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Doctor Who returns at long last, and it’s got us a brand new companion

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Doctor Who

"The Pilot"

Season 10 , Episode 1

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It’s been a minute since we last saw Peter Capaldi properly in action as the Doctor. Sure, we got the merry yuletide diversion of “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” and a guest turn in the first episode of Class (which, hey, check back in an hour for a review of that as well!), but it’s really been 16 months since the Doctor Who machine was fully up and running. Such hiatuses aren’t exactly rare in the show’s history—there was that one time the show was off the air for 16 years—but it means everyone involved needs a moment to get their bearings back. Showrunner and episode writer Steven Moffat acknowledges that point by calling tonight “The Pilot,” a cheeky reference to the fact this is a de facto new beginning for the show, as the show adds a new primary companion (sorry, Nardole) for the first time since March 2013, which I’m pretty sure is a record.

As such, tonight’s episode is of a kind with “Smith And Jones” and “The Bells Of Saint John,” the other two companion-introducing stories in the middle of a Doctor’s tenure. (“Partners In Crime” technically doesn’t count, as Donna was previously in “The Runaway Bride.”) And one need only compare “The Pilot” with Clara’s debut to see how Moffat has left behind some—admittedly not all—of his trademark writerly tics. Bill Potts is not a mystery for the Doctor to solve, but rather someone he takes an interest in because she displays the qualities he looks for in people.

The new series has deepened the role of the companion from its stereotypical purpose in the classic series as person who asked the Doctor all the audience’s questions, but “The Pilot” also takes seriously what such inquisitiveness says about a person, and why it would have in-universe value to the Doctor just as much as it’s helpful to the show’s storytelling. Bill’s curiosity in attending lectures for classes she isn’t taking is what first brings her to the Doctor’s attention. And it’s not just that she asks questions. She also notices enough about the world and all the bizarre incongruities that herald the Doctor’s presence—like, say, literally anything about the TARDIS and its placement in his study—to ask about them at all. She’s sharp in the way all the best companions are.

“The Pilot” also recalls previous showrunner Russell T. Davies’ approach to introducing companions by shining some of the spotlight on Bill’s home life. Yes, Bill’s mother is dead, just like Clara’s and (sort of, at least at first) Amy’s, which feels like some protracted reaction to the succession of overbearing companion mothers in the Davies eras. But the fact Bill’s mother died when she was a baby is a character point, rather than a tease of some potential mystery. Admittedly, the characterization here can be a bit wonky: Bill’s attribution of sayings to a mother she never knew could play as quirk, and Pearl Mackie’s melancholy performance does some heavy lifting to keep the moment plausible. The immediate payoff to this scene is strong, both in giving space for Bill to have a cry over the previously unknown photos and in revealing the value the Doctor places in photographs and the scope of his compassion, as he pops back to take the photos and get his pupil a Christmas gift.

The misstep comes when Bill spots the Doctor taking the photo… and never brings it up to him. When Bill points out every last logical inconsistency of the TARDIS—how it got in the study in the first place, how the rug could be placed under something supposedly so heavy, why its name would be an English acronym when that wouldn’t make sense in an alien language—and when her curiosity is so essential to demonstrating her potential as a companion, it’s bizarre that she spots this seeming impossibility and has no further reaction to it. Sure, there are ways to explain this. Her snooping around the vault might already make her a little suspicious of the Doctor, and she might be nervous to ask questions she’s not sure she wants answers to. And yeah, she doesn’t even make passing acknowledgment to the Doctor’s time traveling to visit her mother later, once she learns the true nature of the TARDIS, but they were a bit busy trying not to get killed by her dead friend. At best though, these are just excuses for the show prioritizing a cool moment over character logic—like I said, Moffat hasn’t left all his trademark tics behind.

That may seem a small point, but it speaks to how tonight’s episode is too often at a remove from the audience. Murray Gold’s incidental music doesn’t help here, too often cuing viewers’ emotions without giving them any space to arrive at their own reactions. The opening is particularly frustrating on this front, with the music signaling how damn whimsical everything is. This isn’t new, admittedly—people have been complaining new Doctor Who’s incidental music from the moment the show began—but part of the theoretical appeal of tonight’s episode is it shows how a stranger to the Doctor’s world becomes aware of all that’s out there. Starting the journey with such an arch music choice doesn’t give the other aspects of the show room to speak for themselves. Indeed, the single most effective and most innovative moment of discovery tonight comes when the camera pulls back from Bill by the door of the still darkened TARDIS, showing her all alone in the darkened space before the lights come up. The lack of music there lets the moment be powerful on its own terms. And it’s not like the music can never work—when it fires up shortly after, it’s reacting to the Doctor’s attempted pomposity about the TARDIS, rather than simply blaring over the proceedings indiscriminately.

The story itself is fine if rudimentary, which is very much in keeping with a companion debut episode. The cleverest trick here is to build the latter half of the story around the possessed Heather chasing Bill through time and space, which allows the Doctor to show off the universe and all the TARDIS can do without diverting attention from the central conflict. Traveling to Australia is a fun twist on the 11th Doctor and Clara skipping ahead to the morning in “The Bells Of Saint John,” while the trip to the Dalek-Movellan War from the 4th Doctor’s era is an inspired way to embrace the show’s wider mythos. The actual threat is, at best, underwritten, with the super-intelligent space engine oil’s motivations remaining unclear. You know, it’s getting to write sentences like that that make you know Doctor Who is back.

Having both the oil and the possessed Heather act as mimics does keep the focus on Bill and the Doctor, but Bill and Heather’s nascent relationship isn’t well enough developed in the episode’s first half for their climactic moment together to have the impact it ought to. Indeed, much as it’s cool and good and long overdue that Bill is the first gay primary companion (Captain Jack was a secondary companion, which is a bit different), and much as it’s cool that Bill’s relationship with Heather forms the theoretical crux of the episode, but “The Pilot” doesn’t do the character-building legwork for the audience to connect with this properly. The episode leaves it ambiguous how much Heather is under the oil’s thrall at different points of the episodes—her being withdrawn and possibly depressed could absolutely be a valid, even great character choice, but Doctor Who’s whole premise means it has to be really clear about what are internal struggles and what are extraterrestrial possessions. Basically, Doctor Who is generally at its best when it’s clear in its intentions, even when it’s being mysterious, and “The Pilot” often feels muddled in its storytelling.

All that said, though, this is a solid introduction to Bill as the new companion, with Pearl Mackie bringing an energy distinct from any previous new series companion. That she is gay, black, and working class is another welcome step in Doctor Who’s ability to reflect the entire spectrum of who enjoy the show and identify with its characters, and those choices open up some unique storytelling possibilities should the show choose. Matt Lucas’ Nardole is largely left in the background here, cheerfully positioning him as the third person in the TARDIS and content to be a kind of referee once the Doctor and Bill start bantering. Peter Capaldi is on fine form as ever as the Doctor, continuing the warm yet faintly terrifying performance that helped make the ninth season such a joy to watch.

It’s possible for Doctor Who to hit the ground running in a new incarnation. Steven Moffat did precisely that seven (seven!) years ago with “The Eleventh Hour,” but it’s also okay—and, honestly, far more typical—for a de facto pilot episode like, well, “The Pilot” to throw out a bunch of potentially intriguing pieces and gesture toward how they could all come together down the line. With a promising TARDIS season and two very strong seasons in the show’s immediate past, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic that “The Pilot” is the lightweight but necessary table-setting before the real fun begins.

Stray observations

  • A Steven Moffat episode is always good for at least one brilliant, off-kilter observation on the nature of the world. The Doctor’s explanation of how hungry looks a lot like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery is this episode’s entry in that particular canon.
  • The most intriguing thing I haven’t yet mentioned is the vault, which has put the Doctor in the unusual circumstance of hanging around this university, possibly for several decades, to protect it. We’ll have to see what exactly this ends up being, but I can’t really think of anything in either the classic or the new series quite like this, and it’s an interesting spin on the now required season-spanning mystery. I imagine I’ll have more on this in the coming weeks.
  • I know I said Doctor Who is generally best when it’s mysterious but clear. I’ll admit this doesn’t always have to be the case, as a few stories—“Warriors’ Gate” and “Ghost Light” chief among them—are brilliant precisely because they’re baffling. The 7th Doctor’s run in general gains a lot of strength from how damn cryptic it is.
  • The Doctor trying to wipe Bill’s mind recalls the 10th Doctor’s wiping of Donna’s memory in “Journey’s End,” which remains one of the most controversial things the Doctor has done. It’s not a good look to see the Doctor trying to trick Bill out of her memories here either—most charitably, it suggests just how seriously the Doctor is taking the vault. While I’m not crazy about seeing the Doctor try to do that, this is almost balanced out by Bill forcefully refusing. Honestly, I can understand if fans are either considerably more bothered about this than I am or not bothered much at all, hence why I included it down here. For the time being, I think I’ll just keep the focus on how Bill asserts her own agency and displays her own cleverness in immediately recognizing the Doctor’s intentions, but, yeah… better continue to keep an eye on the Doctor. Which, I suppose, is a point the show keeps on making.
  • Indeed, it’s worth noting the Doctor warns Bill about how everything Heather shows her of the wonders of the universe is just a lure to make her go with her… when the Doctor just got done showing her the wonders of the universe. But then, the Doctor at that point wasn’t looking for a companion, as the attempted memory-wipe shows, and the episode doesn’t comment on the parallel. If anything, I’m glad it doesn’t, as the idea the Doctor is destructive and dangerous to those who travel with him has already been more than adequately explored with previous new series companions.