Two Christmas specials aside, it’s been a seemingly interminably long wait for new Doctor Who. A guy I know recently asked, “Is that show even still on?” which cut me deeply. A strong, multi-episodic arc of Time Lord and TARDIS will make things right again and “The Pilot” is rife with promise of greatness to come. As Steven Moffat–penned scripts go, it is refreshingly lacking in twists and turns, has less plot than a typical offering, and is more a collection of set-ups, ideas, and emotions. There’s a comforting intimacy on display here not often seen in this series, and certainly not in a season premiere.
The first thing that happens in “The Pilot” is the revelation that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is robotic in nature; the noises he makes and the bolt that drops from his body indicate as much. Back in December, his quickie resurrection was one of my few complaints. While it’s difficult to swallow the Doctor reattaching Nardole’s severed head to his body, it is less problematic to imagine that the head could be merged with a new and less cumbersome set of technology than it was previously attached to. Perhaps a few tricks picked up from the Doctor’s many encounters with the Cybermen?
The Doctor: “Most people, when they don’t understand something they frown. YOOOUUU … smile.”
The second thing that happens is the formal introduction of new companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) to the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), who has taken up lecturing at the fictitious St. Luke’s University Bristol. Strewn across his desk are framed photos of his wife, River Song, and his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, as well as a mug containing just about every iteration of the sonic screwdriver. There’s the feeling he’s been at this desk for quite some time. Has he, as Bill claims rumor has it, been lecturing at this school for 50 years? It’s but one of several unanswered mysteries “The Pilot” baits us with.
Bill works in the university cafeteria serving chips, but manages to find time to sneak into the Doctor’s mesmerizing lectures. He’s taken note of her attendance and interest and is keen to teach her more, so he invites her to nightly tutoring sessions. He also looks directly at the photo of his granddaughter when he says to Bill, “I noticed you.” Is there something about Bill that reminds him of Susan? Is Bill related to Susan? Is it possible that Bill is a descendant of the Doctor? Or will there be another twist? She has a foster mother who has only an obligatory interest in her, and her lineage is surely much deeper than simply a mother who died when she was young.
As Moffat-devised companions go, Bill is shockingly normal and without a mystery or an elaborate set-up surrounding her. She isn’t the Impossible Girl or the Girl Who Waited. It seems so unlike Moffat to take the route that Russell T. Davies often took before him, but then it would also be unlike the Moff to repeat himself. Introducing the new companion is a tricky business, and yet with Bill, whatever he’s doing, he needs to keep doing it. I have not instantly liked a new companion as much since Rose Tyler, and that may be, more than anything else, because she isn’t burdened by the aforementioned character trappings. Bill is allowed to breathe and simply be herself. She’s a wonderful change of pace.
The Doctor: “The passage of time is an illusion and life is the magician, because life only lets you see one day at a time. You remember being alive yesterday, you hope you’re going to be alive tomorrow, so it feels like you are traveling one to the other but nobody’s moving anywhere! Movies don’t really move, they’re just pictures — lots and lots of pictures, all of them still, none of them moving, just frozen moments. But if you experience those pictures one after the other, then everything comes alive.”
It doesn’t take long for the script to reveal Bill’s much talked about sexual orientation, which turns out to be central to the episode’s story line. The above speech is recited over a montage of the Doctor lecturing interspersed with snippets of Bill’s daily routine. Bill meets and takes an interest in the mysterious Heather (Stephanie Hyam), who curiously has a star-shaped defect in her eye. Heather in turn takes an interest in a mysterious puddle, and it’s in this unnerving puddle where all the trouble starts. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Nardole are keeping something locked away in a massive vault beneath the school, which Bill sneaks down to and sees, unbeknownst to either her tutor or his valet. Yet another mystery.
Bill Potts: “Doctor What?”
Bill is sharp, doesn’t easily let the Doctor dazzle or impress her, and is keen to figure things out on her own. She grills him about how he got the oversized police box into his office. She thinks that TARDIS is a silly name for an alien to give his spaceship because those letters would only work in English. Perhaps the most telling reveal about Bill’s nature is how long it takes for her to accept that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than out. She applies every bit of logic to the well-known situation in her attempts to understand it. It’s one of the highlights of the episode because it truthfully echoes how any one of us might react to the TARDIS interior. All too often, characters accept the maddening truth of it without knocking out other possibilities. This is by design, and Moffat said in a recent interview that he wanted a companion who behaved as if she’d watched movies, and didn’t accept every single reality as presented. Of the numerous aspects of Bill’s personality that shine, it’s this dogged search for the truth that’s the brightest, and her inquisitive nature drives the first half of the narrative.
When the title of this episode was announced, hardcore viewers surely guessed there’d be a dual element to “The Pilot” — something beyond Moffat’s claim that he’s rejiggering the story line and starting anew. I’m unconvinced this is any clearer an entry point than, say, “The Eleventh Hour,” but I’m so deep into this series maybe it’s impossible for me to tell.
Bill Potts: “Are you from space?”
The Doctor: “No, of course not. Nobody’s from space. I’m from a planet like everyone else.”
The Pilot of the title ends up being Heather, who’s been consumed by the alien puddle, and is in turn consumed with consuming Bill. That first scene in the empty apartment with the running water and Bill peering deep into the shower drain only to finally spot that starry eye is shocking (the sound design is marvelously maddening), as is the relentless nature of the dripping, mimicking Pilot/Heather as she stalks Bill in a series of sequences that add up to one long chase scene across time and space, filling out the remainder of the episode. It’s also a clever way to get several episodes worth of companion shock out of the way in one fell swoop.
The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole travel to Australia, then to a distant planet 23 million years in the future (good work aliening up that quarry!), and finally they head to Skaro, presumably, in the distant past, smack in the middle of a Dalek conflict with the Movellans. After all these years, with their braided, cornrow hairstyles and white spandex suits, the Movellans still look like they’re ready for a night of coke-fueled partying at a Buck Rogers disco. (That last line is lifted from my “Destiny of the Daleks” DVD review from some years back — the story the Movellans previously featured in.)
The Doctor: “What in the end are any of us looking for? We’re looking for someone who’s looking for us.”
The soggy situation finally ends upon Bill’s realization that an off-handed promise Heather made to her seconds before she was consumed by the alien (“I won’t leave without you”) has been driving the creature across time and space. The twist, such as it is, is that the villain is less of a bad girl and more of a lonely soul longing for company, which is quite the statement for the season to make coming out of the gate. Further, it doesn’t appear that this is the last we’ll see of Heather and/or the Pilot, as the Doctor is willing to search for her with Bill in the final moments.
Nardole: “That’s the Doctor for you — never notices the tears.”
But before the Doctor whisks Bill away into time and space, there’s an amazing final scene between the two brimming with mystery and promise. The Doctor intends to give Bill a mind wipe, which she knocks off immediately (“That’s the trouble with you. You don’t think anyone’s ever seen a movie. I know what a mind wipe looks like!”). He counters that it’s necessary, and more mysteries are revealed (“I have no choice. I’m here for a reason. I’m in disguise. I have promises to keep. No one can know about me!”). And then Bill hits him where it hurts: “Imagine how it would feel if someone did this to you.” A few twinkly notes of Clara’s theme plays, and we are in on the truth of something the Doctor only knows on the foggiest of levels: It has been done to him. He changes his mind, and in doing so, the trajectory of this woman’s life.
Odds and ends
Ace Bits: The episode appears to take place over an entire school year, with the Doctor and Bill’s friendship developing in an ordinary manner; between scenes it is heavily hinted that the Doctor goes back in time and snaps photos of Bill’s mother so Bill can see pictures of her in the present; Bill’s assertion that the Doctor isn’t very “sci-fi”; the return of the guitar and the Doctor’s renewed interest in vinyl (see also the ’96 TV movie).
Naff bits: Sydney Opera House, Doctor Who? Did you have to choose the least imaginative indicator for the Australia reveal?
The scorch marks on the pavement are reminiscent of a similar gimmick used in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” which also took place at a school — Coal Hill.
Nardole’s explanation about bigger on the inside (“First, you have to imagine a very big box fitting inside a very small box … ”) echoes a similar breakdown the Fourth Doctor gave to Leela in “The Robots of Death.”
The Doctor refers to the chameleon circuit as a cloaking device. He did the same in the ’96 TV movie.
The sonic screwdriver Nardole uses to run interference on the Daleks is the classic era Tom Baker model
Lastly, readers who followed my recaps during season nine might recall the documentary about extraordinary Doctor Who fans I’m producing and writing called inDoctornated. We’ve made quite a bit of headway since that time, including shooting our first subject, engineer and film preservationist Brian Uiga. We recently launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to fund our upcoming second shoot with hydrologist Sarah Roberts. Meet both Brian and Sarah in our first trailer! We’re still seeking two more subjects, and as the first two both reside on the West Coast, we’d love to find some folks on the East Coast or somewhere in between. Interested parties should visit the inDoctornated website for more info.