Confession #90: I've Underrated Martha

Martha Jones came on the scene at an awkward time—awkward for me, that is. The way I was introduced to the show, I had zero time to process the loss of my first Companion before another was thrust upon me, and I was not ready to move on. Sort of like the Doctor, then, I didn't really give her a fair shake. She didn't get the affection and respect from me that the character really deserved.

As I look back on her time in the TARDIS, though, I realize that I really have given Martha short shrift. Just by being there, by taking up space on screen and refusing to be shoved aside, she did more for representation of diversity than anyone else in the show's history.

It's not just her existence as a black Companion that makes her significant (and a better character than I've been able to internalize before); she has some brilliant moments that turn the old, comfortable "standard operating procedure" on its ear.

For example, on her first trip into the past in The Shakespeare Code, Martha stops the Doctor's headlong rush into turn-of-the-seventeenth-century London with an astute and reasonable question:

Martha: "Oh, but hold on— am I all right? I'm not going to get carted off as a slave, am I?"
Doctor: "Why would they do that?"
M: "I'm not exactly white, in case you haven't noticed?"
D: "I'm not even human. Just walk about like you own the place; works for me."

The Doctor has, of course, completely missed her point (and that's an entirely different post), but writer Gareth Roberts has at least briefly acknowledged that he's considered possible racial implications of Martha's presence in Shakespeare's London, even if he's thereafter chosen to ignore them completely.

Martha's relationship with the Doctor was also atypical in that for nearly half of the season, she traveled with him on a case-by-case basis. It wasn't until the end of The Lazarus Experiment—the sixth of thirteen episodes in which Martha was "the" Companion—that the arrangement was normalized, and that only because she finally put her foot down.

D: "So what do you say; one more trip?"
M: "No. Sorry."
D: "What do you mean? I thought you liked it!"
M: "I do, but I can't go on like this. 'One more trip.' It's not fair."
D: "What are you talking about?"
M: "I don't want to be just a passenger any more, someone that you take along for a treat. If that's how you still see me, well then, I'd rather stay here."
D: "Okay, then. If that's what you want."
M: "Right. Well, we've already said goodbye once today. It's probably best if you just go."
D: <stands there>
M: "What is it?"
D: "What? I said okay."
M: "Sorry?"
D: "Okay!" <nods toward TARDIS>
M: "Oh, thank you! Thank you!"
D: "Well, you were never really 'just a passenger,' were you?"

Again there is a whole lot to unpack in that exchange (e.g., the power dynamic between them and from whence it springs), but the piece I'm getting at here is that unlike other Companions, Martha didn't reach "full" status until she specifically asked for it.

For comparison, even just within the post-Hiatus era, consider that at the same point in their adventures with the Doctor

  • Rose had just seen her first Dalek self-destruct, never mind Raxacoricofallapatorians, Dickens, and Platform One
  • Donna had just met the Doctor's daughter-clone (or saved the world from Sontarans, depending on whether or not you count Runaway Bride), having already had her heart crushed by the Ood and Pompeii
  • Amy had brought Rory along on his first TARDIS trip and met fish-people in Venice (Weeping Angels, Daleks, and a space whale already in the rearview mirror), and
  • Clara had just met the Paternoster Gang (assuming, again, that you don't count other versions of Clara), having already been to the center of the TARDIS, met an Ice Warrior, and been to Akhaten.

That just shows how very late in the game it is for the Doctor to admit he's got a regular thing going with Martha.

As Series Three continues, though, Martha becomes an even stronger character. She's finally taken some agency for herself by demanding that permanent TARDIS berth and she never really lets it go. The classic example, of course, is how she walks all over the planet in that "lost year" for the series finale. However, my favorite is actually the role she takes on in Human Nature / Family of Blood.

That probably sounds strange, but when I say I love "the role she takes" in that two-parter, I'm not talking about her being relegated to being a servant at the school. I'm talking about the way Martha effectively has to become the Doctor, taking care of business and keeping her "Companion" John Smith safe as danger approaches ever closer. Long before Clara put on Doctorish airs for her investigation in Flatline, Martha took on the Doctor's responsibilities for real and made some life-and-death decisions on behalf of others.

So after many years of ambivalence, I think I'm finally coming around to the charms of Martha Jones. In my opinion, her story is still severely limited by the unrequited love subplot and the way she followed the Doctor around like a puppy dog for far too much of the series, but once I strip that aspect of the character away, there's a lot there to love. It'll be interesting to see how I feel after my next S3 re-watch. Maybe we'll finally click.

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Comments

As an old-school DW fan, I never had any trouble switching from Rose to the next one. And I just adore the way that Martha is the only NuWho companion who isn't a Magical Girl but a Badass Normal. The series could do whit more of that IMHO.

By Pippa's Ghost (not verified)

I don't think either Rose or Donna were magical girls. As with Martha, they were both fairly normal earthwomen that The Doctor just took a liking to. Yeah, in later episodes Rose kept reappearing from an alternate universe we had been assured she was stuck in forever but that was after her tenure as a companion. And Donna became some sort of mindmelded Timelord but that was at the end of her tenure. For most of their time they were normal girls.

Amy and Clara were Magical Girls as they are the center of series spanning mysteries that The Doctor had to resolve. And as for River Song, Magical Girl isn't even the half of it. But all this started with Moffat's tenure as showrunner.

It would be nice to get back to companions who are just normal folks that The Doctor picked up in his travels. Hopefully somebody who ISN'T a twentysomething female human from present day London.

By Kara S (not verified)

Rose had a trail of Bad Wolfs (Bad Wolves? Whatever!) for herself to follow. And Donna's first ever appearance was literally an appearance out of thin air in the TARDIS on her wedding day.

Those aren't magical enough for you?

By Pippa's Ghost (not verified)

Yeah, I forgot about the Bad Wolf stuff. But it really wasn't apparent till the season finale that it applied to Rose. The Doctor and Rose kept seeing the Bad Wolf grafitti but I guess I assumed at the time that it was about The Doctor.

And while Donna appeared in her wedding dress out of thin air that situation was resolved in that episode. It didn't affect her afterwards.

By Kara S (not verified)

Anyway, the whole Bad Wolf subplot was so nonsensical that I got the destinct feeling that the writers started it without knowing where it was going. They stuck Bad Wolf everywhere to be mysterious and then panicked when they realized they had to tie it up at the end of the season.

"Uhhhh, Rose did it. Yeah, that's the ticket. It was Rose all along."
"Gee, it doesn't seem like something Rose would do. She's generally much more straightforward."
"Well, it has to be SOMEBODY so we say it was Rose and that's final."

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I think if I'd had nearly a year to think on a Companion change and get used to the idea, I might've like Martha better from the start, but that's not how it happened for me. I watched Rose's last ~16-17 episodes in a 3-4 day period, and then jumped right into S3. I gave myself no time to process.

I completely agree that we could use more Badass Normal, though! And as Kara said below, someone from a different demographic would be MOST welcome.

By mrfranklin
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