Playing Along: American DOCTOR WHO Gets Companions

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So, over at Buzzfeed, there’s a fun little bit where someone asked “What if Doctor Who was American?” with the idea being the show had generated in the United States instead of the U.K.

OK. It’s an interesting list, and it’s quickly gained its share of love and hate (Nic Cage as 9?). But there’s something missing from the article. Something that really should be a necessary part of the speculative process. So, we’ll bite. Here’s our answer to Buzzfeed’s American Doctors with our (not completely inclusive) American Companions.

1st Doctor: Susan, Barbara Wright, and Ian Chesterton

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To offset the eccentricity Burgess Meredith brought to the Doctor, producers at NBC decided they needed someone with grace and poise to play Susan. Enter Audrey Hepburn, who already had an established movie career going with Sabrina, Roman Holiday, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She spent two years on the show, but left following the success of My Fair Lady, which she filmed in between seasons. Diana Muldaur was just starting out in her acting career, and her time on Doctor Who paved the way for her role on Dr. Kildare. Leslie Nielsen was still riding the wave of popularity coming out of Forbidden Planet, and had been looking for something besides romance pictures like Tammy and the Bachelor. He was concerned he’d gain a reputation as a comedic actor.

2nd Doctor: Jamie McCrimmon and Victoria Waterfield

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When the Doctor was re-cast with Dick Van Dyke, NBC instructed the show to find companions that would balance his penchant for physical comedy. Playing the Doctor as a bit of a clown at times, Van Dyke needed other actors around him to add a more serious tone. Veronica Cartwright joined the show as Victoria, and her performance in “Tomb of the Cybermen” is one of the reasons she was cast as Lambert in Alien many years later. Jan Michael Vincent was a young talent who was described as “very intense” in his portrayal of Jamie. This, of course, led to many moments of humor between Jamie and the Doctor.

3rd Doctor: Jo Grant, Liz Shaw, and Colonel Stewart

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The new Doctor, exiled on Earth, of course had more of an angry edge to his personality. Vincent Price’s performance was decidedly different from that of his predecessor, Dick Van Dyke. Not only was the clownish portrayal gone, but the lack of a functional TARDIS also created new story opportunities. (Behind the scenes, of course, it gave the production ways to save money by avoiding so many alien planets and set-building requirements.) But being grounded didn’t mean a lack of companions. As Liz Shaw, Jill St. John turned in an energetic performance that landed her the role of Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever, necessitating a departure from Doctor Who.

Katherine Ross, in the meantime, had already gained popularity with her roles in The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and had been looking for a more steady project that would help build her television resume. Playing the hypnosis-resistant Jo Grant, Ross became a favorite of the classic companions. This was also the point when Doctor Who brought guest star Gene Barry (fresh from Burke’s Law) back to play Colonel Stewart on a full-time basis. Stewart, of course, would go on to become head of UNIT and retire a Brigadier General, having assisted many incarnations of the Doctor along the way.

4th Doctor: Sara Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan, Leela, and Romana

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Gene Wilder’s Doctor had the greatest turnover among principle companions, mainly because of the duration of his time in the role. Carrying over from her time with Price, Stephanie Zimbalist came into her own as the spunky ace reporter Sara Jane Smith. It was a role that would not only endear her to fans around the world, but also set the standard by which all subsequent companions would be measured. Though many thought her first television role may have come her way because her father almost played the Brigadier, NBC execs and show producers insisted that her talent won her the part, something her continued popularity proves to this day.

Michael Landon had entered into a contract with NBC following the success of Bonanza. Part of the agreement for him to play Harry Sullivan included a first-look deal so Landon could pitch a new idea for a series based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie.

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Following the story arc in which the Doctor was called back to Gallifrey to face trial, resulting in his companions being left behind on Earth, the Doctor traveled alone for a time, meeting the “savage” Leela while saving her people from a mistake he made in his past (“The Face of Evil”). Farrah Fawcett-Majors managed to split her time between Doctor Who and guest roles on several television shows until she landed a starring role in Charlie’s Angels, replacing Cheryl Ladd as one of the principle agents for Charlie Townsend.

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After the Key of Time story arc, Jane Seymour decided to leave Doctor Who in favor of her skyrocketing movie career. Wilder, very much owning the role of “star of the show”, called in a personal favor and asked Madeline Khan to step into the Romana role. Khan agreed, but only stayed in the part two years because she wanted to focus on her comedy work. The chemistry between the two (they had worked together on Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) was evident to everyone involved in the production at the time. Wilder had wanted to bring Gilda Radner into the part, but she was already committed to NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Publicity photo
that fueled speculation of a real-life relationship between Wilder & Khan.

 

5th Doctor: Adric, Tegan Jovanka, Nyssa, and Vislor Turlough

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The 5th Doctor certainly had big shoes to fill, and Kyle McLachlan was determined to make the character his own from the start, adding a bit of broodiness to his performance. He also discussed adding a zest for Earth-made coffee, but the show producers disagreed, worried that the network would try to shoehorn in advertisements for a growing chain of coffee houses based in Seattle.

Hold-overs from their time with the 4th Doctor, companions Tegan (Tracy Scoggins), Nyssa (Kirstie Alley), and Adric (Meeno Peluce) had already developed a rapport with each other that was disrupted by McLachlan’s approach to his performance, which was already hampered by the long shadow left by Wilder. Peluce, already feeling the pressure of trying to get along in a strained atmosphere, jumped at the offer to star in his own time travel show, Voyagers! with the late Jon-Erik Hexum. Alley left the show to star with Rod Taylor on the spy series Masquerade, and Scoggins moved on to Hawaiian Heat, leaving science fiction altogether until her return to the genre Alien Intruder nearly ten years later.

Coming on board as Vislor Turlough, Richard Thomas was looking for a way to redefine his career and avoid typecasting after his run on The Waltons. His roles in Doctor Who and Battle Beyond the Stars helped him reshape his career to take on more challenging roles, even allowing him to play the villain at times.

6. Peri Brown and Mel Bush (6th Doctor)

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Christopher Walken was perhaps the actor with the most challenging work environment of the classic Doctors, with the production plagued with issues regarding budget, production design, story direction… it seemed that NBC had started to wonder what kind of show they were making, and whether or not they’d made a mistake with Walken, who made rather “interesting” choices in wardrobe and performance style. Ratings for the show hit an all-time low, and NBC opted to release Walken from his contract one year early.

In the midst of the turmoil, however, both of the 6th Doctor’s companions got their moments to shine. Connie Sellecca — while making a good effort on the British accent — gave Peri a smart wit and proved she could go toe-to-toe with Walken’s antics. Following Peri’s “death” at the hands of Mentor Lord Kiv (actually an excuse for Sellecca to leave the show), the Doctor took up with Mel, a witness at his trial and self-proclaimed fitness guru. Played with high energy by Holly Hunter, the character always seemed an awkward fit to Walken’s brooding Doctor. So much so that when Walken was let go, the network asked Hunter to stay on to help with the transition to a new Doctor, hoping her rapport with Tony Shaloub would bring the ratings back up.

7. Ace (7th Doctor)

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Shannen Doherty was already a known quantity at NBC, having spent several years growing up on Little House on the Prairie. Looking for opportunities to play characters that were a little rough around the edges, Doherty auditioned several times for the part of Ace. She finally won the part after two screen tests with the 7th Doctor, played by Tony Shaloub. (There are still unconfirmed reports that Doherty would frequently chase Shaloub around the set with a baseball bat.)

8th Doctor: Grace Holloway and Rajesh Singh

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In 1996, the BBC tried to revive Doctor Who with Jeff Goldblum as the 8th Doctor (who only recently was acknowledged as official by NBC). Set in Cardiff, the film also starred Alex Kingston as Dr. Grace Holloway and Raji James as Rajesh Singh. It was a hybrid between production houses in two countries, and was met with mixed reactions from the British audience, many of whom still had in mind the performance by Gene Wilder. The results were a one-off film that never got the opportunity to explore the recharged conflict between the Doctor and the Master (Alan Rickman).

9th Doctor: Rose Tyler

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When NBC revived the show in 2005 (with a remix of the original theme by Brian “Dangermouse” Burton), many wondered if it was an actual continuation of the classic show, or if it was a reboot. It was near the end of the first season that producer and head writer Joss Whedon confirmed — through dialogue — that this was, indeed, a continuation of the original series. With pop singer Mandy Moore in tow as new companion Rose Tyler, Nicolas Cage’s 9th Doctor bordered on manic depressive, having survived the destruction of the Time War (and, we learned, having caused a great deal of it near the end…). Cage’s star power was enough to get audiences watching, and ratings were enough that NBC renewed the show for a second season, but Cage opted out of the part, citing “differences of opinion” with the production team.

John Barrowman returns as the immortal Captain Jack Harkness.
John Barrowman as the immortal Captain Jack Harkness.

On and off, the duo would be visited by Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue British time traveler who found himself able to come back from the dead, making him a somewhat reckless companion who managed to be in the right place at the right time for the Doctor and Rose. Played by John Barrowman, Captain Jack would spin out to his own series, leading the new government alien defense program at the Mt. Rushmore underground facility, code named “Torchwood”.

10th Doctor: Martha Jones and Donna Noble

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Fan favorite Sam Rockwell took the Doctor to new levels of arrogance and gravitas, playing up the age of the character and giving him a weariness from his experiences. At times, one could genuinely believe this man was over 900 years old. Following Rose Tyler’s fall into a pocket dimension, the Doctor once again traveled alone until he met Martha Jones, ably played by Zoe Saldana. However, fans didn’t take to Dr. Jones as much — perhaps a combination of the Rose/10 shippers seeing Martha as a usurper, plus the Whovians who felt Martha’s infatuation with the Doctor was ground already trod with Rose. Whatever the case, Martha was accepted as a companion but not liked as well. She made her way to UNIT and once again the Doctor traveled alone.

Until he met Donna Noble.

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The Donna Noble character has also been one of those “love her or hate her” kind of companions. Played by Melissa McCarthy, who is known mainly for her comedy work, Donna became just the right thorn in the Doctor’s side — brash, rude, uncompromising, and ready to argue. It was a refreshing change for many fans who were tired of the companion/Doctor romance threads, and Donna quickly became an integral part of the Doctor’s journey toward a defining confrontation with the Master (Kiefer Sutherland). Sadly, Donna’s role in the Master’s defeat left the Doctor with no choice but to erase all memory of her time with him, and Donna Noble was left back where she started — living at home with Mom and Grampa Wilf (M. Emmet Walsh).

11th Doctor: Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and Clara Oswald

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The Ponds. Rory Williams and Amy Pond (Torrence Coombs and Felicia Day). Two of the more popular companions, although theirs was an on-again, off-again travelling arrangement with the 11th Doctor. Not only did he manage to keep them alive (most of the time), but he also managed to take them home after the adventure (some of the time). The youngest actor playing the oldest Doctor provided some interesting moments for both drama and comedy (“Cardigans are cool.”), and it was during this time that fans got to see the development of the relationship with Dr. River Song (Angela Bassett) played out — finally — after being teased with it during Sam Rockwell’s tenure. The Ponds’ fate at the hands of the Weeping Angels certainly had some fans up in arms, especially where it concerned Day, who has earned a respectable following through her own online projects and numerous guest roles on other shows. Knowing Day and Coombs would never return to the show had many fans dead set on rejecting whomever came next into the Doctor’s life.

And then came Clara…

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Not since Sara Jane Smith has there been a companion that has resonated with fans as much as Clara Oswald. Besides dying — twice — the Impossible Girl played a key role in helping the 11th Doctor move past his guilt over the destruction he wrought during the Time War. Played ably by Emma Stone, Clara continues to be a fun mix of sharp wit, keen intellect, and fast talking. It was Clara’s mysterious origins that brought the Doctor out of his depression following the demise of the Ponds, and her fascination and wonder at the universe gave him a new appreciation for just what he’s been able to do and all the people he’s been able to help. Having actually saved Gallifrey from the destruction of the Time War — because Clara believed he was a better man than that — he’s now able to put away the child-like personae and allow himself to be a mature, responsible Doctor.

12th Doctor: ??

[brainstormed by Jason P Hunt, Timothy Harvey, and Dustin Adair. Art by JPH]

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Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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