Doctor Who and the care experienced new companion
Leanne Mattu, Research Associate at CELCIS, explores what Bill Potts’ character does and does not tell us about being in foster care
A version of this article was first published in the Guardian Social Care Network on 12 July 2017.
Fans of Doctor Who started to learn about the Doctor's new companion a whole year before her first appearance. In that time we learned a bit about the character Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, with much of the media focus on the fact that Bill is 'openly gay'.
The Doctor's companion
What I didn't know until the first episode broadcast was something about the character that resonates with me professionally. I work at CELCIS, an organisation which works to make positive and lasting improvements in the wellbeing of children and young people who, for a huge variety of reasons, are 'looked after' by the state, for example in foster care – like Bill Potts.
Viewers first find out about Bill's home circumstances in quite 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 explored throughout the series, given that media portrayals of foster families are sometimes problematic.
The first thing I noticed was this: Bill is a working adult, yet still lives with her foster mother. Young people in care have often been expected to become self-sufficient much earlier than others, and Bill's situation is a nice example of policy that young people should 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 whether most viewers are aware that Bill's experience isn't (yet) the norm? How many would have questioned 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."
While being 'looked after' should be no barrier at all to accessing university, college, or any other opportunity, it's a sad reflection of reality that the pursuit of higher education for young people who have been in care is still challenging.
Bill herself tells that she "never even applied", although she's "always wanted to come here". I don't think we 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 Moffat has encouraged at least some viewers to wonder why that might be.
There were also some interesting reviews of the relationship between Moira and Bill in the first episode. One suggested that Moira is 'neither warm nor nurturing'. Another described her as 'emotionally absent', and a third as a 'neglectful foster mother'. I felt that this was quite a leap of judgement, but later episodes also suggest that Moira and Bill don't have a particularly close, confiding relationship. Although we find out that her mum died when Bill was a baby, we don't know how long Bill has lived with Moira; perhaps like many young people in care, she has had several moves in her lifetime, and hasn't lived with Moira for long enough to develop that level of closeness.
Relationships at home
Bill has a sense of connection with her mum, though. This is supported by the Doctor, who learns that Bill has no photos of her mum, and puts his time-travelling capabilities to good use by going back to get some. Having photos may contribute to Bill's understanding of her history and identity, which can be important for her wellbeing. Bill's mum has been alluded to several more times, and in 'The Lie of the Land', Bill's ability to focus her thoughts on her mum is vitally important. As one review puts it, "the fabrications can't win against love, and that message is indeed heartening." That message also resonates strongly with what we know about the importance of love for children in care, which sadly remains a controversial topic in some quarters.
In a speech at this year's Scottish Institute of Residential Childcare conference, care-experienced writer 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". Although I don't feel that Bill's potential here was fully realised in this series, she shone a (fictional, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey) light on a group of children and young people that much of the Doctor Who-viewing and general public might never have thought about before.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.
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