It would be a mistake to call The Pilot a return to form. That implies that somehow there’s been something wrong with recent episodes when in fact episodes like The Zygon Inversion and Heaven Sent have been some of the strongest the show has ever produced (although ‘recent’ is a relative term with the show having been largely absent from our screens for two years). But it certainly feels like the show feeling its way back to a version of itself that hasn’t been seen for even longer than that.
Gone is that sense that promotion for Series Nine oh so dangerously summed up as “Same old, same old”; of TARDIS teams for whom all of space and time was another day at the office. Clara and Amy were both wonderful characters, in different ways, but they shared an element of being almost born to be companions; of having it as inevitable destiny bestowed on them by the Universe itself. That lent their seasons a sense of purpose and grandeur, but also one step further removed from the viewer. Instead, newcomer Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) is much more in the mould of companions from the Davies era. Like Rose Tyler or Donna Noble, she’s a minimum wage working woman in a dead end job who dreams of more. But while Rose is frustrated by her own directionless, and Donna initially can only see finding a husband as the way out of her funk, Bill seeks a better education for herself. Working in the canteen of Bristol University, serving chips to students, and illicitly auditing lectures she’s not supposed to be at, she’d never get a formal qualification. But that adds to the purity of her quest – she’s not looking for a piece of paper but to better herself, mind and soul. One episode in and I already kind of love her just for that.
Showrunner Steven Moffat also seems to have taken a step back and rethought his ideas on story arc concept and structure. The past several years have frequently seemed to see the Doctor confronted with a big, irresistible mystery which he then vacillates between trying to solve and ignoring for twelve to thirteen episodes. But, again, we look to be taking a page out of 2005’s book. This time it’s not a mystery for the Doctor to solve, but a secret the Doctor possesses that it’s for the audience to ponder hints about. In Series One, the Doctor was a changed man from the Time Lord older fans had known before and as early as Rose was dropping hints about some great and terrible War he’d fought and suffered through. Now the Doctor has again been through some mysterious, life changing, experience since the last time we saw him. Something awesome enough to cause him to retire from adventuring and spend half a century giving incredible, inspiring lectures at a small regional university, while acting as a guardian protecting the contents of a sinister Vault hidden deep beneath it. It’s a refreshing remix of the format and lends itself to entertaining new lines of speculation [myself, I’m more than halfway convinced the seemingly downtrodden Nardole (Matt Lucas) isn’t really the Doctor’s assistant but his jailor.)
The Doctor’s version of keeping a low profile involves inspiring generations of young students to like a more ‘Doctorish’ life
And make no mistake, the Twelfth Doctor is a changed man even if he still (for the moment) wears the same face. I’ve always been a huge fan of both Peter Capaldi’s performance and his Doctor as a character. But his defining traits – his genuine inability to appreciate or understand human emotional reactions or, often, to care about them much when did recognize them, and his simmering anger that I think even he didn’t understand the reasons for – appear mellowed by his time in academia. Now his overwhelmingly defining character trait is… kindness? It’s a trait that seems to call back to the Eleventh Doctor’s early days of meeting young Amelia Pond and “never interfering… unless there are children crying.” I can’t quite imagine the Doctor of Series Eight giving up the time to tutoring. It’s this newfound reserve of empathy and generosity that gives us not only the sweetest, gentlest moment in The Pilot but perhaps one of the sweetest in all of Doctor Who. Surprised by a Christmas present from Bill, he’s very slightly mortified that he doesn’t have anything for her in return. The next day an old shoebox is found at the back of Bill’s wardrobe – containing dozens of previously unseen photos of her long dead mother. As Bill goes through these pictures of a woman she barely knew and had rarely even seen in photographs, tears of joy in her eyes, she spies the strangely familiar photographer, caught in the mirror in one picture. As someone more clever with words than I noted after the episode aired, “The Doctor forgot to get Bill a present, so he got her a past instead.”
The Doctor and Bill celebrate Christmas in his office filled with mementoes from across thirty-six seasons
Of course, not everything has changed. The Doctor still runs, as Bill describes it, “like a penguin with its arse on fire.” And he still finds a lot of human interaction beyond him (the aforementioned present from Bill is a rug, and the Doctor sits in his office festooned with decorative rugs utterly puzzled as to why anyone would think he likes them). And despite his very best intentions, he can’t resist a mystery or cry for help or, indeed, the chance to see the world afresh through the eyes of a young, wonderstruck, human.
The balance to all this character building and the statement of the new status quo is a pretty streamlined and uncomplicated monster of the week. It would be an oversimplification to describe the plot as “Girl Meets Puddle, Puddle Stalks Girl, Girl Convinces Puddle ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me,’” but not by all that much. But as straightforward as both the threat and the resolution may be, it does the job of forcing the Doctor to reveal a glimpse of his secrets to Bill and providing the impetus for him to take her on as his new companion. Along the way it provides moments of genuine, spooky menace too, which is half the job of any Doctor Who monster. It’s also a classic example of a Moffat monster in that it’s ultimately not evil as such, just pursuing an objective that makes it dangerous. An objective rooted in a misunderstanding.
It’s safe to say Bill’s new crush is… possessive
But for all the remixing of ideas and kisses to the past, Doctor Who is still a show capable of great inventiveness in how it plays with them. The Doctor’s description of the perils of the universe – that hardly anything is actually evil, but almost everything is hungry or has a need and “hunger looks a lot like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery” is as fine a phrase to describe the idea as you’re going to find. And fifty-four years later, the show’s still finding new and cool ways for the TARDIS to reveal to its latest passenger that it’s bigger on the inside. This time out, a simple light switch makes it beautiful and elegant and funny all at the same time. The new trio of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole feels fresh and different too. Nardole adds an entirely new dynamic to anything we’ve seen in decades. Sly, cowardly and somewhat condescending even to the Doctor at times, he seems both dependable and untrustworthy. It’s a compelling paradox and one Doctor Who has flirted with in the ancient past with characters like Adric (who regularly sold the Doctor out at the drop of a hat) and Turlough (who was a mole with orders to kill the Doctor) but in these early days Nardole seems to be the first truly successful take on the idea. A lot of that is down to Matt Lucas who plays the part in the classic horror movie tradition of the long suffering, but quite possibly slightly murderous, butler, instinctively understanding exactly the right balance of comedy and darkness to bring to any scene or line.
Ultimately, The Pilot is an example of just how this show has managed to endure, and will continue to endure. It reflects its ability to regularly lie down on a figurative couch and ask what makes itself tick and find answers both new and familiar. It strikes out in a bold new direction, and is the greatest shake-up since 2010’s The Eleventh Hour, arguably moreso even than the decision to plumb the character’s darker depths when Capaldi first took over. Yet it’s also keenly aware of, and in love with, its own past. It’s more than just an introduction to a new companion. It’s an introduction to a new vision of the Doctor Who universe. I can’t wait to play in it again next week.
[Five TARDISes Out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan