“It means… what the hell.”
One of the joys about Doctor Who is that it has an infinite capacity to reinvent itself, beyond even the sea change of bringing new lead actors in. In its time, the show has been a domestic drama with genre elements, an Earth-bound spy thriller, or an intricate puzzle box where the story is told backwards.
It feels right, therefore, that Doctor Who begins its latest season in a drastically different way to how it began the last one.
‘The Pilot’ is, as you’ve doubtless read from the publicity and advance reviews, a transparent attempt at a soft reboot to re-orient the show in a way that hasn’t really been done since 2010’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Most clearly, we have a new companion excitedly hopping into the TARDIS in Bill Potts.
Yet there’s a different feel to this episode that goes a long way beyond the change of female lead. Where Steven Moffat’s previous season openers began with intricate, splashy episodes defined by an all-encompassing scope and a divisive narrative tricksiness, ‘The Pilot’ is stripped to the bone plot-wise.
You could sum it up like this: Bill meets the Doctor, and a girl. The girl becomes a monster, the monster is defeated, and Bill boards the TARDIS. It’s no more complex than that.
That narrative minimalism is, to use the worst reviewer’s cliché I can think of, a breath of fresh air. With only the simplest of weekly narratives, ‘The Pilot’ is able to re-focus on what Doctor Who can do so well: the joy of travelling through time and space, to everywhere that ever was and ever will be. To rediscover that sense of uncomplicated joy, of course, Doctor Who needed a fresh set of eyes to discover it all again.
That’s where new companion Bill comes in. Undoubtedly, it’s easy to chafe against the well-worn formula of companions being young women from present-day Britain – a formula that Bill fulfils to the letter – but there’s something new in Bill that allows her to defy cheap comparisons to the companions of yesteryear.
Sure, she goes through the usual ‘it’s bigger on the inside!’ motions, but in a way that’s surprising and funny (her asking for the toilet is an obvious gag, but sometimes obvious jokes are the best), befitting of a character who can be wise to it all and innocently wide-eyed in the same scene.
A great deal of that comes down to just how terrific Pearl Mackie is. ‘The Pilot’, as befitting of an episode that functions as a starter course for new viewers, gives Mackie a proper trial run with a little bit of everything in the typical companion’s experience, and she aces the task. In turn, Mackie is quick-witted, shy, relaxed, thrilled, terrified, confused and heartbroken, and every emotional change feels believable.
Most importantly, her performance is grounded. Bill is an everywoman with dreams of something bigger who finds her way into the TARDIS by chance, and that relatable simplicity is embedded within every choice Mackie makes with establishing Bill.
It helps that her characterisation that’s much more influenced by the Russell T Davies playbook than Moffat’s, establishing the emotional landscape of Bill’s life in a way that’s naturalistic rather than heightened.
She lost a mother when she was born and yearns to know her. She likes someone who doesn’t seem to like her back. She’s intellectually curious enough to sneak into lectures from a strange professor. None of these characteristics are remotely ‘sci-fi’ in nature like Amy and Clara’s back-stories were from the off.
The result of all of this is vital to the success of ‘The Pilot’; it brings a ground-level perspective back to Doctor Who with a relatable audience surrogate of a companion who can experience all the complexities of the universe with a fresh outlook.
A sign of a good companion is their ability to bring out a new side of the Doctor, and in that respect, it’s flying colours again for Bill.
Doctor Who has fiddled about a lot with the characterisation of the Twelfth Doctor since his entrance, from irritable alien to the world’s coolest granddad, and that shift in the character’s portrayal always felt a little too abrupt. ‘The Pilot’ rectifies that by finding a happy medium with a new situation for the Doctor that brings out the best in this incarnation.
As the enigmatic university professor who sees physics and poetry as one (because of the rhymes), the Doctor here is aloof in a certain sense, possessing an infinite knowledge of complex things that sets him apart from just about everyone, but also personable and compassionate, willing to have Christmas dinner with Bill and choosing to recognise the value of her memories at the end.
Three seasons in, and it still feels like Doctor Who is digging deeper into the Twelfth Doctor and offering up new challenges that Peter Capaldi will inevitably knock out of the park. His imminent departure, even if he’ll have served the normal amount of time, will feel far too soon.
Granted, once ‘The Pilot’ has to extend beyond the simple pleasures of interesting characters spending time together, it’s not quite as assured. The water creature that provides the principal threat here is evidently not a priority for the episode.
It’s a compelling enough threat in spots – the visual of Heather covered in an endless cascade of water drops is a nicely spooky one, with the gushing water that can perforate through any door and travel to any time a classically Moffat example of innocuous objects made terrifying.
Equally, there’s a nice emotional story to parse out with Heather and Bill with the final revelation that Heather’s bond with Bill drove her to chase Bill across the universe leading to a genuinely heartfelt goodbye that brings a bittersweet tinge to an otherwise buoyant opening episode.
Yet there’s a lot about the creature that feels half-baked. The revelation that it’s created from some leftover fluid from a spaceship is pretty underwhelming after the intriguing mystique that’s built up beforehand, and the idea that some mysterious creatures are pulling the strings behind it all fizzles out with no answer.
Opening episodes, especially ones so concerned with character introductions, don’t need a complex threat, and there’s admittedly merit to this one, from the visuals to the thematic neatness of the idea that its purpose is to fly away into the stars. Yet it’s still a little disappointing to see a villain who’s blandly passable but thinly-sketched from such an accomplished creator of monsters.
‘The Pilot’ is not the most dazzling episode you’ll ever see. While Bill is a fresh pair of eyes, it’s hard to deny that the episode dabbles heavily in the formula that’s played out several times over the last 12 years, with not that many genuine surprises to completely send it in a new direction. It’s certainly time, as this episode shows, for a companion with a more colourful origin story (perhaps from another planet) than a life on present-day Earth.
Its purpose, however, isn’t to reinvent the wheel. It’s to bring Doctor Who back to basics with the Doctor and a companion (plus Nardole!) whizzing about time and space and fighting monsters, with nothing more and nothing less, and it succeeds in that regard.
There are even some simple yet intriguing hints of the shape of the season arc to come with the Doctor’s mysterious vault in the catacombs of the university, hiding something that the Doctor swore to keep under protection, but nothing so intricate as to take away attention from the episode’s core conceit of Bill meeting the Doctor.
There’s a lot to look forward to over the next 11 weeks – frost fairs, haunted houses, forbidden books, mysterious monks, Ice Warriors, two Masters and Mondasian Cybermen. Will this be a journey worth taking? At the very least, though, it’s a journey that started well.
Aired at 7.20pm on Saturday 15 April 2017 on BBC One.
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