Doctor Who: 10-01 “The Pilot” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Do you know what the truest definition of cruelty is? Christmas Day, 2015, we received a dose of Who goodness titled The Husbands of River Song. It was funny. It was sad. It was spectacular. It had Greg Davies as a robot terrorist. That would be our final episode until exactly a year later when we received The Return of Doctor Mysterio (Class notwithstanding). Bad enough it be to deprive us of the show for an entire year, we’d then have to wait another near FIVE MONTHS for our next real full series of the show. In that time, I’ve started a business, moved to Australia, and bought myself a shark. Not really. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had consistent Doctor Who gracing our screens. So, there was absolutely no pressure on the first episode of Doctor Who Series 10, The Pilot, then.
We start our episode with a still shot of a university lecturer’s lavish office, and our new companion Bill Potts has been called in for a meeting, ushered in by the returning (now full-time TARDIS crew member) Nardole, who seems a little rusty. Except she isn’t a student here. And this isn’t any ordinary lecturer; this lecturer is The Doctor. Atop his desk sit framed photos of Susan, his granddaughter, and River Song, his wife, and a pot full of old Sonic Screwdrivers (side note; “Sonic Screwdriver” is being added to the dictionary alongside other Who related words! Bit great, isn’t it?!). The Doctor’s been a lecturer here for a long time as well – up to seventy years in fact. He’s guarding a very important vault below the uni (undoubtedly a plot point of great importance to this series) but he’s been side tracked by that because he sees something special in Bill – not only is she not even a student at the uni yet still attends his lectures but “when most people don’t understand something they frown – you smile”. And soon he’s cavorting off in the TARDIS with her across rocky planets and Dalek-Movellan “skirmishes” to survive and understand a mysterious liquid creature which can follow them across space and time – which Bill discovers in a puddle. Sounding like Doctor Who yet?
You see, the thing is, Bill isn’t special at all. In fact, she’s normal, incredibly so – she lives with her foster mother, attends lectures at the uni she doesn’t even attend (rather, she serves chips in the uni canteen, echoes of a certain Rose Tyler), and is an intelligent, insecure and enigmatic character. Oh, and in case you missed it in the build up to the episode’s release, she’s gay, which of course has The Daily Mail and Daily-Mail-Types up in arms, even though the show has never shied away from non-heterosexual relationships (Ace was about as lesbian as 80s-era BBC would allow, all the way up to Vastra and Jenny with a nice little sprinkle of literally-bonks-anything Captain Jack in-between). Peeling back all the layers of Bill’s character, she just feels so wonderfully real.
With struggle and curiosity key parts of her character, and with a keen sense of adventure and fun, she is the perfect antidote to those who feel weighed down by recent companions who always seemed to be vital to the story’s plot or with an endlessly convoluted backstory (and that isn’t a rib on those companions – Clara especially is probably my favourite companion of them all). Bill has a twinkle in her eye – and not a star like her friend/crush Heather, who brings Bill’s attention to the deadly puddle (oh Doctor Who) and kick-starts the plot. She has the exact kind of energy the show needed in a companion over a decade into its modern run. The companion should always be the surrogate for the audience at the best of times – our gateway into this amazing world – and Bill is so every-day and human that she has quickly grown on me. When we see her wandering through the uni grounds curiously following The Doctor and Nardole early on after The Doctor gives a superbly written lecture about time (like Doctor Who’s own Trainspotting Choose Life speech) and we hear her theme for the first time, I was sold- but by the time we see her crying over photos of her mother, she – both Pearl Mackie and Bill – had my heart. She will be fantastic.
Doctor Who has never felt so fresh in a long time. After the continuity heavy Series 9, The Pilot is the best jumping on point for new viewers since 2010’s The Eleventh Hour. Explaining all the mechanics of the show and still managing to keep it interesting for seasoned viewers, including a drawn-out “It’s bigger on the inside” revelation, The Pilot remains a breezy and just plain fun adventure for the duration, with the new TARDIS’ teams banter working well from the get-go, which is promising for the run to come. This is absolutely Bill’s episode, but The Doctor and Nardole still get plenty of chances to shine, with a fantastic lampooning of the whole Doctor-does-something-heroic-and-his-theme-plays jig early on when we hear A Good Man? again for the first time this series (my word, it never gets any less spine-tingling a theme) and Capaldi legs it across the uni to view the puddle for the first time, Bill then immediately points out that he looks like a penguin with his arse on fire when he runs. It’s moments like this that typify the confidence of the show these days, able to indulge in its own clichés yet still having the ability to turn them on their head.
Speaking of Murray Gold, this feels like one of his best individual episode scores yet, with Bill’s new musical cues feeling like a blend between Donna’s funky theme and other companion’s more emotional ones, and other incidental music feeling like a shot in the arm musically to the show. There’s a superb call back to Clara’s theme late on as well, which got a few tears from me! And as for the look of the episode, director Lawrence Gough brings a super horror edge to proceedings, an exceedingly creepy scene in Bill’s home the highlight. There’s only so many times the show can pull off the TARDIS reveal for the first time in each series and still work, but as Bill enters the door to a blacked-out control room and Capaldi breezes down the stairs in his coat, you feel like you could watch them do it a million more times.
The Pilot isn’t the most plot-heavy episode, and other than the vault there doesn’t seem to be any teases for the arc this year. And that’s what it needed to do. For a show that was wearing thin for many, this is the renewal of confidence, the mission statement of intent that it needed. For series openers, this ranks highly, but for jumping on points for those who have fallen behind or have never stepped into The Doctor’s world before, there won’t be a better chance. This really is the best opportunity, as the marketing will tell you, to “see the universe anew”. And what a ride it’s going to be!
Nb: That coming soon teaser. Just got me slightly excited for what’s to come. Robots that speak Emoji, Mondasian Cyberman, a regeneration and John Simm’s rubbish beard, oh my.