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Doctor Who at 60: what qualities make the best companion? A psychologist explains

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Over the past 60 years, we have witnessed the Doctor’s adventures in time and space with a multitude of companions by his side. From his granddaughter Susan and her teachers, Ian and Barbara to Ryan, Graham and Yaz – the Doctor has had many travelling companions.

But what makes a person leave their everyday life and leap at the chance to join Team Tardis with a brilliant, yet at times unpredictable, Time Lord? What does it take to not only survive but to thrive as the Doctor’s companion? A degree of physical fitness is certainly needed for running up and down corridors, but the Doctor’s companions also need to be open to new experiences, keep going in the face of adversity and be resilient.

One thing that all successful companions share is a flexible, or growth, mindset. People with a flexible mindset are more likely to believe that they can deal with new situations and can gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed.

One example of a companion with a flexible mindset is the fourth Doctor’s (Tom Baker) travelling companion, Leela (Louise Jameson). Leela belonged to a tribe of regressed humans, known as the Sevateem, who were descended from a survey team which crash-landed on the planet Mordee where they founded a colony. A great warrior, Leela demanded that the Doctor took her with him in the Tardis.

Before her travels with the Doctor, Leela had had no experience of technology or societies outside her own. But during her time with the Doctor she was always quick to adapt to new situations and saw all the new experiences she was exposed to as an opportunity for learning.

Linked to the flexible mindset, companions also tend to score highly on the trait of openness, when measured on the Big Five personality scale. Companions need to have a strong sense of curiosity and a willingness to embrace their experience of alien worlds or distant historic or future eras. The personality trait of openness has been linked to better resilience to challenging situations.

The Doctor’s travelling companions often have a high level of optimism. In other words, they are likely to expect the best in difficult situations – being able to overcome the Daleks or foil the evil plans of the Cybermen, for example.

People who have high levels of optimism have been found to be physically healthier and more psychologically resilient. It is very important that companions adopt optimistic thinking as they often need to keep going in tough situations, whereas pessimists are more likely to just give up.

One of the Doctor’s most optimistic companions is Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), who escapes to Earth after the Master takes the Doctor, Jack and Martha’s family hostage on the Valiant Spaceship.

The Doctor asks Martha to travel the world for a year, telling everyone on Earth that she meets to think of the Doctor at a specific time on a certain day will this secure his release. Martha keeps her faith in the Doctor and it is her belief that everything will be alright in the end which helps her to keep going and fulfil her mission.

Post-traumatic growth

Travelling with the Doctor is never dull. Alongside all the amazing experiences companions will also be exposed to traumatic and dangerous situations.

Many researchers have focused on the negative psychological consequences that can follow traumatic events (such as the development of disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder). However, recent research has acknowledged that some people can report positive changes following exposure to challenging life events, which is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”.

The suggestion is that traumatic experiences can act as a catalyst for some people and trigger positive cognitive and emotional changes. For example, although Graham (Bradley Walsh) suffers the trauma of both having cancer and losing his wife, he joins the Doctor as a positive way of coping with loss.

Post-traumatic growth is also more likely to happen when a person has a good social support network. Companions never face danger alone – they always have the Doctor by their side. The social support that companions have from the Doctor may be one of the reasons why they are more likely to positively benefit from their travels in the Tardis and return to earth changed for the better.

A scene bringing together several of the Doctor’s companions.

Many leave the Doctor when they stop being able to cope with the continuous danger. For example Dan (John Bishop) decided to return to his home town of Liverpool after his near-death experience during his encounter with the CyberMasters.

If I was to select one standout companion it would be Ace (Sophie Aldred), who travelled with the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). Ace suffered a difficult childhood but embraced the study of chemistry (especially when it involved blowing things up). She was fearless, and independent as well as being handy with a baseball bat and her canisters of her homemade Nitro-9 explosive.

When she found herself unexpectedly on the Iceworld of Svartos, she adapted quickly to her new situation, becoming a waitress and forming new friendships. Even though her relationship with the Doctor (or Professor as she fondly called him) was complex, she is one of the companions who shows the most growth, developing a strong moral compass, as a result of her travels in the Tardis.

The Time Lords are highly selective of their travelling companions. It is clear that those who do accept the invitation to travel are likely to have an open minded, optimistic and resilient mindset.


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The Conversation

Dr Sarita Robinson works for the University of Central Lancashire. Sarita also does consultancy work via Nick Robinson Computing Ltd trading as DrSurvival. She is affiliated with the British Psychological Society