Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 10x01 - The Pilot

Doctor Who 10x01 - The Pilot

After a year's absence Doctor Who has finally returned to television screens for another full series (its tenth since the show's relaunch in 2005, and 36th in total), and it's already promising to be a year of both hellos and goodbyes. While this newest set of episodes introduces brand new companion Bill Potts (played by Pearl Mackie) to the Whoniverse, by the end of its Christmas special Peter Capaldi's time as the Doctor will be over and along with it Steven Moffat's time as show runner. But it's a good few months until Chris Chibnall's reign begins and we still don't know who's going to be cast as the 13th Doctor, so in the meantime let's just focus on the series at hand. This year kicks off with the cleverly titled The Pilot, which not only references the story itself but also seemingly acknowledges the "fresh start" approach a new companion often brings to the show.

The 12th Doctor Bill Potts

Canteen worker Bill Potts has caught the attention of the Doctor - a professor who's been working at St Luke's University Bristol for anywhere between 50 and 70 years. Despite not being a student the Doctor takes Bill under his wing, becoming her personal tutor after taking a liking to the way she reacts to something she doesn't quite understand - a smile. What the Doctor, along with his continuing travelling companion Nardole, is really doing at the University is investigating a mysterious alien vault buried deep underneath it.

Over the months the Doctor and Bill grow close, with Bill also taking an interest in Heather - a strange girl with a star in her eye. After an encounter with a strange puddle that doesn't quite show you your reflection, Bill is stalked by an alien figure which has taken Heather's form. Turning to the Doctor for help, Bill's adventures through time and space begin.

Bill meets HeatherHeather

In terms of story The Pilot isn't the most complex of Doctor Who episodes. The set up is fairly simple, and the latest alien threat feels less of a character and more a plot device to keep the story going. But for once that's actually okay, because this episode is all about easing Bill Potts in the Doctor's wild and unpredictable world - and with that in mind, Steven Moffat has actually done a pretty great job here. After years of Clara Oswald and similarly "smug" companions Bill really is a breath of fresh air - leaning more on the Donna Noble side of the spectrum but still bringing her more "down to Earth" approach to the role. Naturally Bill runs through the usual motions when it comes to accepting the Doctor's way of life, but they're done in such a way that they actually feel different for once. The drawn out TARDIS conversation eventually leading to "it's bigger on the inside" works wonderfully, as Bill first tries to rationalise in the most hilariously mundane of ways. Similarly moments such as her having stop, splash herself with water and take a long hard look in the mirror after turning up in Australia add a nice bit of realism to the kind of scene that's usually simply met with just starry-eyed wonder.

Bill's introduction has also been preceded by the announcement that she is in fact Doctor Who's first full-time gay companion, news which was naturally met with the usual media flurry. Mackie herself addressed the news with the comment "It shouldn’t be a big deal in the 21st century. It’s about time, isn’t it?", as well as adding that this important moment of representation wouldn't be her defining characteristic. The Pilot immediately proved this to indeed be the case, as there was far more to say about both the episode and the character than just that fact alone. There were plenty of references to the fact and Bill's all-too-brief time with Heather was indeed a focal point of the story, but it all flowed perfectly naturally - just like any relationship, hetero or otherwise, should in fiction. Doctor Who is a series that likes to pride itself on inclusiveness and representation, and though in an ideal world news such as this should be treated as the norm for now it's great to see it continuing to move things a few steps forward.

NardoleHeather

Meanwhile the Doctor himself was also on fine form, having seemingly lightened up a little bit since the loss of both Clara (not that he can remember it) and River Song. The grumpy old man of series eight is truly gone by this stage, replaced with a slightly mad old man who likes to think of himself as down with the kids (that's the description of the 12th Doctor I've come up with, and for now I'm sticking with it). Also putting an excellent turn in here is Nardole, who's come to be a nice little foil to the 12th Doctor. "The Doctor never notices the tears" is a great little line, suggesting that maybe the reason the Doctor came back for him and has kept him around is to remind him of those little human touches he often misses. His bumbling comedy act as he whimpers around the Dalek spaceship works surprisingly well, adding a nice balance between having a companion that can justifiably hold their ground and one that realistically reacts to the madness and chaos travelling with the Doctor usually brings.

The episode wasn't without it's problems though. Not only was the "space oil" pretty underwhelming in terms of character and explanation, but visually felt almost identical to The Flood - the water zombie race not seen since The Waters of Mars way back in 2010. While The Flood might not have had the shapeshifting or time-travelling powers of the oil, the constantly-soaked Heather look almost single-handedly took away any visual originality this alien "threat" had. Genuinely chilling moments of Heather's figure looking up and emerging from pools of water were also marred by some pretty ropey CGI as it transformed into a badly-conceived water monster - which failed to serve any real purpose given the episode was also trying its damned hardest to not paint the oil as completely monstrous.

The Pilot wasn't an episode short on classic Who references either, which is something the show seems to be embracing more and more as time goes on. From the pictures of Susan and River on the Doctor's desk to the past Sonic Screwdrivers, this episode is packed with plenty of little nods to the show's rich history. Some of them are a lot more subtle, such as the appearance of the Mary Celeste nameplate or Nardole's play on the TARDIS explanation the Fourth Doctor originally gave Leela in The Robots of Death. One particular highlight was the Doctor and company landing in the middle of a full-scale Dalek war, and the opponents being none other than the Movellans - the robot race that originally appeared in Destiny of the Daleks before developing a virus to wipe their opponents out by the time of Resurrection of the Daleks. The episode may not have specifically referenced the race, but fans would have immediately recognised them anywhere and that brief appearance was more than enough to bring a smile to their faces. It's a shame the episode couldn't have gone the extra mile with a corresponding classic Dalek design, but in an episode so chock full of Easter Eggs it almost feels too nitpicky to hold that against it.

MovellansHeather takes a Dalek

Ultimately The Pilot might not have been the most explosive Doctor Who premiere nor will its story go down as one of the all-time greats, but as far as character establishment goes it did a spectacular job. With previous series and companions having developed an aura of skepticism among fans, Doctor Who has emerged with a new-found confidence and a great new companion in the form of Bill Potts. This episode not only concluded with a preview for next week's adventure (starring the much-publicised Emoji Robots) but also a glimpse what else there is to look forward to over the next few months. If this episode was anything to go by, then both Capaldi and Moffat could be going out on a high.


        

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