Doctor Who’s Greatest Romance

Despite Doctor Who’s patchy history with romance, from unrequited love to cruel companion endings, the show is romantic at its core.

Doctor Who: TARDIS
Photo: BBC

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who

It’s Valentine’s Day, or thereabouts, so there’s romance flipping everywhere. We’re going to look at romance in Doctor Who as interpreted by me, a man whose wife paused tactfully for a few seconds when I told her I was writing this.  

Doctor Who very rarely indulges in romance – most of the wooing happens in the theme music – but its lead is cut from similar cloth to one of literature’s most famous Romantic characters. Colin Baker reportedly hoped his Sixth Doctor would be a Mr Darcy figure, initially appearing unlikeable but softening as time went on.

This is the kind of romantic figure the Doctor most often embodies: someone who attempts to rectify mistakes (often their own) to come good at the end of the story. Mostly though this is in terms of saving planets rather than marrying Lizzy Bennet. The Doctor may not love Sarah Jane Smith in the romantic sense, but his actions – going back to face near certain death in the hope it might restore her sight in ‘The Brain of Morbius‘, for example – demonstrate his feelings. 

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On a similar tack, the Eighth Doctor dressed like Lord Byron and kissed a lady (for the first time in potentially hundreds of years, and was so good at it that she immediately asked him to do it again.) Even better, when said lady declined his offer to travel with him, he respected her wishes and left her be – making him a sounder romantic bet than most rom-com leads.

Companion Seduction

The most obvious examples of romance on Doctor Who come after 1996, where the Doctor and his companions fall for each other and then, post 2005, long-standing love interests were established. Showrunner Russell T. Davies established the courtship-style pattern of the Doctor showing their companion the universe, and his successor Steven Moffat referred to the Doctor/companion relationship as a seduction. 

(Fan-fiction and spin-off media, incidentally, often layer romantic plots on top of existing scenarios. Love for the show’s characters means they get swept up in myriad headcanons, and their open-ended on-screen fates allow fans to come up with their own futures – whereas Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz shippers saw a pretty final conclusion to that storyline, which was closer to tragedy than romance. Shipping is powerful, but not really what we’re talking about here.)

Moffat, who has a history of writing relationship and romantic comedies, is unsurprisingly behind the most unashamedly romantic version of Doctor Who, sort-of retelling The Time Traveler’s Wife not once but twice in the stories of Amy Pond and River Song. 

Moffat’s first season as showrunner made a romance with the Doctor its supernatural or fantastical element: Amy Pond’s life is screwed up by the Doctor’s arrival, and through sacrificing himself, he fixes it. Amy then essentially demands the universe gives the Doctor back to her, whereupon she and her new husband go off in the TARDIS together. (The simple fact that marriage was not the end of Amy’s time in the TARDIS, as it was for classic era companions, is revolutionary in Doctor Who terms.)

Amy and Rory’s relationship is marked by huge romantic gestures, an insistence that one can always hear the other wherever they are, and ultimately a suicide pact that becomes contextually romantic. It’s a heightened, idealised version of love.

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Love Conquers All?

Moffat regularly puts his characters through a worse time than they’d get in a rom-com. Clara and Danny have – for Doctor Who a fairly standard rom-com plot which ends abruptly when he dies in a traffic accident, ultimately choosing to save another life instead of returning. Then Clara dies before being restored by the Doctor’s sacrifice, free to be her own version of the Doctor – rather than with a person, she’s in love with the lifestyle. Bill, likewise, is converted into a Cyberman, the Doctor sacrifices himself to stop the Cybermen, and Bill is restored to her former self by a sentient puddle that’s taken the body of someone she fancied. Happy romance times ensue. 

Amy Pond, though, is kidnapped, her baby stolen, a substitute melts in her arms, and due to time travel she doesn’t get to raise the child. We don’t see the repercussions of this on Amy until the following series, where she is leaving Rory because she can no longer have children and knows he wants them. This is a poor attempt at addressing an incredibly traumatic sequence of events. It concludes when the Doctor engineers a situation whereby Amy and Rory can resolve their problems, apparently forever. That’s it. Idealised love conquers all. Amy and Rory end up happy together in Earth’s past and adopt a child in a situation partly forced on them. 

Head in the Stars

All of which brings us neatly onto Susan. The Doctor’s granddaughter leaves the TARDIS when the Doctor sees she has fallen in love with David, a human freedom fighter, and so locks her out of the TARDIS on a post-apocalyptic Earth that needs to be rebuilt after the Dalek invasion. The Doctor does this because he knows Susan won’t leave him voluntarily. And so Susan is left in the ruins of London with the first person she seems genuinely affectionate towards. This is an idealised version of love where we’re expected to think Susan and David will definitely live happily ever after, albeit against a backdrop of resource-poor wastelands with little-to-no infrastructure. David will most likely die centuries before Susan. Also she did not choose this for herself. You’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t all that romantic. 

Romance as a genre has some acknowledged problems (Clearly the First Doctor and Susan have never seen Frozen). Susan’s departure relies on the happily ever after genre convention to work, because once you acknowledge the reality of the situation it’s clearly a very risky strategy. 

Doctor Who can, and does, acknowledge reality sometimes, but often its head is in the stars. The second companion to leave and get married off does so in similar circumstances: Vicki escapes the fall of Troy with Troilus and in the confusion the Doctor leaves without her. Again, it’s best not to speculate as to how Vicki will speak the language with the TARDIS gone, or how they will survive after the city is destroyed, only be assured that their love is strong and they will face a happier fate. Why? Romance. If you think of the contrivances of Shakespeare comedies this sort of thing makes more sense.  

The Doctor Ends Up Alone

It could actually be worse: In ‘The Invasion of Time‘ Leela – a warrior of the Sevateem tribe – ends up staying behind on Gallifrey because she’s decided to marry Andred (the leader of the Time Lord guards). The script does barely anything to indicate this is likely to happen, so this jarringly out-of-character moment arrives without warning. This is not the only example either, with Peri surviving almost-certain death to marry a warlord played by Brian Blessed.

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Jo Grant’s departure at the end of ‘The Green Death‘, featuring as it does a meet-cute, flirting, falling out and then realisation of love and inevitable marriage proposal, is straight out of the romance genre. The key thing here is that Jo falls for someone who reminds her of the Doctor. The romantic subplot – as efficiently brisk as you’d expect a romance script-edited by Terrance Dicks to be – is ultimately a setup for a melancholy ending in which the Doctor drives enigmatically away from the engagement party.

This ending is similar to the way Steven Moffat ended his series. Moffat’s take on Doctor Who features similarly melancholy endings with his final two companions heading off with a new partner as the Doctor ends up alone, but considering said companions were essentially dead at one stage it definitely could have been worse. A key part of Moffat’s finales is that a companion shouldn’t be punished for wanting to enjoy a life like the Doctor’s (significant life events such as birth, marriage and even death shouldn’t hold you back) and until that point, these roles were heavily gendered.

While Russell T. Davies’ version of the Doctor/companion relationship was an intense affair that ended badly (with say, a companion ripping holes in the universe to find the man she loves and then being gifted a genocidal sex clone of him on a beach), Moffat’s made it a potentially damaging thing meaning the Doctor had to work on himself to resolve said damage. 

In conclusion then, perhaps the truest romance of Doctor Who isn’t to do with couples, courtship or break-ups; it’s the romance of the Doctor as a magical traveller, one who usually ensures a happy ending. The main character finds broken things and strives to mend them. Most of the time, they manage to do so. By any analysis, evil should always win, and yet… no. There. There’s your romantic ideal.