While Doctor Who survives and thrives on change. Regeneration is hardwired into its DNA. But Pearl Mackie, as new companion Bill Potts, arrives at a particularly unsettled time. The response to news that Bill will be the first openly gay companion in Doctor Who history was instant, heartfelt and overwhelmingly positive. However, there are clouds on the horizon.
Peter Capaldi leaves in this year’s Christmas special, which also marks the end of Steven Moffat’s spell as showrunner. As Broadchurch supremo Chris Chibnall prepares to take over, there is speculation that he plans to choose a clean slate of actors. Will the next Doctor be a woman (Fleabag‘s Phoebe Waller-Bridge is current favourite)? Will Bill survive (the BBC dismissed rumours Bill might be a one-series fixture, saying casting for Series 11 isn’t on the table yet)?
As the media frenzy gathers pace newcomer Mackie, for whom this is a first major television role having impressed in the West End adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, remains sanguine, saying Bill’s sexuality “shouldn’t be a big deal.”
So what else can she tell us about Bill Potts?
“I like her. Which is a good start,” says Mackie, 29. “She is a really cool girl, very switched on, positive, quick-witted. And she is fundamentally a good person, peppered with lots of interesting things. Bill asks a lot of questions that haven’t been asked, maybe ever.”
Mackie’s performance is a winning one, full of charm and depth, the relationship between Bill and the Doctor instantly warm and tender. Bill’s very human responses to the alien situations she encounters is brilliantly played and written.
You see this magical world through the eyes of this girl who is down-to-earth and grounded in reality.
The scope of Doctor Who is so wide and the analysis of the show so thorough, it can be tough to balance competing audience interests. Some yearn for the show to be more overtly political in these uncertain times, but fears persist that the show is losing its younger viewers – whether due to later transmission times, Capaldi’s more serious Doctor, or a failure of the some recent episodes to engage.
“That is more the responsibility of the writers – thankfully it doesn’t fall on my shoulders. But a lot of people would agree about that,” says Mackie, carefully. “In this series there is a lot that will engage younger audiences. And a lot that is subtextually political. There is something for people new to the series or who have been massive fans their whole lifetime.
“What it boils down to with Bill is that she is a very real person. She gets things wrong, everything is not happy-clappy all the time. And that helps make the world of Doctor Who accessible to new viewers. Because you see this magical world through the eyes of this girl who is down-to-earth and grounded in reality.”
Born and raised in Brixton, Mackie reveals an eclectic range of inspirations, from Judy Garland in Meet Me In St Louis to Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, via the powerful poetry and prose of Maya Angelou. Mackie recalls the moment, aged 10, that she realised acting might be a possible future.
“I saw a production of Oliver!,” she says. “My mum took me and there was a mixed-race actress playing Nancy. I was playing Nancy at the time at school in a borrowed skirt on a tiny stage. Seeing her playing the same role was really powerful. I thought, maybe I can do that. Maybe that is something accessible to me. I should find out what her name is. If you find out, you have to let me know!”
It is nice to be able to represent ethnic minorities, who haven’t been represented so well in primetime
Some investigative journalism reveals Sonia Swaby to be the actress who inspired the youngster. And Mackie knows that her presence on Doctor Who could have a life-changing, horizon-expanding impact on viewers.
“It is nice to be able to represent ethnic minorities, who haven’t been represented so well in primetime sci-fi on the BBC,” she says. “Not long after I was announced, someone Tweeted that her little girl had said: ‘Wow, mummy, she’s got hair like me. She looks like me.’ That is pretty cool. To do that for little kids, for them to know there is a place for them in the world of television, showing them, representing them…
“It is something that happened very literally for me. So if me being on Doctor Who means them being able to recognise themselves – as actresses or travellers in space and time – that would be fantastic.”
Since being cast, Mackie’s Twitter feed remains an enticing mix of Doctor Who excitement and political engagement. As her profile grows and her voice becomes louder, how is she planning to support issues she cares about?
“I still find it fascinating that my voice, that me saying something, would make people listen. But that is the power of Doctor Who – so I definitely want to use it to do some good if possible,” she says, recalling her efforts to sell homemade chilli jam to raise money for homeless charity St Mungo’s in her pre-fame days.
“There are so many wonderful charities, it is hard to give your name to just one without an extreme amount of research into where their funding comes from and how they spend their money.”
I mention The Big Issue’s current campaign to save libraries from closure, support literacy and widen access to books. It is one Peter Capaldi has endorsed. And his new companion shares his passion.
“Brixton Library is my local. I went there from the age of five or six, getting books on the Tudors, all the way through to studying for my dissertation at university,” she recalls.
“Books are so important. They can be an escape, they can be informative, they can allow you to visit another world – be that fictional or factual. They can take you into a completely different timezone and you don’t even have to leave your chair.”
A little bit like watching Doctor Who, then?
“Exactly – a little bit like watching Doctor Who…”
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Why Bill Potts is the Doctor Who companion we’ve been waiting for…
It is looking increasingly likely that Doctor Who fans might only have one 12-episode run plus a Christmas special to build a special relationship with new companion Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie. Here’s why we should cherish our time with the best companion since the show’s return in 2005…
Pearl Mackie’s performance is a winning one, full of charm and depth. The relationship between Bill and the Doctor instantly warm and tender, with Bill’s very human responses to the alien situations she encounters brilliantly played and written – if we’re looking for historical precedent, Billie Piper as Rose Tyler is the closest. Bill asks questions, points out absurdities and helps us see the Whoniverse through new eyes.
She may have no experience of space travel or combat with Daleks, but Bill Potts knows the codes of sci-fi. This not only means she brings a wealth of knowledge gleaned from films, TV and comic books to her interactions with the Doctor, but that she can point out the tropes of sci-fi to the audience as they are happening. If fans are looking for more reasons to connect to the new companion, being well-versed in science fiction is another thing they’ll have in common…
“Because she is so new to the world, she has these discoveries,” reckons Pearl. “She might go into the Tardis and say the iconic line, that it is bigger on the inside. Hooray, she has said the line! But with Bill, you get something completely unexpected afterwards.”
The Doctor sees something very specific when he lines up Bill – of all the young people in his vicinity when we meet him again at the start of the series – to be his new companion. There is a real longing for adventure in Bill. She is someone whose life has not been paved with good luck and exciting opportunities. She is looking for connection, for adventure, for excitement, for meaning, for love – and she finds them all with Capaldi’s Time Lord, who in turn sees her potential, and the way she is so desperate for her life to really begin. “Every day is a new adventure a new world, a new time, a new monster, a new costume – it keeps it really exciting. This is not your average cup of tea and a biscuit kind of drama,” says Mackie.
At last, it feels as though Capaldi’s Doctor has been paired with a companion that complements him. Clara Oswald was a time traveler in her own right and had seen it all and done it all by the time Jenna Coleman was paired with Capaldi for series eight. But Bill brings out the Doctor’s compassion, his professorial air and his wish to share the wonders of the universe with a willing pupil. And this was mirrored off screen.
It’s very sad that Peter Capaldi is leaving.
“For me he has been amazing. He is very generous with his time,” says Mackie. “My opinion is always valid. We have conversations about what the characters are saying to each other, how it will work for each of us – and he always checks whether it is working for me, which is not something you would necessarily expect from an actor with such a wealth of experience and such talent. It is very sad he is leaving.”
Mackie talks about being inspired to act, and realising it was attainable for her, when she saw Sonia Swaby in a West End production of Oliver!. “My mum took me and there was a mixed-race actress playing Nancy,” she recalls. If Mackie can reflect and represent a wider audience than recent seasons of Doctor Who have managed – an early scene in episode three, written by Sarah Dollard, explicitly foregrounds the whitewashing of history, a bold and welcome step for a Saturday tea-time drama – she could inspire thousands of fans to dream of a career in the performing arts… or adventures in time and space!
Doctor Who airs on BBC1 on Saturdays at 7.20pm