In advance of the tenth season of Doctor Who, Pearl Mackie’s casting as new companion Bill Potts was much-heralded. Bill would become only the third non-white companion in the show’s history (if you count Micky as an official companion), and more importantly would be Doctor Who’s first openly gay main companion (let’s not forget the Doctor’s recurring non-straight companions River Song, Jack Harkness, and Madame Vastra). For a series consistently dogged by criticism of a lack of diversity both in front of and behind the camera, Bill’s inclusion was rightly considered a Big Deal by fans of the show looking for greater minority representation.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the introduction of Doctor Who’s first black, gay companion coincided with one of the worst seasons of the show’s modern incarnation, with an overarching objective that had nothing to do with Bill, the result being that she was the least interesting companion in years.
All Filler No Killer
Season ten was probably the least engaged I’ve ever been with Doctor Who. The plots on an episode to episode basis just never excited me. In one episode Bill gets roommates and is attacked by termites. In another there’s a giant fish in the Thames. Even the mid-season three-parter of “Extremis”, “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, and “The Lie of The Land” wasn’t particularly interesting to me, aside from initiating the one storyline of the season that was actually good, which I’ll get to in a minute. The season was built almost entirely out of filler episodes, recycling plot structures that the show’s used many times over the course of its ten years on the air.
The upshot of these uninteresting plots is that Bill never had anything particularly interesting to do. She was the most purely reactionary companion we’ve seen since the Tennant era of the series, an audience surrogate there simply to react incredulously to whatever shenanigans the Doctor was getting up to. To be fair, reacting incredulously to whatever shenanigans the Doctor is getting up to is part of the job for every companion. But—for all the very fair criticisms that can be made of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner on Who—one of the things he did right when he took over the show was to give the companions compelling stories in their own right.
With Amy, that was first a coming of age tale, where she faced the choice between running away from her future and living with the Doctor in her childhood fantasies, or growing up, marrying Rory, and taking on some adult responsibilities; then dealing with the discovery that River Song was actually her daughter. For Clara, we first had the mystery of the impossible girl with Matt Smith’s Doctor, where she was scattered throughout time to appear at key moments in the Doctor’s life, only to die; then, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, we watched her journey to become the Doctor herself. In these seasons, Amy and Clara aren’t merely passive taggers-on to the Doctor’s stories; rather, it’s the things that are happening to them, because of their lives and choices, that are driving the story.
Bill, on the other hand, didn’t really have a story of her own. There was the romance with Heather, which appeared to be contained solely within the season premiere episode “The Pilot”, but then came back unexpectedly in major deus ex machina fashion in “The Doctor Falls”. There was also the plot element of Bill and her mother, but that was only relevant at two points in the season: in “The Pilot” where the Doctor goes back in time to get Mrs. Potts to take pictures so Bill can remember her, and then in “The Lie of the Land” where Bill used imaginary conversations with her mother to maintain a hold on memories that should have been suppressed by the Monks’ mind control tech.
None of that amounts to the kind of compelling, layered, character arc of which other recent companions were the beneficiaries. The question, then, is why did this happen? It’s not as though previous seasons with more nuanced companions were free of their own lackluster episodes. So why was Bill’s character handled so differently than Moffat’s other companions? The answer, I think, lies in the one good season ten storyline that I alluded to earlier: Missy’s journey towards redemption.
Will She Stay or Will She Go?
At some point in breaking the story for season ten, Moffat decided he wanted to use the season to tell a story about the Doctor and Missy. Would it be possible for the Doctor to finally win Missy over to the light side of the Force? How would it happen? How long would it take? Could Missy, when directly confronted with the evil and selfishness of her past regenerations in the form of John Simm’s Master, break the cycle and stand with—instead of against—the Doctor?
All fascinating questions, and getting the answers to them was easily the best part of the season. But storytelling is a matter of choices and tradeoffs. Devoting narrative real estate to the Doctor/Missy storyline means having less room for other stories—in this case, a substantive arc for Bill.
One Small Step
A companion getting narratively short-changed like this would be disappointing no matter what, but it’s even more so when you consider what Bill means from a representational standpoint. In the lead-up to the season premiere, Steven Moffat addressed the backlash that the inclusion of an openly gay character incurred from some segments of fandom. After rightfully pointing out that Doctor Who shouldn’t be praised for having “the minimal level of representation”, he went on to discuss how Bill’s homosexuality should be treated on the show:
“It is important we don’t make a big fuss about it in a show that communicates directly with children,” he said. “You don’t want young kids who regard themselves as boring and normal and happen to fancy their own gender to feel as if they’re some kind of special case.”
This is a sentiment I fundamentally agree with. It’s not media’s job to sensationalize gay characters, or trans characters, or whatever character from whatever underrepresented/minority group you’re talking about. Rather, it’s media’s job to normalize those characters, to make seeing characters/performers from those groups as commonplace as seeing your average white man, in every imaginable context. In that sense, Bill’s time on Doctor Who can largely be seen as a success. Bill was integrated into the show’s universe as seamlessly as any other character; she was the exact kind of everywoman character that a companion needs to be to function as a proper audience surrogate.
(While mostly getting it right, the show did have one big recurring problem in its treatment of Bill’s sexuality: having Bill say, “sorry, but I don’t like boys,” after some male character throws her the Raised Eyebrow of Sexual Interest™. It’s arguably the most hackneyed scene you can write for a gay character, and it happened multiple times over the course of the season.)
It’s just unfortunate that Moffat’s decision to introduce the first openly gay companion, and one of only a few companions of color, was the same season he decided that the companion would take a back seat to this story about the Doctor and Missy. Clara was allowed to aspire to be the Doctor, and to realize those aspirations, but Bill must be content simply standing at his side—and not even alone, because trusty white Nardole was there the whole time. There’s a message that can be extracted from all of that, which I’m sure wasn’t Moffat’s intention, but it’s there nonetheless, the product of pursuing a totally legitimate line of narrative inquiry combined with the bad timing of introducing this kind of character in a story that necessitates any character in Bill’s position being sidelined.
With Jodie Whittaker taking over for Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who’s first female Doctor, the show appears to be entering a new era of representation—or rather, finally joining the era the rest of the world’s been in for some time. Let’s hope this trend continues with new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s choice of companion, and we get a character that doesn’t just non-sensationally represent an underserved group in media, but a character that also has as rich a story to be told about them as the millennia-spanning tale of the Doctor.