Rewatching Hell Bent got me thinking about the Doctor’s companion exits. Companions who die, but not really, are like resets. They work with the right payoff and betray us when there’s no cost. No one complains about the reset in Father’s Day, because it’s so tragic the reset is invisible. Last of the Time Lords is another story. Of the six companion departures, four of them involve deaths-but-not, and you’d think the formula would have worn out its welcome by now. But three of them work very well, including Clara’s in the most recent Hell Bent.
Here’s my survey of the six departures. It’s worth noting how Moffat’s three repeated those of Davies. The God Complex, like Last of the Time Lords, was the unassuming farewell, not to mention a loose one, as Amy returned next season like Martha did. Angels Take Manhattan replayed the Doomsday tearjerker, with Amy banished to die in the past like Rose in her alternate universe. Journey’s End and Hell Bent involved quasi-Time Lord identities on the parts of Donna and Clara, necessitating memory wipes. The first two are the affectionate separations; the other four are the epics in which the companion dies but not really. Here’s how they all rank.
Rose. Doomsday, Season 2, 2006. 5 stars. If someone spoiled the ending of Doomsday for you in advance, you’d probably cry foul. The first scene announces that Rose is supposed to die. Getting trapped in a parallel world sounds like an egregious cop-out, especially when she gets to live comfortably ever after with her parents and boyfriend. Yet even after a decade, Rose’s departure remains the best and most tragic companion departure of all time. Partly because Billie Piper is Billie Piper — her ability to channel emotional devastation could make a robot break down in tears — but also because of the way the Doctor breaks his season-long promise that she will be different and he will never abandon her like the previous companions. His plan to defeat the Daleks and Cybermen involves, rather heartlessly, sealing off Rose forever in the parallel world. Granted this pains him, but he does so resolutely true to his alien identity. Rose has learned all she can from him and needs to get on without him. Rose’s dying but not doesn’t feel like a cheat at all; it’s far more upsetting than her actual death could have been.
Martha. Last of the Time Lords, Season 3, 2007. 3 stars. Poor Martha gets a bad rap and she frankly deserves it. She’s the least distinguished of the five companions. Her apologists try hard, but no matter how you spin her, she’s little more than an educated version of Rose, and her unrequited love for the Doctor threatened to turn the Time Lord-companion dynamic into an ongoing soap opera. When she finally gets a proactive role of leadership, it’s unimpressive because Last of the Time Lords is such a horrible episode, serving a cheap reset and pious nonsense. The Doctor becomes his own deus ex machina by repelling laser blasts and levitating like a god, all on the strength of humanity, yes, praying to him. All things considered, Martha’s understated departure was the only sensible option. She wasn’t her own character enough to warrant a grand exit. Her farewell is the best thing about the finale, and she tells the Doctor what we want to hear. If he won’t hop in the sack with her (he won’t), she’s leaving (which is just as well).
Donna. Journey’s End, Season 4, 2008. 2 stars. It’s difficult to give Donna’s departure a fair shake since it comes in the worst Doctor Who story of all time. Journey’s End offends in every frame. The return of Rose makes an unforgivable mockery of her own departure in Doomsday. The Doctor double is twice as bad, and the fact that’s he’s half human horribly contrived to provide the cheap fairy tale ending at Bad Wolf Bay. Rose gets her Time Lord lover after all, in an outrageous undoing of the season-two finale. The Doctor’s regeneration is bogus. The Daleks don’t even kill anyone. Finally there is the Doctor-Donna — an absurd concept on every level that makes me want to kick her motormouth right in. I completely lost the empathy I’d built up for her over season four; from Fires of Pompeii to Turn Left she truly shined. All of that accepted, Donna’s fate is rather tragic. Her memory is wiped, and the final scene in her parents’ house is quite sad: she wakes unable to recognize the Doctor or remember anything about her adventures with him. Thus my departure rating of 2 for a story that on whole I give absolutely 0 stars.
Amy (I). The God Complex, Season 6, 2011. 4 ½ stars. Even if this is a pseudo-departure, it’s the best of its kind since Sarah’s in The Hand of Fear. The Doctor and Amy deliver so much in simple gestures and looks that speak volumes. There’s a real feel that they have have become great friends and find it enormously painful to part company — just like the final scene between Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen back in 1976. And I don’t even consider it a false departure, because it’s less the farewell to Amy and more to “Amelia”, her innocent self who until this point couldn’t let go of her childlike faith in the Doctor. The God Complex crushes that childlike faith by the brilliant device of a haunted hotel. A minotaur-beast stalks the corridors and feeds off the corrupted faith of intruders; when Amy and the Doctor see what’s inside her room of horrors, the Doctor destroys her faith in him, which saves her from the beast and herself. The farewell is metaphorical more than literal, and genuinely affecting. I almost even prefer it to…
Amy (II). The Angels Take Manhattan, Season 7, 2012. 4 stars. … Amy’s actual departure. This one is a full-blown tragedy like Doomsday, with a notable inversion. Rose was stranded in an alternate world against her will. Amy chooses to be stranded in the past against the Doctor’s will, committing a form of retro-suicide. It really is the suitable ending for Amy Pond, since the weeping angels have been her nemesis from the start. The only weakness is the double climax: the graveyard scene comes on top of Amy’s first “suicide” attempt when she jumps from the top of the building, and it’s feels abrupt and hyper-dramatized. There’s also a slightly desperate feel of trying to copy the tearjerk factor of Doomsday, which it succeeds in doing but in a competitive way. On whole it’s still very good. The Angels Take Manhattan has a bleak atmosphere and reeks of preordained disaster. Not even the Doctor can work around the fixed point of Amy’s “death” from blinking, and though I had become tired of Matt Smith by season seven, he really pulled out the stops in conveying anguish for this terrific companion he had come so far with.
Clara. Hell Bent, Season 9, 2015. 4 ½ stars. By now the formula of “dying but not” had worn out its welcome. It worked in Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan, fell on its face in Journey’s End, and by God it was time for another Adric. Time to let the companion die for real, and to let the more juvenile constituents of the fanbase grow up. All the more astonishing then, that Clara’s fate works not only well, but comes close to rivaling Rose’s. First because of the amazing performances of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Second because their emotions are communicated through the concept of the Hybrid, which is not, it turns out, some mythical half-Dalek/half-Time Lord, but the Doctor and Clara themselves. Their friendship has created a risk addiction that spurs each other toward disaster, with the entire universe being the collateral. This necessitates a memory wipe: one of them must forget the other so their friendship can end. It’s genuinely heartbreaking — even the scenes in the diner with the Doctor playing sad melodies on the guitar — and a vast improvement on the memory wipe theme which didn’t make sense in Donna’s case. The result is that, yes, Hell Bent reverses Clara’s death (for a time), but without undoing any pain and grief. Clara, like Rose and Amy, earns her death by the longer road.