Reviewed by John Hussey
Doctor Who is back! But my initial thoughts going into Series 10 were, “Is it going to be any good?” What with Series 9 leaving me nearly gouging my own eyes out, whilst smashing my head repeatedly against a brick wall, I felt that Steven Moffat had completely lost the plot. His writing used to be fantastic and I would naturally enjoy each and every one of his penned episodes, along with his intriguing story-arcs.
But upon casting Peter Capaldi in the role he dropped the ball somewhat. What promised to be a new pioneering era for the show quickly turned into the biggest fucking train-wreck known to television history. The quality dropped, the stories felt inconsistent, and Moffat was clearly riding the “Pop-Culture and Nostalgia Train”, ultimately cramming his stories with unoriginal ideas which quickly fell flat because they had no soul or clear direction.
Topping this off was his really questionable creative decisions that have led to loyal fans (such as myself) turn against him and began losing interest within Doctor Who, which started to really make me feel depressed. Doctor Who has been such a huge part of my life, and so I really didn’t like the idea that I was on the verge of leaving the show behind, thus losing a vital part of who I am as a person.
Moffat described the series premier for Series 10 as a soft reboot for the show (hence the title, “The Pilot”). In many ways this is what Doctor Who required in order to find its place again within the modern era of television. I agree with a lot of fans, in that, the show had clearly lost its identity, thus you could no longer describe the show to a newcomer without getting confused yourself.
Moving away from the usual “blockbuster” styled openers, filled with complicated, or larger-than-life narratives, we had the basic of stories to kick-off the new series. And, honestly, this worked rather well. “The Pilot” doesn’t try to be anything grand, obnoxious, or particularly daring. It’s not in-your-face, and rather takes a step back to allow you to ease your way in and feel comfortable again. So I was able to sit with my partner and actually enjoy Doctor Who for what it was, and not have to worry about any interferences tagged on for the sake of making it more bold and exciting.
Doctor Who was never about being “big” but rather a show that told good stories, as you followed characters that you liked having fun (and sometimes scary) adventures. I’ll admit that I got sucked in by the whole “blockbuster” style Moffat started to go for, and for a time it worked to add scale to the episodes, but it then started to take centre stage and the narratives were drastically affected as a consequence.
“The Pilot” introduces us to new companion Bill Potts (played by Pearl Mackie). In her very first scene we get all the information we need to know, and this works perfectly in establishing her to the audience. We didn’t need anything complicated, or over-the-top, just a simplistic start that allows us to get to know her through a normal conversation between her and The Twelfth Doctor.
I should point out that the set-up for this year is rather ingenious. Simplistic, but also shows your typical Moffat approach of adding an air-of-mystery. The Twelfth Doctor is disguising himself as a tutor at St. Luke’s University in Bristol, where he teaches random lectures to the students. This role really suits The Twelfth Doctor, and Capaldi shines as he gives these massive speeches about time and life, as his audience just sits there completely mesmerised by his fantastic words.
This is where Bill comes in. The Twelfth Doctor invites her to his office in order to ask why she’s been sneaking into his lectures (despite being one of the canteen staff). I like how she diverts away from the question and instead talks about her trying to hook up with one of the students. The Twelfth Doctor obviously calls her out on this, to which she admits she was attempting to avoid the question. But she does it with such confidence, innocence, and life, that she automatically feels like a three-dimensional character that you can connect with.
I think that was the massive problem with long-term companion Clara Oswald. For the most part she felt flat as a character because she didn’t have much humanity to her, let alone a good story to back herself up with. She was more of a plot-device than an organic figure within the ongoing narrative. Bill, on the other-hand, won me over with her first scene. So immediately I’m filled with confidence, particularly when it comes to Moffat (who I was most anxious about for obvious reasons).
With Series 10 being both his, and Capaldi’s, final series I needed it to be good. And so far he’s convincing me that he might have something left at the bottom of his old “box of tricks” and might be able to pull off a consistent run of episodes.
The Twelfth Doctor grows intrigued by Bill, stating that, “Well, most people when they don’t understand something, they frown. You smile.” He proposes to Bill that she becomes his student, teaching her private classes at 6.00pm every day, on the promise that all of her assignments meet the mark of a “First”. With that we have an old fashioned Doctor-Companion chemistry in which the Time Lord acts as a mentor figure, teaching his young companion the wonders of the universe.
It’s rather refreshing really because I was growing really tired of the modern interferences on the show. I didn’t get why this iconic show had to be pandered down to the modern traits of television, spoiling a perfectly good formula that has clearly worked for 53 years. Gone are the stupid “romantic” sub-plots. Bill looks up to The Twelfth Doctor as a student does to their tutor, wanting to learn from them, pick their brains and expand their knowledge. It’s a rather fitting structure for a series that’s trying to revamp the show back to its purest form (so thank you Moffat).
I guess another factor that will prevent any romance aboard the TARDIS is Bill being a lesbian. At first this news really didn’t interest me. We live in an age of “political correctness”, to which we have to be careful what we say and show to the public eye in case someone gets offended. I find this really affects the overall feeling of freedom. Doctor Who has been a target of this backwards way of thinking for some time now. People keep stating “this has to happen” and “that has to happen” because of “political correctness”. One can’t help thinking that Bill’s character was a product of this, with her being female, black, and gay, almost like a complete check list to prevent offence.
Luckily, this hasn’t (as of yet) affected her character, and Bill stands as a curious specimen that asks all the right questions. I really liked how she spotted things of interest, which furthered The Twelfth Doctor’s intrigue in her as he pushed to teach her new things. One of the key things she kept noticing was the TARDIS (parked in The Twelfth Doctor’s office). In her first scene she diverted The Twelfth Doctor’s questions about her to ask about the mysterious box, “How it was constructed?” “How it was brought into his office?”
This simplistic plot-thread was neatly woven into key scenes in order to progress her connection with The Twelfth Doctor, and to further show her intelligence. Bill is clearly not the luckiest of people, living a mundane life, and having lost her mother when she was a baby. Now The Twelfth Doctor was rewarding her by testing her intelligence and pushing her to be the best that she can possibly be.
Their chemistry builds nicely over the course of the episode, as time passes to show the juxtaposition between Bill’s day-life and her night-life, progressing as a person to find herself. It’s even sweet that she buys The Twelfth Doctor a rug for his office to show her gratitude, to which the alien Time Lord hasn’t got her anything in return, but Bill doesn’t mind. After talking about never being able to see her mother (due to the fact that she never liked her picture taken) Bill comes across a mysterious collection of photos, revealing that The Twelfth Doctor had gone back in time to take them for her.
This was a very sweet moment. It was simplistic, didn’t need any dialogue, and solely relied on the imagery and Mackie’s performance (which was so believable in how she just started to cry out of happiness). In many ways this was building up to be a solid first episode, with its intriguing introduction of Bill and the establishment of her unique chemistry with the Time Lord, but things started to fall apart towards the end.
“The Pilot” suffers by being a simplistic narrative because not much happens, and when the episode calls to have something interesting happen it doesn’t intrigue. It gets to the point where you’d much rather have the entire episode be about the slow, but interesting, conversation scenes between Bill and The Twelfth Doctor. You could argue that the episode didn’t need a threat, but one is forced in for tradition-sake and it’s clearly noticeable that this factor of the narrative wasn’t well constructed, and thus stands out from the rest of the episode.
It’s not to say that it wasn’t built upon, but it’s rather half-arsed. Bill begins to notice fellow student Heather and it’s shown through “show-don’t-tell” that she really likes Heather. At every opportunity she tries to comfort her, whilst getting to know her. Unfortunately, Heather’s character is really weak. I can see what Moffat was trying to go for in establishing a bit of a “love interest” for Bill but it failed because of the lack of development. The arc would’ve had more emotional depth if the two characters actually formed a proper bond, thus the pay-off during the conclusion would’ve been more powerful.
But Heather’s character is simply dull, and even her character trait of “wanting to leave her life behind” feels unnatural, and devoid of emotional connection. I really couldn’t give a toss about her character, or her problems, because not enough detail was thrown onto the screen to make me give a damn. We needed more backstory to her character instead of cryptic hints (to which we have to fill in the dots ourselves). No offence Moffat, but if you can’t be arsed to fill in the holes to your own story then I’m not doing it for you. At best I’ll just write my own script and we’ll call it even.
Then enters Moffat’s oldest trick: “Turning the mundane into nightmare fuel”. So far he’s had us terrified of gas-masks, clocks, statues, shadows, cracks, memories, the Wi-Fi, and cremation. The latest addition to that list is puddles. That does seem completely ridiculous to begin with, but to give Moffat and new director Lawrence Gough credit, they do add in some chilling scenes part way through. Heck, even composer Murray Gold manages to turn a few scenes into a Horror movie with his unsettling score.
Unfortunately the nameless creature possessing Heather is just bland, and devoid of any real purpose. It’s literally there as a plot-device, which makes it all the more frustrating. Heather’s character does feel slightly more interesting in this state (being completely devoid of life, so not much has changed) but it still doesn’t elevate her character. Plus, I can’t help but think that Moffat is completely ripping off The Flood from “The Waters of Mars”, right down to Heather being able to manipulate water and is constantly dripping with the stuff.
She begins to stalk Bill and thus begins her journey aboard the TARDIS. This was another factor that I loved about the series premier, in that Bill’s introduction to the TARDIS was forced, with her experiencing all three of the TARDIS’ capabilities in the space of one adventure. Though you could argue that this was forced in order to move her development along at a quicker pace, I found it to be refreshing as an introduction. Also, Bill’s reactions to the TARDIS were quite amusing, with The Twelfth Doctor eventually commenting on the fact that she’s taken a long time to figure out the space-time capsule is bigger on the inside.
It’s revealed that The Twelfth Doctor is secretly protecting a mysterious vault underneath the university, and fears that the creature possessing Heather may be after its content. However, the creature seems only interested in Bill, resulting in The Twelfth Doctor jumping from location to location in order to escape it. This makes Bill’s introduction even more exciting, and almost refreshes us (the audience) with what the show is capable of. I like that Bill goes through the motions in adjusting to this brave-new world, with The Twelfth Doctor trying to ease her transition (despite The Twelfth Doctor’s alien qualities).
Now, onto the part you’re all probably most interested in. “What do I think of Matt Lucas as Nardole?” Well you’ll be disappointed to know that I actually don’t mind him all that much. I was like most fans upon hearing he would be the companion in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, “Oh, okay then?” But upon seeing him, and finding out his purpose within the role, his character started to make more sense to me. His appearance in “The Pilot” wasn’t much different. He’s just sort of there.
Pointless, I know, but he adds a certain charm to the scenes he’s in, whether it be for comedic moments, or to bounce off The Twelfth Doctor’s intelligence. At times he feels rather alien (which I like) and also comes across like he’s on par with The Twelfth Doctor’s own intelligence, making his dynamic (like with Bill’s) more unique. The show feels different by having Bill and Nardole as The Twelfth Doctor’s companions, and honestly, I wish it had happened sooner because then Capaldi’s era might not have seemed so shit (especially with the whole Clara Who thing that went on throughout Series 8 and 9).
As well as the villain being completely pointless, the contribution of the Daleks was no better. Honestly, this completely fucking baffled me. I know that their appearance was going to be brief (a cameo at best) but with how little they were onscreen for just felt redundant for them being there in the first place. Is the BBC forced to have them appear each and every series or something?
Their presence literally felt forced, almost as if it was a cheap means to add some sort of eye-catching excitement to draw in viewers. I can tell you this for free, if you promise the appearance of Daleks you can be assured that viewers will be pretty pissed off by this small, and worthless, inclusion.
The only redeeming factor of this appearance is the re-appearance of the Movellans (first seen within “Destiny of the Daleks”). Yes, it was certainly a nice piece of fan-service, but this only made me more pissed because we didn’t get more of this! Never mind the bullshit, and utterly pointless, Davros narrative you decided to shit out last series Moffat, why didn’t you give us this? Davros could’ve still appeared and it would’ve been more pleasing (and not a complete waste of my time).
And is it just me or does Nicholas Briggs‘ performance get weaker and weaker as each year goes on? It’s as if he’s gotten bored of the bland material he has to work with (which is a massive shame because his talents are clearly wasted here, which is why I’m glad we have Big Finish to see him shine not only in his voice-acting, but also his writing, and directing).
Come the conclusion I just couldn’t have cared less. It turned out that Heather was following Bill because of her last conscious thought, in which she promised not to leave Bill behind. Despite Heather acting aggressively this entire time it turned out she just wanted Bill to be her passenger, whilst she was the pilot (and just when you thought that the episode’s title had a poetic meaning). Bill has a little moment of dilemma but ultimately decides to decline the offer. Say, this would’ve had more impact had their been actual development between the two characters. But since there wasn’t, I didn’t care, so let’s move on.
“The Pilot” at least redeems itself for the conclusion, where The Twelfth Doctor attempts to wipe Bill’s memory in order to protect his activities within the university. This is a tragic moment because you know Bill will lose the most exciting moments of her entire life, and despite this, she still willingly goes to give them up. It’s like she’s tragically aware that she never gets the reward she seeks.
Bill cleverly turns the tables by asking The Twelfth Doctor how he’d feel if his memory was wiped. In this triumphant moment the Time Lord changes his mind, clearly indicating that he somehow remembers the events at the end of “Hell Bent”, which possibly adds to his confusing persona within the episode. Perhaps his life no longer makes sense because of the absence of Clara (who helped develop a huge chunk of his life, for better or for worse).
This certainly makes The Doctor intriguing again as I want to learn more about his current state of mind, especially since we know he’s still grieving over saying goodbye to his wife, River Song, as well as his strange promise to a mysterious someone. With that, The Twelfth Doctor decides to return to his old ways and asks Bill to come away with him in the TARDIS, thus beginning a whole new set of adventures which I can’t wait to experience. Here’s hoping the quality can hold until the end of the year.