What is the Doctor without his or her companions? Over the years, each of the Doctor’s incarnations on Doctor Who (we can rule out the War and Fugitive Doctors) has preferred to travel through time and space with some company. Companions have arrived from all times and places and included future humans, inhabitants of pocket universes, and even robots. They’re our window to the Doctor’s adventures, helping us to understand strange worlds, stranger times, and the enigmatic alien traveler who takes them there.
Of course, no sci-fi drama would be complete without danger. For nearly 60 years, the Doctor’s companions have proven just as capable of needing rescuing as they have saving the universe. Like Doctors, there’s no such thing as a lousy companion, although some have pushed the button. As we saw with Series 1‘s Adam Mitchell, any companion who abuses their position will have to face the Doctor.
The Fifth Doctor inherited a tough TARDIS crew in the early 1980s, including Australian flight stewardess Tegan, who he spent years trying to return to an airport. There was also Adric, generously described as mildly annoying. He ended up sacrificing himself in an encounter with the Cybermen.
Whether they’re his granddaughter or a fellow Time Lord, whether he calls them assistants or she calls them Fam, they’re an essential part of the show. As this list shows, since Doctor Who returned in 2005, they’ve become more important than ever.
Here’s our ranking of the top-tier Doctor Who companions.
17. Martha Jones
Martha had a tough job following Rose Tyler but proved to be a great asset during one of the show’s strongest series. She was far more than a companion with a crush on the Doctor. A qualified medical doctor, she went on to take critical roles in UNIT and Torchwood after enduring the devastating Year that Never Was. She’s popped back since, proving crucial for the protection of Earth. Martha is one modern companion who showed that there is life after the TARDIS.
16. Nyssa of Traken
The Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS was a bit awkward for the first half of his life. One shining light aboard the time-ship was Nyssa, who moved on from her tragic losses on Traken to dedicating her life to helping others on the spaceship Terminus. A brilliant scientist and compassionate medic, she was a perfect match for her Doctor.
15. Wilfred Mott
Donna Noble’s grandfather first appeared during “Voyage of the Damned” and infrequently appeared before becoming the Tenth Doctor’s final companion. After a year of worrying about the four knocks prophesied to end his life, the Doctor had no choice but to save Wilfred when he finally heard them. A marvelous performance from Bernard Cribbins, who’d earlier played companion Tom Campbell in the 1966 film Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.
14. Dorothy “Ace” McShane
Ace was a vital part of the show’s late 1980’s resurgence, even if she and her famous cans of Nitro-9 explosive weren’t enough to save it from cancellation in 1989. Her partnership with the avuncular Seventh Doctor would be a significant influence on the show in later years. Impressive considering the way the Doctor interfered with her life in the Classic Series’ final year. There’s every chance Ace may return to the show one day, and we can only hope she’ll repeat the moment she took on a Dalek with a superpowered baseball bat.
13. Clara Oswald
Aboard the TARDIS for large parts of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor’s lives, Clara was a rare companion who balanced a career with life aboard the TARDIS. Her impulsiveness divided fans, but by stepping into the Doctor’s timestream on Trenzalore, she’s arguably the Doctor’s most important companion, and one who’s still flying around time and space today.
12. Bill Potts
Bill was a breath of fresh air when she arrived during the Twelfth Doctor’s final year. We’d seen companions suffer before, but Bill’s journey was genuinely horrendous, from being jilted by a space pilot to tear-jerking cyber-conversion. The Twelfth Doctor and Bill Potts were as near perfect a combination as you’ll find in Doctor Who.
Two for the price of one. Both incarnations of Time Lady Romanadvoratrelundar were a match for the Doctor. Assigned initially to assist in the quest for the Key to Time, she left having picked up a healthy sense of rebellion.
10. Susan Foreman
This list wouldn’t be complete without the original companion. Susan seems far removed from the company the Doctor keeps these days, but she’s also unique. A teenager, a schoolgirl, but also the Doctor’s granddaughter. She left the TARDIS for life on near-future Earth, her origins still a mystery.
9. Jo Grant
Jo replaced scientist Liz Shaw as the Doctor’s UNIT assistant, and signs weren’t good when the prickly Time Lord called her a “ham-fisted bun vendor” on their first meeting. Jump forward two years, and she’d softened one of the Time Lord’s more difficult personalities, leading to a poignant departure. No wonder Jo’s one of the few companions to return in the 21st century.
8. Jamie McCrimmon
We’re so used to modern-day companions that it’s easy to forget the hugely successful companions who came from times or places utterly different to ours. Jamie was one of the Doctor’s longest-serving companions⏤a Highlander who interpreted extraordinary adventures with an 18th century viewpoint. He formed one of the show’s greatest and most enduring double-acts with the clownish Second Doctor.
K9 isn’t the only robot to have traveled in the TARDIS, but he was the most faithful companion. This plucky robot dog originally hailed from the year 5000, as its super-advanced design suggests. There have been four versions of K9 and each has displayed the same loyal devotion. Never afraid to take on gigantic threats, whether that’s sealing a black hole or, in one tragic moment, misjudging the sea on Brighton Beach.
The Fourth Doctor’s mid-1970s adventures remain some of the Time Lord’s finest, in part thanks to companion Leela. Another intelligent human out of her time, Leela was a member of a primitive tribe in the far future who opened up a new storytelling style. She brought comedy, action, and fascinating questions of morality to the show.
5. Donna Noble
Donna’s journey remains the most heartbreaking of all modern companions. Many were unsure when she materialized in the TARDIS during the Christmas special “The Runaway Bride,” but it was during Series 4 that she underwent her incredible transformation. Donna proved that traveling with the Doctor can be a wondrous thing, making it worse when the universe robbed her of the experience. The tragedy is that she’ll never know she suffered such a horrific and undeserved punishment for saving reality.
4. Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton
These two original companions are inseparable. Susan’s teachers encountered a reclusive and grumpy Doctor hiding away in a junkyard in the East End of London. They left a transformed Doctor, willing to fight oppression and promote freedom across time and space. The Time Lord we know wouldn’t be the same without them.
3. Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart
What qualifies someone to be the Doctor’s companion? If they have to travel in the TARDIS, the Brigadier just qualifies, even though he stayed clear of the time-ship for years. For sheer appearances, 23 stories between 1968’s “The Web of Fear” and his controversial reappearance in 2014’s “Death in Heaven,” few match the Brig.
He’s the only boss we’ve seen the Doctor report to, and it wasn’t all plain sailing between the commander of British UNIT and the anti-authority Third Doctor. But their constant clashes gave way to a great friendship over time. A relationship beautifully captured in the Eleventh Doctor’s response to his great friend’s death at the end of “The Wedding of River Song.”
2. Rose Tyler
The multifaceted companion who started a new era, Rose has a lot to answer for, so it’s fortunate that she’s also saved the universe more than once. Rose was where companions became far more than foils to the Doctor and regularly central to the show’s stories. She was an everyday young Londoner, a potential love interest, and even an all-powerful, time-vortex-powered entity. Just as she was responsible for the demise of the Ninth Doctor, she was the making of the Tenth.
1. Sarah Jane Smith
Sarah Jane is the ultimate companion. This intrepid journalist first bustled into the Third Doctor’s life before forming solid bonds with subsequent incarnations. A bright, curious, and strong-willed journalist, she wasn’t a screaming liability (although she had the pipes when she needed them). Her return to the show in 2006 was a brilliant shorthand for Doctor Who’s depth. It earned her the superb spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures (actually her second, but 1981’s K-9 & Company only made it to pilot). The archetypal companion, she was part of the show’s greatest stories and moments, and without her, companions wouldn’t be the same today.