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Doctor Who’s new companion feels familiar — with a few intriguing exceptions

Three ways Bill Potts stands out from her predecessors.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has found a new companion in Bill (Pearl Mackie)
BBC America

Doctor Who is back, and with him, a new companion in Pearl Mackie’s effervescent Bill Potts.

Meeting a new Doctor Who companion is like ordering a new drink at your regular bar. Your surroundings will look about the same, but there’s an intriguing sense of possibility in a kooky bartender trying to sell you on an exciting specialty cocktail or expound on how “the passage of time’s an illusion and life’s the magician.” (This is both a verbatim quote from Doctor Who’s season 10 premiere, which aired April 15, and a paraphrase of my local kooky bartender’s line of thinking after 1 am.) A new companion, then, can bring a welcome shot of fresh energy to a reliable standby.

At best, she (as is most often the case) provides a new perspective, pushes the Doctor in new directions, and makes us think about Doctor Who in entirely different ways. However, her underlying purpose is always to make the Doctor, an ageless alien, consider the human ramifications of his actions. In the rebooted version of the series that’s been airing since 2005, the companion has taken on many different roles, from pragmatic partner (Martha, Donna) to freewheeling adventurer (Amy Pond) to earnest love interest (Rose) to mysterious puzzle to be solved (Clara).

But by the very nature of what it would take for a human to abandon her life on Earth to travel through time and space — while dodging deadly Roomba-like aliens and other nefarious threats — they all share enough qualities and wide-eyed curiosity that you can usually tell whether someone is cut out for the gig or not. So when I tried to imagine what Bill might be like, there were a few adjectives I knew would inevitably apply (outside of her being gay, a fact revealed before “The Pilot” even aired).

She’d be smart — maybe too smart — and quick with a joke. She’d have spunk, the kind that could make even the Doctor do a double take. She’d be curious. And, crucially for the requisite moment when she willingly clambers into a spaceship hidden inside a blue police box, she’d have to be relentless.

In “The Pilot,” Bill is exactly all these things. And while Venn-diagramming the companions’ characteristics can backfire — Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has a bad reputation for writing female characters who would be impossible to distinguish from one another if you only read their words off a page — Bill does have a few qualities that, at least for now, set her apart from her predecessors. So here’s a quick breakdown.

1) Bill and the Doctor have a teacher-student relationship

Okay, sure, this could metaphorically apply to anyone the Doctor brings into the TARDIS, since they usually don’t know a whole lot about the logistics of space travel and/or being an alien. But with Bill, this dynamic is literal.

We first meet Bill when the Doctor (currently played by Peter Capaldi) calls her into his office at a stately university, where he’s apparently been giving philosophical lectures to rapt students for going on 70 years now. She’s not technically enrolled in the school — she works in the canteen — but she’s bright and interested in what he has to say.

Smarts aside, Bill is confused about why he’s singled her out in particular. The Doctor tells her, eyebrow arched, that she has a way of responding to uncertainty that intrigues him.

“Most people, when they don’t understand something, frown,” he says. “But you ... smile.”

Before too long, he’s invited her to take his nebulous physics/philosophy course for real and offered to be her private tutor, which she accepts. She might as well, since her home life with her foster mother is less than satisfactory, and getting nerdy about sci-fi can only take her so far. But even after the jig is up about the Doctor not so much being a full-time professor and Bill is running for her life through time and space, their dynamic remains pretty firmly in this teacher-student realm.

2) Bill is a biracial babe with a whole bunch of crushes on a whole bunch of ladies

First off, Bill is Doctor Who’s first nonwhite companion since Martha, whom Freema Agyeman played on the show from 2006 through 2008. And as was reported before “The Pilot” premiered, Bill is queer. She gives extra fries to cute ladies in the lunch line, and when her foster mother warns that she needs to keep her eye on men, Bill responds with, “Men aren’t where I keep my eye, actually.” She chats up a girl sporting a burst of gold in one of her pupils — what Bill calls “a star” — and smiles so wide that it’s impossible not to smile with her.

Bill not being straight is less of a big deal in the fictional universe of Doctor Who than it is outside the show, where she happens to be the first gay companion in its 50-year history. But I won’t lie: Realizing that “The Pilot” — so-named for an alien life force seeking hosts in order to steer itself around the cosmos — eventually hinges on Bill’s crush on a girl with a star in her eye made for a welcome change.

3) Bill zigs when the Doctor thinks she’ll zag

Many of the Doctor’s companions have had their stories end downright tragically; his last companion, Clara, only recently died. So no matter how smart Bill is, it was going to take one hell of a convincing outing for the Doctor to believe that bringing her into the TARDIS and putting her in mortal danger might be worth it.

What it comes down to in “The Pilot” is that despite having studied human nature for millennia, the Doctor can never quite figure out what Bill is going to do, how she’s going to react to something, or what will strike her fancy.

Bill is, in short, surprising.

When she clocks that the Doctor has been working at the university for decades, for example, he assumes she’s about to ask why he doesn’t look older. But all Bill wants to know is what he’s been lecturing about for so long, a far more intriguing question than the basic inquiries people usually get hung up on when faced with the Doctor’s quirks.

Later, after all hell has broken loose and the situation is finally under control, the Doctor prepares to wipe Bill’s memories, as he does for most every human who stumbles on his true identity. Realizing what’s about to happen, Bill immediately starts bargaining for the right to hold on to their experience. “Let me remember just for a week,” she begs. “[Or] just for tonight. Just one night! Let me have some good dreams for once.”

That doesn’t do the trick; it’s an argument he’s no doubt heard before. But then she throws out one last-ditch effort that manages to halt the Doctor in his tracks. “Just imagine,” she says, “if someone did this to you.”

He can’t — so he lets her go with her memory intact.

Still, maybe the best example of how Bill is just different enough from past companions comes when she, as per Doctor Who tradition, asks after his name. And instead of falling into the usual “Doctor who?” trap, she tosses off a casual, “Doctor what?”

Is this a small, pretty silly detail? For sure. But in the world of Doctor Who, asking a new question can make all the difference.

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 pm on BBC America.

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