece of the world. Even without a TARDIS.
1. Idris/Sexy/the TARDIS (The Doctor’s Wife) Played by Suranne Jones
Speaking of the TARDIS…
Okay, well, this is probably cheating. In a way Idris has been in EVERY episode of Doctor Who. The idea of the TARDIS being a living thing has been batted about for ages, but when you ask Neil Gaiman to write an episode, he’ll kick the show’s weird and whimsy up a notch and probably do something like put the TARDIS’ living consciousness into a human body. Because he did. And we owe Suranne Jones a huge debt of gratitude, because Idris is, to me, the greatest temporary female ever to appear on the show.
And she easily could have been a MPDG, if written and performed by less deft artists, but no. Idris is basically magic, or as close to magic as Doctor Who does, and yet she’s OFF. Completely inhuman. You can tell just by looking at her. And she bites, and she answers your questions before you ask them, and she doesn’t quite listen to what you tell her, and she’s not going to follow your instructions if you don’t follow hers.
And part of the beauty of that character is that she’s fleeting. She can’t last like that, and as she and the Doctor begin to realize it, the story becomes twice as poignant. They can’t have their cake and eat it to. And neither can we. As much as I love Idris, having her make a return would be a terrible idea. The whole point of her, is her expiration date. Of course, she isn’t really gone, she’s just returned to her original form. That’s how the Doctor really needs her. How we all do. She just wanted the chance to tell the Doctor “hello.”