So Doctor Who is back after a long time waiting and it returns with what is another jumping on point which reintroduces the lead character and the very concept of the show. Given that this is the case I have to salute the impishness that is Steven Moffat calling this episode The Pilot.
It seems that the Doctor has been in something of a retirement and has scammed himself a job as a university lecturer who can basically talk about whatever he feels like and no one questions him on it. According to rumours he has been doing this for about 50-70 years (A gift to the good people at Big Finish when the time comes) and even has his own study complete with pictures of River and Susan on the desk and a mug full of old sonic screwdrivers.
Into this study walks Bill who has caught the Doctor’s attention. Not because she’s not actually a student, she works in the University canteen, but because of how she reacts to not knowing things. Because of this The Doctor offers to become her tutor and so the get to know one another over a period of at least months if not more. I love this idea of Bill getting to know the Doctor as a tutor first and getting to know him over a long period of time before finding out anything otherworldly about him. It makes sense that she takes longer to spot the actual nature of the TARDIS. To her the Doctor isn’t some magical stranger who has come from nowhere, he’s a generous eccentric who has been teaching her. Why would he have a spaceship? Much more plausible that he’s knocked through a wall and built an eccentric kitchen.
What helps to sell all of this is the instant chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Pearle Mackie. Mackie is brilliant from the moment she’s on screen. She shares the Doctor’s habit of talking nine to the dozen in the hope that something useful will come out, she’s observant, sweet, smart and wants to improve herself. Not knowing things excites her but finding the answers to things she doesn’t know excites her even more. It is a brilliant performance, touching performance that I am looking forward to seeing more of as the series progresses.
Capaldi has now pretty much reached peak Doctorishness. He holds his audience in the lecture theatre enraptured with his speech on the nature of time to the point I wish that it wasn’t felt necessary to supplement the moment with some flash visuals. We’ve already seen that Capaldi and a good speech are enough to hold the interest so the the visual cues felt a bit redundant. There is a level of kindness to this Doctor that has developed over time. Compare the Doctor of Into the Dalek, who could be emotionally cold to death in the name of the big picture, to the Doctor of The Pilot who travels back in time to give Bill more pictures of her Mother as he didn’t think to get her anything for Christmas. Bill looking through the shoebox of new memories is one of the most touching moments the show has ever produced and deserves to take its place in the list of all time classic moments.
The actual plot is pretty simple but then that is always the case with stories that introduce companions. It is about showing who this new person is and letting the audience get to know them. This is, at its heart, a sweet little love story between Bill and a student called Heather. Heather is taken by a puddle of sentient fluid that has leaked from a ship and now wants to fulfil Heather’s last thought which was to not leave Bill behind. So we get a showcase of what the TARDIS is capable off as the Doctor takes Bill on the run from the what was once Heather. Going to Australia, a planet millions of years into the future and, as a nod to the old school fans, the middle of the Daleks’ was with the Movellans. I imagine that is all we will see of the Movellans this series. They could have just used generic future humans but instead decided to throw in a cursory nod to the show’s past that they didn’t have to. It is an extra effort that is appreciated.
The romance between Bill and Heather puts Bill’s sexuality front and centre of her first story but it isn’t heavy handed, if anything it is rather chaste. It would have been nice to have show the two kiss. Had this been a heterosexual relationship I doubt that they would have been shown just holding hands and exchanging lingering glances. However, it the performances convey that they have strong romantic feelings for each other within the confines of what they have been given. I would hope this was a deliberate narrative choice rather than having to tone down aspects of their relationship so the BBC doesn’t come under fire from foaming at the mouth Daily Mail readers.
The character who is a little lost in the mix of all this is Matt Lucas’ Nardole. He gets a few good moments but the nature of the story means that he is pushed to the background in favour of Bill. There is an intriguing suggestion that he is might by, at least in part, robotic which would explain the ease with which the Doctor reattached his head. He also has a moment with Bill where he says that the Doctor doesn’t notice the tears. It is going to be interesting to see what the dynamic between these two ends up becoming.
The Pilot is a very strong opening episode with a great performance from Capaldi and a star making one from Mackie. If this is an indication of things to come these series then we are in for a treat.