With season ten opener “The Pilot”, Doctor Who is back on our screens, and in some quarters the story is, as it has been for months, that the Doctor’s new companion — canteen worker Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) — is a lesbian. It’s a non-story for several reasons, of which two in particular stand out.
The suggestion that Bill is the show’s first homosexual companion is not at all as straightforward as it seems. Over the years a great deal of fan speculation has been directed toward this or that companion’s sexuality, going back at least as far as the ’80s. A number of arguments have been put forward to the effect that Turlough (Mark Strickson), who voyaged in the TARDIS for a handful of stories in 1983 and 1984, was gay; some are convincing, others not. The more instructive example, however, is writer Rona Munro’s famous “lesbian subtext” in “Survival” (1989) for the companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), which was almost, but not quite, completely stomped out during production.
The similarities between Ace and Bill are striking. Both were brought up by foster parents with whom they had contentious relationships. Both, at the time of their first meeting with the Doctor, are in workaday jobs (waiting tables on the planet Svartos for Ace, cafeteria shifts for Bill). Both are daydreamers, gregarious and spunky, with an irrepressible joie de vivre on display. Tellingly, if the opening scenes of “The Pilot” are anything to go by, Bill’s relationship with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) will be one of the mentor-and-student variety, as was the case with Ace and Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. Ace’s homosexuality (or bisexuality) was never conclusively established on screen, and we all know writer Steven Moffat’s penchant for tying up loose ends in the show’s continuity. It’s almost as though he’s trying to tell us something.
Anyone hoping for some sexual frisson after the manner of the Paternoster Gang’s Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), however, must have been sorely disappointed by the chaste signaling of Bill’s sexuality in “The Pilot” in the form of a giddy infatuation with a lonely student named Heather, played in suitably winsome manner by Stephanie Hyam. The locale, incidentally, is St Luke’s University in Bristol. Praise be; the Doctor’s finally found somewhere to hang out on Earth that isn’t in London! It is in Bristol where our hero, borrowing a stroke from Douglas Adams’ unfinished serial Shada (1980), lectures for decades without being pinned as an alien.
Yet all of this pales into insignificance alongside the second, more important reason for ignoring the hype surrounding Bill. The question of her sexual orientation trails far behind in the viewing stakes to an appreciation of a warm, charming, and entirely compelling performance in the role by newcomer Mackie in only her second TV appearance. Simply put, everything she does on camera works, from the quietly moving scene where Bill discovers photographs of her absent mother, to the roundabout, bashful chat-up lines cast in Heather’s direction.
This is all to the good, but to laud “The Pilot” as the perfect start to the season is an exercise in wishful thinking. The plot’s pretty thin, revolving around a mysterious puddle that seemingly consumes some of those who look into it. Heather falls foul of the entity, naturally, and before long she makes an appearance from beyond the grave, wraith-like, and mimicking her interlocutors. Hyam has the looks of a supermodel, and shots of her dripping in water could almost be the kernel of a fashion shoot were it not for the piercing screams as Heather — possessed? trapped? — seeks in turn to entrap Bill.
As far as plot goes, that’s it. The central issue of Bill’s unrequited feelings for Heather provides the emotional climax, but it’s not enough to carry an hour’s worth of action. The real interest here is in the small stuff: the back-and-forth between Doctor and soon-to-be companion. We also get a scene or two from Nardole (Matt Lucas), the other companion to be found in the TARDIS. Neither quite a holy fool nor a Sancho Panza to the Doctor’s Don Quixote, Nardole struck me as poorly drawn from the beginning, but Lucas is starting to bed down in the role, the writing is improving, and as a character, there are the seedlings of something interesting in his nonchalance in the face of the unbelievable.
So begins what will be a fateful season for the show. After the best part of a decade in charge, showrunner Steven Moffat leaves at the season’s end, as does Peter Capaldi his stint as Doctor, having faithfully observed the so-called “three-year rule” now adhered to by no less than seven of the 13 actors to have taken the role. As with one of his more prominent predecessors, Fifth Doctor Peter Davison (1981-84), script quality has varied during Capaldi’s tenure, with last season being particularly strong. “The Pilot” isn’t of the same stripe. It wasn’t bad television, but neither was it particularly good. We’ll shortly discover how well served what looks to be an exceptional Doctor-companion pairing will be by the show’s writers.
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