Most people when they heard Catherine Tate was joining Doctor Who thought that was rubbish. I heard it and thought it was brilliant. Of course, I’d gotten hooked on the Catherine Tate Show segments on YouTube, especially her incredibly irritating segments, and knew she had great potential to make the series really tremendously funny — and that’s what happened, but what I did not expect was how much heart her character would bring to the small screen.
Allow me for a moment to reflect on his previous companions, at least as long as I have been watching the franchise. (Admittedly, I don’t really see much point in viewing the old series, so I am stuck on the new ones. I know that’s a narrow view, but they seem a bit campy to me.) Rose and Martha. Both of them had a bit of a “crush” on the Doctor, and given that for the majority of their time together, this was David Tennant, that’s understandable. His lanky, emo–dorkiness appeals to just about every girl I know. In fact, when he announced his intention to “retire” from the series after four new episodes, the Internet crashed from the despondent wails of ten million fangirls. I haven’t done my crying… yet. That will undoubtedly come.
I think one of the things that draws me to the Doctor is that he is an emo figure to the max — the last of his race, an all-but-immortal time-traveler who must live with the knowledge that all his companions, his friends, his family, everyone he loves, is gone forever and there’s nothing he can do to change it. And if he does fall in love again, eventually he will either have to “leave” that person or be forced to watch them grow old and die. It’s extremely sad, but so meaningful. I find tragic figures like that fascinating, even compelling. The Doctor travels not merely for his own pleasure but to seek out other peoples and planets that have a need of him.
In some ways, I think Donna is the only companion who ever truly understood that — she understood the great and terrible power he had to change people’s destinies, the outcome of great events, to make or break civilizations. She understood that, she accepted that, and she allowed him to give her some of the responsibility in these actions. Donna put her hands on his when he created the eruption that destroyed Pompeii; in a sense, she took half the burden, half the guilt. Literally, toward the end, she undertook his personality, his brains, his greatness and it was too much for her to bear.
With all the yearning, lovesick puppy expressions going on for the first three seasons, Donna brought a welcome change. She wasn’t “in love” with the Doctor and therefore questioned him, demanded things from him, made him more human because she would not put up with anything less. She told him just where to get off, and didn’t fall for any of his bunk. Basically, Donna was a caustic-but-sweet breath of fresh air to the fandom. She was, in my mind, far and away the “best” companion of the new series, because there was no romance to interfere. She was also my favorite for that reason, and because I loved her personality. Her humor, her quirks, her sarcasm.
One might find me unromantic in my approach to the Doctor, after all, doesn’t he deserve happiness? … but then perhaps in my mind, a tragic figure forever alone is more “romantic” than someone who finds love time and again across centuries, in different forms, with different people. It is that the Doctor is meant to be alone, rather in the same way Helen Magnus from Sanctuary is meant to be alone*, or that Superman is meant to be alone. All of them have purposes they cannot fulfill with “distractions,” and love, while wonderful, with one person is a “distraction.” It was Paul who wrote that it is better to be single if there is work to be done, but better to marry than to “burn.”
I see the Doctor as an epic, tragic figure, someone meant to be alone in the sense that he doesn’t marry, he doesn’t have a family, he doesn’t “fall in love,” but also someone with constant companions. And where Rose was “in love” with him, and Martha was “infatuated” with him, it seemed to me that it was Donna who was his greatest companion, simply because she understood his destiny, and offered him friendship and support and even love without complicating it. It is not a destiny or a solitude I would wish on anyone, but it is a remarkable relationship of friendship that unfolds over 13 episodes, until at last the audience bids them farewell in tears.
She, certainly, out of all of them, truly understood.
* Although any time Helen wants to snog her former flame from the Victorian era, John Druitt, I would not put up a fuss. See? I can be a bit of a romantic after all!