The BBC announced Saturday that actress Pearl Mackie will replace Jenna Louise Coleman as Peter Capaldi’s new companion on Doctor Who. And with all due respect to the wonderful Coleman and the equally delightful Karen Gillan before her, Mackie is a breath of fresh air.
True, we only have two minutes of footage, a new costume, and a character name (Bill) to go on, but Mackie is already a departure from the companion pattern of the past several seasons. When Steven Moffat took over the franchise in 2010, he decided to lead with a Doctor/companion dynamic that was very much a spin on will they/won’t they. Gillan as Amy Pond and the dashing Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor smooched (awkwardly), swooned (well, she did), and generally looked devastatingly sexy as they ran around saving the galaxy. That dynamic was beautifully complicated by the addition of Arthur Darvill as Amy’s husband, Rory. But still, their interaction took on a classic love triangle (or quadrangle when you add Amy’s daughter River Song) dynamic. That dynamic was repeated again when the elfin Coleman joined the cast as The Impossible Girl, Clara, who was born, it seems, to save Smith’s Who.
The show has already started to veer away from that with Capaldi’s cantankerous take on the Time Lord. But since Doctor Who has, during Moffat’s tenure, come under some scrutiny for its use of women both in front of the camera and behind, retreading the winsome companion type would not have been the most interesting choice. Amy Pond and Clara Oswald are lovely women, but not exactly the most varied representation of their gender. Enter Mackie who hearkens back to some of the brasher companions in Who history. Her barrage of questions in the clip above beautifully echo Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, a companion who never once swooned in the Doctor’s presence.
And fans of the classic era of Doctor Who are excited that Mackie’s costume seems to be a throwback to Ace McShane (Sophie Aldred) a companion to the Seventh Doctor who was written to be “a fighter, not a screamer.”
The similarities between Ace’s look and Bill’s may just be an 80s-inspired coincidence. Capaldi’s Doctor makes reference to going “back to the future” implying that in this particular episode, she might be the Marty McFly to his Doc Brown. But throwback costume choices are hardly ever a coincidence on Doctor Who, and it couldn’t hurt, when introducing a new character, to remind steadfast fans of Donna and Ace, two of the most popular companions in Who history. It also bears mentioning that Mackie is the first non-white companion to regularly fly with the Doctor since Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones left the TARDIS in 2007.
In a statement from BBC America, Mackie gave every indication that she plans to live up to the promise of the clip above. “I thought Bill was wicked,” she says of reading the script for the first time. “Fantastically written, cool, strong, sharp, a little bit vulnerable with a bit of geekiness thrown in – I can’t wait to bring her to life, and to see how she develops through the series . . . I always loved stage combat at drama school so I can’t wait to get on set and kick some evil monsters into the next dimension!”
Capaldi, in his typically understated way, also indicated that we can expect Mackie to be a spitfire saying she has “wonderful zest and charm.”
It’s certainly unfair to lay all of the sins of the treatment of women in Doctor Who on Moffat. Under the Russell T. Davies era, Billie Piper’s Rose and David Tennant’s Doctor were the most will they/won’t they couple to ever travel the galaxy together. And nobody swooned harder in the TARDIS than Martha Jones. But with the diversifying audience follow Doctor Who these days, it’s a pleasure to see the show expand to include even more women (like Maisie Williams’s Ashildr) who recall the intrepid Aces and Sarah Janes, etc. Doctor Who has also recently started to include more women both in the writing room and the director’s chair (about time for a show created by a woman) and Moffat himself has addressed the concerns.
We need better female role models and representation on screen. We need all of that. Maybe this is my dimwittery but I do not understand why Doctor Who of all shows is singled out as a misogynist show. And I’m really not like that. I’m sure I’m to the left of a lot of my detractors, but I don’t want to argue with them because I think generally they’re right. We do need to do better. It’s important to me that the little girls watching see Amy or Clara or Rose and want to be like them.