Herewith containeth commentary, analysis, and spoilers.
The 2017 return of Doctor Who is solid. There’s oodles of call backs for close watchers, with ancient ones for Classic Who aficionados and lots too for NuWho fans. Beyond all of that which I don’t bother to address here because others will some-when else, this is mostly an introduction to Bill and thus this episode is rightly named The Pilot. Bill Potts quickly establishes herself as the guide to this world, where The Doctor is an academic and guardian of a vault on campus. Again all this will probably build to something, and that’s fine, but not my focus.
Nor was my focus on the ‘enemy’ of this episode, a different version of The Flood from Waters of Mars, but more of a crush story, than conquer one.
No, my attention was entirely on the appearance of that go to story device used since Cinderella’s grandmother was in nappies and popularised in 18th century romances: the dead mother (sub)plot.
Of the dearly departed & emotional leverage
I was fascinated, glad, bemused, and happy all at the same time, seeing Bill’s story and back story unfold. The writing established she was an employee at the university and not a student, it presented her as a curious and clever, and established her sexuality. It also set up her family, with one woman Moira as her foster carer/mother substitute, and her birth mother, who died when she was a baby. Of a father, there is no mention, although her fosterer has men in her life, not unlike Rose’s mother Jackie.
What The Doctor does is latch onto this salient point Bill makes about photographs and memory in relation to her own mother. He immediately turns it into emotional leverage, going back in time to take the photos Bill does not have, but will soon see of her mother, for Christmas. It is the heart of the episode for me. It demonstrates the power The Doctor has over unwitting people, and also the effectiveness of even the tiredest of tropes for the writer. However, the danger is of resorting to this for a quick hit for what maybe of little import to Bill’s unfolding arc in the program. Why try to manipulate Bill (and by proxy all of us) if this familial fact about Bill is not important?
For Clara, the death of her mother, but also of her partner, propelled her choice to become a teacher and then undertake risk taking behaviours with The Doctor. But externally for us watching, in one episode she is standing over her mother’s grave, and then, right at the end of Matt Smith’s tenure, suddenly a mother figure is with her father and grandmother at Christmas? And we weren’t even introduced to these Christmas family members. So you can see how I am doubtful about what will come of this fact about Bill.
Part of me wants this to be important. Death and loss shape people and so it should and has, shaped Bill. However, I especially don’t need the loss of a parent to be trivialised in a monster of the week escapade either. So for me, for this aspect of Bill should not just be a way for The Doctor to exploit and further shape his companion, or for Bill to manipulate her tutor (a la Rose in Father’s Day), it should be bigger than both of them. It should be the kind of important that the vault clearly indicates.
The Doctor teaches
The fact The Doctor is at a university as a lecturer reminds me of Douglas Adams’ Shada and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which both refer to a certain Dr Chronotis, Regius Professor of Chronology at Cambridge University. A university is the perfect setting for The Doctor, even if not for a secret vault, and the fact he identifies Bill the ‘chip girl’ as a potential student and candidate for companion out of all the countless students he has taught is interesting too. She is the new Rose, dead-end job and dead parent and all.
Having a desk where he can display photos of River and of Susan help re-establish The Doctor’s history and his paternalism. He is a husband and grandfather, and tutor, but these could also indicate the kind of qualities he sees in Bill: a girl without a father, with a dead mother, inquisitive and smart, but also wanting to achieve more in life. And so she might.