Warning: A fair amount of spoilers ahead.
I’ve never anticipated a Doctor Who season premiere quite like “The Pilot.” Peter Capaldi proved himself an amazing Doctor last season, blending shades of Eight and Four with his own unique style for what I would call the best season since the sixth one. Now he’s back with two new companions for a final hurrah, and I was very keen to see what he could do finally outside the last of the fallout from the “The Day of the Doctor” and the Impossible Girl story line.
Overall, it was a hell of an episode. It’s been a while since showrunner Steven Moffat gave us a truly frightening monster, and Heather/The Pilot was one of his best. She was basically a science-fiction version of a rusalka, and Stephanie Hyam did an excellent job conveying both menace and tragedy as she stalked the Tardis crew across time and space like a BBC version of It Follows.
On the other hand…it was such a recycled Moffat plot. The water that possessed and consumed Heather was functionally identical to “The Girl in the Fireplace” when you boil it down to the core components, and “the monster is just secretly sad/lonely/trying to help” plot twists have been done to death during Moffat’s term. In the beginning it felt nuanced and deep, but it’s become something of a crutch and a cheap emotional parlor trick. There’s this great Lindsay Ellis video on the concept of Disney Villains going extinct in later films in favor of more character development for the protagonists, which I think also applies heavily to Doctor Who since 2010. Twelve says in this episode that almost nothing is evil, but everything is hungry; that’s a brilliant observation, but I’m hoping we could see at least a few more Black Hats in the coming weeks.
But let’s talk about our newest companions. Matt Lucas as Nardole continues to be a gift to the show, and the perfect foil for Capaldi in a way I would argue hasn’t been seen since Frazer Hines as Jamie. I’m also really enjoying the fact that the show is apparently never going to explain what he actually is. A screw falls out of him at one point, but he also has a biological head that needs glasses for seeing properly, and apparently he poops (aside: “The Pilot” established, for what I believe is the first time on television, that the Tardis does in fact have a toilet, which used to be a significant topic of debate). He gets some of the best lines in the episode, but tempers it with a compassionate pathos that is endearing.
Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts was the big news, though, as the latest of the plucky young women who run off with The Doctor. My initial response to her in the teasers was that she was just a little bit too plucky, to the point of being downright annoying. Thankfully, she is significantly toned down in actual practice.
Bill is going to draw inevitable comparisons to Rose. In fact, “The Pilot” follows the plot beats for “Rose” throughout most of the episode, right down to scenes with Bill’s mother and an attack in her apartment by Heather/The Pilot. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but it does sort of make it harder to view Bill as her own character rather than an updated version of a fan classic.
She is also the first truly full-time LGBT companion in the series’ long history. Jack Harkness and Oliver Harper both blazed trails in representation, and the latter is one of my favorite companions, but both only traveled in The Tardis for a handful of episodes. Bill is slated to be here for an entire season, and Heather starts out as her love interest in the episode right off the bat. It’s been a pleasant winding down of the romantic subplots that focused on companions and their Doctors that plagued the last two incarnations, and I’m glad Bill is here to continue the process.
Her greatest character trait seems to be her incredible skills of observation, as well as dialogue that points out some of the sillier aspects of the show. She notices that the decorative police box in The Doctor’s office (more on that in a minute) could not have possibly gotten there unless he built it from a kit, and also that even though he says it was too heavy to lift without a crane, it now sits partially on a rug she buys him as a Christmas gift. On her first entrance into the Tardis, she is so enamored by the minutiae of its design aesthetics that the fact that it is bigger on the inside completely slips her mind.
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Other companions have certainly been intelligent. Liz Shaw and Charley Pollard come immediately to mind, but both had a tendency to just point and ask for an explanation. Bill is much more of a detective, even to the point she knows The Doctor plans on erasing her memory. It puts her in an interesting position, as The Doctor himself comes to grips with his feelings of inadequacy as the universe’s constant savior.
The big mystery that gets set up in “The Pilot” is that The Doctor is apparently once again in exile on Earth, possibly in response to the events of “Hell Bent.” For 50 years or more, he has been a teacher at a Bristol university, lecturing on whatever the heck he feels like. Buried in the basement of the university is a vault he has sworn to guard, and he has not left Earth on an adventure since he began his exile. Instead, he has set up a solitary existence passing on knowledge in what I am pretty sure is one long “Shada” joke.
Personally, I’m not all that interested in what’s actually in the vault. I’m sure it will turn out to be a big ball of feelings. What is interesting is The Doctor’s inner conflict over why he has chosen this existence. His office in the university is eerily un-Doctor-like, full of historical curiosities (like the nameplate of the Mary Celeste) he has stored haphazardly in the basement with the vault. In his office, only three testaments to his travels appear; his bust of Beethoven, a jar with all his previous sonic screwdrivers (save the War Doctor’s), and portraits of River Song and Susan Foreman. In a way, he has more truly abandoned being The Doctor than even Ten did in “Human Nature,” and I really want to find out why.
Series 10 is off to a great start. It’s got its flaws, but it’s got its triumphs as well. I’m not looking forward to Capaldi’s exit, because this is just getting more fantastic by the minute.