The Doctor is back at last! I’ll be posting weekly reviews of the show throughout the run of Series 10. They’ll include some spoilers, but I’ll have a brief spoiler-free synopsis at the beginning of each one for people who haven’t seen the episode in question yet.
So, without further ado, let’s discuss “The Pilot.”
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
A rewarding comeback for the show after a far too lengthy absence. Die-hard fans won’t be disappointed by the episode, and newcomers will find it an excellent jumping-on point.
Now, on to the the obligatory River Song gif:
The title of this episode refers to two things—first, an actual pilot central to the plot, and second, the fact that this story is crafted to win over those new to the show. I did feel as if I were watching a “pilot” for Doctor Who as a whole. All the core concepts of the show are unpacked for the viewer. At the same time, however, the story doesn’t drag for those already familiar with the program. There are plenty of references to the past—even an overt reference to Clara’s departure complete with that musical theme…
TOO SOON, MOFFAT.
This new jumping-on point is welcome, in my opinion. I hesitate to ever accuse Doctor Who of being too complicated, but it has become somewhat bogged down in its own continuity in recent years. A fresh start once in a while is important for drawing in new fans. That’s not to say the serialized feel is gone completely, however. “The Pilot” plants the seeds of what looks to be a very intriguing series arc, though the hints are kept vague so as not to overshadow the more stand-alone plot of the premiere.
Also worth mentioning are Pearl Mackie’s exceptional acting in the role of Bill Potts, and her great chemistry with Peter Capaldi (who’s brilliant, as usual). The relationship between the Doctor and Bill is different from recent Doctor/companion dynamics, partly due to the fact that Bill—unlike Clara, or any other new series companion—has never met any of the Doctor’s more youthful selves. The result is a teacher/pupil relationship, something which cropped up from time to time in the classic series but which the new series hasn’t tried before. I look forward to seeing how it develops.
Finally, the effects and cinematography are exceptional. None of the visuals feel cheap. I’m glad to see that the BBC didn’t skimp on the budget for the premiere—I only hope this standard of quality is maintained over the rest of the series.
On the subject of Bill’s homosexuality, I will say little. You can read my thoughts on the subject in more depth in this blog post. It did cross my mind as I watched that some of Bill’s lines—in particular, a rather sordid anecdote at the very beginning of the episode—would have caused an uproar if they had been spoken by a male character. It could also be argued, purely from a practical standpoint, that Bill’s sexuality causes male representation in “The Pilot” to be conspicuous by its absence. Say what you will about the companion boyfriends like Mickey, Rory, and Danny; they frequently served as useful surrogates for Doctor Who’s male audience. The Doctor doesn’t count in this respect because he’s far too alien; Nardole doesn’t count because he’s…Nardole. (More on him later.)
I have to say, I’m not completely sold on Bill as a companion just yet. This isn’t just because of the controversy; nor is it due to any flaw in Mackie’s performance. It’s because Moffat really doesn’t bring anything new to the table in the way he writes the character. Strip away the hype over Bill’s “milestone” status, and there isn’t much left to distinguish her as a companion. She’s in danger of falling into the new series’ “feisty young woman” stereotype, which is becoming just as problematic as the classic series’ “constantly screaming and asking questions” stereotype. The problems with Clara’s characterization in Series 7 proved that there needed to be more to a Doctor Who companion than mere feistiness. I’d like Bill to gain more depth before the end of the series, especially since rumor has it that Mackie won’t be staying on for Series 11.
I’m trying to like Nardole. I really am. But so far, it’s not happening. Apparently, Moffat wrote Matt Lucas in as a series regular because he enjoyed working with him. That’s fine and dandy, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have established him as something other than the least-interesting and most-expendable character in “The Husbands of River Song” first. There’s nothing to Nardole, and in “The Pilot,” he feels utterly redundant. Each line he speaks feels like it was taken from the Doctor or Bill in some earlier version of the script that didn’t include his character, and rewritten to give him something to do. In the end, he merely clutters up the episode, taking valuable screen time away from Capaldi and Mackie. He’s not even good comic relief. Humor is something which the Doctor and his companion have always been able to supply themselves. They never needed to delegate it to a third wheel. If Moffat wanted a TARDIS mascot, he should have brought back K9. At least the robot dog usually got good lines.
The Final Word
Despite these issues, I was very satisfied overall with “The Pilot.” It manages to rise above its flaws and act as an effective opener for Peter Capaldi’s last year in the TARDIS. I do hope that the problems of this episode don’t go on to mar the series as a whole. However, there’s not much reason to worry right now. Given the thrilling “Coming Soon” trailer after the premiere, it appears we’re in for a terrific series of Doctor Who.
So who else really, really wants to know what's in the Doctor's vault?