The Lingering Curse Of Being Doctor Who’s “Companion”

Nov 22, 2013 at 11:27 AM ET

Unless you’ve been living under a rock that doesn’t have Wi-Fi, you’ve probably heard that tomorrow is a very important day to nerds, sci-fi fans and British people around the world.

It’s the Day of the Doctor.

That is, it’s the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, the iconic British science-fiction series that features an alien Time Lord traveling through time and space in a time machine disguised as a 1950s-era British police call box. The show has had its ups and downs (including a 16-year hiatus), but it may now be the most popular television program in the world.

(“The Day of the Doctor” is also the name of a global Doctor Who special airing this weekend worldwide.)

Eleven actors, all men, have played the Doctor since the program’s inception. But it’s not just about him. Without fail, the Doctor is always accompanied by his “companions.” More often than not, they are comely young women (and sometimes men). The fans love them. But that may be where it ends.

Call it “The Curse of Doctor Who.”

Despite the program’s worldwide fame and despite the universal affection for these companions, not one of the actors who played them has gone on to become a major television or film star. In fact, many companions have, since their exit from Doctor Who, spent decades showing up at fan conventions, reliving that handful of years when they traveled through “Time and Relative Dimension in Space.”

So to mark this anniversary, we wanted to give our favorite companions their due. Where are they now, as they labor under the “curse”?

And as with any institution that’s five decades old, some of its alumni are no longer alive.

Elisabeth Sladen

Sarah Jane Smith, a plucky investigative journalist who is probably the most beloved companion of all time, was played by the beautiful Elisabeth Sladen until her untimely death in 2011 from cancer. She worked with more Doctors than any other companion, appearing in both the old series and the new reboot (the show was off the air from 1989 to 2005, with the exception of one TV movie special in 1996). Before Comic-Con was cool, Sladen came to the United States frequently in the 1980s with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker for Doctor Who conventions.

After her character departed the old series in 1976, Sladen actually stopped attending fan events because she thought it would be impolite to the new cast. In her post-Who era, she appeared in various radio plays, small TV roles and a kids’ educational series on BBC Two called Numbertime. Sladen went through a dry spell from 1996 to 2006 where she wasn’t on TV, until the new Who producers asked her back to reprise her role as Sarah Jane. The reprisal went very well, and Sarah Jane got her own spinoff, made for younger Doctor Who fans, The Sarah Jane Adventures. The new show probably cut better checks than the old show, for which she would still receive royalties for the occasional airing: “Sometimes the checks aren’t worth cashing,” she once said. “I think we framed one that was for 70 pence.”

Sladen was diagnosed with cancer in February 2011 and passed away two months later, at the age of 65. She left behind her husband of more than 40 years and her daughter, also an actress.

Katy Manning

Manning played Jo Grant to Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, a young, fresh-faced junior operative for UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) in the series. Manning is a great example of a Who alum who has stayed incredibly connected to the series, even decades later: Her character first ran around galaxies in the early 1970s, and today she still participates in companion audio series and Big Finish audio production plays. Big Finish has produced hundreds of Doctor Who plays.

Manning appeared in a few other TV shows, but nothing notable until her appearance alongside Sladen in a Sarah Jane Adventures episode in 2011. The reunion of two former companions, plus the presence of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, drew more than a few fan eyeballs. But probably not as many eyeballs as her nude photos with a Dalek, the Doctor’s ultimate nemesis, that covered Girl Illustrated magazine in 1977. At the time, the photos were considered positively scandalous—though Manning was eventually admitted back to the Whovian fold.

At 67, Manning today is the only actress alive to have played a female companion to the Third Doctor. Sladen was one, and tragically Caroline John, another companion, also passed away from cancer in 2012.

Mark Strickson

The man who played Vislor Turlough alongside Fifth Doctor Peter Davison has only two other acting credits to his name: BBC series Angels, about student nurses, and young Ebeneezer Scrooge in the 1984 film version of A Christmas Carol. After Who, he went behind the scenes and is now a producer of various reality shows, especially nature programming, like The Ten Deadliest Snakes In The World. Strickson has had real success with the switch from on camera to off, helping bring “crocodile man” Steve Irwin to the world’s attention.

He has also appeared at various anniversary conventions and does voice work for the Big Finish audio dramas today.

Janet Fielding

This hugely popular Australian gem played spunky air stewardess Tegan Jovanka to the Fourth and Fifth Doctors in the 1980s before leaving television in 1991 to work on entertainment’s bureaucratic side. She worked as an administrator for Women in Film and Television UK for a few years before becoming a theater agent, and even representing the likes of Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor. Doctor Who likes to keep it all in the family.

After 15 years of non-acting work, Fielding finally reprised her role as Tegan in various Big Finish plays and direct-to-DVD stories. She was never a huge frequenter of fan conventions, but actually organized two Who conventions on her own for a youth unemployment initiative, Project MotorHouse. The 60-year-old, now divorced, is currently fighting cancer.

Matthew Waterhouse

Waterhouse played pint-sized companion Adric in the ’80s, a dream come true for a man who was “obsessed” with the show as a young boy. After Who, he had his fair share of theatre credits in the U.K., especially for Shakespeare productions, but like all the others, has returned to the Whoniverse in the form of voice work and DVD commentaries.

The 51-year-old, who was openly gay even during his time on the series, now lives with his partner in Connecticut, “but occasionally returns to the U.K. for conventions, signings, performances and recording audio commentary for the Doctor Who DVDs.” This post-industry for companions is legit.

Wendy Padbury

The lovely Padbury played Zoe Heriot, one of the Second Doctor’s companions, and went on to become a theatrical agent for four Doctor Who actors. She actually discovered Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, when he did a gig at the National Youth Theatre in the U.K. Padbury tried to leave the convention circuit as she felt the routine had become old, but couldn’t stay away for very long. She returned to fandom in 2009 to talk about discovering Matt Smith. Perhaps her most notable acting credit other than Who was her role in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a British cult horror film.

Sophie Alder

Sophie Aldred’s companion Ace was an absolute badass. A street-smart teenager, Ace joined the Seventh Doctor in the TARDIS and was soon beating Daleks to a pulp with a supercharged baseball bat.

Aldred has actually done a fair bit of TV work since Who, mostly in children’s programming. But Ace was her seminal role, for which she co-wrote a book in 1996 called Ace, The Inside Story of the End of an Era. “End of an era” refers to the fact that Ace was the companion on the last nine episodes of the series before it went off air in ’89—but the era hasn’t really ended yet. Aldred appears at fan conventions with her two sons.

Nicola Bryant

Ah, beautiful, buxom Perpugilliam Brown (aka “Peri”), the companion played by Nicola Bryant, now an active Tweeter who calls herself a “Who girl, always and all ways” in her Twitter bio. She’s done some theatre work since Who, including a 2007 West End production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll that yours truly was lucky enough to see, but reprises her Peri voice in Big Finish plays as well. Bryant actually appeared alongside Doctor actor Colin Baker in another sci-fi series that went straight to DVD called The Stranger, which is pretty much just an homage to Doctor Who without using key terms like TARDIS.

For those who need to interpret Nicola’s tweets: Hartnell played The First Doctor. Then she tweets at Kate O’Mara, who played the villainous Rani in the old series, and Katy Manning, about the 50th anniversary celebrations this weekend in London at the ExCel Centre. All in the family.

Frazer Hines

Hines is the ultimate companion, having appeared on more episodes than anyone else—117 as Jamie McCrimmon, companion to the Second Doctor. Hines appeared in various British soaps before and after Who before landing another recurring acting role on the series Emmerdale.

Like Nicola, Frazer is an active tweeter who happily stays in touch with fans.

The 69-year-old battled colorectal cancer for 11 years, but has since made a successful recovery.

Roger Delgado

Delgado was not actually a companion on the show, but played a Time Lord gone bad called The Master—one of the Doctor’s arch nemeses and a regular on the show in the 1970s. He was the first actor to play The Master, and his evil mustache and deep, booming voice are fan favorites. Delgado also did quite a lot of stage, film and TV work, but died in a tragic car crash when filming on location in Turkey at the age of 55 in 1973. Pertwee, the Third Doctor, has said that Delgado’s unfortunate death was one of the reasons he left Who.

Anthony Ainley

In a scary coincidence, the actor who portrayed The Master in a recurring role after Delgado also died an untimely death. Anthony Ainley played The Master for most of the ’80s, and passed away in 2004 at the age of 71. The official cause of death was never released. His other filmography also includes The Blood in Satan’s Claw.


Ainley’s TV career peaked with Who—pictures of him after are hard to come by.

Today’s companions

It’s a different world for today’s companions, who have the benefit of acting in a show that has gone mainstream around the world after spending decades as a cult sci-fi phenomenon. Billie Piper, probably the most beloved modern companion, played Rose to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor before starring in multiple seasons of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Piper is a special case, considering she was a pop star before she was cast on the show.

Tennant’s other companions also include veteran comedic actress Catherine Tate, and once-unknown Freema Agyeman (above), who now stars on American Sex and the City spinoff The Carrie Diaries. Openly gay star John Barrowman, better known as the omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness on the series, got his own Whovian spinoff series, Torchwood, and makes appearances on other shows like ABC’s Scandal and The CW’s Arrow. Not too shabby.

Noel Clarke, who started out as Rose’s left-behind boyfriend Mickey Smith but graduated to a companion role in his own right, was most recently seen in a mostly silent but compelling role in Star Trek: Into Darkness. He is also a successful writer-director, as seen in Kidulthood and its sequel Adulthood.

Like almost every other person involved in the show, these modern companions love the convention circuit and play it up for the fans. One particular fan-favorite moment came when Tennant and Barrowman kissed at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009 (ways to explode a fandom No. 5). Doctor Who fans are incredibly lucky, if sometimes mocked, as the actors across the years like to keep the spirit of journeys in time and space alive for as long as they can. Here’s to 50 more years, and a million more Big Finish audio plays.