Can Doctor Who Ever Make Up for Treating Past Companions Badly?

Leela’s new ending is part of a trend to right past wrongs, but Doctor Who can’t turn back time.

Louise Jameson as the Doctor's companion Leela on the Time War battlefield holding a transporter
Photo: BBC

In January 2024, Fourth Doctor companion Louise Jameson returned to Doctor Who in the short promotional film Leela vs the Time War for the release of the Season 15 Blu-ray boxset. It showed Jameson’s character on Gallifrey in the final moments of the Time War being threatened with extermination by the Daleks. “This is not how this ends,” says Leela, before transporting herself to the safety of the TARDIS.

As reported by, writer/director Pete McTighe said at a BFI screening of 1977 episode “Horror of Fang Rock”, that he saw the new scene as “an opportunity to right [the] wrong” of Jameson’s character’s original exit, in which Leela was hurriedly married off to a Gallifreyan Time Lord.

McTighe has written increasingly ambitious promotional films for these series releases with original actors returning to play their roles, though the complexity of producing them means they won’t be done for every boxset. McTighe was also involved in writing additional scenes (along with Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford) for Tales of the TARDIS, which likewise brought original cast members back to return to roles they’d played decades ago on television. This was a bonus for the show’s 60th anniversary and the arrival of nearly all of the original series to BBC iPlayer. There’s a sense of officiality to these licenced BBC promotions and productions.

Let’s assume for a second that canon is a worthwhile subject for debate as opposed to someone gaffer-taping 47 disparate items into a ball and saying ‘Behold, Doctor Who’: we know that some companions had terrible departures, and some simply had a terrible time in general. There is a temptation, voiced by McTighe, to right these wrongs. Can a contemporary addition really do this?

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Boring answer: no. The best it can do is acknowledge the problem and come up with a better story.

There you go, you can stop reading now if you want, that’s the gist of the article. Otherwise we’re heading back to 2010, and Russell T. Davies two-parter for The Sarah Jane Adventures – “The Death of the Doctor”.

Retrofitted Happy Endings

In “The Death of the Doctor”, the Doctor has reportedly died and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) meets Jo Grant (Katy Manning), the Doctor’s companion before her, at the funeral. These are two of the most beloved characters in the series, from two of its most popular eras, and while their exits were bittersweet, they weren’t traumatic.

At the episode’s end, Sarah Jane lists the fates of other companions, giving updates on their whereabouts. Caroline John’s Liz Shaw, for example, is stuck on UNIT’s Moonbase and Janet Fielding’s Tegan is campaigning for aboriginal rights. Aside from Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan, who is implied to have died, everyone mentioned seems alive and well. This is in stark contrast to spin-off media, which had Tegan get a brain tumour and Liz die extremely horribly in a Nineties spin-off novel, neither of which really fitted the tone of the parent series or The Sarah Jane Adventures. (Imagine, at the end of the CBBC episode, Lis Sladen having to say ‘And in the end her blood turned to acid but they kept her alive in agony to work on a cure. Poor Liz.’).

As with any idea briefly mentioned in televised Doctor Who, people began to latch onto it and develop ideas. Even if they were intended to be expanded upon, that’s still optional (the idea that Ian and Barbara never aged was later contradicted, for example), and they’re rough outlines of stories: these codas weren’t designed to perfectly connect disparate parts of Doctor Who so much as give a sense of a happy ending for past companions, even if that overwrote spin-off stories.

Glossing Over Trauma

Whenever current Doctor Who revisits older Doctor Who, the current form dominates. That’s why Sarah Jane Smith’s return in 2006’s “School Reunion” is as much of a learning curve for Rose as it is for Sarah. It’s why, when Sylvester McCoy reunites with Sophie Aldred in 2022’s “The Power of the Doctor”, the hologram of the Seventh Doctor tells Ace “It’s never fine to blow stuff up. Sometimes, sadly, it’s the only solution.”

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This is easy to rationalise as the Thirteenth Doctor talking through the Seventh’s avatar, because there’s not a chance in hell this dialogue would have been aired during the actual McCoy era, which had its anarchic and darker leanings airbrushed since Ace became a charity CEO in “The Death of the Doctor”, and the invention of the War Doctor, who frankly seems less morally dubious than the Seventh at times. As much as it’s a delight to see McCoy and Aldred back on screen together, it’s through a filter of 2022 Doctor Who in a nostalgic guest slot. The idea of Ace founding a charity is not a story so much as a LinkedIn profile.

Attempting to bridge the gap between the current brand of Doctor Who’s optimism and earnestness is a bigger ask for most of the Eighties companions, simply because they were more often vessels for trauma than attempts at depicting a person. “The Power of the Doctor” sees Ace and Tegan return, but also wants to be an anniversary special and wrap up the entirety of the Jodie Whittaker era. Tegan’s departure – due to the overwhelming amount of violence the character saw – isn’t addressed. Ace’s departure – which we never saw, so could be anything (including happy) – is implied to be some falling out over the Seventh Doctor’s manipulative nature. This is addressed, but with Ace forgiving the Doctor for what he did, saying: “I’m sorry I judged you. I didn’t understand the burden you carried.”

This is, as they say, some bullshit. The Seventh Doctor absolutely deserves to be judged, and Ace absolutely deserved to judge him. This resolution being so pat and unsatisfying is probably down to a combination of not having time to do the story justice in the midst of “The Power of the Doctor” and poor writing (if you want to read a story where this idea is done well, look out Paul Cornell’s 1992 novel Love and War).

Acknowledge the Past

In Tales from the TARDIS, there’s a marked contrast between the scenes bookending “Earthshock” with the Fifth Doctor and Tegan and the ones bookending “Vengeance on Varos” with the Sixth Doctor and Peri. The former acknowledge that they weren’t affectionate people during their time in the TARDIS, and when discussing Adric – the young maths genius who dies during “Earthshock” – admit they found him annoying, but find a melancholic guilt in this. “He was just a kid”, the Doctor says. This is a sweet spot in terms of matching two disparate tones, acknowledging the past and its difficulties while finding space for them in the show’s increased emotional palette and a celebratory context.

Whereas when Peri appears with the Sixth Doctor in the Tales from the TARDIS scenes around “Vengeance on Varos”, it’s all bonhomie and happy days and everything alright in the end and absolutely nothing about ‘you tried to kill me and then shouted at me for a year then abandoned me to get my mind transplanted into a giant slug’, which I feel would be what I led with in Peri’s circumstances. Bringing back companions asks questions – not answering them means they hover awkwardly; answering them badly just feels like a waste.

With classic companions and characters returning, it’s lovely to see everyone again, but there’s simply no way to undo crappy writing. You can acknowledge it and address it, but highlighting Doctor Who’s flaws isn’t a great advertising strategy for a Blu-ray boxset, nor does it easily fit with a tone of celebratory nostalgia. You’d need a whole episode to do the story justice. The recent anniversary specials with David Tennant’s Fourteenth Doctor were essentially this for the character of Donna Noble and the Doctor themselves (as you can see, it’s not simply the original run that has this problem). Non-consensually wiping Donna Noble’s memories and leaving her with great chunks of herself missing was a cruel ending for the character. The specials restored Donna and gave the Fourteenth Doctor time to heal. It’s unlikely though, that Ncuti Gatwa is going to have further past companions return once a series to work through their TARDIS-related trauma.

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Doctor Who vs Doctor Who

Doctor Who takes a different approach with each new creative figure put in charge of it, and what we have now is a large brand built on ostensible optimism and hope. There is a tension between this and the different versions of Doctor Who that the show used to be. Indeed, there’s a clear tension between the current show and the version of it from two years ago.

Steven Moffat leaned into this tension for his last story as showrunner, 2017’s “Twice Upon a Time”. In it, the regenerating Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) meets the regenerating First Doctor (David Bradley), and while there are moments of characterisation that meet the original here, the First Doctor is used to represent the entirety of the Sixties; not just Doctor Who, but the attitudes and politics of the era. He’s not allowed to be the First Doctor as he was – and really, so much of Moffat’s description of the Doctor as a ‘a goblin, a trickster or a warrior’ is fully formed in the First Doctor’s character – because he’s not in the script purely for that reason. This, understandably, drew complaints, but Moffat’s gonna Moffat: who else would spend their potentially final script for the show poking at its unique tensions?

And so back to Leela, departing the Time War and arriving back in the Fourth Doctor’s TARDIS. There’s a debate to be had about whether the Doctor saving Leela from the Time War is already a happy enough ending, and the idea of her returning to more adventures with the Doctor is gilding the lily, but the key thing is that her story continues. At the end of ‘The Invasion of Time’ Leela tells the Doctor she is staying on Gallifrey to marry Andred, the captain of the guard, who she has barely interacted with. Nothing can be done to reverse this. What McTighe’s extra scene does is to ensure that it isn’t Leela’s ending while simultaneously reminding us how good an actor Louise Jameson is, which isn’t bad going in an advert for watching ‘Underworld’ in high-definition.

Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Disney+ around the world.