This is Bill.
Bill’s launch has been mishandled.
Don’t be like Bill, says Tony.
Well…that wasn’t awkward at all, was it boys and girls?
The launch of new companions has always been an odd thing. Throughout most of Who history, there’s been an announcement, maybe some press interest, and then they’ve got straight on with the business of filming and launching the companion within the show itself. New Doctors of course always come with a certain amount of enjoyable speculation, but it was only with the dawn of Matt Smith (and then-incoming showrunner Steven Moffat) that newly-appointed Doctors gained enough hoo-haa to warrant a show of their own for their announcement. The Smith announcement show was filled with clips on who the Doctor was, and interviews with Doctors and writers past and present. When Matt Smith popped up on screen he was notable for being the first face in the show that Whovians didn’t recognise, prompting a certain amount of ‘Who the hell’s this?’ talk around TV screens till the meaning of the on-screen legend ‘The Eleventh Doctor’ sank in. Oh. Really? This invisible man with the laconic voice and the expressive fingers was the next Doctor? Really?
Of course, Matt Smith turned out to be a hard worker, wise beyond his years and conscious of the weight of TV history on his tweed-covered shoulders, and brought honour to his time in the Tardis.
The Capaldi announcement was given a whole cringemaking ‘live’ show, pitting really cool news against really naff presentation.
But just as the Moffat era has ramped up the pomp and circumstance of new Doctor announcements, so it’s seen a boost in the fuss made about new companions.
We got our first look at Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond in action in a kind of ‘series-concept’ trailer, with Daleks and Angels appearing in a swirling 3D vortex that was shown on both domestic TV and on movie screens around the UK, essentially explaining what Doctor Who was to new viewers, and what it would be like when it came back to our screens. It was, to be fair, pretty banal and cringeworthy, and also featured things we hoped against hope wouldn’t be the new Silurians, but were.
Arthur Darvill, incidentally – nada. Zip, rather underlining the idea that he was an accidental companion, not perhaps at first intended to become a Tardis regular. More power to the Darville boy, inserting himself into the regular line-up with a powerfully understated performance in the ‘Up Yours, George R R Martin’ school of acting, becoming ‘the man you cannot kill. For long.’
For Jenna Coleman, Moffat, always keen to try a new trick, wrong-footed us all by having her character actually appear in the show, front and centre, as our first real introduction to what Clara Oswald would be like – and then die! And then die again at Christmas!
And now, we have…erm…Bill.
Almost everything about this companion announcement felt wrong. There’s a logic in making the announcement before filming begins – if you don’t, you end up with the muted reaction that fans gave when the first pictures of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor costume appeared without fanfare, in ‘captured’ shots from the set. You lose control of the story and the reaction if you let that happen. Nevertheless, the timing has a bizarre quality to it. Late April in a year when there’s going to be no new Who till Christmas, so the earliest we’ll be seeing the new companion in action is eight months away.
It feels as though Moffat felt the need to remind the viewing public in this Wholess year that the show still exists, and hasn’t been forced into a sabbatical. Who is not being punished. Honest. Look – it’s still here. Now go away for eight months.
Then there’s the choice of day and the way the announcement was slotted into the schedule.
Football fans. Doctor Who fans. There are plenty of exceptions, and of course Matt Smith memorably brought his footballing nous to the Eleventh Doctor, but in rough generalities, there’s not a natural meeting place for those whose natural home is on a pitch, running around and being overpaid, and those whose natural home is behind the sofa, analysing the logic of Cyber-storylines and playing with action figures. For a long, long time in Who’s history, the run-arounders were the people who made fun of the Who-fans, and Saturday evening was divided sharply in the UK – the footballers would get their day’s results and then naff off to contemplate form and what the new points scored meant for their team’s chances of ultimate glory, while the geeks turned their living room into a positively fascist state of silence, grabbed their scarf or their celery or their question-mark brolly and scooted off through time and space to Be Clever About Things.
The world is a very different place now, but still, announcing a new Doctor Who companion in the middle of a football match seems like a move positively calculated to annoy both groups. The footie fans were all sorts of ‘Do I care?’ while the Whovians were grumpy about having to watch all the running about just to catch the new companion announcement.
The nature of the scene itself felt peculiar too – the generic scenario, the Doctor and Bill running away from Daleks she doesn’t recognise, is essentially an excuse for some of the banter the Twelfth Doctor used to hate, and there’s an Acelike or Donna Noble simplicity to Bill’s questions and her inability to appreciate the danger she’s in and shut up that, as Donna did, will probably divide the audience right down the middle if this in fact turns out to be her personality when we finally get to see her on screen in context. There’ll be those who love the idea of someone less hip and flip and in control of the whole time-space thing than Clara, and there’ll be those for whom her interruptions with anodyne, vaguely funny lines – ‘Is there a Dalek at the back with no gun and two suckers and it’s really hacked off?’ – will be like nails down the proverbial blackboard. And we can talk about Ace or Donna till the Daleks come home – am I the only one who feels like what Steven Moffat has done here is throw Courtney Woods in a temporal accelerator for a few years and made her the new companion? Lippy, questioning, out of her depth, thinks she’s funny…Just sayin’.
But this assumes that what we’ve seen is actually going to be representative of the Bill we’ll be getting on screen. In reality, it may not – the whole scene had a wildly thrown-together feel; Daleks, sets, running, and the kind of meaningless dialogue actors are usually told to say at audition to see if they can make anything of it. That’s important in Who, and Pearl Mackie certainly sells the lines she’s given, so there’s cause to be optimistic inasmuch as her ability to deliver a character at the pitch needed in the companion role seems proven. For what it’s worth, watch the Amy Pond ‘trailer’ again and see if you can spot anything remotely like the Amy Pond that appeared when the character started in the show proper.
There are those who’ve expressed disappointment that the new companion is another peppy young girl, and there’s something in that – something of the disappointment we felt when Matt Smith took over from David Tennant, after some interesting and well-known names had been bandied about. ‘Oh,’ we thought at the time. ‘Look – it’s another young white man with HAIR.’ So this time round, there’s been some sniping that we’ve got another young peppy girl, and people have assumed that Bill will be a London girl, simply on the basis that it’s one of the few things we know already about Pearl Mackie. I’m reserving judgment on the question of another peppy girl in the Tardis though because, to be fair, you have to ask when we all got so damn picky. Somewhere between Susan and Vicki? Between Liz Shaw and Jo Grant and Sarah-Jane Smith and Leela? There has been a parade of peppy women, and each of them has brought something different to their characterisation. Now it’s Mackie’s turn to infuse Bill with own her take on the companion role, and I wish her well.
But as an introduction for a companion, the way this one was handled feels like a whole grab-bag of highly questionable decisions: the April date, the middle of a football match, the generic nature of the scene and the fact that none it seemed at all necessary at this point in time. Mackie and Bill may well turn out to be the best thing since fish fingers and custard, but as a way of presenting them to the audience, this was comprehensively bungled.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk