There have been plenty of companions since Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005. Like everyone else, I’ve had my favourites and ones that I wasn’t too keen on. But Bill Potts was and always will be in the former category. She felt so different from all the other modern-era companions and I just connected with her character and sense of wonder at all the stuff the universe had to throw at her. And now with Pride Month on us, there is no better time for me to talk about one of my favourite companions!
Pearl Mackie made her first appearance as Bill in a short clip that was designed to take place during The Pilot, amd aired during the half-time of the FA Cup in 2016. Under the title A Friend from the Future, it saw Bill meeting the Daleks for the first time. And pieces from this short clip were incorporated into her introduction story, albeit rewritten.
Following on from Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald, Bill felt like a completely different beast. Part of that is probably down to the idea that The Pilot was supposed to be a soft-reboot of the show because showrunner, Steven Moffat felt things were getting a little samey but the majority of that was down to Mackie’s performance.
Mackie described Bill as cool, fun, and really excited and that was exactly what we got on screen. While previous companions were used to the lifestyle the Doctor led; travelling from place-to-place, they almost grew numb to the experience. Death didn’t seem to affect them in the same way and somewhere along the line, they lost a lot of the wonder they once had with the universe. But Bill never lost her humanity. One might say, looking at characters like Clara and to some extent Rose Tyler, that they almost become more Time Lord than human. But Bill was disgusted every time someone died, furious at the Doctor for not being able to save a child falling through the ice when they travelled back to the last Victorian Frost Fair in Thin Ice. And she kept her human-life up, moving into a new house in Knock, Knock and going out on dates, as well as completing papers for the Doctor who was privately tutoring her.
Bill had some rather unique thoughts on the Daleks, saying she was surprised that they could fit through doorways when the TARDIS took them to the middle of the Dalek/Movellan war. Of course her opinions were shattered when they tried to kill her and the Doctor! From then on, she treated each alien species with respect. She gets stuck in on the action in The Empress of Mars when she tries to show the Ice Queen Iraxxa that the Ice Warriors and humanity can and should work together. Even though it takes a while, it is thanks to her and the Doctor that the Ice Warriors then enter the Galactic Federation and become a peaceful species.
During the Monk trilogy of adventures, Extremis, The Pyramid At The End Of The World and The Lie of the Land, much of the narrative is placed on Mackie’s shoulders, particularly in the third instalment. Bill well and truly saves humanity with the memories she made up of her mother who passed away when Bill was younger.
What also made Bill stand out was that she was first companion since Rose, who didn’t come from a middle-class background. A lot of her home-life is told through Series 10 and we learn that she grew up with her foster mother Moira in a flat. She could never keep a partner, which rubbed off on Bill and so she never learnt her crushes’ names because it meant she would get attached to them.
Of course all that changed when she met Heather, who was inhabited by sentient water and became a time-travelling-puddle in The Pilot. In a club scene where Bill is hanging out with her friends, there is an instant attraction and it was the first time we had seen anything like that on Doctor Who. Attracted by the distinctive star in her eye, Bill made it her mission to get to know Heather. She made a promise to her that neither would leave the other. Heather keeps that promise right up until Bill seemingly relieves her of it at the end of The Pilot. But Heather leaves Bill with a parting gift, a tear that Bill doesn’t think is hers.
Bill also holds a special place in the Doctor Who universe because she is the first openly gay companion. While Captain Jack was also a member of the LGBT+ community, it was never properly explored on-screen, though Torchwood allowed us to see this – and technically, he’s omnisexual. Clara was also believed to be bisexual and there were planned undertones to Ace’s character, had there been a series in 1990.
Being the first openly lesbian companion meant that many fans really connected with Bill’s character and it was finally another step into representing the vast audience that Doctor Who has. Moffat also made the correct choice to not have her sexuality form the backbone of the narrative journey she goes on. So many other television shows have made the mistake of placing the narrative on a character’s sexuality and, unless it’s a coming out story, it often ends up muddled, turning orientation into plot points rather then reflecting real life. Bill mentions that she doesn’t tell people explicitly she is gay because it isn’t the thing that defines her – a very intelligent move, allowing Bill to feel like a real person.
The Doctor loved travelling will Bill too. Once again we went back to the idea that, as well as the teacher-student relationship, they were just two-mates travelling around time and space, much like the dynamic between the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble. The teacher-student dynamic hadn’t really been done too much before; only companions like Jo, Leela, and Ace had that, so it felt special here. Not only was the Doctor allowing Bill to learn things at his university classes, he was also teaching her about herself on their journeys.
On their first proper trip in Smile, the Doctor took Bill back to the TARDIS because she would be safe there. Bill instead follows him, not only showing her bravery in what could have been a deadly situation but also because she believes the reason the TARDIS has stuck in the form of a Police Box is because the Doctor is a life-line to so many people. Knock Knock also showed us Bill’s instinctiveness as she leads her own investigation to uncover the chilling secret of her new university digs.
Pearl Mackie has brilliant comedic timing, not only one-to-one with Peter Capaldi but also when Matt Lucas joined them as Nardole. To hold one’s own alongside comedy greats isn’t an easy job but Mackie managed it with ease. I especially enjoyed the Doctor landing the TARDIS, carrying the Pope in Bill’s bedroom when she had company, and when she realises that the Doctor and Nardole had tricked her in The Lie of the Land. Throughout the series, she showed an effortless chemistry with her two co-stars and also worked brilliantly alongside the guest stars, most notably Michelle Gomez and John Simm.
But it wasn’t all fun-and-games on the TARDIS for Bill’s series. In Oxygen, she nearly dies in a faulty spacesuit when they have to escape from zombie crewmen by going out into space. Her oxygen escapes and, while the Doctor saves her, it is at the cost of his sight.
Bill strikes a bargain with the manipulative Monks and trades the Earth for the Doctor’s sight so he can save himself and later the planet at the end of The Pyramid at the End of the World. But there is no doubt that the biggest problem she faced came in World Enough and Time when she is shot and saved through a cybernetic implant, only to be betrayed by the man she thought was her friend (he was really the Master) and is converted into a Cyberman.
Whether it was down to a botch-job, Bill’s own personality, or a remnant of the sentient water that had caused her to cry in The Pilot, it is a little murky on how she managed to overcome the Cyber-conversion and keep her emotions. The Doctor speculates that it was her own mind that stopped her from believing she was a Cyberman. She is at least shocked to see her new reflection. There would have been little the Doctor could have done to stop Bill from murdering the Master if she had wanted, but Bill knew that murder doesn’t solve anything and instead, lets his insults go away with no protest (her tears invisible to anyone but the audience).
The end of The Doctor Falls sees the Doctor and Bill stopping the Cyberman threat and the Doctor seemingly dies. In Bill’s grief, Heather arrives once again and saves Bill from her fate as a Cyberman, thanks to the sole tear she left Bill with. Heather shifts Bill’s molecules so that they are both the same and the pair pilot the TARDIS away, with the Doctor on board.
Bill’s departure is perhaps one the saddest in the show’s history as she clearly believes him to be dead. She lies him down on the Ship’s floor, kisses him goodbye, and then leaves the TARDIS to drift through space as her and Heather go off to discover the universe together. Of course, this isn’t the end of the Doctor’s story – nor Bill’s.
Of course, Bill made a number of spin-off media appearances including three books and comic-strips from Doctor Who Magazine. Paul Cornell brought Bill’s story to a close in his adaption of Twice Upon A Time from BBC Books. After exploring the universe with Heather, the pair head back to Earth and decide to live as humans; magically making money, they live a quiet life by the sea with a number of cats. Bill decides that she wants grow old and on her deathbed, she tells Heather to carry on exploring the universe.
It is because of this that the Twelfth Doctor meets her one last time when she is an avatar for The Testimony who stores the memories of the dead. It was Bill who gave the Doctor the push to regenerate when he wanted to die because all the universe did was take.
While Pearl Mackie was only in one season of Doctor Who, she’s had a lasting impact in the show’s history. As one my favourite companions, I certainly have a lot to say about her! There is no doubt that Bill helped many fans on their road to the acceptance of their sexualities and she helped pave the way for future LGBT+ companions. Bill will always hold a special place in my heart: not only is she a great character, but her season was great too!
Mackie and Capaldi has a chemistry that doesn’t come along all that often and while the pair are yet to star in any full cast audio-dramas from Big Finish, I very much hold out hope.
Pearl Mackie, we salute you!