It’s been 10 years since Doctor Who received the reboot treatment and introduced a whole new legion of fans to the show, myself included. And there are still people who don’t appreciate the brilliance of Martha Jones. (FYI There be spoilers ahead, sweetie.)
I won’t pull a Martin Lawrence in Boomerang and say this character’s undervaluing is due exclusively to race because for me, gender plays a much bigger role in Martha’s lukewarm reception. Let’s back up for a minute. Even if the writers don’t quite recognize it, viewers of reboot Who know that the Doctor has…a “type.” Can’t quite get your life together? You could be a companion. Have no sense of direction? No sense of purpose? You could be a companion. Working a dead-end job? Like Calgon, the Doctor will find you and whisk you away from all that ails you. For a while, it seemed like the more rudderless a potential companion was, the more inclined the Doctor was to want to show her the stars (this only applies to women, of course).
Rose worked a going-nowhere retail gig, had an immature (kinda) boyfriend, lived with her mom and had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Donna worked a going-nowhere temp job, had a fiance who turned out to be the minion of a giant spider trying to take over the world, and lived with her mother and grandfather. Amy worked a going-nowhere job (at first) and had no parents to speak of, apparently. (At least her boyfriend was decent.) And Martha? Martha was a promising, independent med student with a sharp intellect and her own flat. One of these things is not like the others, my friends. Through their dealings with the Doctor, the others had to get awesome. Martha Jones was already there. In essence, she was the only companion who didn’t really need the Doctor.
- In “Smith and Jones,” she didn’t flip her lid and panic when she realized her entire hospital had been transported to the moon; she actually seemed pretty excited about it.
- In “The Shakespeare Code,” she pointed out the obvious when it comes to black people traveling back in time.
- She suffered through the Holy Trinity of isms (racism, sexism and classism) while protecting an amnesiac Doctor from his enemies in “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood,” and she helped snap him back to reality when it was time for him to return to his full glory in “The Family of Blood.”
- In her brief appearance in “Blink,” she notably said that she was supporting herself and the Doctor while he figured out how to get them back to the present after they had been flung back to 1969 by the Weeping Angels.
- In “Last of the Time Lords,” she SAVED THE GODDAMN UNIVERSE. Yes, it was the Doctor’s plan but he was incapacitated and it was up to her to execute it, and it took a whole year but she did it.
And what takes down all of Martha’s awesome? What is it about her that leaves a bad taste in viewers’ mouths? The love story angle. Or should I say the “pining, one-sided rebound companion” angle, to be more precise. She’s obviously set up as a contrast to the kind of relationship he had with Rose Tyler, which despite feeling quite genuine and mutual in its affection, ends tragically, like it does with just about every companion who comes into contact with him. Because Martha’s a focused, fully realized person before the Doctor comes along, the writers load up their companionship with the worst kind of unresolved sexual tension – she becomes a lovesick, hair-twirling teenager who gets all starry-eyed over him.
Martha’s redemption comes when she chooses to leave him on her own terms. When I look back at her “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” approach to the end of her travels with the Doctor, it’s refreshing. Comparatively speaking, she didn’t get trapped in an alternate version of the same timeline or have to lose her memories of him or get flung into the past or have to keep dying repeatedly. Martha said her piece and she rolled out. But once the writers threw that love story angle in her lap, they couldn’t let it go.
When she comes back in “The Sontaran Stratagem” and “The Poison Sky,” her character feels a little bitter, like she’s still hurt by the fact that her feelings for the Doctor were unrequited, even though she’s engaged. Don’t get me wrong, she has every right to those feelings because, really, who hasn’t felt that way? But we get beaten over the head with it. (At one point, Donna Noble refers to this tension directly with the line, “Is that what you did to her? Turned her into a soldier?” *rolls eyes* If she didn’t want to work for UNIT, I’m sure she wouldn’t have done so.) As a result, Martha spends most of those two episodes as a clone of herself who runs around being deceitful and destructive, which could be seen as a metaphoric nod to the anger she felt about her non-relationship with the Doctor.
Despite everything she’s been through, it’s satisfying to see Martha walk away again in “Journey’s End.” She once again helps him save the world and leaves him, fairly intact. And that’s far better than how most of his companions ended up.