Series 10: The Pilot Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the Doctor Who Series 10 opener.
Note: this review contains full spoilers for episode 1 of Series 10.
While it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to dismiss “The Pilot” as a simple series premiere, meant to invite new viewers into the Whoniverse, to do so negates the complexity interwoven not just into the episode’s narrative, but to the series’ new lead character, companion Bill Potts. In writing “The Pilot,” showrunner Steven Moffat creates a script that not only serves as an introduction to Bill and Series 10, but also to Moffat’s tenure as a whole – – a manifesto that might have been better placed in Series 5.
Even before the title sequence, the episode includes a litany of references to the series’ mythology, as if to remind viewers that the series is still Doctor Who, despite its recent 16-month hiatus. Not only is the TARDIS present, but photos of River Song and Susan Foreman, and seven of the Doctor’s former sonic screwdrivers adorn the Doctor’s desk. Twelve’s love for the electric guitar, Beethoven, and his sonic sunglasses are referenced, all before Bill even says her first line! The episode follows with variations on recurring favorites: Bill gets her unique “Doctor who?” moment, the TARDIS is revealed to be “bigger on the inside,” the “flexibility” of the Doctor’s face references his continued regenerations, and the Doctor and his new companion celebrate the holiday with paper crowns.
The best reference to continuity occurs when the Doctor lures the alien puddle to the “biggest fire in the universe,” hoping to “sterilize” it. As the Doctor and Bill exit the TARDIS – – and, notably, before a Dalek has scanned the Time Lord’s sonic screwdriver, identifying him as “the Doctor” – – a Dalek can be heard, in the background, stating, “The Doctor has been detected!” This is a line of dialogue from “The Day of the Doctor,” meaning the Doctor has taken Bill and Nardole to the Fall of Gallifrey, at the end of the Time War. Had the previous line been an indication that the Daleks had, in fact, specifically identified Twelve as the Doctor, their shared hive mind would have negated the need for the Dalek to scan his screwdriver, minutes later. Seeing a group of Movellans being slaughtered not only references their previous appearance in the classic-era serial Destiny of the Daleks, but builds on lines from several modern-era stories, including “The End of the World,” “The Unquiet Dead,” and The Mad Woman in the Attic, indicating that the Time War drew many unwilling races into the conflict. For Moffat to continue to mine the 50th anniversary special in such a way that both bolsters continuity and reveals a sliver of good in Gallifrey’s demise is especially poignant, as the episode asks the audience to consider both the Series 10 story arc and the latest companion, Bill.
Unlike with former-companion Clara, in Series 7, “The Pilot” immediately portrays Bill as a complex character, often at odds with herself and to the Doctor’s interests, raising the questions, Who is Bill? and Why would the Doctor choose to travel with her? The episode uses themes of constructed reality to reveal layers to Bill’s fabricated life. Note how prevalent lying is, within the episode: Bill lies to the Doctor about attending his lectures, and about a supposed quote from her mother. He confronts her, both times, yet, when she realizes that the Doctor has not been truthful about the weight of his police box or how it got into his office, she forgoes questioning him. Bill is willing to address her foster mother’s lie about being with Neville, but has apparently not revealed to her the truth of her sexual orientation, Bill’s muttering under her breath that, “Men aren’t where I keep my eye, actually,” her one form of rebuttal.
This is not to say that Bill is necessarily timid – – the episode portrays her having fun with friends, at a club, and with the courage to approach a crush – – but there is a sense of Bill having consigned herself to being “a little bit less.” Maybe this is because she never knew her mother, or because she has a less-than-loving foster parent, or because she serves chips in a canteen, or because she’s gay, but Bill certainly strides a fine line between living her best life, and doing so without confrontation. Note that Bill often runs in the face of adversity:
Bill: “I always wanted to come [to this university].”
the Doctor: (sarcastically) “Right, to serve chips?”
Bill: (taken aback at the Doctor’s barb) “Anyway . . . am I nearly done?”
the Doctor: (pressing) “Do you want to be?”
Bill: “See ya.” [gets up to leave]
Not since Adam Mitchell has a companion seemed so ill at ease aboard the TARDIS. Not only is Bill completely unnerved when transported to Australia, she further admits that she is too afraid to travel with Heather, despite having glimpsed the wonders of the cosmos. Bill even looks to the TARDIS as a way to reunite with Heather, much like Adam wished to capitalize on future technology. How is this not a recipe for disaster? The Doctor realizes this and attempts to wipe Bill’s memory, changing his mind not because of the strength of Bill’s convictions, but because he is reminded (or, not reminded) of Clara.
Why does the Doctor choose to take Bill as a companion? What does she do win him over? Bill is empathic and understands Heather’s motives – – and thus, the puddle’s – – in a way that neither the alien Time Lord, nor Nardole, ever could. Having a companion who can balance the Doctor’s darker nature has long been a theme, on Doctor Who. Further, Twelve notices that, unlike most people, Bill smiles when she doesn’t understand something. She is excited to discover and to learn new things, hence her dream of enrolling at the university, and why she attends the Doctor’s lectures.
Murray Gold’s score reflects Bill’s layered nature, foregoing familiar leitmotifs in favor of new themes that evoke a playful sense of wonder, without dipping into “quirky,” a too-easy route, considering Bill’s appearance and attire. Gold’s experiments with style allows the two main uses of recurrent music – – the introduction to the TARDIS and Clara’s theme – – to standout.
With its emphasis on introducing a new lead character and teasing plot threads for the remainder of the series, “The Pilot” unfortunately does little to service Nardole’s character, who is the definition of “tacked on,” in this episode. Presumably the first script written, and therefore completed before Matt Lucas expressed interest in returning to the role as a full-time companion, “The Pilot” shows telltale signs that Nardole was inserted into the script, at the eleventh hour. Notice that Nardole could be removed from all his scenes – – and, in fact, he’s not present in Australia, presumably remaining inside the TARDIS – – with little effort. He makes no real impact on the narrative. While, it is understandable that, being an introductory episode of sorts, Nardole would play a lesser role, it is possible for two concurrent companions to work – – see Rose and Adam, Rose and Jack, Martha and Donna, and Amy and Rory – – though, admittedly, none of those characters had quite the emphasis on humor as Nardole.
Further, to lay the groundwork for the coming series, “The Pilot” necessitates a simple plot, involving a fairly nondescript villain. While Doctor Who has often used elementary plots to accommodate character development – – the Auton threat in “Rose” being the best example – – here, the monster is almost nonsensical. The Doctor guesses that the alien puddle absorbs Heather because she, like the abandoned puddle, wants to leave. Does the alien liquid really need Heather, a girl who has ostensibly never left Earth, to guide it, when it can travel through time and space as deftly as a TARDIS, and is partially psychic and fairly omniscient? What did Heather contribute to the matrix, and what would absorbing Bill have accomplished?
However, this slight can be forgiven in light of the episode’s denouement, as Bill and Heather part ways, each mirrored line a reflection of the characters’ internal struggle:
Bill: “You have to let me go.”
Heather: “You have to let me go.”
Bill: “I will.”
Heather: “I will.”
Bill: “I really liked you.”
Heather: “I really liked you.”
Here, showrunner Steven Moffat clearly demonstrates that he is more concerned about the emotional ramifications of a story than its logical narrative. The Doctor’s “Time and relative dimension in space: it means ‘life’” speech practically serves as Moffat’s manifesto, even sneaking in a sly, meta reference to Doctor Who as a television show by comparing moments in life to individual cells in a filmstrip. While Moffat’s “sentiment over sensible” philosophy is still problematic, had a Series 5 episode presented this policy so elegantly, critics might have been more accepting of his particular style of storytelling. Ironically, “The Pilot” serves not only as an introduction of the series to new viewers, but also of Moffat’s tenure as showrunner to ardent fans.
Despite its constrained focus, “The Pilot” is a clever hour of television. Beyond presenting a complicated portrait of a new companion, the episode uses Doctor Who’s unique premise to make a statement about the human experience in a way no other television show could. “But if someone’s gone, do pictures really help?” asks Bill, referencing her mother, who died when Bill was a baby. It seems illogical to have a sentimental attachment to a photograph of someone who is practically a stranger, yet, humans are a visual species, and capable of imagining alternate lives lived under different circumstances. Could it not work the other way, too? Could Bill be pained, seeing images of someone lost to her forever? To answer that question with a box of photographs, clandestinely taken across time, is something only Doctor Who can do – – a defining moment of not just the series, but of the Twelfth Doctor and his relationships with Bill, who wants to remember, and Clara, who is already forgotten.