How Doctor Who companion Bill Potts has changed the trajectory of the show

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Jun 26, 2017

Doctor Who has come a long way since its television debut in 1963.

The British science fiction show was originally marketed as an educational children's program that featured the lead character, The Doctor, taking the audience and his human companions through a series of adventures in space and time. Now it has become one of the longest-running sci-fi shows of all time and an international success with generations of fans. Doctor Who's innovative premise and intriguing adventures have been a factor in its longevity, but the show's embrace of change also plays a major role it its success. The concept of regeneration, which allowed The Doctor to completely change his physical appearance to circumvent death, has resulted in the show continuing through more than a dozen actors in the titular role. Doctor Who's directors and showrunners have also changed over the span of 50+ years.

During the original run of the show, known as Classic Who (1963-1989), the role of the companion was a critical connection point between the audience and the humanoid alien Doctor. The companion was the audience surrogate who would ask the questions that needed answers and act as a familiar moral compass in contrast to The Doctor's foreign code of conduct. As The Doctor went through different incarnations of himself, companions changed due to various circumstances. The companion was important, but the Classic series made it clear that The Doctor was THE main character. Most companions were given little to no backstory or much of a life outside of the TARDIS. This started to change in later years with companions like Sarah Jane Smith and Ace, but the show still remained Doctor-centric.

When Doctor Who was revived in 2005, the role of the companion had made a noticeable shift in the new era. Modern companions like Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble and Amy Pond were still audience surrogate figures, but they also became centerpieces in the show. New companions had episodes revolving around them and their lives outside of the TARDIS, as well as their own theme music. Rose and Amy were both given extensive backstories with the show featuring their loved ones both as TARDIS travelers and/or incidental characters. The younger companions also had a more overt attraction to The Doctor and were central to seasonal story arcs. These major changes turned some fans of the Classic series off, but many of them began to warm up to the idea of the companion having a larger role in the episodes. They also understood why Doctor Who made changes to appeal to the modern television audience.

However, much of this understanding shattered with Clara Oswald, the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor's (Peter Capaldi) companion, who was written to literally be the most important companion in the universe. Clara had many good traits as a TARDIS traveler – intelligent, brave and resourceful – but they were quickly overshadowed by the show's determination to place her on a pedestal. The character's first season with the Twelfth Doctor left a bad taste in fans' mouths as she started to become more Doctorish, dangerous and increasingly volatile in her interactions with The Doctor. In the end, the show circumvented her death and even gave her a TARDIS along with her own companion. Her exit was largely celebrated as Whovians looked forward to seeing a fresh face in Season 10.

When current companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) was introduced in an April 2016 trailer, she made waves among Whovians for several reasons. Bill was a black, lesbian woman with eclectic style and a quirky sense of humor -- all of which made her starkly different from recent companions. The Doctor Who fandom was excited to see an intersectional woman who reflected the diversity in the show's followers, especially in terms of having more LGBT representation in such a prominent role.

 

Twelfth Doctor companion Bill Potts | Photo Credit: Doctor Who/BBC America

Since her debut in Season 10 opener "The Pilot," Bill's presence has been a breath of fresh air. She's an interesting blend of other modern Who women, yet she has her own distinct qualities that make her a formidable companion. Bill is geeky, with an affinity for the stars, and the wonder/joy she expresses when she's with The Doctor is irresistibly genuine. She views the world from her own unique lens, questioning the Twelfth Doctor about why the seats in the TARDIS aren't closer to the console and why there is gravity on a spaceship. Bill is the working-class, compassionate woman who desires excitement like Rose, but there is no romantic tension with The Doctor.

However, Bill and Twelve have a captivating chemistry between them as a TARDIS team. Their relationship is similar to Donna and the Tenth Doctor -- two good friends who enjoyed traveling across time and space together. But Bill doesn't want to be 100% invested in her travels with The Doctor. She desires both romantic and platonic relationships and wants to find a balance in her double life -- a struggle that Clara and Amy Pond endured as companions.

This is seen in "Knock Knock" when Bill is annoyed by the Doctor crashing her new pad and interrupting time with her new roommates. She's also interrupted by The Doctor (and the Pope) again in "Extremis" while she's on a date with Penny -- a major moment for a woman who struggles in the dating world. Bill is clever, resourceful, witty, emotionally intelligent and bold in her interactions with The Doctor. She has asked The Doctor if he has killed anyone and called him out on his actions several times throughout the season. But Bill has no interest in playing The Doctor and takes the perils of TARDIS travel to heart.

The character is frequently compared to  Martha Jones because they have the unique experience of being black companions in the TARDIS. Both women have had to travel to time periods where black people were stripped of their humanity and deal with overt racism. And, despite their different personalities and relationships with The Doctor, they were unafraid to stand their ground and refused to be disrespected.

The history of Bill's relationship with Twelve is also a novel concept in the show. Unlike her predecessors, she spent a significant amount of time with The Doctor prior to traveling with him in the TARDIS. She decided to take his class and developed a student/teacher relationship with him before discovering his "secret identity." Twelve delights in Bill's curiosity and desire to learn. He often challenges her and encourages her to come to her own conclusions during their travels, but he still shows a deep affection for Bill. This puts some power in Bill's hands, which allows her to make some important decisions. In return, Bill has a fierce loyalty to Twelve and soaks up his wisdom like a sponge. The dynamic between them supersedes ho-hum episodes and has already made the pair a TARDIS team favorite among fans.

 

Bill and The Doctor spend a holiday together | Photo Credit: BBC/Doctor Who

In a recent episode, Bill put herself to the test twice when she offers her consent to the Monks in "The Pyramid at the End of the World" and allows them to take over Earth in exchange for restoring The Doctor's eyesight. She was also ready to sacrifice herself in "The Lie of the Land" by taking Twelve's place and allowing her mind to be linked to the Monks. It was an interesting twist because Bill saved  the day, but she didn't have to become a Bad Wolf or Doctor Donna for it to happen. Those storylines were interesting, but it is nice to see a companion saving the day simply by their bravery and independent actions. Like Martha, Bill got to be a major hero while being a regular human, but she got to do it both on her own terms and while working with The Doctor as a team. In "The Eaters of Light," Bill shows how capable she is on her own and how much The Doctor trusts and respects her decisions.

No one knows if Bill Potts' story will continue into Season 11 after a new doctor and showrunner take over in 2018, but Whovians are hoping she will stick around for more adventures. The character is popular, so her presence would ease the often uncomfortable transition from a beloved Doctor to "that new guy" taking his place. It would also be interesting to see how Bill reacts to the regeneration -- would she take it in stride and keep her optimistic spirit as she gets to know a new Doctor?

If Bill leaves this season, it would be disservice to the fandom and the character. Her character is just starting to unfold as the show peels back the layers on her complex past. She has brought fun to the show with her "go get 'em" attitude, yet her generally bubbly outlook hasn't sacrificed some of the expected effects of being a Doctor Who companion -- she is still a multifaceted character who suffers heartbreak, sacrifice and near-death experiences as a result of her travels with The Doctor. Bill's journey toward building confidence in herself and discovering the infinite reaches of time travel is a story about her graduation from TARDIS novice to a powerful woman. Mackie has been electrifying on screen, which is no easy feat opposite Capaldi, and she deserves more than one season to shine.

Hopefully, Bill will impact the characterization of modern Who companions in the future. There is a unique power in being the Doctor's friend and working together with him to help make the universe a better place. The companion doesn't have to be the most important person in the universe or a Doctor surrogate, yet they can still be a brilliant person with agency who makes decisions based on their own moral compass. And it makes sense to have future human companions who are gay and/or a person of color since there are billions of unique humans on Earth. Bill's character opens the doors for even more diversity in the TARDIS as well as with supporting characters -- something that has become more prevalent over the past few years.

Bill Potts has come so fans may enjoy the Whovian experience and enjoy it more abundantly. No matter how long her run is as a companion, if she keeps going in her current direction, then she will become an iconic companion who embodies the Doctor Who way -- fun, adventure and wonder.