Friday, July 7, 2017

Doctor Who & the Importance of Bill

Image result for bill potts

At the end of every season of Doctor Who, fans spend their time hashing out the merits of the season while whining about the wait for the Xmas episode. With Peter Capaldi and potentially Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas leaving, there is so much to break down, celebrate, and mourn over.  It’s easy to focus on the Doctor, because he is the titular character; however, the Doctor would not be the Doctor without his companions and of course Missy/The Master.

I know all of you Clara fans were all in tears when the Raven came calling and for a time, people couldn’t picture anyone else in the Tardis with the Doctor. Bill Potts came as a refreshing surprise and quickly became the companion that many viewers didn’t realise that they needed. The most obvious differences between Bill and the other companions is that she is Black, female and gay. Yes, finally a major gay recurring character on Doctor Who. Don’t get your panties in a knot Captain Jack fans. Jack was most certainly bisexual but given the amount of episodes he appeared in, any reasonable person would be hard pressed to call him a major character and or a companion and in fact, most of Jack’s importance comes from him staring in Torchwood and not his appearances on Doctor Who.

It terms of minority representation Bill certainly ticks a lot of boxes but there’s so much more to her character than that.  Bill didn’t have a lot of time on the Tardis and therefore much of the time, she was working in ignorance.  Almost every week Bill would discover something new about either the Doctor himself or Timelords in general. These are things that would have developed more slowly with longer running companions like Clara, giving the companion time to adjust to new ideas, whereas; Bill always had to adapt to new situations on the fly and make adjustments based on that. Sometimes Bill had to make decisions without all of the facts, like when she chose to kill the Doctor in The Lie of the Land. Toby Whithouse, put Bill in a terrible position and while he didn’t have the courage to have her follow through with rightful rage after discovering the Doctor’s manipulation in the way that Clara did in Kill the Moon, Whithouse did allow Bill to prove that she had the mettle to travel with the Doctor and make the hard decisions.

Ending up on the Tardis would be an amazing adventure for anyone but through it all, Bill never loses who she is, or gets caught up in the moment.  She’s not afraid to challenge the Doctor on the location of the ninth legion, or take the risk to save an innocent creature, even if it means risking the lives of humans. All through this season the Doctor constantly tests Bill, pushing her boundaries.  At some point all of the companions have had to lay down the law with the Doctor because of his penchant for dropping in on their lives.  Rory and Amy struggled to balance their lives and their trips with the Doctor.  Clara had difficulty having a relationship with Danny Pink, in part due to her travels and in part due to the Doctor’s disapproval.  In each instance, each companion had time to adjust but because of Bill’s short tenure she was forced to throw up walls early. Sure it turned out to be handy that the Doctor agreed to help her move; however, she still found the strength to let him know that her personal life is not something she wanted invaded, no matter how tempting the adventure. All along the way, Bill asserts herself and claims her identity without any kind of shame, even when Catholic Cardinals crash her date.

Perhaps what I love most about Bill is the fact that she is a walking talking geek reference.  Whether it’s invoking Star Trek or other sci shows or films, Bill never misses an opportunity to throw in a reference.  Sure, it often goes over the Doctor’s head but it always serves as a moment of hilarity and helps the audience to bond with her as a person.  Bill is a Whovians dream in that sense. A geek watching a geek make geek references is some great television. This follows in that almost 4th-wall breaking geekiness of her poking holes in Doctor Who itself - I love how she was willing to question some of the very fundamentals of Who everyone kind of accepted. Who didn't love it when the Doctor started bragging about how advanced Timelords are that Bill pointed that they're called Timelords?

Of course, we cannot underestimate how powerful her being Black and gay is and what it means for Doctor Who

While a substantial part of the Doctor Who fandom regularly loses their shit at the idea the Doctor and anyone around him could ever be a minority (and so does a significant portion of the rest of the population who’ve never heard of Who because diversity is scary guys!), in general Doctor Who, NuWho, has a reputation for being a show that is diverse, inclusive and with strong social justice messages.

And, to some degree, this isn’t inaccurate. There are minority characters, there are episodes with strong, heartfelt messages, allegories and examinations of prejudice, oppression and injustice that are really well done. It’s also a show that makes a point of including minorities in background roles (even if we do get the poor, sensitive folks crying because there was a Black soldier in Queen Victoria’s army) and bit episodes.

But it’s also a show which has had an overwhelmingly straight, white main cast and actual recurring minorities, especially long term minorities are thin on the ground. The Doctor has always been a straight white man and 5 of the 7 Companions (and, again, we’re not arguing over definition of Companion here, about the only other person who could claim to be a long term focused traveller with the Doctor is Rory) have been straight, white women. Doctor Who has managed to garner a high reputation over surprisingly high profile and much loved characters who haven’t actually been in many episodes: Captain Jack Harkness appeared in just 13 episodes spread thinly over 3 seasons. The awesome Madame Vastra clocked in at 11 episodes, again, stretched over 3 seasons. Mickey Smith managed 15 episodes, again well spread out (and who else is surprised Mickey racked up more appearances than Captain Jack?). What other recurring minorities do we have? Danny who was more an extension of Clara than a character (at least Mickey eventually branched off into being more than Rose’s extra - and then disappeared) and Martha’s family.

We did have Martha - but Martha was notable as the Companion with one of the shortest tenures with the Doctor. And a large amount of that was spent following in Rose’s overwhelming shadow. And, yes, given the epic relationship the Doctor and Rose had I would expect some grieving period - but because Martha only had one season we never had enough time to develop her outside of this context. She had an epic ending, but even that was somewhat separated from the actual Doctor. When we see this and then see Bill also, apparently, only getting one season - especially when both clearly had a lot more storylines in them, it feels like a disturbing pattern while Rose, Amy and Clara can build long, multi-season arcs with the Doctor. When these characters get 2 and 3 season arcs, building a powerful relationship while Martha and Bill get briefer seasons and less overwhelming connections then there is a sense of box ticking. Throw in a minority companion for a season and maybe everyone clamouring for a Black/female/LGBTQ Doctor will back off.

In some ways I think Doctor Who benefits from its spin offs. Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and certainly Class all have much higher levels of diversity and inclusion in prominent roles than Doctor Who itself does and we tend to reflect that, undeservedly to the parent show - which is why it’s shocking to realise just how few episodes Captain Jack has actually been in.

Bill returning for more seasons is an opportunity for Doctor Who to live up to this reputation.

We cannot completely blame Moffat for removing Bill, because there is a new show runner coming for Doctor Who, we can completely understand wanting to hand Chris Chibnall a blank slate with which to do his own thing. We expected Bill to be killed off, especially when she became a Cyberman. Which is why we deeply appreciated the end of the season - yes it was cliched, it had been done before (by Doctor Who, no less) but it both avoided the devastatingly common trope of gaydeath and left the option open to bring Bill back and give her the opportunity to be all she can be for this show.

Yes, I realise I just said something praiseworthy about Moffat. I have a go-bag packed and a safe house prepared, you’ll never find me.

So this is our plea - keep Bill. Keep this awesome, funny, snarky, insightful, intelligent, caring, brave Companion. Keep this excellent, proud, overt diversity to help Doctor Who be what it always promises it is. Let us see Bill deal with a Regeneration, let us see Bill join the Doctor in his discovery of his new self, let’s hear her snark over it, let her poke the holes and navigate around it

Bring Bill back!