Doctor Who starts again and does something new with ‘The Pilot’
INTRODUCTIONS ARE DIFFICULT. Especially when you know they’re setting up for a farewell at the same time. Doctor Who is not a show that is unfamiliar with saying hello and goodbye what with its constantly rotating cast of Doctors, Companions, Villains, Friends & those behind-the-scenes. So we begin Season Eleven of the rebooted Who-niverse having only really just said goodbye to Clara and now knowing that this is to be the last series of both head writer Steven Moffat and current Doctor Peter Capaldi (though frankly if I had to spend Christmas with Matt Lucas & Dragonball:Evolution‘s Justin Chatwin, I might be getting the hell out of dodge too). At the same time as this, the Doctor needs someone to travel with and Lucas’ Nardole might be fun but he’s not going to fill that Clara-shaped hole in our lives, arguably neither did Clara but still, that is why we also have to be introduced to Bill Potts (a charming Pearl Mackie). It’s quite a lot of pressure to put on forty-five minutes of television, especially considering it also needs to tell a story preferably. With all this taken into consideration, could it deliver?
Let’s cut that knife-thick tension immediately by saying ‘yes’. This wasn’t the best episode of Doctor Who, but how could it be? It didn’t have my beloved Mr. Allthesnakes, but it was a solid adventure that realised quite cannily that it didn’t really need too much plot as it was more about putting these characters into the same universe than it was about going on a grand adventure. This is lucky as the plot was relatively half-baked, involving an alien puddle that possesses a young woman making it her pilot. What is this substance? Why does it choose her beyond their joint desire ‘to leave’, if it just intends to leave why does it do the spooky chase across space and time? Such questions are irrelevant as really it’s all just window dressing to show Bill everything about the Doctor (also a mild return for Dalek adversaries The Morvellans). That said the plotting had a lot to love from the elliptic cutting of the first half through to the genuinely sweet ending playing off a surprising offbeat chemistry developed between Pearl and Stephanie Hyam as the ‘doomed’ girl with a star in her eye.
So what of Bill? She’s clearly something different to other Moffat assistants in that she so far isn’t the most important object in the universe, she’s just a girl who shows something of interest to the Doctor. It’s quite clever having Hyam be the character possessed by the creature/puddle/thing because it reinforces that Bill is not a plot device or a deus ex machina, she is not the storyline, she is storyline adjacent. It also helps that in typical Who fashion, she is introduced via a motormouthed monologue involving chatting up a girl at the Bristol Uni canteen she works at via extra chips. Nardole even references openly that a large part of the interplay between Doctor and Companion is down to the back-and-forth, dare I say, banter. They have that in spades. It can come off at times as them making Bill not very clever but it quickly becomes clear she’s someone who’s not had the opportunities to experience as much but she is quick to learn and becomes most importantly an effective foil to the antics of the Doctor. Of course a lot of review you see are going to focus on Bill’s sexuality, we here at SCM are better and more accepting about such things than most places so we’re not going to comment beyond to say it wouldn’t have made any difference to the episode to have Bill be straight and I guess that’s good. Also props to Moffat for continuing to find new ways to do the ‘but this box is bigger on the inside’ scene.
Capaldi was his normal delightful self, jumping through scenes with glee and vigour, making another season entrance with his electric guitar, an affected element of Capaldi imprinting himself onto the character that I will never not pop for, especially as his rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth was a fuzzed-up delight. Seeing him take on another sub-role as ‘that eccentric professor who doesn’t actually have a syllabus but his lectures are so entertaining no-one notices’ was very entertaining. This wasn’t really as much a showcase for Capaldi as normal but that seems appropriate as we know his character by now and don’t really need any more introduction. Matt Lucas’ Nardole is slowly becoming less of an irritation as he had some decent material to work with for once, that said now we have an actual companion, I don’t fully know why they decided to keep him around but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because, hell, they could do something interesting with him.
Overall, I really enjoyed the episode, it was a massive step-up from christmas’ ridiculously generic superheroics* and it managed to give us the best companion introduction since The Eleventh Hour and possibly one of the best of the new Who era. As an adventure, it wasn’t, well, very adventurous with the drippy water/mimicry things coming off as a play off ‘The Waters of Mars’ and ‘Midnight’ respectively, even if the J-Horror pastiches had their moments of genuine creepiness. But it did what it had to and it did it with relative panache, visual artistry and Murray Gold’s score was not as irritating as it normally is, even if it threatened to tank an otherwise lovely moment where the Doctor did something quite wonderful for Bill with a camera. Not an episode I’ll probably ever re-visit but certainly, an accesible and enjoyable forty-five minutes and a lovely set-up for whatever comes next.
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*Sidenote: fuck you, Dragonball: Evolution‘s Justin Chatwin.