“Jo Grant is useless!” “Jo Grant is a sexist stereotype!” “She’s just there to tell the Doctor how clever he is!” “All she does is scream and need to be rescued by the Doctor!”
If you know anything at all about Jo you’ve probably heard at least one of the above statements at some point. People will often compare Jo to the two powerful, overtly feminist companions she comes between (Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith) and decide she falls short and must be there simply to look pretty and act dumb
All those people are totally, completely wrong.
Here’s the thing: Jo did replace Liz for really sexist reasons. The writers thought Liz was “too smart” because she was the Doctor’s equal rather than someone who would just follow along asking questions. So Liz was dropped (though Caroline John would’ve probably left anyway due to her pregnancy). The character of Jo was created to replace her, and established as someone who definitely wasn’t on the same scientific level as the Doctor.
However, in spite of the sexism behind this, Jo is still a very strong character and I would argue that while she may not surpass the Doctor in the intellectual fields, she’s consistently shown to surpass him in pretty much everything else. She’s kinder than him, braver than him, more determined than him, and less dependent on him than he is on her.
And while she’s no scientist, she’s not stupid either and we see her gradually grow more knowledgeable in scientific matters (in The Time Monster, for example, when she guesses exactly what the device the Doctor built does).
She’s resourceful (remember that she does happen to be a fully qualified UNIT agent who has studied escapology) and frequently gets the Doctor out of tight jams. She doesn’t hang around waiting for someone to tell her what to do—she uses her own initiative many times, sometimes with good results (such as when she frees the Doctor in The Sea Devils) and sometimes with bad results (when she tracks down the Master on her own in Terror of the Autons—though note that she does succeed in finding him, and by Frontier in Space she’s become immune to his hypnotism).
She has far more agency than she gets credit for. She knows what she wants and isn’t shy about getting it. In her first episode we learn she got her job with UNIT by asking her well-connected uncle for it, but she’s also immediately willing to do all the hard work involved. The first thing she does is try to put out a fire—no screaming involved, she just grabs the fire extinguisher and puts it out. It turns out she’s actually ruined one of the Doctor’s projects, but her eagerness and sweet personality win him over so quickly that he doesn’t have the heart to fire her. In The Mind of Evil, during a prison riot, she grabs the gun from the prisoner holding her hostage and turns the situation around, covering the prisoners with it and then casually handing them over to the governor.
In The Curse of Peladon, King Peladon offers her a life of luxury as his queen, but she turns him down. She also turns down Latep in Planet of the Daleks—who asks her to stay with him on Skaro—because she’s more interested in her own life on Earth. When she accepts Cliff’s offer of marriage in The Green Death, it’s not on a whim but something she genuinely wants. She isn’t willing to settle for just anyone.
When she and the Doctor visit the sexist Draconians in Frontier in Space, one of them tells her to not to speak, and her response is simply to tell him to be quiet so she can carry on talking. Later she remarks, “I think it’s about time women’s lib was brought to Draconia.” And yet people claim she’s less feminist than Sarah Jane.
Jo is passionate above all else, and it shows in everything she does. She throws herself into her work, she enjoys life very much, and she’s incredibly compassionate and driven to do good. In The Mind of Evil she takes care of the Doctor after his ordeal with the Keller Machine and treats the prisoner Barnham very kindly, showing more concern for him than anyone else does. She brings a captured Ogron a banana in Frontier in Space, showing kindness to a species even the Doctor treats with contempt. Her compassion is so strong that she tries to sacrifice her own life in The Daemons to save the Doctor, asking Azal to kill her in his place. This action is what ultimately saves them all, because Azal can’t comprehend her behaviour. And finally, she chooses to leave the Doctor because she wants to save the planet the old-fashioned way—not by going into space and fighting aliens, but through simple ground level activism.
Perhaps the most profound example of her strong spirit and her bravery is The Time Monster, when the Master’s actions threaten to destroy the entire universe. She’s trapped aboard his TARDIS, and the only way to stop him is for the Doctor to time ram the two vessels, which will kill all three of them. The Doctor threatens to do it, but the Master calls his bluff, pointing out that the Doctor doesn’t have it in him to destroy Jo. Jo has no such qualms and time rams the TARDISes herself, even though she knows it’ll kill her and her best friend. She believes it’s worth it to save the rest of the universe. “Think of all those millions of people who’ll die,” she says. “Think of all those millions of people who’ll never be born!” The three of them do survive through the intervention of Kronos, but that doesn’t take anything away from Jo’s decision to destroy the two TARDISes—a decision the Doctor himself wasn’t able to make.
Despite his strong desire to be free of his exile, the Doctor is clearly the most dependent one in their relationship. He worries that she might choose to stay with Peladon, and when he finally gets his freedom in The Three Doctors, Jo is sad but willing to accept that he probably wants to leave, but he instead chooses to remain with UNIT (which shows some great character development for Three, who lied to Liz to get her to give him the TARDIS key in his first serial and tried to abandon them all). In the end, it’s not the Doctor who leaves Jo but Jo who leaves the Doctor. She makes the decision to part ways, and he is clearly the one most affected by it, and can’t even stay for the rest of the party. It’s such a simple companion departure—no tragedy involved, just leaving to get married—and yet it remains one of the most heart-breaking moments in Classic Who. We rarely see the Doctor so upset over a companion’s exit.
I don’t understand how anyone who’s seen Jo’s episodes can say she’s a useless character. This is so obviously false when you examine her actions. She may not be Ace beating a Dalek with a baseball bat or Rose absorbing the time vortex, but she doesn’t have to be. She has a quiet, gentle heroism that’s just as valid. Dismissing her as the epitome of the sexist “screaming girl” stereotype misses everything important about her character.