The wait is over. After a Doctor Who-less 2016 (minus the now obligatory Christmas special), proper weekly adventures with our favourite curmudgeonly Time Lord have returned.
The fact that the first episode of series 10 is called The Pilot should not be overlooked. Perhaps worried by the show’s slight dip in the ratings during series 9, Steven Moffat has taken the departure of Jenna Colman’s Clara as an opportunity to press the reset button on the 54-year-old show. Exploring afresh the key concepts and joys of Doctor Who, The Pilot is a fun, if unremarkable, re-introduction to the madcap world of a hero who travels through time in a police box and uses a special screwdriver to fix the universe.
Clearly, this episode has its eyes firmly on attracting new fans to the series, which means a lot of time is taken up with explaining how the Tardis works and just exactly who is this hoody-wearing, electric guitar-rocking man who calls himself the Doctor. For long-term fans, that might sound like a lot of raking over old ground, but there are still a few pleasing callbacks and interesting tidbits (we finally learn the location of the Tardis loos, for example) to make it a worthwhile watch.
The newest element is of course the arrival of the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). Introduced as a lunchlady working in the Bristol University cafeteria, there’s something immediately endearing about Bill. She curious and adventurous, sneaking into lectures at the university even though she isn’t a student, and a hopeless romantic, clumsily infatuated with a student called Heather and forever searching for a connection to the mother she never knew. While some have complained of being put-off by Bill’s lack of Who knowledge and constant questions, her ordinariness is part of her charm. She feels like a new fan of the show, excited, overwhelmed and completely in awe of this boundless new world she’s stumbled upon.
With so much of the focus on Bill’s induction into all things Time Lord, there’s very little room for the actual plot in this opening episode, which is one of the weaker series openers of recent years. New director Lawrence Gough works hard to inject some energetic flair into the visuals, with some strong CGI effects and plenty Sherlock-inspired whooshing camera work as a multitude of images surge across the screen. Sadly, The Pilot also shares some of Sherlock’s biggest narrative flaws.
Moffat once again demonstrates his knack for transforming ordinary things into frightening monsters, this time turning his imaginative eye to puddles. The sudden appearance of a pool of water is what first attracts the attention of the Doctor and his new companion. It hasn’t rained for days and yet the puddle never seems to dry out, even as the weeks and months pass, and when anyone stares into it they can’t help but be unsettled by their own reflection, even if there not quite sure why. Things get even more terrifying when the puddle decides to go all Terminator 2 on the Doctor and Bill, leading to scenes of a watery figure rising up out of plug holes in pursuit of its enemies.
But while the episode is not short of scares, it’s incredibly light of momentum and impact. Part of problem is that story feels very disjointed, inheriting Sherlock’s scattershot story structure by constantly surging forward in time with endless montages and short scenes that never allow the themes and ideas of the story to gain a foothold.
The impact is most keenly felt with the supporting characters. The much-hyped Daleks are barely worth a mention. Rather than being the primary villain, as you’d expect, their inclusion here is inconsequential to the main plot and feels like nothing more than a fan-pleasing afterthought. Stephanie Hyam’s Heather also feels like wasted opportunity. The literally starry-eyed object of Bill’s affections, Heather initially seems like just another MPDG enticing Bill to seek adventure, only for nascent relationship to be scuppered when she’s dragged into the puddle to become a vessel for its watery fury. The entire episode hinges on romantic connection between these two characters but it’s not given enough time to develop. Consequently, what’s intended to be heart-wrenching finale turns out to be nothing more than a soggy mess.
And then there’s Nardole, the Doctor’s other new recruit. Plenty of fans questioned Matt Lucas’ promotion to series regular and there’s very little here to suggests he’ll break out of his comedy butler routine anytime soon.
Given this is such a companion-centric story, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Peter Capaldi’s the Doctor doesn’t get much of an opportunity to shine. It’s fun to see the Doctor lark around as a bonkers university lecturer, a role we’re likely to return to given he’s yet to discover the secrets behind the mysterious vault hidden below campus, but here he’s really only required to spout sci-fi mumbo-jumbo to a confused Bill.
More encouragingly, there are already signs of a sparky Doctor/companion dynamic burgeoning between Capaldi and Mackie. As Nardole helpfully points out, there’s some good banter between the two and, more importantly, by the episode’s end Bill has already started to challenge the Doctor by reminding him of his humanity when he attempts to wipe her memory. It’s vital that the companion provides a humanising counterweight to the Doctor’s alien behaviour, and it’s promising to see that Bill already has the measure of her new friend.
The Pilot, then, is an encouraging, if unspectacular start to series 10. While it doesn’t offer the grand spectacle of previous series openers and feels disappointingly light on strong villains and supporting characters, it’s a spry and effective introduction to the Doctor’s new companion. And you never know, it might just welcome a whole new set of fans to the wonderfully strange world of Doctor Who.