Doctor Who is back! Hurrah! Back with a 12 episode series and crucially a new companion. Heavily promoted given the impending departure of both leading man and lead writer, the show is seeking to recapture the public’s interest after a period out of the limelight. A new journey begins with ‘The Pilot’…
With the show having been off-screen during 2016, except for a Christmas Special, it makes sense to reignite the show with a jump-start and a clean slate. It is astonishing to think that in a programme which thrives on regular change, Bill is the first new companion since 2012 when Clara Oswald first appeared. We’ve had the Rio Olympics since then! Whilst viewers are anticipating a reboot of the show when Chris Chibnall takes over, it makes absolute sense for Steven Moffat to get their first. ‘The Pilot’ was teasingly titled to reflect this refresh. In television pilot episodes are often created to test an idea. Doctor Who even had one back in 1963 with a version of ‘The Unearthly Child’ that wasn’t broadcast until nearly 30 years later.
‘The Pilot’ (2017) therefore serves as the perfect jumping in point for viewers, be they new to the show completely or those who have passed on it in recent years. Some of the traditional elements of Doctor Who are reintroduced with the assistance of the new companion such as the Police Box which can travel in space and time. An odd question is posed regarding the term TARDIS and even the Daleks are reintroduced. Smartly the majority of the short scene ‘Friend from the Future’ was cut as that would’ve slowed the momentum. I also can’t believe they went to the effort of having some stunt Movellans! Long term fans which I’m sure included Peter Capaldi must’ve loved that. Speaking of The Doctor…
Peter Capaldi is The Doctor
Sadly we know that this series is the last opportunity for Peter Capaldi to deliver his portrayal of the enigmatic Time Lord over 12 televised episodes. During his debut series, his character was that of an aloof alien in the mould of the First and Sixth Doctors. In Series 9 he regressed to the more flappy hand, trying-to-be-cool style of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, all hoodies and sonic sunglasses. ‘The Pilot’ sees the Twelfth Doctor find a middle ground. Retaining that quirky eccentricity and distance, he is not overly sentimental as he would’ve been with Clara. His touching gift to Bill is a reaction to the present she gives him. He doesn’t make a big deal about it. The Doctor also relents to letting Bill keep the knowledge of him and invites her aboard the TARDIS. An ideal balance of alien aloofness and the approachable tutor has been found.
Interestingly the new Doctor/companion relationship can be likened to the Fourth Doctor and Leela. I felt an internal smile widen with Capaldi’s own on the declaration that he was now her personal tutor. The teacher/student dynamic is far more appealing than the buddy movie relationships we have had in recent years. It is educational, constructive and more engaging than having two friends on a joyous jaunt across the universe. To aid with the teaching is the Doctor’s assistant Nardole, played by Matt Lucas. Surely he will have an increasing influence on proceedings as the series progresses but his introduction as the Doctor’s accomplice fits nicely. All his inclusions were entertaining but quite rightly his role in this episode was deliberately limited to allow the focus to be on Bill.
Pearl Mackie asBill
Initially, I didn’t take to Bill. She spoke fast, regurgitating every train of thought that came into her head out loud. But gradually the onion is peeled and there is only one word I can use to describe her: REAL. She felt like a real person. Gone are the complications of an ‘Impossible Girl’, ‘the Girl who Waited’ or a futuristic archaeologist. She is a human being. An Earthling. You know, just like the viewer at home. One who doesn’t already have the baggage of a science fiction element and no established connection to The Doctor. For the first time in quite a while, viewers have a companion who they can actually connect with. Their lives might be different. Their history might not be the same. But Bill and the audience get to experience the journey with this odd man together.
One aspect of Bill which I really enjoyed is the way in which she tried to reconcile abstract science fiction concepts to ideas she was already familiar with. Concluding that the TARDIS was a “knock through”, for example, made sense to her. It was wrong, but it made sense in her head. When she did re-evaluate that conclusion she was then more able to get her head around the bigger on the inside than the outside reality. She is curious, picking up on little details and asks plenty of questions. Pondering how the TARDIS got into the Doctor’s study for example. Of course, this fits the companion’s role to explain what is going on for the benefit of the audience. For instance being able to describe something simply as “space engine oil” allows those at home to jump on board with the idea. And this plot definitely needed simplification.
The Pilot plot
I had great difficulty trying to summarise the plot for this story. I followed it but couldn’t really repeat it. Intelligent alien space fluid left behind by a shuttle craft and corrupted by the last promise made by the human being it acquires as a pilot. It’s an odd one, to say the least. The discolouration of the iris seemed not to be relevant except for the reflection differentiation. That being said the movement of water chasing our heroes and the eeriness of a soaked Heather was very well delivered and a real highlight. Horror elements were skillfully handled by director Lawrence Gough with a couple of notable jump out of your skin scares. However, all the science fiction style absurdity aside, the real story and the genuine drama and emotion is found between Heather and Bill.
For whatever reason, the announcement was made that Bill was a gay character a few weeks ago. Unlike other references to female homosexuality in recent years that have been an attempt at wit or titillation, the Clara and Jane Austen reference springs to mind, the Bill and Heather dynamic is sensitively handled. More than that it is presented as real, there’s that word again. The use of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is pitch perfect. You might not have picked up on it the first time around but on a second viewing, that track will become all the more meaningful.
Other reviewers will almost certainly trot out the usual Steven Moffat criticisms. “Too complicated. I just didn’t get it. Why does he have to try to be so clever? A single line of dialogue dictates the plot.” However, when you strip all of the plot convolutions and science fiction elements away you are left with a very real character. A human being. In a scene with a girl she quite fancied. It is emotional and devastating. Yes, it takes place in a futuristic location whilst around them a galactic conflict rages. But the crux of the story is entirely about Bill and Heather. At that human level connecting with its audience, ‘The Pilot’ is blooming brilliant!