Spoilers for “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”
Let’s start with the obvious: this year’s Christmas special wasn’t going to top “The Husbands of River Song.” There was just no chance that the bittersweet but ultimately fairy tale ending of River and The Doctor’s time-crossed romance could be topped by our regularly-scheduled post-drought appeasement episode. But it did give us the return of Nardol, newly freed from King Hydroflax’s robot body (I do hope that The Doctor was kind enough to reassemble Ramone, as well), and it set up what’s likely to be the main conflict of the next season when we see that the Shoal has infiltrated UNIT.
But it also set up a sense of creeping dread with regard to the next companion. Once again, a broken-hearted Doctor is going to be setting off on an adventure with a woman of color as his companion, and once again we’re being set up to know in advance that The Doctor is really, really sad, because…love.
Look, I’m not one of those viewers who wants to see The Doctor fall in love with every single female companion on the show. Until the last season of Matt Smith’s run, I shunned Whouffle (a portmanteau name for the fan ship based on Clara’s quest to bake a perfect souffle). As far as I was concerned, Rose and River were the only romantic relationships we needed to see on screen (he could do what he wanted with Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth I in his own time). Doctor Who is not, as I have asserted many times before, a soap opera, and there’s a whole scope of human drama to explore outside of eros-type love. Still, I find it suspect that now, for the second time, we’re being eased into an acceptance of a non-white female companion who will not, under any circumstance, be getting romantic with The Doctor.
Much of my suspicion is based on the sheer amount of big-picture arc Steven Moffat seems to recycle from the Russell T. Davies era. Clara’s departure from The Doctor’s life mimics Donna Noble’s memory loss. His desperation and loneliness at losing Clara is an echo of his earlier separation from Rose. And, like Rose before her, Clara is in an interracial romance that’s threatened by her complicated feelings for The Doctor. When Rose was taken from him, The Doctor was too emotionally wrecked to reciprocate romantic feelings for his companion in the next series: a black woman named Martha.
While “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” doesn’t echo the story of the first post-Rose Christmas special, it does try to evoke a similar foreshadowing. The Doctor is fresh off the final twenty-four years he’s spent with his wife, River Song (on his timeline, anyway). He knows that now that they’re parted, she’ll be heading off to her death in her own timeline (coincidentally, the very first time he meets her). But the lines establishing his grief are largely throw-away, happening in the midst of an otherwise cluttered plot featuring superheroes, killer brains, the gender politics of child care and (I kid you not), a bizarre attempt to make a screaming squeaky toy an object of great sentiment. Nardol, his wife’s ex-personal assistant, is there to sum it all up for viewers at the end, after spending a couple of short dialogue exchanges alluding to The Doctor’s pain. There are no poignant words about lost love and loneliness like the ones he shared with Donna Noble after he lost Rose, but there is a very clear sense that we’re supposed to be feeling what we felt then, regardless of whether or not the script supplied it for us.
Which brings us to Bill, our incoming companion. Bill, as we know from her introduction in the trailer that debuted with “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” is a plucky, inquisitive young woman who enthusiastically travels with The Doctor through the next season. She’s young, she’s pretty, she’s funny, and if her Prince t-shirt is any indication, she’s also very cool. She’s played by Pearl Mackie, a biracial woman. Bill also just happens to be coming into the show after The Doctor suffers a romantic loss. Considering what happened the last time The Doctor lost a companion he loved (and whom he can remember), it seems likely that once again, a woman who isn’t white will be the companion who coincidentally stumbles across The Doctor at a time when he simply cannot love again.
As I said before, I agree with fans who feel that love stories aren’t (and shouldn’t be) the focus of the show. But they’ve always been there. The Doctor has been falling for humans since the sixth story aired over fifty years ago, all the way up to the 1996 TV movie, in which he whimsically considers a life on Earth with Dr. Grace Holloway. But since Martha appeared in the reboot, it seems like fans object to these relationships more when the person The Doctor has fallen for isn’t a white woman. A search on the fan fiction site An Archive of Our Own turns up only fifty-nine fics featuring The Doctor and Martha as a romantic pairing, as opposed to the 5,066 about The Doctor and Clara, the 4,899 about The Doctor and Amy Pond, the 5,867 stories about The Doctor and River Song, and the 13,101 dedicated to the romance between The Doctor and Rose Tyler.
My prediction for the next season is this: that despite the flimsy evidence presented in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” we’ll be told that The Doctor simply can’t develop romantic feelings for Bill because he’s so broken up about losing River. Fans will argue that Peter Capaldi himself said that he didn’t want to act out romances between The Doctor and his companions, conveniently forgetting that his Doctor finished the romantic arcs of both The Doctor and Clara and The Doctor and River Song. They’ll say that they’ve tired of The Doctor falling in love with every female companion, despite the fact that, since the reboot, he’s had romantic relationships with only Rose, Clara, and River while traveling with an assortment of one-off, regular, and recurring characters. And they’ll never be able to answer the simple question of why, even taking all those factors into consideration, it just so happens that the only companions The Doctor falls in love with are white women.
That’s my prediction. My hope, however, is that if there will be no romance between The Doctor and Bill, that she will have a role as important as that of past companions. Let her save the world or be fated to save The Doctor. Let her be the new Donna Noble, saving the entire universe and becoming a legend that passes from galaxy to galaxy, and not the new Martha, who saves the world at tremendous personal cost and gets a less emotional send-off than Amy, whose greatest accomplishment was literally waiting. But ideally, why not let The Doctor fall in love with a fun, cool person in a healthy way, like he did with Rose? This next season, Doctor Who has the chance to impart an incontrovertible fact that is too often ignored in media: that white women are not the only women who deserve love.
And that is exactly the kind of message that The Doctor himself would endorse.