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‘Doctor Who’ Star Pearl Mackie on Playing the First Gay Companion: ‘It’s About Time’

The new season of BBC America's sci-fi series Doctor Who features Londoner Pearl Jackson as the first openly gay companion. She talked to The Daily Beast about life in and outside the TARDIS.

Simon Ridgway/BBC AMERICA

Doctor Who is famous for its obsessive fans.

And they aren’t quite sure yet what to make of Pearl Mackie, the mouthy Londoner who has landed the role of Bill Potts, the Doctor’s trusty human companion in the new series.

Bill is the first openly gay companion on Doctor Who, a fact which was established in the opening moments of the first episode, and has inevitably become something of a talking point in U.K. fan circles.

Mackie says that she hasn’t been asked in any media interviews whether she is actually gay, but she had prepared a line ready to deal with any such enquiries: “I would have said, ‘It’s pretty irrelevant isn’t it really?’” she says with a chuckle, then adds, “I’m an actor, you know. And I haven’t ever traveled through space or time either so, you know, I don’t think it really matters whether or not I’ve had experiences in different sexualities.”

Playing the companion of the Doctor always comes with massive attention from the series’ obsessive fans.

“It was pretty insane,” says Mackie, “Right after the trailer went out, my Twitter went to 16,000 followers in a couple of hours. People are cosplaying me, drawing me on Instagram and stuff like that so it has been amazing.

“I’ve kind of got a bit used to it now,” she adds. “People are starting to recognize me a little bit now on the street so I imagine that will sort of escalate as more and more episodes come out. But it’s not happening as much as I thought it would, which is quite cool, so I still get to walk around and have coffee in my local coffee shop and that kind of thing.”

And how does she feel about the attention on her character’s sexuality?

“It’s the 21st century, it’s about time that there was an openly gay companion,” she says. “I don’t think it’s something that the show handles in a big obvious way. There’s no ‘big reveal’ or anything like that. It’s very much part of Bill, it’s part of who she is, something that’s she very happy and comfortable with.

“So, there has been a lot of attention on that in the media, but then I guess, you know, something that I forget is that the show is broadcast in a lot of different countries.

“I’m very privileged to be from London which is very multicultural. And I’m from a very liberal family who are very accepting of people from all kind of walks of life so for me, I think it shouldn’t be that much of a big deal, but I forget that there are places where being gay, being openly gay, isn’t so accepted.

“I feel that kids watching the program in those countries—or parts of those countries—I think that it’s a great thing to see someone who is very comfortably a lesbian on a mainstream family show,” she says. “I think that’s very positive. If people can identify with that and feel less isolated then that’s fantastic.”

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When Mackie was growing up, I ask, were there many people with skin other-than-white on TV to identify with (“No, there wasn’t,” she interjects), and does she hope her character will provide a reference point for gay kids?

“Yeah. I hope so,” she says. “I mean, just as I hope for children of ethnic minority backgrounds [to find] a positive identification with Bill as well. So yeah, essentially the thing is, you know, I’m here to play one person. I’m not here to represent the entire lesbian and gay community, and I’m not here to represent the entire ethnic minority community.

“I think that kind of thing can be quite dangerous as well because essentially, lumping everyone together is something that we should stay away from anyway. I just play one individual who is a lesbian and if people identify with that positively then that’s great.

“There’s been a couple of articles published about why it’s a positive thing to have a young gay woman on TV on a mainstream show,” she adds. “So I would say the response has been mainly positive.”

Mackie was not a Doctor Who fan herself growing up (her inability to correctly identify the fuel which the TARDIS (the acronym stands for Time and Relative Dimension In Space) runs on in one interview infuriated obsessive fans) but she’s been praised by some critics who say that has enabled her to bring a refreshingly new take of wide-eyed wonder to the long-running series.

“You’d have to be sort of living under a rock to not know about Doctor Who and the world of it and the TARDIS but yeah, I didn’t know the ins and outs,” she says. “There’s so many specifics, it’s even hard for fans to know all the details. But learning how the TARDIS works and that kind of stuff was pretty new to me.”

If Mackie had a TARDIS in real life, where would she want to go?

“I would want to go to 1970s New York,” she says. “Maybe the late-’70s, kind of between when the disco was still going but hip-hop was kind of coming up as well. I think that would be a really interesting time to experience musically.”

And if she got lost along the way—as the Doctor often does—and diverted to some other times and places, what are some other times and eras she’d like to check out?

“I’d quite like to go see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe in Elizabethan times because apparently people were only given their cue line and then their line, so I’d quite like to see if that affected the performance in any way,” she says. “And maybe ancient Egypt; that looks pretty sick.”