Doctor Who - S10E1: The Pilot - Review: A Flying Start
The Pilot – While residing as a University lecturer, The Doctor forms a friendship with the curious canteen worker Bill. When a mysterious puddle takes a more familiar form to come after them both, will they be able to outrun it?
I know some people have not enjoyed seeing Peter Capaldi in the TARDIS but I am not one of them. His performance has been magnificent with moments like his Zygon monologue will be forever remembered among the show’s finest (look, let’s forget those sonic shades). So it’s with a hint of sorrow that I begin his (and Stephen Moffat’s) final season. Thankfully, his final season opener is a solid one. The setup is meaningful reflection of the show’s recent events as the Doctor effectively spends half a century coming to terms with saying goodbye to River Song. Making him a University lecturer was a perfect fit (via a psychic paper CV I imagine). He loves to talk and such in environment people are forced to listen. It also sets up the episode’s biggest success in providing the means of meeting new companion Bill Potts. Many were worried about Pearl Mackie’s Bill when her first footage was revealed.... and I was one of them. She came across as very bland and annoying but it seems this was merely a case of never judging the TARDIS by a wooden door. Not only do Mackie and Capaldi quickly built up a great chemistry but Bill’s character was interesting, more intelligent and composed than expected while possessing the single most important new companion quality: being distinct and clearly different from their recent peers.
Furthermore, the purpose of the Doctor’s companion has always been to embody the audience: to be the stranger out of place in alien/spacey situations. So having one that’s a self-confessed sci-fi geek is rather awesome, and this episode alone delivers some great fun material in calling out genre clichés, “You think I don’t know what a memory wipe is?”. This all combined with the slow gradual pace of the first half takes the time to make Bill feel like new core character rather than just a human hitchhiker. In a final Bill note, can those that need to please take a moment to accept that her choice of sexuality is nothing to break your keyboard over........ good.
The story of the episode develops from being mystery based into quite a nice sci-fi horror play out with notable film nods. The early teases over the puddle were classic modern who: concentrate on something ordinary looking and leave the audience to guess why it’s extraordinary. I really liked how this incorporated the connection between Bill and the starry-eyed Heather with some excellent and well sound-tracked visual montages to their interactions. Then when waters really start running, things get behind the sofa worthy as the cold emotionless materialisations were nothing short of chilling. This came with some clear and enjoyable visual referencing to Japanese horror properties like The Ring. Then the idea to The Doctor & crew unable to outrun such a foe felt like a play on It Follows. For me, the only real problem here was the conclusion. While I can understand why Stephen Moffat (also writing) would want a lighter, more positive ending, it’s a complete handbrake turn on the episodes tone. As a result, the twist reveal feels more like a letdown than a clever plot development. I wasn’t crazy about such casual use of Daleks either, save them for bigger use as a more formidable threat rather than an easy fan win.
I’m also giving an unexpected thumbs up to Matt Lucas as secondary companion Nardole. I really haven’t enjoyed his character over the last two Christmas specials but in this is episode, his sparing use for comic relief was ideal. Lucas has superb comic timing and without being a principle story focus, he’s devoid of pressure and free to chime in with a great laugh whenever he pleases. I’d still like to see him leave (or see less of him) for the rest of the season to stop his character getting worn out but in this episode, he’s a welcome guest. Finally, and maybe controversially, I really liked how self-contained this episode was. Don’t get me wrong, I love an unhealthy amount of immediate season long plot speculation as much as the next geek but this episode contains practically no teases of the future. There’s no glowing crack on the wall, silence falling or mystery mcguffin in play with only a surprising picture on the Doctor’s desk feeling like it might lead to more. In this case it is good to see the show concentrating on the task at hand (establishing Bill as the new companion) rather than doing too much at once.
So Doc’s back and ready to rock for another season of running around like a penguin with its arse on fire and this episode makes a solid positive start. Yes, in many ways, this season is an ending but let’s not forget to enjoy the journey along the way.