Six years ago when I watched Doctor Who for the first time I did not like Martha very much. I found it extremely annoying how she always pined after the Doctor and I, along with the Doctor, viewed Martha as a rebound companion after he lost Rose.
Re-watching the third season though, I ended up liking Martha. Looking back on my old opinions of Martha, I’ve realized that they probably spawned out of racism that I wasn’t previously aware that I had. In truth, she is intelligent, brave and has a great sense of humor. Also, she had enough self-respect to leave the Doctor as soon as she realized that she deserved better than being with a man who made her feel like “second best,” and I respect that.
While it’s great that the show was diversifying itself by adding Martha as the “first” black companion (some would argue that Mickey was actually the first), it failed in properly representing the black community in a few ways. The first being that the writers avoided addressing racial issues in episodes that take place in the past. The most obvious example is in S3E2 The Shakespeare Code when the Doctor and Marth first arrive in Elizabethan England. Martha is immediately concerned about how she’ll be treated being black.
MARTHA: I’m not going to get carted off as a slave, am I?
DOCTOR: Why would they do that?
MARTHA: Not exactly white, in case you haven’t noticed.
DOCTOR: I’m not even human. Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me. Besides, you’d be surprised. Elizabethan England, not so different from your time.
The writers had the opportunity to make some great points on racism and use their hugely popular show as a way to spark a conversation. Instead they chose to take the easy way out and dismiss her as though her worries are completely invalid. It’s also offensive that the Doctor assumes he knows what she’s going though and compares his experience as an alien with the outward appearance of a white man with that of a black woman’s.
The second way that the show failed in diversity with Martha is that the Doctor was mildly racist towards her. He never showed her the level of respect that he did towards Rose or would to Donna, Amy, and Clara. When the Doctor first met Donna he invited her to travel with him with no stipulations and she, of course, turns him down at first. When he meets Martha just an episode later though, he specifies that he is only going to take her on one trip and then right back home. The audience is supposed to think that this is because his heart is still broken over loosing Rose, but if that were true, why didn’t he give Donna the same condition?
He also never gave Martha a proper goodbye. After traveling the world alone for a whole year telling everyone she could about the Doctor in order to save him and her family being imprisoned and enslaved by the Master, she deserved his utmost respect. Instead she just receives a “thank you” whereas, in comparison, Rose got a Doctor substitute and Donna got a winning lottery ticket.
Overall, Martha isn’t a popular companion and is often overlooked by fans. This is probably partly because she came after the love interest Rose and hilarious Donna, but is also partly because of racist bias. Hopefully the show starts to diversify its companions more and uses these opportunities to address social issues.