Showrunner Steven Moffat kicks off the latest season of Doctor Who with an episode ironically named “The Pilot.” The title has a double meaning: It's a perfectly reasonable, albeit bland, label for the particular adventure that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his friends go through here, but it also serves to emphasize that this is indeed a pilot episode, a relaunch for the series to a greater extent than any season opener since “Rose” began the modern era of Doctor Who in 2005. In place of the complex arc plotting and time-travel trickery characteristic of much of his previous work, Moffat presents a deliberately new viewer-friendly story that, as with “Rose,” follows the point of view of a fresh companion, Billie “Bill” Potts (Pearl Mackie), as she finds herself drawn into the weird world of the Doctor.
Mackie had done very little television prior to joining Doctor Who, but her considerable stage experience shows in the long pre-titles scene: a two-hander, set in a single room, during which she exhibits an excellent rapport with Capaldi. Unexpectedly, we find the Doctor living as a professor at St. Luke's University in Bristol, where he's been giving packed lectures on every subject under the sun for over 50 years. The idea of a Time Lord living incognito as a university don was employed humorously by Douglas Adams in his 1979 script for the unaired “Shada” serial, but in this case the Doctor's new identity serves a deeper purpose. As we later discover, he's made a promise—to whom, we don't know—to watch over and guard a mysterious vault beneath one of the university buildings whose contents are equally unknown at this point but will no doubt become clear over the course of the season.
Bill isn't a student, merely a server in the university's canteen, but she nevertheless attends the Doctor's lectures on her own initiative, and he's noticed and summoned her to his room to find out more about her. On his desk, the Doctor has photographs of two very significant women from his past: River Song, poignantly farewelled just two episodes ago, and his granddaughter, Susan, who accompanied him at the very start of his travels. It's clear that he sees something special in Bill (“Most people when they don't understand something, they frown. You smile”), and is tempted by the idea of establishing a mentoring relationship with her similar to the one the First Doctor enjoyed with Susan. Beginning a Doctor Who story with a five-minute scene that's all talk and no action is highly unusual, but the two actors are already great to watch together, and we're launched into the opening titles as Bill agrees to accept the Doctor as her personal tutor.
Director Lawrence Gough has fun with an extended montage sequence showing the Doctor's unique perspective on the flow of time (“Time is a structure relative to ourselves, existing in the space made by our lives,” he lectures), which also efficiently takes us through Bill's mundane life at home and working in the canteen, her continuing studies with her new tutor, and her encounter with fellow student Heather (Stephanie Hyam). The attraction between them is immediate, but the budding romance is suddenly ended when Heather falls victim to a lurking alien menace. This threat is another of Moffat's simple but effective concepts: It looks like an ordinary puddle of water, but it mimics rather than reflects anyone looking into it. It kills Heather by pulling her into itself, and adopts her shape as it begins pursuing Bill.
This season premiere episode leaves the impression of it being constructed from bits of other stories.
Once he's confident that this alien is here by coincidence, and isn't a threat to his vault, the Doctor takes Bill in the TARDIS for several quick jumps to different times and places, trying to evade it. Moffat gets some good comedy out of playing against our expectations of the moment—which we've now seen many times—where the companion first sees the TARDIS interior. Twice the majestic orchestral score dies away as Bill punctures the mood, first by comparing the control room to a high-tech kitchen, and then by asking to use the toilet. Nevertheless, this sequence allows Bill to demonstrate her suitability to become a companion, constantly asking questions and keeping up with the Doctor as he eventually decides to “sterilize” the threat with a brief visit into the middle of a Dalek battle (with a bonus for longtime fans: a glimpse of the Movellans, the race of androids that the Daleks were warring against in 1979's “Destiny of the Daleks”).
The alien angle of the episode's plot works well enough, despite the unavoidable impression of it being constructed from bits of other stories. For example, the entity left stranded on Earth searching for a “pilot” is a very close echo of 2010's “The Lodger”—especially with it being drawn to Heather due to her desire to get away from the university. Also, the constantly dripping water whenever it imitates her form is reminiscent of the monsters in 2009's “The Waters of Mars,” while the fact that it only speaks by repeating Bill's words back to her recalls the unseen force in 2008's “Midnight.”
Moffat, though, introduces a new wrinkle when, despite taking the form of a Dalek, the alien doesn't harm Bill. “Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry,” the Doctor told Heather earlier, and the influence of her last conscious thought—a vow not to leave Bill—has left the entity desiring her company. Bill has to let her go to resolve the situation peacefully, presenting Mackie with some deeper emotional moments in her first episode than just the usual Doctor Who action-adventure—a challenge she meets easily.
The show's third new regular character, Nardole (Matt Lucas), is subsidiary in this episode, but still makes an impression as a good foil for the Doctor. Capaldi himself retains the more relaxed demeanor of his second season on the show, with his electric guitar and sonic sunglasses, but without his close relationship with Clara some of the detachment of his first season has returned to the character. But not for long, perhaps: At the end of “The Pilot,” the Doctor goes to wipe Bill's memory of the events (and amusingly, she's seen enough sci-fi movies to know what he intends to do), but he's stopped by his memory of what happened with Clara in “Hell Bent,” and decides he cannot continue living this way. The final scene explicitly recalls the upbeat ending of “Rose,” as he opens the TARDIS for Bill and she runs into it with a big grin, just as Rose did, at the start of a whole new series of adventures.
Next Week: On a human colony world in the far future, Bill and the Doctor meet some very odd robots, in “Smile.”
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: “The Time Warrior,” from 1973, starring Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, whose curiosity draws her into the Doctor's life in much the same way as Bill's does here.
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