Last time I reviewed Doctor Who it was the most recent Christmas Special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” which was enjoyable garbage. I haven’t been particularly excited about the show in several years, to be honest. Like many people, especially feminist people, I’ve found the Moffat era, well, trying, to say the least, so I was pretty certain that the best news about series 10 of the rebooted show was that it was Steven Moffat’s last one as showrunner. Then the announcement came that Pearl Mackie would be playing new companion Bill Potts, and she seemed delightful. Then a couple weeks ago the news broke that Bill was to be the show’s first gay companion, which brought a new round of both delight and apprehension. It turns out, however, that the first episode of the new series, “The Pilot” is neither as wonderful as long-time fans might have hoped nor as disastrous as pessimists might have thought a Moffat-penned episode introducing a black gay woman would be.
Peter Capaldi is back as the Doctor, and this time he’s been lecturing, for decades apparently, at St. Luke’s University in Bristol. Bill Potts works at the university canteen, but she also attends as many of the Doctor’s lectures as she can get to. The episode opens with the Doctor wanting to know why. He likes Bill—partly because, he says, when she doesn’t understand something, she smiles, which is a nice bit of characterization that, if it doesn’t set Bill apart from previous companions, is a great memorable line of description that quickly gives us an idea of who Bill is. At any rate, it’s a good sight better than Bill’s rambling story about her crush on a girl who comes into the canteen every day, which is cute—and it’s nice to see Bill’s gayness treated so casually—but also somewhat silly. When the Doctor offers to tutor Bill privately—on “everything”—Bill naturally jumps at the chance, although her emotionally distant foster mother is less than supportive.
The episode’s rather slight plot starts and ends with Bill’s newest crush on Heather, a quietly misanthropic girl with a distinctive star-shaped defect in one eye. Heather shows bill a strange puddle that is surrounded by a circle of scorch marks, and when Heather gets swallowed up by the puddle and then starts chasing Bill around, the Doctor gets involved. Amidst a great deal of the kind of 101 level exposition—TARDIS, cloaking device, chameleon circuit, bigger on the inside, Daleks, etc.—that will be redundant and boring to longtime fans but invaluable to first time watchers, we find out that the puddle is actually a sort of sentient space oil left by a now-departed spaceship. If that seems like pure, nonsensical speculation, just wait until the scene where the Doctor and Bill are talking it through and figuring out how it works by using basically the same kind of deductive reasoning used by Sir Bedivere and a horde of angry peasants to identify a witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This would be funnier if it was obvious that it was an intentional reference, but it’s, frankly, just the kind of low-substance mystical gobbledygook that has characterized many Who episodes during Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner.
It’s fine, though. Bill’s not-quite-fledgling romance with Heather is sweet, and Pearl Mackie plays Bill with a lovely sensitivity and vulnerability that makes it easy to believe that Bill could be deeply affected by what has been just a fleeting connection with Heather. The scenes of Bill being chased by the drowned Heather from the puddle are suitably frightening in the ordinary PG way one expects of the show, and there are even one or two almost-jump-scares that heighten the sense of fear and urgency. The chase gets Bill onto the Tardis and offers as good an excuse as any for her to get a bit of a tour and for the Doctor to put the Tardis through her paces, again presumably for the benefit of new-to-the-show viewers. It’s a good way for everyone to get the lay of the land after so much time without regular episodes of the show, and it also takes time to introduce the beginning of what seems likely to be the season-long arc: What is the Doctor hiding at St. Luke’s, and why?
It’s not quite as whiz-bang as some other Moffat-penned episodes, but “The Pilot” is quick and snappy, filled with short scenes, fast talking, and lots of running around. It at times feels as if it’s going through a checklist of “Things Steven Moffat Wants Us to Know About the Doctor and His New Companion,” but it’s mostly coherent, albeit sometimes absurd. Increasingly in recent years, I find that the less I think about Doctor Who the more I enjoy it, and that is almost certainly still going to be the case in this new season. “The Pilot” wasn’t as bad as I worried it might be; it’s just exactly what the show has been since Steven Moffat took it over. I’m optimistic about Bill, who I’m already half in love with, but only time will tell if she’s going to get the well-written adventures she deserves. As a soft reboot of a well-loved show, “The Pilot” is a mostly successful, with enough information and thrills to hook new viewers, a promising new companion, and plenty of references to the show’s past to please old-timers.
- It’s good to see another companion with an actual backstory and identity outside of “companion to the Doctor.” Bill already has more depth than Clara was ever given, though it remains to be seen whether Bill will be more consistently written than the Ponds.
- I like Matt Lucas, but Nardole was utterly forgettable in this episode. It seemed as if they didn’t know quite what to do with him this week, which is too bad.
- Why didn’t Bill ask the Doctor about his appearance in one of the photos of her mother?