Today’s blog post is something different – a chance to indulge in my Doctor Who fandom! I don’t know if I’ll review the rest of the series, but it’s been so fun to write this one.
It’s that time again: The Doctor has a new companion, a theme tune you could recreate with only the contents of a slightly dodgy dishwasher is ringing out and the BBC’s Saturday evenings are full of aliens once more. Peter Capaldi’s hair, accidentally suffused with several years’ worth of timestream ether, has exploded by at least 238%, and his Doctor seems to have softened around the edges, too: gone is the harsh, gloomy turn which appeared in much of his previous series’ self-recrimination, replaced by a kindlier, more eccentric figure. He’s just as prone to sudden leaps and occasional melancholy but perhaps willing to engage in a little more silliness and gusto. A poignant moment comes when he uses time travel to provide an emotional Bill (Pearl Mackie) with pictures of the mother she lost. He and Mackie bounce terrifically off each other – and it is Mackie who really shines here.
A rather rudimentary plot in which the Doctor and Bill are essentially chased across the universe by a semi-sentient puddle is mere scaffolding, an excuse to give this new acquaintance a chatty introduction. When it comes to companions, modern Who always works best when taking the ordinary and putting them into the extraordinary. Jenna Coleman’s plucky, much-maligned Clara suffered because no-one could decide what she was supposed to be, the promising Impossible Girl concept which saw her as everything from feisty governess to cheeky schoolteacher losing momentum as explanations became convoluted or individuality was sidelined in favour of perfunctory dialogue and exposition. As it stands, Moffat has taken what must seem like the only logical step and tried to forget any of it ever happened, but for fans the memories remain strong.
Thus Mackie’s Bill is less a breath of fresh air and more a bracing lungful, like being pushed out of a sauna into the Finnish snow in the nip. Inquisitive, gobby and wide-eyed, Bill isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions (“It’s like a… kitchen! A really posh kitchen. What happened with the doors though, did you run out of money?”) or ogle a bit when she finds herself in a time-travelling policebox helmed by a man with a penchant for extravagant outerwear. The message is clear: Bill is like us, only funnier.
Some lush camerawork and cinematography wraps an adventure in which The Doctor and Bill brave university essays, mysterious baths and unwitting villain Heather (Stephanie Hyam), who was looking a bit Jack at the end of Titanic (THERE WAS ROOM ON THE DOOR) after being thoroughly soaked by an alien oil slick. As they took refuge in a conveniently placed TARDIS (“The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t get through that door, and believe me, they’ve tried,” remarked Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in Rose, followed promptly by a more brusque “Now shut up a minute”), Bill alternated between deadpan and brassy, deftly played by Mackie when the Doctor couldn’t seem to understand her working-class origins and inability to enrol at St. Luke’s. Throw in such mainstays as jabbing buttons, running, unnecessary Daleks, a fairly constrained timeslot, and more running, and series ten announced itself with the kind of oomph some Who fans haven’t seen in years.
For long-time Whovians there were Easter eggs a-plenty, from nods to twenty-first century companions Clara (mind-wipes and familiar music) and Rose (chips, even Bill’s general bolshiness) to classic Who throwbacks including a glimpse at some disco-meets-Masterchef white-clad Movellans and perhaps most interestingly, several weighty glances at a framed photograph of the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, alongside another of River Song (archaeologist, wanted criminal, escape artist, the Doctor’s sometime-wife, and general badass). Despite occasional references – David Tennant’s “Donna, I’ve been a father before” after coming face-to-face with Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter among the most heart-wrenching – to a past family life, The Susan Question has been rarely addressed in modern Who, and it’s one I’d love to see explored and finally answered. Capaldi, who is set to take his leave at the end of the current series, certainly has the grit and gravitas to pull off the look of a man confronting questions of family and loss. Could there even be more to it? Could Susan have more of a story to tell?
Small details and key teasers for the rest of the series litter the episode. The Doctor’s magnificently decorated office and university professorship should feature again as he protects a suspiciously alien-looking vault beneath the university, while Nardole’s continued presence seems like something of a misguided afterthought unless there are bigger plans in store. Bill joins River, Captain Jack Harkness, Madam Vastra and Jenny (not Jenny the Doctor’s clone-daughter, but a sword-wielding Victorian ladies’ maid who has a bit of a thing for lizard women from the dawn of time) and even Clara (who definitely had a fling with Jane Austen) as well as Class leads’ Charlie and Matteusz in the pantheon of canonically LGBTQ+ Who characters. The Doctor muses that she may see one-time crush Heather again with all of time and space at their disposal, but I’d rather see the rest of the series explore a more substantive relationship for her.
For an episode that was somewhat light on actual plot ‘The Pilot’ packed quite a lot in. It even managed to gently poke fun at itself – whether in Bill’s “I know you’re not exactly a sci-fi person,” or her questioning of the usual TARDIS explanation: “It’s hidden itself as a box with ‘pull to enter’ on the front?” There were sparks of liveliness and awesome in this series opener that I didn’t expect. I hope it’s a sign Who will continue to deliver.