I think I owe Steven Moffat an apology. This time last year I was grouching over his choice of new companion. Another young modern female companion cast from the Amy/Clara mould who, let’s face it, at this point wasn’t going to out-Amy Amy or out-Clara Clara — as I complained. To be fair, Bill’s first appearance in that shoddily-written teaser involving her and the Doctor hiding from a Dalek hardly endeared her to me. Bill’s treating the Dalek as a joke (“Fat, though!”) and the whole situation as whimsy made me despair for the series ahead afflicted by this annoying, gobby, glib, woman-child with her extraordinary hair and clothes.
It looked like minimal thought had gone into creating Bill, as though Moffat had just rearranged his favourite companion tropes — outgoing, perky, feisty, witty, flirty — into a slightly different configuration and went ahead and found a new actress to play to that tired script. And, to be honest, that is in a way what Moffat has done with Bill. Bill embodies many of the same character attributes as Amy and Clara (and River), and she can be seen as yet another new iteration of the same character formula Moffat has trotted out three times before this.
But I underestimated Moffat. Sure, Bill is similar in many significant ways to the two (or three, if River counts as a companion) companions who’ve come before her. But I was struck in this, her introductory episode, by how much better she was written than her predecessors. Far from minimal thought having gone into Bill, it feels like a lot more thought and care has gone into creating and writing Bill than ever went into Amy or Clara before their first jaunts in the Tardis. This is palpable from how much more relatable Bill immediately felt than arguably Amy or Clara ever felt. Amy was a fairytale and Clara was an engima. Before they were characters they were concepts. Don’t get me wrong, I adored both Amy and Clara, but I don’t think either felt completely like real people.
Bill, on the other hand, just from this introductory episode feels more real than Amy or Clara ever felt. We’ve been given a tour through her life: her foster home, her job at the university canteen and what she does for fun (attend lectures on quantum physics apparently). We’ve seen how her experiences have affected her and shaped who she is. And the intimacy with which Bill’s character is written adds a level of nuance and detail to her character that I think was lacking in Amy and Clara. By the time Amy and Clara exited the show respectively there was still a degree to which they remained enigmas to the audience — like celebrity royalty, there was an extent to which they were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to us. There’s none of that with Bill, with whom the contrast is striking. We feel we’ve got to know Bill intimately right away. We feel familiar with Bill, like there’s little more we feel we need to know about her.
And we like her. She’s a likable and endearing character. I wasn’t right in thinking I’d be bored or irritated by Bill, even if she is a reiteration of the Amy/Clara/River model. That’s substantially due to the writing, because I imagine I would be bored by Bill if she weren’t written as well as she is. Bill is distinguished from Amy and Clara in one respect worth noting though (other than her sexuality), and that’s that she’s probably the first genuinely normal companion in Doctor Who since Donna — that is, since Russell T Davies’ era. Unless I’m tragically premature in making this observation about Bill, she does appear to be the first of Moffat’s companions who isn’t at the eye of an elaborate narrative arc. No Girl Who Waited, no Impossible Girl. And frankly, that’s bloody refreshing. Unlike, it seems, most fans, I found the Impossible Girl arc intriguing and interesting, but it’s nice to return to a companion who’s just normal. Just Bill. Even her name is refreshingly simple and unfrilly.
I’ve just spent five paragraphs talking about the new companion and haven’t even spared a word for anything else in this episode yet. That’s because, by far and away, the new companion was the most important thing in this episode. The plot, let’s face it, was pretty lacklustre. For a writer who usually insists on making everything far more complicated than it needs to be, Moffat has turned in a fairly threadbare and unremarkable story. As a story concept, strange women emerging from mobile ponds sounds like something that belongs in Class or Torchwood’s early series, or maybe Doctor Who’s sillier early days under RTD, than as the opener to Moffat’s swansong series. But that’s not really the point of this story. This story has one objective and one objective only: introducing Bill and setting her up as the Doctor’s new companion. The star-eyed girl in her locomotive puddle was a pantomime threat deployed as the impetus for bringing the Doctor and Bill together. As an aspect of the story, it wasn’t important. It played a secondary role.
And it served its purpose. As far as companion introductions go, Bill probably received a better character debut than any companion since Rose. Maybe even better. As an introductory episode, I think I’d give it a more middling ranking — The Eleventh Hour is still the superior introductory episode in my book. Because I do think a case can be made that, while The Pilot‘s plot served its purpose in the story, it still could have been, well, less predictable and pedestrian. Less Series 1 Sarah Jane Adventures. The visual realisation of Heather as the phantasmic eponymous “pilot” was appropriately freaky, but the revelation of what the creature was and the way its threat was resolved was something of a lazy anticlimax. Still, it all provided for some very fun whizzing around in the Tardis as the Doctor attempted to outrun the creature (and I’m delighted that Australia got a look in).
On that note, just as the whirlwind whiz around time and space in the Tardis was supposed to be Bill’s first exciting voyage with the Doctor, the impetus for her boarding the Tardis as the Doctor’s companion, this episode was obviously supposed to be scripted as a soft reboot to the show. That was certainly how it was being touted by the likes of Moffat and Capaldi, a new “jumping-on point” for new viewers of the show à la The Eleventh Hour. Certainly, everything old was made new again in this episode. Old fans will have smirked knowing smirks as familiar tropes of the show were hashed out again for new viewers, albeit with subtle variation for the old fans: the “bigger on the inside” scene, “Doctor
Who What?” and the companion’s traditional vomit of questions about the Doctor and the Tardis (“Why are the initials in English?”). Even as a veteran fan, though, the moment Bill turned around and saw the inside of the Tardis, wide-eyed and stunned, and the Doctor said those words, “Time and Relative Dimension in Space — TARDIS for short”, I got chills. This show never stops being magical.
As effective and accessible this episode was as a reboot to the franchise and a jumping-on point for new viewers though, it was also deft in setting up what looks like it’s going to be the arc of this series. There’s a big, menacing-looking vault in a cellar under Bill’s university, and the Doctor doesn’t want anybody to know about it. He’s apparently set himself up as a professor at the university and has been there for as many as 70 years keeping watch over that vault. It’s a credit to Moffat’s writing that the most curious aspect of this episode — why the Doctor has been earthbound, lecturing at a university for upwards of 70 years — almost passed unnoticed. Attention wasn’t drawn to it. It was written as though it didn’t even need explanation, and as a result the audience just accepted it without asking for an explanation. It was understated and clever and not overt and heavy-handed like last series’ Hybrid arc setup (as intriguing as I found that, too). The subtle and inconspicuous way the arc was set up allows narrative space and time for the Doctor to go gallivanting around the universe with Bill at his leisure before he inevitably needs to return to the vault, and in that respect it was well deployed.
Apart from the introduction of Bill, what I really liked about this episode is that it represents such an optimistic and exciting beginning to this series of Doctor Who. Everything is fresh, everything is new, and we have a bushy-tailed new companion chewing at the bit to get into the Tardis and see the universe, and a Doctor apparently excited by the prospect of taking her to see it with him. I think I’d like to have seen some more caution and trepidation on the Doctor’s part of drafting Bill into the Tardis, more acknowledgement by him that the last time he did this he got his companion killed (technically) — the episode rather skirted over that — but I suppose when you’re trying to reboot the show anew again for a new audience, that audience might find it confusing if the show referenced too significantly events of previous series. But the result, the conclusion to this episode was always going to be the right one: Bill breathlessly hops aboard the Tardis and she and the Doctor take off into the universe, a whole series of exciting adventures ahead of them. This episode made me excited for the series ahead, and for that reason it was successful.