Erin Horáková writes about what made Mary Tamm’s Romana different:
Media outlets marked the passing of Elisabeth Sladen (popular companion Sarah Jane Smith) by talking about how Sarah Jane was the first competent, intelligent, female companion. These assessments erase the contribution of women like Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), who played one of the Doctor’s initial companions—a passionate, clever, determined history teacher whose influence and friendship changed the Doctor’s personality forever, helping him become the character we know and enjoy throughout Classic and New Who. They also reduces the complexity of a character like Jo Grant, who immediately preceded Sarah Jane. Jo was young, and rather “girly.” She was also a capable intelligence operative who left the Doctor for a Nobel prize-winning scientist and a life in hardcore environmental activism. Treatments that forget previous companions in order to remember whoever’s just been lost not only prestige popular and personal nostalgic memory to a degree that’s at odds with journalistic standards of accuracy, they also misread the texts in question and impose a rather artificial Feminism of Firsts. The logic of “Elizabeth Sladen and/or Sarah Jane is important because she was the FIRST!! strong female companion!” denigrates other characters and actresses in order to make its (very true!) point that Sarah Jane is special and important to many viewers. Making Sarah Jane the Exceptional Woman doesn’t seem warranted, or particularly feminist.
Comments on Mary Tamm’s passing have been similarly reductive, having thus far made note of Romana’s being the first companion to have matched the Doctor intellectually, the first Time Lady companion, “the inspiration for River Song” (…because both are ladies with academic degrees of some form?), etc. While the fact that she was a Time Lady companion—assigned to keep the Fourth Doctor on task on an important “save the universe” mission—allowed Romana to interact with the Doctor in a unique and interesting way, she wasn’t the first Time Lady in the program (that was Susan, the TARDIS’s eponymous Unearthly Child, or if you don’t count her, Rodan on Gallifrey). And many characters, companions and otherwise, intellectually kept the Doctor on his toes before and after Romana.
Romana isn’t awesome because she’s oh-so-much more intelligent/competent/feminist than other companions. She isn’t awesome in spite of the “campy crappyness” of her source text, or because she’s like some New Who character. Romana is awesome because she’s well-characterized—clever, arch, over-precious in a realistic way, eminently watchable—and within Tamm’s season she makes strong beginnings on an arc of growth. Her background is similar to the Doctor’s, but her worldview and ultimate goals are different than his. That provided an interesting counterpoint to and subversion of the Fourth Doctor’s bombastic monopolization of the narrative. She’s part of a series of very solid scripts. She’s part of Doctor Who’s tradition of excellent female characters. And Romana is awesome because Mary Tamm, whose well-pitched portrayal absolutely made Romana, was awesome.
this is excellent