Doctor Who S10E01 “The Pilot” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor has been working at St Luke’s University Bristol for over 50 years (maybe as many as 70) with Nardole as his Man Friday.
- They’re both trying to get into a vault that the Doctor has hidden in the bowels in the university.
- No one quite knows what subject the Doctor’s supposed to be teaching (the Poetry of Physics seems as good a bet as any). But his lectures are very popular and even non-students come to watch.
- Including Bill Potts who works in one of the university’s canteens.
- She intrigues the Doctor because she doesn’t frown when she doesn’t understand something; she smiles.
- He convinces her to let him give her private tuition and promises she’ll get a first. A first in what isn’t clear. The Poetry of Physics, maybe?
- Over the months they grow close and even give each other Christmas gifts; the Doctor gets a rug, and Bill receives some never-seen-before photos of her dead mother.
- Bill has also become intrigued by an girl called Heather who has a defect in one eye that makes the iris look like a star.
- Heather, in turned, is intrigued by a puddle that never evaporates and shows a reflection of your face that isn’t in mirror image.
- Heather tells Bill that wherever she is, she always wants to leave. Bill says, well don’t leave without me and…
- The puddle swallows Heather.
- Turns out it’s not a puddle but an alien spaceship oil leakage. Only this oil is superintelligent and needs a pilot so it can escape the planet.
- Heather is that pilot, but she retains the memory of Bill asking to go with her. In the form of a scary liquid avatar, she seeks out Bill who mistakenly believes she’s trying to kill her.
- Bill turns the Doctor for help, and he ushers her into the TARDIS where she’ll be safe.
- They make a series of increasingly long journeys to see if the Heather-creature can follow. It can… whenever and whenever they go, even across the universe and into the distant future.
- So the Doctor next pilots the TARDIS into the middle of the Movellan/Dalek war to see if the Daleks can destroy the creature. They can’t.
- But the creature doesn’t kill the Doctor, Bill and Nardole either. Suddenly Bill realises the truth; it just wants Bill to go with it. It even shows Bill a vision of the wonders of the universe to try to convince her.
- But Bill resists and finally makes the creature realise that their relation is going nowhere. The creature vanishes.
- The Doctor, Nardole and Bill return to Earth where the Doctor intends to wipe Bill’s memory of the TARDIS. Bill is having none of that. The Doctor relents and invites her to be his new companion instead.
If there had never been a show called Doctor Who, and this episode appeared out of the blue as a “pilot” for a new sci-fi show, you know what? We’d be gagging for more.
Just like “Rose” 12 years ago, “The Pilot” is told largely from the point of view of the new companion being introduced to the Doctor’s world for the first time. Someone who’d never seen the show before wouldn’t be baffled by 52 years of continuity, because everything is explained like it’s the first time all over again.
And it works beautifully.
Hell, we’d love to see more of this show about an eccentric university professor, sorry “Doctor”, who travels in time and space in a Police Box that’s called the TARDIS. It’s quirky, witty, inventive and touching; tense in places and full of mystery; with the bonus of having two great, instantly loveable central characters. And hell, we need to know what’s in that vault, so we’ll be sticking around to watch more.
Of course, there are continuity references, but they’re more like Easter eggs than things you need to know to follow the plot.
So this “soft reboot” turns out to be very clever move indeed, giving the vintage show a real injection of fresh promise. The real shame being that we all know Capaldi’s leaving the role this year. It’s almost too cruel (for us, the viewers) that just as he finds a format and companion that really suit him, he’s off.
Because Bill is a revelation. She’s smart, sassy, adorable and very, very normal. There’s a slight worry when she mentions the lack of photos of her mum that she’s going to turn out to have some big back story about being an abandoned space baby or something, but no; seems her mum was just camera shy. Okay, over the course of the season she’ll no doubt become the latest “most important woman in the universe” but for the moment she’s refreshingly more Rose than Clara. Pearl Mackie nails the character within one scene and just improves throughout. Even better, she’s gay and that’s not turned into an issue. She just… is. Good.
Nardole is growing on us with each episode too, and while there are still a couple of irritating comedy whimpers (and the sight of him lumbering though the Dalek warzone like a lost Teletubby kills any tension there might have been) it is fun at least to have a companion who’s a bit of a prat for a change. Could Matt Lucas end the season having converted all the doubters like Donna/Catherine Tate did? He’ll need a story that treats him as more than a comedy foil if so, but it’s not impossible.
There are other problems. The explanation for the creatures leaves you wondering why this super-oil isn’t the most dangerous and sought-after material in the galaxy, it’s so ridiculously powerful. The Daleks’ cameo is so brief – and the way the Doctor runs rings around them so easy – that once again their iconic status feels like it’s being chipped away; their main role these days is “buffoonish stooges”. The love-conquers-all denouement has been used a little too often on the show.
But these barely detract from hugely fun, and very confident-feeling, opening to the new season.
- Although it goes without saying, we’ll say it: Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie make an excellent, sparky, endlessly watchable double act.
- The montage of the Doctor lecturing and Bill serving chips is about a zillion times more fun that a lecture/canteen montage should be.
- The Doctor’s Christmas present to Bill – the photos of her mum – is incredibly sweet.
- The moment when Bill is talking with her back to the Doctor, looking out of the window, and then she sees him running across the university lawn is hilarious.
- So Nardole’s role is the Doctor’s Jiminy Cricket? There to remind him how to act responsibly. Yeah, good luck with that, but it does make Nardole’s continued presence make more sense.
- The shot of the Dalek eye-stalk with Heather’s starry eye in it is very pretty.
- There was a hint of Clara’s theme playing on the soundtrack when Bill asks the Doctor how he would feel if someone wiped hie memory. A lovely touch. In fact, the whole scene, with Bill appealing to the Doctor’s better nature in a calm, logical way to stop him mindwiping her, bodes very well for Bill as companion.
- “Most people when they don’t understand something frown. You… smile.”
- “There’s a puddle over there. It hasn’t rained for a week.”
“Yeah, well, but… half the students here are blokes.”
- “Why did you run like that?”
“Like a penguin with its arse on fire.”
- “Is this a knock-through?”
- “What happened to the doors, though? Did you run out of money?”
- “What you are standing in is a technological marvel in science beyond magic. This is the gateway to everything that ever was or ever can be.”
“Can I use the toilet?”
- “If it had work to do, why would it lie around in a puddle?”
“Maybe it’s a student.”
- “If you’re from another planet, why would you name your box in English? Those initials wouldn’t work in any other language.”
“People don’t generally bring that up.”
- Heather is downright odd even before she’s possessed by the puddle. So odd, that even though she’s good looking, you wonder why Bill doesn’t run a mile.
- Bill may be intelligent for 95% of the episode but she has a sudden brain fart when she peers into the pool on that alien planet. If she’s half as movie savvy as she claims to be, she’ll know exactly what’s going to happen next…
- Plus the shot of Heather with her hand over Bill’s face trying to drag her into the pool is unintentionally funny, and the giant water creature that emerges from the pool is very poorly achieved. This pool is just trouble from star to finish.
- Dear oh dear, the “TARDIS interior” effect in this shot was unusually unconvincing.
- The super-oil is a bit too super. If it can chase the Doctor through time and space you’d think someone somewhere would be weaponising it.
And The Random:
- The Daleks are fighting the Movellans – we last saw these two races at war in the Fourth Doctor story “Destiny Of The Daleks” (1979), the only previous on-screen appearance of Movellans.
- Seems the Doctor never gets rid of an old sonic screwdriver – the one that Nardole uses later in the episode is the version used by the third, fourth and fifth Doctors (which we thought was destroyed by the Terileptils…)
- On the far left, that looks like hatstand that lived in the TARDIS console room for much of the fourth and fifth Doctor’s era.
- The photos on the Doctor’s desk are of River Song and Susan Foreman – the first Doctor’s “granddaughter” and first companion.
- Does Bill remind the Doctor of Susan? He glances at her photo when Bill asks, “Why me?” Or is there more to it than that?
- There are other allusions to the First Doctor’s era. The “Out Of Order” sign on the TARDIS is near identical to the one that the Doctor hung on the TARDIS in “The War Machines” (1966). Also, Bill’s “girlfriend” is called Heather, the same name as William (Bill) Hartnell’s wife.
- “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980) by Joy Divison is playing in the nightclub. It was also used to chilling effect recently in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
- There is no St Luke’s University in Bristol.
- Did you spot the sign saying “Mary Celeste”? Is it a mere coincidence that it shows up in an episode featuring the Daleks when, in Doctor Who continuity (in the First Doctor episode, “Flight Through Eternity”, 1965), the Dalek were the explanation for famous mystery of the deserted ship?
- We hear the Doctor playing the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth on the guitar, as he did in “Under The Lake”.
- “Well first you have to imagine a very big box fitting inside a very small box.”
“Then you have to make one. It’s the second part people normally get stuck on.” This is a twist on a scene from the Fourth Doctor story “Robots Of Death” (1977) in which the Doctor uses two boxes to try to describe how the TARDIS can be bigger on the inside to Leela.
Review by Dave Golder