Doctor Who: "The Pilot"

Saturday, 15 April 2017

“The Pilot”. Now there’s a title to conjure with. Outgoing show runner Steven Moffat has said that he wanted this episode to be a little like the pilot episode of a new show in that anyone coming to Doctor Who for the first time would not have to know decades of back story to get involved. Sure there were references - the photographs of River Song and Susan and the battle between Daleks and Movellans - but they were there for old-time fans like me. They were not essential to the story. So here’s hoping that Moffat was right and that anyone watching for the first time tonight would be drawn in and will come back next week.

In some ways “The Pilot” resembles “Rose”: the first episode of “New Who” broadcast in 2005. The early scenes are slow, almost deliberately mundane, and introduce the new companion. Here the opening scene is a gentle dialogue between The Doctor and Bill Potts. There is a warmth to it and there seems to be a chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie from the get-go. I have to say that, after the trailer, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Mackie’s performance. It was thoughtful and nuanced and natural. Capaldi, of course, is a top-notch actor and his characterisation of The Doctor has now become fully rounded and developed. I really wish he wan’t leaving: he is, for me, the best Doctor since the show returned. I’m not sure I feel the same affection for Nardole. Sorry, but I’ve never been much of a fan of Matt Lucas and I’m not at all clear what his character added to the story in this episode. Sure, he had some fun lines but for the most part they could equally well have been delivered by The Doctor. There is, to be fair, a mysterious vault that needs guarded. Maybe it’s Nardole’s job to guard it while The Doctor is away. I hope so.

On to the story. I really liked it. It was a simple story without too much technobabble. It was science fiction with heart. The “threat” was - as is so often the case in Moffat’s work - something everyday and ordinary; the sort of thing you walk by and generally don’t notice. In the past it has been shadows and statues. Here it’s a puddle. It’s not just an ordinary puddle, of course. It’s part of a spaceship that stopped off on Earth and which now needs to absorb a human being to be its pilot. The unfortunate victim is Heather - a girl with a desire to get away and who is on the edge of beginning a relationship with Bill. The gestalt combination of Heather and The Puddle is a powerful being that pursues Bill across the universe and across millions of years as The Doctor tries to help her escape it. What remains of Heather in this being wants to take Bill with her as she travels the universe in this new form. The ending - Bill’s rejection of Heather’s invitation - is touching and acted with a stillness and beauty that is rare in television science fiction.

There were lots of things to enjoy in this episode. It was great to see Daleks at a time back before they became so powerful that just one of them was a threat to an entire planet. The script was taut and witty - to the extent that I almost began to like Nardole. Visual references like the photographs on The Doctor’s desk in his study at the university where he is masquerading as a lecturer and the pen-pot full of sonic screwdrivers were delightful. Sure, there are things that jar with me a little. Why the hoodie, for example? Capaldi absolutely rocks a long black jacket. We have another series arc associated with that vault. Do we need series arcs? Just tell me good stories. Thankfully, though, there is no indication on the basis of this episode that there is anything strange or mysterious about Bill. I am way tired of the idea that Doctor Who is ‘about the companions’ - an idea that has been voiced by Moffat on a number of occasions. No. There’s a clue in the title. The Doctor is currently played by a top-notch actor at the top of his game who has now fully developed his version of the character. If his last season keeps its focus on him we should be in for a great ride.