The Doctor and Nardole go undercover as a professor/assistant at Duke’s University in Bristol. While there, the Doctor befriends a girl named Bill Potts. After falling for a fellow student who’s assimilated by a sentient puddle of rocket fuel, Bill finds herself fleeing with the Doctor and Nardole across the Universe in a bid to escape her.
It’s been 16 months since the last full series aired. After a hiatus carried out so the BBC had time to coordinate transition from one production team to the next, Doctor Who returns for both Steven Moffat’s and Peter Capaldi’s final year on the program.
One of the most notable aspects of The Pilot is its change in overall tone. Everything from the writing to directing has had a noticeable makeover since the last time round. It’s structured at a more leisurely pace and far keener with regards to concentrating its energies on characters more so than plot.
This is a much needed breath of fresh air in several ways, the main reason being down to how long the show has been off the air for. We may have had two Christmas specials since series nine, nonetheless the lack of televised Who-related content means the show has essentially been on an interim pause for the past year and a half. If series 10 returned feeling like a direct continuation of series nine, it would have been frustrating. That would’ve been a bit like if 2005 Christopher Eccleston’s pilot episode decided to be a direct tonal and narrative follow up of Sylvester McCoy’s final 1989 episode. Fine, so that might be a slightly extreme example – as the gap between old a new Who was 16 years – but the point still remains. Storytelling methods change over time, so altering the execution of a television show after a relatively large gap is never a bad move. For the tenth series of revived Who to return feeling like a completely different show provides a burst of much needed energy in order to justify its 16 month absence.
Having said that, reshaping the tonal style during Moffat’s final year as head writer – topped off with it also being Peter Capaldi’s last run as the Doctor – seems like an odd decision to make. Essentially they are shaking up the way in which Doctor Who functions right before it’s about to be retooled yet again by forthcoming showrunner Chris Chibnall.
Still, Doctor Who is at its weakest when things become too familiar, whereas venturing down unique routes is when the program often flourishes. The moment it becomes formulaic is the moment cracks begin to show. It’s why regenerations and new companions are always so exciting. Therefore perhaps shaking things up right now isn’t all that bad of an idea. Doctor Who is rebooted in 2017 and will be rebooted again in 2018. That’s two years of freshness right there. Although viewers won’t have the chance to learn more about this particular incarnation of the show over numerous years (as was the case with Christopher Eccleston’s era), it lowers the chances of Doctor Who growing stale for at least a few more series.
Of course it isn’t merely the narrative and direction which differs this time around, as a new companion has joined the TARDIS team. Bill Potts is the latest companion aboard. Potts is in her late twenties and works at (the fictional) Duke’s University in Bristol, serving chips in the campus canteen. After getting caught sneaking into his lectures, the Doctor – masquerading as a professor – calls her to his office where he questions her motives. It’s here he decides to take Bill on as a personal student, despite her not actually being enrolled at the University.
Bill is an interesting change to the format established over recent years. For the first time since the Russell T Davies era we have a companion no longer enveloped in enigma and story arcs. Instead she’s merely a person whose interesting, quirky and human. She freaks out when danger lurks, makes mistakes when pressure mounts and strives to find logical explanations for illogical situations.
Not only is Bill an actual character as opposed to a piece of some wider narrative jigsaw, she’s also someone who’s fallen into the Doctor’s world by by happenstance . Unlike Clara Oswald or Amy Pond, she isn’t already a part of a larger Doctor Who story. This is in many ways a positive aspect, as it means Bill isn’t shrouded in mystery the same way Amy or (particularly) Clara was. She’s able to be a character audiences can identify with. Much like they could with Rose Tyler, viewers can witness the world of Doctor Who through the eyes of a companion.
The return of an identification figure isn’t the only positive aspect from The Pilot. Another is the chance to see Bill’s relationship with the Doctor be established prior to becoming an actual companion. Her approach and thirst for learning inspires him into taking her on as a student long before the primary plot has had time to kick into gear, which is a lovely touch. It sets up a friendship beyond the standard running through corridors model. Likewise this means when the Doctor finally does return to travelling through time and space, inviting Bill feels like more of a natural decision than it has done in any of the previous nine series.
Bill isn’t the only new companion currently sailing through the Vortex with the Doctor of course, as Nardole (Matt Lucas) is still temporarily hanging around. Lucas is amusing and pleasant enough at the moment, mind you his presence within the show still doesn’t make 100% sense. Presumably his inclusion within series 10 will make more sense later on down the line, however right now he just seems to be pottering about in the background cracking jokes and providing superficial commentary. There’s mention of him helping the Doctor on a secret mission – seemingly part of series 10’s story arc – yet considering that’s all we have to go on right now, it doesn’t exactly answer the question as to why he’s still apart of the show.
When it comes to the episode’s main story, well it isn’t the strongest to date. It’s actually the weakest aspect of The Pilot if we’re being honest. A lot of the overall story and enemy isn’t present. The “monster” is nothing more than some sentient rocket fuel that’s extracted the physical form and experiences from one of Bill’s crushes – a student named Heather – which in turn triggers the Doctor and co. into running across the universe in a bid to flee it. It’s a pretty elementary concept to build an episode out of, which is a surprise considering it was written by Steven Moffat.
Moffat has been notorious for conceiving high-concept creatures in the past, not to mention holding a record for penning inventive non-linear stories and cramming numerous ideas into standalone episodes. Captivating aliens, puzzlebox narratives and abundant concepts are far from present here. The Pilot’s main “antagonist” and “story” has only one purpose here; to give the characters occupying it something to do during the episode’s 45 minute run-time.
It’s easy to moan about the lack of an intriguing villain or plot, although it does seem to be an intentional move on Moffat’s behalf in some respects. He isn’t trying to write a grandiose “event” opening. He’s done that for the past five series now. Instead it seems as though he’s trying to give this debut episode enough space for its characters to breath and grow within.
The Pilot is trying to act as a fresh start for a brand new companion. Instead of throwing audiences into the midst of a story where everything happens, this time we’re allowed to watch Bill develop a relationship with the Doctor and witness her interact with the wider world around her.
Even the plot’s antagonist is directly linked to Bill’s life beyond the world of the Doctor. The sentient fuel uses the girl she fancies as pilot to physically transport itself across time and space. Its motivation for chasing Bill around the universe is down to the fact that the real Heather promised never to abandon Bill prior to her assimilation. The Pilot isn’t about the Doctor outwitting an evil foe, it’s about Bill and her crush getting caught up within the web of a Doctor Who story.
That’s not to say it doesn’t fully excuse the lack of plot. In spite of the joy in seeing Bill and co. interacting with both their own personal worlds as well as that of the Doctor’s, large portions of The Pilot feel empty and underused. Plus Moffat does make some rather peculiar decisions, such as his choice to spontaneously throw a battle between the Daleks and Movellans into the mix. The Movellans are an old Doctor Who character who were last seen in the show during the 1979 Tom Baker serial Destiny of the Daleks. To reintroduce them alongside the show’s most iconic enemies in such an exceptionally unused manner is a huge waste of time.
Including the Daleks and Movellans in this particular story is also tonally jarring. Moffat has had a habit of throwing classic/iconic villains into the mix for the sake of cameos in the past. Normally it isn’t all that much of a problem, however having such mythos thrown into an episode primarily built around setting up new characters is distracting. Moffat probably only put this here because it’s his final series and thought what the hell. Still, the Daleks and Movellans could have easily been taken out of this one and left for their own episode later on down the line.
All in all, The Pilot is a problematic yet promising start to series 10. It’s certainly not going to go down as the most memorable of episodes, but it’s far from a terrible entry. The change in tone and inclusion of a character more relatable than previous Moffat era companions is the breath of fresh air Doctor Who has needed for quite some time now. There are problems with the story of course – it’s terribly undercooked at times and is prone to throwing unnecessary mythos into the mix – however shifting the lens so that it focuses on the new companion’s life/relationships is a lovely decision.
Next week the Doctor and Bill try to unravel a terrifying mystery whilst facing off with some deadly emojibots…