Saturday 22 April 2017

Doctor Who - The Pilot

Over the last few years, I have been very critical of Steven Moffat, and I have written more than a few scathing reviews of his vision of Doctor Who. In the last couple of years, since Peter Capaldi took over, my reviews have generally been more positive, as I feel Moffat has greatly improved, but there are still things in his writing that have continued to bother me.

But then there are times that Moffat just gets it right. The Series 10 première episode, “The Pilot” is one such occasion. Gone is the overly frantic pacing typical of a Moffat-penned series opener, and in its place is a calmer, yet nevertheless exciting and moving episode. There are hints of the future and a series arc, yet it doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with complexity and confusing “timey-wimey” paradoxes. Instead, it present a straight-forward and very personal story to draw in viewers, both old and new, before leaping into the larger, more complex universe of the series.

Moffat likes to include lots of nods to the programme’s past in his episodes and “The Pilot” is certainly not an exception in this regard. However, in this case, these nostalgic moments occur in such a way as to not impede the experience for newer viewers who might not be aware of every detail of the show’s long history. And through the introduction of new companion Bill Potts, new viewers encounter the Doctor and his wider universe for the first time in a way that hasn’t happened since “Rose”, making “The Pilot” an ideal first episode for brand new viewers.

In short, “The Pilot” is an incredible episode of Doctor Who and is definitely one of Steven Moffat’s best since becoming showrunner. It’s pretty near close to a perfect episode, and that’s not something I say lightly. It’s fun, engaging, moving, and I just love it to pieces.


Everything in “The Pilot” comes down to Bill, played wonderfully by Pearl Mackie. As her introduction story, it not surprisingly focuses on her, but it does so to an extent beyond what most other companions get. Only Rose in the first episode of the new series in 2005 received a similar treatment. Indeed, Bill is in virtually every single scene of “The Pilot”. The only exceptions are some very brief cut-aways (such as with Nardole sabotaging controls during the Dalek sequence), or some moments of the camera showing viewers something Bill wouldn’t actually be able to see (like her foster mother in the bar during their telephone conversation), but on the whole, the episode is presented from Bill’s point of view. And this allows us to get to know Bill in a way we haven’t gotten to know more recent companions.

With Amy and Clara, their introductory episodes focused on them, yes, but the stories were more about the Doctor meeting them, rather than them meeting the Doctor. Amy and especially Clara appeared surrounded by mysteries that needed to be solved. What is the crack in Amy’s bedroom? Just who is Clara, the “Impossible Girl”? Their introductions (and indeed, numerous subsequent episodes) were about these mysteries far more than they were about their characters.

Bill makes a refreshing change from this. “The Pilot” is about Bill meeting the Doctor, not the other way round like before. There is a mystery of sorts, yes, but she is not the mystery. She gets to be the star, the hero, with the Doctor playing more of a secondary, mentor role. More importantly, she gets to be a person.

I’ve complained in the past about the lack of character development in many of Moffat’s stories, but that’s certainly not the case with Bill. We get to see her life and learn who she is. Most importantly, we get to experience her life with her, rather than just being told it or having to figure it out as the solution to a mystery. Indeed, in the space of just one episode, I feel I’ve gotten to know and like Bill better than I ever did Amy and Clara over their entire times in the TARDIS (and I did grow to like Clara in the end).

I really like, too, the way in which Bill reacts to learning the truth about the Doctor and the TARDIS for the first time. Over the years, there have been many, many companion introductions to the TARDIS and it no doubt must be getting difficult for writers to present such scenes in new ways, yet Bill’s introduction to the TARDIS is one of the best. I particularly like that she tries to “logic” out an explanation, much like many of us probably would do if we actually encountered something bigger on the inside than on the outside. The exterior is just an entryway to a room behind it, or its movement is just as a lift. It takes time for her to accept what, from her experience, should be an impossibility. And that moment of acceptance is initially overwhelming to her—a very human reaction.

It helps, too, that Bill is a very likeable character, and the glimpses of her life help to create sympathy for her. It’s a little early to say for sure, but I have a suspicion that this may be the beginning of one of the best Doctor/companion pairings we’ve had since the tenth Doctor and Donna.

I also shouldn’t ignore the important role Bill plays in terms of representation, both for people of colour and LGBTQ people. Bill is not the first non-white companion (Martha is generally considered the first, although there was also arguably Mickey, who is often ignored because he wasn’t the main companion during his brief time in the TARDIS). She is being talked about as the first LGBTQ companion, although again, that’s only if you don’t include Captain Jack. But whether she’s the first or second or whatever in these categories, it doesn’t change the fact that there haven’t been many. Recent years (particularly Series 9) have seen a great increase in diversity of the on-screen cast in Doctor Who; however, these have not been in the central roles of the Doctor and companion. Bill’s arrival on the TARDIS is an important step in the show’s move towards greater diversity.

But as important as Bill is for representation to viewers, it’s also great that the fact that she is a black woman with natural hair or that she is a lesbian is in no way an issue, or indeed, even commented upon in the episode itself. The Doctor chooses to tutor her because she smiles instead of frowns when she encounters something she doesn’t understand, and her relationship with Heather is never questioned. It’s simply treated as normal and unremarkable. In short, Bill just gets to be a person—and that’s important for representation too.

Of course, while “The Pilot” is very much Bill’s episode, she’s not the only character in it. There’s the Doctor, of course, and I have a lot of praise for how he’s presented as well. The twelfth Doctor is a character who has grown and matured in a lot of ways since his first appearance in “Deep Breath” a few years ago, yet he’s still recognisably the same character. In Series 9, there was a definite effort to soften his character somewhat from the somewhat mean character he was in Series 8. However, it often seemed to me that the writers weren’t entirely certain just how much the Doctor was supposed to have changed, and as a result, his character seemed somewhat inconsistent throughout Series 9, something I commented on a few times in my reviews of that series. Over the last couple Christmas specials, though, and now this episode, there does seem to be a consistent progression, and I’m hoping that consistency is maintained from here on because I’m really liking what I’m seeing.

Numerous years spent with River and then possibly as much as seventy years lecturing at the University of Bristol have clearly given the Doctor time to learn how humans behave. He’s not perfect (as Nardole says, he doesn’t notice the tears), but he’s better at reacting appropriately and certainly doesn’t need the cards Clara once made for him. His following Bill into the bathroom in Australia to ask how he can help is not something he would have done a couple series ago, yet it’s a fully believable progression for him, and expertly sold by Peter Capaldi. I never felt that Matt Smith’s Doctor developed in any appreciable way, so it’s particularly nice to see that happening now.

What’s nice about the Doctor’s development, too, is that it actually acknowledges consequences. As anyone who’s read my reviews in the past probably knows, I’ve been very critical of the way in which Steven Moffat frequently ignores consequence in his writing. The Doctor’s development here is a huge step in the right direction towards fixing this. The Doctor actually seems to be learning from his past actions and that makes me incredibly happy.

The almost mind-wiping scene is a perfect example. I didn’t particularly like the Doctor losing his memories of Clara in “Hell Bent”, since, even though it was nice to see the companion stand up to the Doctor, it also seemed to remove the possibility of consequence for the Doctor’s actions. If the Doctor couldn’t remember how he behaved, he could never learn to be better.

However, it seems that I might have been wrong in that regard. Subsequent episodes have implied that the Doctor does retain at least some sort of memory of Clara. It’s not entirely clear what he knows, but at a guess, I’d say that while he doesn’t specifically remember Clara the person, he knows that he’s forgotten someone, that he’s forgotten a chunk of his life. So when he’s about to remove Bill’s memories and she asks him to imagine what it would be like to be in her position, he can relate. It’s enough to give him pause, to think about what he’s doing and what he’s done in the past (such as erasing Donna’s memories), and to make him change his mind. In effect, we have consequences for the Doctor’s actions. (The hint of Clara’s theme in the incidental music at that moment is also a nice little reminder for viewers of the last series.)

The pictures of River and Susan also give a nice little insight into this Doctor’s character and motivations. Loss has been a major motivating factor for the Doctor ever since the show’s return in 2005. From the loss of Gallifrey to the loss of various companions, the show has focused heavily on the Doctor losing the people who are important to him. The two pictures continue that theme, but also move it forward. By never actually dwelling on the pictures’ presence or having any dialogue about them, the episode shows us the Doctor’s sense of loss, but also implies that he’s moving past the loss and getting on with his life. He hasn’t forgotten, but he’s learned to live with it.

The pictures are also an excellent use of nostalgia for established viewers that doesn’t hinder the experience for new viewers. Steven Moffat is fond of inserting nods to the programme’s past, but a lot of the time (recently, at any rate), those nods can be confusing to newer viewers as they require knowledge of Doctor Who’s long history. The appearance of the Sisterhood of Karn in Series 9 is a notable example of this. In this case, however, viewers don’t need to recognise the people in the pictures (while many viewers will likely recognise River, there are likely many who won’t know who Susan is) to understand what they represent. They may wonder who these people are, but that wonder doesn’t detract in any way from the viewing experience. It’s crystal clear that they are people important to the Doctor, and that’s all that’s really needed.

Indeed, this episode contains other nods to the past that similarly don’t require knowledge of that past. Many viewers will have no idea who the Movellans are (and the name doesn’t even get used in the episode), but that doesn’t matter in this case. To understand what’s happening in the story, all that matters is that they are fighting a war against the Daleks, and the story makes that quite clear. Again, similarly to how viewers might wonder who the women in the pictures are, they might wonder about the Movellans and the circumstances of this war, but it doesn’t impede on the story unfolding before them.

I also like how the episode introduces viewers to the iconic villains of Doctor Who, the Daleks, without it actually being a Dalek story. Here, the Daleks are just background, but it sets them up for a more central appearance at a later time. It’s a good way to make the Doctor Who universe seem a more cohesive place, one that keeps existing even when the Doctor isn’t present.

The actual “villain” of “The Pilot” ultimately isn’t really a villain at all. It’s always nice to see Doctor Who monsters motivated by something other than kill or conquer. Truth be told, the water/oil that takes over Heather is pretty one-dimensional in its motivations, but I don’t see that as a major concern in this instance because the monster is really just a catalyst for Bill’s story. It’s Bill’s relationship with Heather and Heather’s last conscious thought to keep her promise to Bill that are the important things here, and considering how little Bill and Heather actually interact on screen, that relationship is beautifully developed—two people who don’t really know each other very well, but feel a mutual attraction and a desire to act on that attraction.

Of course, the monster is a classic example of Steven Moffat taking something incredibly mundane—a puddle of water in this case—and turning it into something terrifying. While I may frequently criticise other aspects of Moffat’s writing, this is something he truly excels at. There are moments when it seems very reminiscent of the Flood from “Waters of Mars”, which some people might find derivative, but I feel the creature is distinct enough that the visual similarities don’t bother me. Perhaps there’s even some relationship between this creature and the Flood.

As much as I love “The Pilot”, no episode is entirely perfect, and there are a few things I didn’t like as much in it (though far fewer than is typical for a Moffat-written episode). Nardole feels underused, for a start. Of course, this is Bill’s episode, and Nardole should be more in the background, but Nardole’s been around for a few episodes now and he still feels less developed than even the side characters (like Bill’s foster mother) in this episode.

And I am both confused and intrigued by the bizarre robot movements and sounds in the opening sequence. Is Nardole a robot? When the Doctor reattached Nardole’s head after “The Husbands of River Song”, did he actually reattach it to a robot body? But Nardole also apparently uses the bathroom in this episode. So are there two Nardoles, one real and one robot copy? I am undecided whether I like or dislike this mystery and I’ll need to wait and see how it develops.

I really could have done without the fat joke. In fact, it’s the one moment in the episode that threatened to turn me off Bill. Luckily, she won me back and I’m glad to see, through the montage of Bill’s daily life, that despite the “fat”, there’s still an attraction between Bill and the chip girl. Nevertheless, the joke was pretty tasteless. It wouldn’t be such a problem if this was clearly signposted as a character flaw in Bill—after all, no one’s perfect and good characters should have flaws—but it isn’t. Indeed, it’s pretty clear that the audience is expected to laugh along with her, and that’s just not good.

And... Well, that’s about it for things I didn’t like or didn’t like as much in the episode.

A few quick thoughts to finish up:
  • What’s in the vault? What’s so important it’s gotten the Doctor to stay in one place for as much as seventy years? This is clearly the series arc.
  • I love that the vault’s security system has a “friends only” setting.
  • Who did the Doctor make the promise to to not get involved and why did the Doctor make the promise? More series arc there, I think.
  • I love the line, “Do you think your bacon sandwich loves you back?”
  • I love the passage of time in this episode. From fall to winter to spring, it’s nice to see a situation where a Doctor/companion relationship develops into travelling the universe together in more than just an hour or so.
  • I really like that the star in Heather’s eye turns out to not have any bizarre or mystical explanations behind it. It really is just an unusual eye colouration that just happens to be what lets Heather notice the oddness of the puddle of water. It’s her desire to get away from things that attracts the puddle to her and has nothing to do with the eye.
  • “The Pilot” is a great name for the episode. It’s not only literally about a pilot, but it also acknowledges that the episode can be seen as a sort of pilot episode, a perfect jumping-on episode for new viewers.
  • I like the Doctor having his own office outside the TARDIS.
  • Bill's comment on TARDIS not working in any other language is a great insight into the problems with science fiction's common use of "universal translators".
“The Pilot” really is close to a perfect Doctor Who episode. It has great pacing and draws you in with interesting and likeable characters rather than frantic eye candy. It’s easily accessible to new viewers, while also having everything that established viewers might be looking for. Most of all, it’s just a sweet and moving tale about the relationship between two young women, both of who end up travelling the universe, but in very different ways. There’s a sense of tragedy, but also triumph. In short, it’s a beautiful episode and a magnificent start to Series 10.

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