It’s odd, but we just don’t get that many “current Doctor meets new Companion” episodes in 21st Century Doctor Who. We get episodes where the whole cast is new, like Rose and The Eleventh Hour (and I presume, Jodie Whittaker’s debut ep). And we get staggered entries like Donna’s, Rory’s and Clara’s. But The Pilot is the first time since Smith and Jones that we have a straightforward introduction for a new companion. Twice in ten years, which seems unusual compared to the original series where such opening nights happened on a regular basis.
It’s a Doctor Who subgenre which stretches back to 1965’s The Rescue. It seems strange to say it, but it’s that ancient two-parter which The Pilot reminds me of most. Perhaps it’s just that The Rescue sets the template for new companion stories so comprehensively that there’s no reason to deviate too far from it. Doctor meets girl (well, they’re usually girls), both have gaps in their lives the other can fill, there’s an adventure to be had, “it’s bigger on the inside” and off they go.
The companion in question is Bill, played with verve by Pearl Mackie. Like Vicki in The Rescue, her parents are long dead and she’s desperately lonely, even with her substitute parent nearby. Like Vicki, when the adventure engulfs her, the protagonist is someone close to her; then it was Vicki’s fellow castaway Bennett, here’s it’s Bill’s crush Heather (Stephanie Hyam). And like Vicki, she quickly strikes up an unlikely friendship with a curmudgeonly, old Doctor (Peter Capaldi ) who will take her under his wing and become a tutor in the ways of the universe for her. (Although neither of them see the need to investigate the spaceship which has been landing surreptitiously in St. Luke’s university, only its sentient oil leak. Marks deducted for missing the big picture!)
Who Bill is not, is Clara. This shouldn’t be surprising; lots of companions are conceived in reaction to the one they replace. But here, for some reason, a complete change felt needed. Clara was complicated – from the start of her tour of TARDIS duty where she was splintered across the Doctor’s own history to the end, where she was a failed would-be Doctor, dead but not dead, etc etc. Bill is much simpler: she’s a bright, friendly but quietly melancholy girl, who’s a bit of an oddball. The Doctor sees in her unmet potential and that’s enough to reignite his passion for travelling the universe.
The actors who play them are also intrinsically different. Jenna Coleman came from the world of TV soaps, with an air of magazine glamour about her. Pearl Mackie came to the show from theatre, specifically the presentation of new plays. Doctor Who is her first major TV gig, so she’s slightly less polished and less perfectly formed than Coleman was for TV stardom. But this background is perfect for Bill, who is an edgier and less self-confident character than Clara. And Bill seems like a character more grounded in the real world than Clara, and for whatever reason, this seems to suit Capaldi’s grizzled teacher of a Doctor; Bill needs and wants to be taught, whereas Clara seemed to already know it all.
There are other companion echoes as well. With her badged jacket and her eagerness to be the Doctor’s student, she’s reminiscent of Ace. Like Jo Grant, she’s cheeky and perky and prone to making mistakes. Of course, there’s a deliberate visual reference to Susan. Plus she’s named after Billie Piper, who brought that other working class, diamond in the rough companion Rose to screen. She’s an amalgam of many who have gone before… just not Clara.
(On the other hand, she does end up gaining an immortal girlfriend and running away with her to see the universe, so she does eventually end up like Clara. I like to think the four of them get together at bars and make fun of the old grey hair and eyebrows:
BILL: Get this. Once he took me to a nautically themed cafe in Cardiff and tried to tell me it was Australia!
CLARA: That’s nothing. He once tried to convince me that the moon was an egg. The Moon!)
As has been noted before around these parts, fandom’s feelings about Clara are mixed, but Bill, it seems, was an instant hit. Clearly there’s something about Bill which a significant group of fans prefer to Clara, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Certainly Bill seems to be a humbler, more down-to-earth character than Clara and I have a sneaking suspicion that some thought her constant attempts to be or to teach the Doctor made her a bit too big for her boots.
It’s not a sentiment I share, but I wonder if Bill is in part a reaction to Clara’s Doctorly ambitions? And that leads me to this worrying observation: are we actually more comfortable with a companion who is subordinate to the Doctor? I would argue that as breezy and charming as Bill is, she is a far more passive character than Clara. Whereas Clara would (in general) take the initiative in her stories, often instigating her own plot lines, Bill is much more likely to follow the Doctor’s lead, or to wait for him to act before she will. Sure, this is a symptom of her newness to the Doctor’s world and also indicative of the fact that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is also around to share the action with.
Let me offer a few examples. What positive, independent action does Bill take in Smile, other than to find the database of exposition? What at all in Oxygen? Or in Knock Knock? It’s not until The Pyramid at the End of the World that she impacts a plot in any meaningful way, through her appeal to the Monks to cure the Doctor, but this is made as a last resort. She is more integral in The Lie of the Land, but in World Enough and Time, she’s a victim the whole way through – things happen to her, she doesn’t make things happen. I can’t help but think that if Clara had been the companion in Thin Ice, she, not the Doctor, would have punched that racist. How much more would it have meant if Bill had slugged that sucker?
What I’m suggesting is that in Clara we had someone who challenged the Doctor and in Bill we have someone who complements him. And I think (judging from what I read on social media… admittedly, never a great research technique) we seem to prefer the latter. Generalisation’s a curse, and there’s always the possibility that Bill is simply a more likable character than Clara to factor in. But if we do prefer the old fashioned, patriarchal notion of the Doctor as a learned teacher and the companion as his devoted student, we might as well be watching The Rescue.
LINK TO: The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. People made out of goop.
NEXT TIME… would you care for some tea? Broadsword to Danny Boy, it’s time for the Victory of the Daleks.