Features Reviews TV

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” Packs Emotional Punch into its Soft Reboot Nature

Like I mentioned in my last Doctor Who related article, it’s been a long time since the show was properly on our screens, so it was really exciting to see its regular return. Though the build-up wasn’t entirely positive as my faith in the show had dwindled heavily due to the current (and often questionable) direction. So, naturally, nothing was really getting me sparked up about Series 10 and I felt I would be going into it with low-expectations.

But with the recent announcement that John Simm would be returning as The Master I suddenly felt love, and hope, for the show again. For the first time in years I felt confidence in Steven Moffat and that he could finally return to form, delivering a consistent series filled with great episodes.

What’s interesting about Moffat’s direction with Episode 1 of this year’s run, “The Pilot”, was he wanted it to feel like a new beginning. Almost like a soft-reboot. Obviously not much could be changed because we still existed within The Twelfth Doctor’s era, but like when a new Doctor arrives, a new companion can also bring a new style, and flare, to Doctor Who. So in that respect The Twelfth Doctor’s era now feels different from what we got prior (because Clara Oswald is no longer around). You could say this change began to take shape from “The Husbands of River Song”, but now it’s taking full shape with the arrival of Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts.

One thing that has to be noted is this season premier is not like previous Moffat openers (par “The Eleventh Hour”). It doesn’t hold that grand, spectacular feeling that a season finale would hold. “The Pilot” doesn’t try to be big and clever, nor does it offer anything too exciting, instead relying on a simplistic plot to get the ball rolling. In many ways, “The Pilot” reminded me of the Russell T Davies era, in which each series would open with a nice, gentle plot in order to get your taste-buds going, offering a nice little treat before the main course that was soon to follow.

In many ways this story didn’t feel like a typical Moffat story, more borrowing from Davies and his style of introduction stories. This is why it reminds me of Moffat’s first story as show-runner, “The Eleventh Hour”, because it tried to be familiar, whilst also showcasing the new. But there are a few elements that will remind you of Moffat’s usual blend of ideas, i.e. turning the mundane into something of nightmares. He’s done gas-masks, clocks, statues, shadows, cracks, memory, Wi-Fi, and now puddles.

I will admit that this idea did seem quite daft to begin with but it’s utilised fairly well (if a little wasted). It’s fair to say that this idea isn’t as impressive as previous ideas. But, to give both Moffat and new director Lawrence Gough credit, they did have a couple of moments of pure horror (which you’ve come to expect by now from Moffat’s freakish ideas), particularly when Bill goes home to her flat and discovers that nobody is actually home but the shower is running. Upon looking in the bathroom there is nobody to be seen, until further inspection, to which Bill finds a creepy eye staring back at her through the plug-hole.

The main focus of this episode was introducing Bill. And (like a lot of things with the recent direction of Doctor Who) I wasn’t sure about Mackie as the new companion. The mini-episode we received last year, called “Friend from the Future”, left me feeling trapped in the middle as to whether I liked her or not. But it’s a bit hard to judge from a five minute teaser. Then came the trailers following “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” and once more I was left indecisive and worried for the show’s future. So, you can imagine, I was extremely happy to see that my worries swiftly got shoved out the window upon seeing Mackie’s performance in full.

She was great as Bill. It’s been a long time since we had a “normal” companion. Moffat’s era has been stuffed with over-complicated characters, to the point where it would become rather distracting, thus taking away from the actual show and its protagonist. Bill felt fresh as a companion by being the underdog that hasn’t done anything exciting with her life, and in many ways feels an outsider in society. This is further explained through her sexuality, to which she attempts to develop relationships with other woman but they simply never notice her, or aren’t interested.

Bill works a meaningless life as a canteen staff-member but becomes intrigued by The Twelfth Doctor due to his strange lectures. This builds a very interesting chemistry between the two characters as The Twelfth Doctor notices that she’s attending his lectures (despite not being a student) and almost becomes fascinated by her intrigue, and the fact that she simply laughs when she doesn’t know something, instead of feeling humiliated. He decides to make her his student in order to teach her the wonders of the universe, to which she’s mesmerised by. I really enjoyed Bill’s curiosity, and the fact she constantly asked all the right questions, something The Twelfth Doctor was further intrigued by.

I really like this idea that The Twelfth Doctor serves as a mentor/tutor to Bill, resembling the early years of the show in which The First Doctor would serve as a grandfather figure, whilst also teaching his young companions during their travels. For too long has the New Series been too dependent on “a love interest” between The Doctor and his companions, so well done Moffat for bringing the show back to its roots.

This appears to be the theme of Series 10. Doctor Who is now more focused on the actual adventures and the journey The Doctor and his companions take, mixed with a more traditional chemistry, instead of having a convoluted story-arc that strays the show away from what it’s actually meant to be. It’s supposed to be about the thrill of following a mysterious alien, with his travelling companion, as they journey across space and time, in a rickety old police box, saving planets and fighting monsters.

Another element that is clearly apparent with “The Pilot” is the lesser focus on Peter Capaldi. This certainly reminds me of Davies’ series premiers because they tended to push The Doctor into the background whilst the new companion took centre stage in order to show-off what they had to offer the audience. That’s not to say that Capaldi was completely absent from the plot (because he was in the majority of the story) and does take centre stage when the situation gets sticky, but “The Pilot” was all about Bill and her introduction to his world.

Adding on top of the interesting introduction of The Twelfth Doctor becoming Bill’s tutor, the revealing of the TARDIS is also done impressively. We have the strange scenario of The Twelfth Doctor disguising himself as a teacher at St. Luke’s University in Bristol, to which he’s made a promise to watch over a mysterious vault (setting up a neat story-arc for the series). So the Time Lord isn’t travelling the universe anymore, nor is he interested in taking Bill on adventures. He’s on a mission. Grounded on Earth (similar to The Third Doctor’s era).

The reasoning behind Bill’s entrance into the TARDIS was due to peril, with her and The Twelfth Doctor needing to enter the time-space capsule to escape danger. I really enjoyed her first journey within the TARDIS because traditionally within the New Series the new companion wouldn’t have their first journey through time and space until their second episode. Here, however, she experiences all three of the TARDIS’s capabilities, dematerialising from one destination and materialising to another, travelling across space, and travelling through time.

In order to escape from mortal danger, The Twelfth Doctor keeps taking Bill back into the TARDIS in order to escape, with each journey taking her further and further into the Time Lords’ world. Naturally, she becomes quite shocked at one point when she discovers she’s travelled from Bristol to Australia in a matter of moments. It’s also amusing seeing her own personal reaction to the TARDIS, comparing the Console Room to a kitchen, along with how long it takes her to put two-and-two together about the space-time capsule being bigger on the inside than the outside.

“The Pilot” concludes rather emotionally when The Twelfth Doctor attempts to erase Bill’s memory in order to protect his identity whilst on his mysterious mission. This scene became really poetic when Bill became emotional about having her memory wiped, proclaiming she simply wanted to remember something good happen in her life. Things become even more emotional when Bill asks how The Twelfth Doctor would feel if he had his own memory wiped, to which it’s indicated that he remembers the events of “Hell Bent”.

It’s rather confusing as to the current mental state of The Twelfth Doctor (especially since it was made rather clear in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” that he was upset over the passing of River Song), but Bill manages to snap him back to his old-self and he invites her back into the TARDIS for more adventures.

All-in-all, “The Pilot” acts as a good start to Series 10. As mentioned before, the overall quality isn’t fantastic. The villain of the story is quite bland and doesn’t make a lot of sense. I don’t know whether Moffat will be coming back to it or not but things just seemed to be left open, or just weren’t explained very well. The puddle is implied to be alive, or that something is on the other side (I really don’t know), and required Heather to become the new “pilot” because she wanted to escape. Heather then starts chasing Bill, to which at first you think she means to bring Bill harm, but it’s eventually revealed that Heather wanted Bill to come with her due to their connection, resulting in Bill having to sadly let her go (despite indicating throughout the episode that she had feelings for Heather).

Also, I know it was already established that the Daleks appearance in this opener would be brief, but honestly, it really left me wondering why the hell they were put in. I’m inclined to think now that the Daleks have to be in the show as part of some strange arrangement. Either-way, their appearance was completely pointless. The only cool thing about their appearance was the surprise re-appearance of the Movellans (first seen in “Destiny of the Daleks”). So you could say that this scene was pure fan-service and added absolutely nothing to the overall plot.

I’d say that the villain was definitely the weakest element, merely serving as a plot-device to push Bill’s journey along. But I suppose it could’ve been worse. Overall, I was satisfied by Doctor Who‘s return. Yes, it could’ve been better, but it was kind of nice to be treated to a simple plot to revamp my excitement for the show, instead of Moffat trying to be bold and not being able to deliver (as he started to do in Series 8 and 9). With everything that is being teased for the rest of the series I’m really excited to see how both Capaldi and Moffat’s era on the show comes to a conclusion.

And if you’re wondering what I thought of Nardole, I actually don’t mind him all that much. Yes he seems rather pointless to the overall structure of the show, but he could be a lot worse. Furthermore, I enjoy his comedic moments, as well as his alien qualities, which near enough match The Twelfth Doctor (in both attitude and intelligence), adding a further companion dynamic that feels different to the norm of the New Series in order to make Series 10 feel even fresher.

Doctor Who is back Whovians! What did you think of “The Pilot”? Did you think it was the best possible way to bring back the show after it’s overly long break? And above all, did you think Pearl Mackie was a good companion? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below or on our Twitter feed!

About the author

John Hussey