Doctor Who: 10.01 The Pilot
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The Pilot is an episode with double meaning; Steven Moffat cleverly uses the introduction of new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) with a series opener that is the perfect jumping on point for new viewers while the title is also central to the alien threat running through the episode. Bill's introduction is wonderful and it will be hard for any viewers not to love the new companion by the episode's end. The alien threat is a little less successful; it's perfectly perfunctory but probably won't go down in the history of memorable alien enemies. But that's a small quibble as the first opener from season 10 is a delight.
As I mentioned in my spoiler-free preview, The Pilot has a similar feel to Rose or The Eleventh Hour . It's all about the new companion and their interaction with the Doctor. Those episodes were about how Rose and Amy stumbled into the magical, dangerous world of the Doctor; this follows the same pattern as Bill as she is introduced to a mysterious, eccentric professor at the university where she works and finds herself becoming his mentee. With Peter Capaldi's Doctor established over the last two series, he takes a bit of a back seat for the first half of the episode but that isn't a bad thing as it allows the episode to establish Bill and her world.
There's been a lot of discussion over Bill being the first openly-gay companion, but thankfully the episode doesn't make it a big drama. She spends her days serving chips in the university cafeteria, giving extra portions to a girl she fancies and then finds herself attracted to mysterious, tragic Heather, but never once is it played any differently to how it would be if Bill was hetrosexual. There's a nice little moment where her clueless foster mother talks about men and she mutters about how it's girls she need to watch out for under her breath. But it is not being gay that defines Bill in any way.
What makes her so special is how engaged she is with life, asking all those questions you might ask if you were faced with the situations she comes across. She's intelligent but trapped by what is obviously a low-income life and while she shares an amicable relationship with her foster mother, there is the sense that they aren't that close. Through the Doctor she finds herself opened to a world of wonders and that is even before she takes her first trip in the TARDIS. I was never sure whether he was auditioning a new companion or just looking for someone new to spark with but he finds it in Bill. And surely travelling back in time to collect photos of her dead mother has to be one the sweetest acts this Doctor has ever done?
The Doctor's lectures are a thing of delight too (imagine Professor Brian Cox with even more flair and scope) and there is a sense that the Doctor has been here for some time too. He talks to the photos on his desk of River Song and his granddaughter Susan, two of the most important women in his life. Some fans might find themselves frustrated with the focus of River in his life, but that's Moffat's prerogative and I'm okay with that. It continues the theme of his last years Christmas Special with the time he spent with River at the Singing Towers of Darillium having a profound effect on his life.
And it is those glimpses into Bill's world, the wise old professor that is the Doctor and a snippet of his mission on Earth - protecting a secret artefact in the university - that makes up the bulk of that first twenty five minutes. Moffat really takes the time to reintroduce the audience to the Doctor while building Bill up as a new companion. It's refreshing well-paced before all hell breaks loose in the final twenty five minutes.
Moffat takes the time to establish glimpses of a mystery in there too with a true Moffat twist; what is wrong about the puddle in the university grounds? I think if there's any issue I have with The Pilot is that when the threat starts to materialise, it isn't that fresh or exciting. Heather, a woman looking to escape her life that become 'the pilot', a host that absorbs the alien consciousness within the puddle. There are great moments of horror surely designed to give the kids the chills, like the spectral force in Bill's bathroom and the creepy eye in the plug hole of the shower. And I loved the idea that it was actually a shapeshifting alien craft but when it takes over Heather and she starts to stalk Bill, then it becomes a case of Moffat falling back on old Doctor Who tropes, even if they aren't his own.
The water dripping from Heather's face and fingers is exactly like The Flood from Waters Of Mars (so much so that I wondered if they were the same thing) and Heather mimicking Bill was pure Midnight. But then, Rose and The Eleventh Hour didn't have big or memorable aliens either (though the Autons worked particularly well). It was all about a threat that would force Bill and the Doctor to work together.
It's about 28 minutes before Bill finally enters the TARDIS and what a joy it is when that happens. At first she's completely oblivious to the fact she isn't standing in a cupboard and then naturally assumes it's a 'knock through'. Even better is Capaldi's Doctor all swelled up in his velvet jacket, ready for her to say those words and his crushing disbelief when she calls it a kitchen ("It's like a really posh kitchen, all metal and everything. What happened with the doors though? Did you run out of money?"). And then the Doctor and Nardole's cheer of triumph when she finally clues into what the TARDIS really is becomes the icing on the cake. It's the best moment in the entire episode.
The chase through space and then time is a lot of fun too, a jaunt to Australia slowly building up how impressive the TARDIS is before a jump to an alien planet in the distant future where the Doctor really starts to show off. And showing off he is, Peter Capaldi continuing to be magnificent as he clearly has the time of his life. For true Doctor Who fans comes the ultimate Easter egg as the Doctor takes her into a war between the Daleks and the Morvellans, last seen fighting each other way back in the 1979 story Destiny of the Daleks with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor.
Matt Lucas's Nardole, the Doctor's consummate butler also gets to create a distraction with Baker's sonic screwdriver while Bill has her first encounter with the infamous pepperpots. It's a cut scene from the reel filmed for Bill's introduction a few months ago but it is a delight, with Capaldi and Mackie sparking off each other. Lucas also continues to improve, providing a nice addition to the growing TARDIS team.
Bill's ability to solve the mystery behind the possessed Heather by remembering her promise not to leave without her, really proves her mettle and sets up the new companion for the rest of the series. I liked her defiance, using her intuition and knowledge of sci-fi to realise the Doctor is going to wipe her memory and calling him out on on, asking him if he would want it to happen to him. There's a nice, quiet replay of the Clara theme and a turning point for the Doctor who, in true timey-wimey fashion realises she is right and appears a few minutes later (though perhaps days or weeks for him) with the TARDIS in tow ready to take her on more adventures.
It's been a long wait since the mostly brilliant series nine of Doctor Who but it was worth it. The Pilot is actually served by having a decent time gap since Clara's departure. This is a Doctor who has spent several years with River Song and then recruited Nardole and had further adventures. While it would have been nice to have seen another series last year (Capaldi is going too soon!) it also feels fresh and exciting after what was a surprisingly lengthy Clara Oswald era, at least in terms of the show. This is a very strong season opener and opens up the possibility of many brilliant adventures to come. Capaldi is still amazing, Lucas is now an endearing rather than irritating addition to Doctor Who and Mackie is a delightful breath of fresh air. Roll on next Saturday!