Peter Capaldi will be back for his final series of Doctor Who, premiering on Saturday 15 April. He will star alongside the new companion Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, who is being touted as the first openly LGBT companion. However, this appears insulting and misleading to any long-term fan of the programme, who will recognise the show’s long-standing history of non-heteronormative inclusion.
Fans who have watched the sci-fi staple since the successful revival in 2005 understandably reacted with mixed views to the headline-grabbing announcement of the character’s allegedly pioneering sexuality. To embrace this news wholeheartedly is to deny Doctor Who’s demonstrable commitment to portraying a representative cross-section of earthly society, while it attempts to do the same for the universe at large.
This announcement seems out of date, and it is certainly out of character. We have moved past such public gestures. It would be infinitely better if a character’s sexual preference just came up incidentally rather than ‘virtue signalling’ so blatantly just to gain a bit of publicity for a show that has been in decline for several years.
It is no longer shocking to have a ‘straightforwardly’ gay character on TV, and we should be glad that this is the case. It’s hardly revolutionary and smacks of a production team clutching at straws as they desperately try and reinvigorate the stale format. Moreover, most regular viewers will not see this as adding much new to the Whoniverse. It strikes me as a naked appeal to the ill-informed.
Nevertheless, we must appreciate the ways in which Bill Potts has potential to break new ground in relation to the programme’s history. There have already been several recurring gay side characters such as the inter-species couple Madame Vastra (a reptilian humanoid of the Silurian race whose amphibious cousins, the Sea Devils are set to return in the coming series) and her wife, Jenny Flint (human), who feature in several episodes set in Victorian London alongside the inadvertently genderblind Sontaran, Strax. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a recurring fan favourite, is openly bisexual and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), long-term companion, also hinted at her attraction to women, although admittedly this is rarely developed beyond comic sensationalism (she alludes to childhood bi-curiosity and an affair with author Jane Austen). Jack’s sexuality was further developed in the more adult-marketed popular spin-off, Torchwood and while providing an important heroic role model, many aspects of his personality were criticised at the time for falling back on common bisexual stereotypes such as promiscuity and flamboyance. Spin-off wise, during the main series’ sabbatical, Class featured gay protagonists, although it failed to woo viewers, with low ratings presenting an obstacle to recommission. Having an exclusively homosexual companion alongside the Doctor could open new discussion points, and the chance to confront LGBT issues more directly. There is a worry among fans, however, that a perceived quota-compliance motivation will come at the expense of decent storylines; but in this respect, I’m not sure the show has much further to fall.
This article shouldn’t have had to be written and it was irrelevant for us to know Bill’s orientation ahead of time. Incidental homosexuality can be much more powerful than working backwards from a big reveal. Still, we should absolutely commend the inclusion of LGBT characters as key protagonists in prime-time TV, it’s just difficult to wholly embrace the manipulative nature of this press release given that it appears to disregard the programme’s tradition of diversity. The new companion ought to be considered in the context of a string of non-heteronormative roles and storylines, and not as an isolated and original phenomenon.
Image: aussiegall via Wikimedia Commons