My love affair with Doctor Who follows a trajectory all fervent fans will recognize. After months of a friend begging me to give the iconic show about a time-traveling alien a chance, I reluctantly trudged through the first few episodes. But by the third episode, my complaints of clunky monsters and cheesy special effects had been eroded by the show’s sheer heart, charm, and community.
After this official induction into the Whoniverse, I had two takeaways. First, watching a witty, centuries-old alien save the universe over and over again is absolutely irresistible. Second, Doctor Who might just be the most progressive, intelligent children's show on TV.
And now, with the casting of Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, Doctor Who is taking a gigantic leap forward in terms of representation.
In an interview with The Guardian, Mackie described her character Bill as "quite chatty, a bit mouthy...[and] questions things that haven’t been questioned in a really long time.” And, oh yeah — Bill happens to be a lesbian.
Importantly, Bill’s sexuality is only one facet of her adventurous, headstrong personality.
“[Being gay] is not the main thing that defines her character — it’s something that’s part of her and something that she’s very happy and very comfortable with,” Mackie said.
There’s no coming out scene, or big identity reveal. Instead, Bill’s introduced to us as being many things; gay is just one of them.
Having the first openly gay companion is the natural continuation of a pattern Doctor Who has been carrying on since 2005, ever since Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies resurrected the sci-fi show from a 16-year hiatus.
It was evident that Davies' 21st-century reboot was a clear departure from classic Who. First, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) wore a leather jacket and flirted with his companion, unlike the straight-laced Doctors who came before him. And, with the creator of Queer as Folk writing most of the episodes, LGBTQ characters were commonplace.
In fact, the Whoniverse extended the Kinsey Scale in a pretty intergalactic way. Take the case of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the Doctor’s ever-charming sidekick. Identifying as “omnisexual,” Harkness’ sexual appetites extend to men, women, and aliens alike. In Captain Jack's spin-off series Torchwood, aimed at older audiences, he's known to engage in a steamy sex scene or two.
While Captain Jack is certainly Doctor Who's most prominent pansexual, the show features an abundance of other LGBTQ characters. In the show's 2012 Christmas special, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), a lizard-like alien, and her human wife, Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), share a kiss. And after two elderly women are introduced as sisters in the season 3 episode "Gridlock," one of the women snaps, "You know full well we’re not sisters. We’re married.”
All that said, the show has a long way to go in terms of representation. With Peter Capaldi set to exit at the end of this season, a juicy vacancy awaits. Though each actor has interpreted the role of the Doctor with a uniquely unforgettable verve, it's time to pass the universe-saving baton to someone who's not a white heterosexual man.
Still, the introduction of Bill Potts gives me hope for the show's future. After all, the ability to adapt to changing times is built into the Doctor, and Doctor Who's, DNA. After experiencing a fatal injury, the character of the Doctor is able to regenerate from one body to another. With each new Doctor arrives a fresh face (literally!), personality, wardrobe, companion, and set of adventures. And now, it's time for a regeneration of the show itself. Bill Potts indicates that the process is already underway.
Season 10 of Doctor Who premieres on BBC America on Saturday, April 15.