The new character has the potential to shine a light on a group of children that people might not otherwise consider
Fans of Doctor Who started to learn about the Time Lord’s new companion a year before her first appearance. In that time, we learned quite a bit about Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, and much of the media focus rested on the fact that she is the first openly gay companion.
What no one knew until the first episode was broadcast is something that resonates with me on a professional level. I work at Celcis – the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland – an organisation that works to make positive and lasting improvements in the wellbeing of children and young people who, for a variety of reasons, are looked after by the state, for example in foster care – children like Bill Potts.
Viewers first find out about her circumstances in a low-key way in the first episode, when she tells her foster mother, Moira, about the Doctor: “You know you’re my foster mum? He’s like my foster tutor.”
I was keen to see how this aspect of Bill’s character would be received by viewers, given that media portrayals of foster families are sometimes problematic.
The first thing I noticed is that Bill is a working adult in her 20s, but still lives with her foster mother, Moira. Young people in care are often expected to become self-sufficient more quickly than their peers, but Bill’s situation is a nice example of the recent shift in policy that recommends young people have more gradual transitions to adulthood. Although we see Bill move out in episode four, this doesn’t work out, and by the sixth episode she is back living with Moira. I wonder how many viewers are aware that Bill’s experience isn’t the norm? How many would question the apparent ease with which Bill returned to live with her foster mother? In Scotland, less than 3% of young people eligible for support after leaving care remain with their former foster carers.
The media response to Bill’s family background was interesting. One review read:
"Moffat’s decision to write Bill as someone who has failed to get into the university that the Doctor has been lecturing at is troubling. Why is such a bright young woman shovelling chips onto the plates of students, rather than learning alongside them? Such a storyline feels somewhat quaint and patronising today … it’s a shame that Moffat reinforces the notion that a person from a tough background ... will have a hard time pursuing higher education."
I can understand why the reviewer feels this was the wrong approach. Being looked after should be no barrier to accessing university, college or any other opportunity. It’s a sad reflection of reality, however, that the pursuit of higher education for young people who have been in care is still challenging. Bill herself tells us that she “never even applied”, although she’s “always wanted to come here”. We never find out why she didn’t, but lack of support or encouragement could have played a part. By reinforcing the notion that someone with Bill’s background might struggle to access higher education, I hope Steven Moffat has encouraged some viewers to wonder why that might be.
There were also some interesting comments about the relationship between Moira and Bill. One suggested Moira was “neither warm nor nurturing”. Another described her as “emotionally absent”, and a third as a “neglectful foster mother”. At first this was quite a leap to judgement, but episode six confirmed something hinted at in the first episode: Moira is oblivious to Bill’s sexuality. Their relationship isn’t as close as it perhaps first seemed. Although we find out that her mum died when Bill was a baby, we don’t know how long she has lived with Moira; perhaps, like many young people in care, Bill has moved several times and hasn’t lived with Moira long enough to develop a truly maternal level of closeness.
Bill does have a sense of connection with her biological mother, though. The Doctor, who learns that Bill has no photos of her, puts his time-travelling capabilities to good use by going back to get some. As social care professionals know, having photos may contribute to Bill’s understanding of her history and identity, which can be important for her wellbeing.
Bill’s mum is only alluded to briefly a few times, but in episode eight Bill’s ability to focus her thoughts on her mother is vitally important.
In a speech at this year’s Scottish Institute of Residential Childcare conference, Lemn Sissay spoke about the long tradition of fictional characters from “substitute care” backgrounds, and suggested that “the kid in care is used in popular culture because they feel so much”. Bill has amazing potential to shine a (fictional, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey) light on a group of children that people might not otherwise consider.
Leanne Mattu is a research associate at the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland
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