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Doctor Who returns for its first full season of adventures in over a year. True, we got a solid Christmas Special and the spin-off show “Class,” but in actuality it’s been far too long since the Doctor graced our screens for a run of stories through all of time and space. The first episode of the 10th series, the last series to star Peter Capaldi in the title role, is a fun and engaging story that introduces the incredibly likable Pearl Mackie as new companion Bill. “The Pilot” also reminds viewers that Doctor Who doesn’t always need mysterious plot threads or apocalyptic foreshadowing; it’s often at its most enjoyable when it’s focused on telling you a fun and imaginative adventure, even if it is a straightforward and basic one.
Writer and show runner Steven Moffat was perhaps obviously clever in naming this episode “The Pilot,” as the title refers not only to the main threat facing our heroes, but also to how television production historically refers to the initial episode of a series. In a lot of ways, this episode is a pilot of sorts. First of all, like “Rose” which kicked off the revived series 12 years ago, this episode is focused on the introduction of the companion while the Doctor remains a mysterious figure. And as well, the main narrative of the episode is pretty simple and of somewhat low stakes compared to the universe-ending threats and bombastic time paradoxes that the series has trafficked in for the last few years.
That companion is Bill Potts, and she is breath of fresh air. Moffat seems to have jettisoned his predilection for constructing characters with a central mystery at their hearts, a tactic that had delivered diminishing returns over time, and gone back to basics with Bill. She intrigues the Doctor not because she is an enigma, but because she is interesting. She has a curious, active mind, and sees things that others fail to notice. The episode is set largely from her point of view, and as such we see what it is about her that the Doctor is intrigued by. And in a lot of ways, Moffat has constructed a classic companion. Bill has that fun combination of the ordinary and the exceptional that makes for perfect viewer identification; most of us think of ourselves as unique and special, even as the lives we lead are made up of the everyday. In that way, Bill allows us to put ourselves in her place, to identify with where she comes from even as we yearn to believe the Doctor would meet us, cock an eyebrow, discern our value, and invite us on board. But Moffat could write all that and it would be for naught if the actor playing the part couldn’t bring that kind of sparkle to life. And Pearl Mackie is instantly engaging and refreshing in the role. She puts a yearning at the heart of her performance, but there’s nothing sad about her character for the most part. Mackie makes the exceptional aspects of Bill feel natural and organic rather than weirdly artificial or unbelievable. She never comes across as a stock character, she feels quirky and original, and most of that derives from the choices the actor makes. And she has a great chemistry with Capaldi.
Capaldi himself continues to be the wonderful, spiky, soulful but kooky presence that has grown and developed over the past two series. Though the difficult, dark Doctor of his first series has mellowed over time, he hasn’t vanished. There’s much more charm and warmth to his Doctor at this point, as his journey over two brilliantly unconventional seasons have led him to a more peaceful place. I wonder if, when our time with the Twelfth Doctor is over (and over too soon, for my money) we’ll end up with the most satisfying journey of any Doctor. This man who once was consumed by the question of whether he was a good man, to making peace with the man he is, to finally embracing the hero we always knew he was. In any case, as always, Capaldi’s deftness with every moment is still joy to behold, and the episode gives us plenty.
Moffat keeps the plot of the episode simple and clean, not attempting to make it all about swirling mysteries and looming threats (for the most part, which we’ll get to in a minute). A new viewer could know extremely little about “Doctor Who” and still enjoy the episode just as much as a longtime fan. The threat in “The Pilot” itself is weird enough and creepy enough to deliver the old Doctor Who thrills and chills, but it’s resolved very simply, even perhaps a bit too easily. The plus to the approach Moffat takes is in how the solution to the story doesn’t revolve around the Doctor defeating an evil menace, but around him and Bill understanding something truly alien which may or may not have any malevolence to it at all. Too often, especially in the Moffat era, there’s a vast conspiracy by an array of enemies at the heart of the story. It’s nice to see the Doctor not facing off against an evil to be obliterated, but a being to be understood. In that way, Moffat agains treat the episode as a pilot by keeping things simple and straightforward and focused on our two main characters, getting us reacquainted with the concepts and their relationships and the tone of the show. Director Lawrence Gough handles the pace of the episode better than a lot of the series’ directors have in the past, allowing each moment to land effectively, and actually giving them space to do so, but never losing energy or story momentum. The scary moments are suitable scary, and the action scenes are handled simply but effectively.
Moffat doesn’t ditch all of his trademark concerns, however. There’s some playing with time in the episode, albeit in a less paradoxical way. And Moffat’s wonderful ability to deliver witty and off-centre observations about character or the world via nicely constructed dialogue is still on display, from Bill’s comment about being able to “smell the wind in their coats” about some people, to the Doctor’s line about how things in the universe not being evil but rather hungry and much depending on one’s view of the cutlery. He also can’t quite jettison all of his predilection for building a swirling mysterious plot point, as the Doctor’s presence on Earth as a lecturer at the University revolves around his guarding of a mysterious vault. There is also a hinted-at plot point that the Doctor is supposed to be keeping a low profile, and has made some sort of promise not to travel, or at the very least, not to take human companions with on his travels. These will undoubtedly continue to be a part of the series moving forward, but at this point they don’t feel too heavy-handed and add rather than detract from the atmosphere of the episode.
It’s not all perfect however. A recurring problem with Doctor Who since its 2005 reboot, namely incidental music courtesy Murray Gold that aggressively commands the viewer to respond (Whimsy! Scary! Sad! Feel things!), and which continues to make subtle moments land with sledgehammer impact. And though the simplicity of the storytelling is perfect for allowing Bill and the Doctor to come to the fore, there’s no question that the main plot of the episode is slightly underdeveloped, especially when it comes to the romantic aspect which forms the centrepiece of the story. This sketchiness is a minor point, really, and I’d rather have an episode that feels as fun and light as this to kick off the season than a more plot-heavy serious episode.
I’m also very much on the fence when it comes to Matt Lucas as Nardole, the Doctor’s other companion. I liked him just fine in last year’s Christmas special, but this episode he came across as a bit to broad for my tastes, too obviously the “funny companion.” While I could envision his role as the third leg of this TARDIS stool being more developed over time, at this point I found him getting in the way of the relationship I was really invested in, namely Bill and the Doctor. Hopefully, he’ll be more defined as he goes, but at this point Nardole very much smacks of a production team that enjoys keeping a funny actor around, which is not always best for the show on the screen.
After two seasons that aggressively pushed the envelope of what Doctor Who could be, “The Pilot” seems to harken a more classical approach, a set of stories focused on the Doctor and his friends giving us a fun and exhilarating adventure. And as Steven Moffat’s tenure, along with Capaldi’s, draws to a close, giving us one last great adventure is just what the Doctor ordered. 8.5/10