Monday, 17 April 2017

Many have commented that it’s typical Steven Moffat bravado to name the first episode of his final series The Pilot, but this is reflective of a very distinct quality of Doctor Who, in that it refreshes its main cast almost every series (and has a new setting, side characters and even genre every episode) and so is never far from a good jumping-on point for new viewers. But this most recent series opener, partly due to Moffat never having intended to stay on for Series 10 and so having already wrapped up his big story arcs, tried harder than the past two continuity-heavy ones did to give the show a fresh start – which was, given increasing audience apathy, much needed.

So instead of a blockbuster romp through time and space, we had a largely stripped-down contemporary Earth story, one in several ways more reminiscent of the way Moffat’s predecessor Russell T Davies would open a series than the ways Moffat has tended to. And what Davies did best with such openers was to establish a focus on the everyday life of the companion...

And so, Bill Potts. In deliberate contrast to the ‘Impossible Girl’ Clara Oswald, this episode went out of its way to dump information about her ‘ordinariness’ – she serves chips! She’s in foster care! She can be a bit awkward around crushes! The pacing with which Moffat writes these scenes means it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to know Bill’s extended family – foster mother Moira and love interest Heather – as much as we did Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith, but this is the closest his style is ever gonna get to Rose. Besides this, two significant talking points stood out to me with Bill...

Firstly, she’s gay! This has dominated a lot of press discussion about the character, but that’s no bad thing – LGBT representation in TV is a big deal, and every time a show says that being gay is fine, a child somewhere begins to believe it. And I thought the episode handled this very well; having her sexuality be part of that depiction of Bill as ‘ordinary’ helped reinforce the message – diversity is ordinary. Bill’s romance with another girl being a key part of the plot made her sexuality much more substantial than that one time Clara made a flippant remark about shagging Jane Austen (Bill may not technically be the first LGBT companion, then, but she’s the first to mention it more than once), though, importantly, it wasn’t so much a part of the plot that Bill became entirely defined by her sexuality. A very well balanced approach. 

The other thing that stood out to me was Bill’s relationship with the Doctor. The student/tutor relationship is one that Doctor Who hasn’t explored before, and it works well here; not only is it very suited to Capaldi’s take on the Time Lord, but it allows Bill to be smart. Not in an arrogant or esoteric way – she is, after all, not one of those fancy-pants students but just the girl who serves chips – but in the aspirational, humanistic, somewhat outside-the-box way which Doctor Who rewards. 

This wasn’t how she was represented in the trailers, which emphasised that “it’s a kitchen!” line stripped of its context and so made her seem dim, though this apparent dimness did still show up in questions like “What’s sky made of?”, which is a somewhat childish question for someone who earlier in the episode got 97% on an astrophysics exam. 

Two possible explanations to that: 

1) The show’s pitching ‘being smart and inquisitive is cool’ in a way which will entertain kids, and so this seeming disparity is in fact to be commended.

2) Bill is a shameless plagiarist...

Either way, one thing’s for sure: Pearl Mackie’s fabulous. I tend not to go into as much detail with acting as much as writing, as I actually know a bit about writing, but she really, definitely is. As is Peter Capaldi, but that’s obvious by now. 

While Capaldi’s always been at the top of his game, his Doctor has had something of an inconsistent characterisation, with one season as the Malcolm Tucker Doctor and then one as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor. Both of those were fun takes on the character, but could easily lean into gimmickry (cough, driving a tank into a castle while playing guitar, cough). Here, however, he felt settled; the sternness was still there, as was the grooviness, but these qualities found a balance. It helped that he had every Doctor’s most important trait, his kindness – going back in time to take photos of Bill’s mother is something I can’t imagine the more self-centred Doctor of two series ago doing – with those other, distinctly Capaldi qualities on top. Even the Doctor’s costuming felt settled; Series 8’s suit needed something extra, Series 9 went too far with the ‘Doctor Hoody’ look, and now we’ve arrived at the perfect mix.

Just in time for him to leave at the end of the series. Oh, well.

Onto the actual plot: there’s a weird puddle that chases Bill around. There’s nothing resembling a scientific explanation, which is a shame, and it’s far from the most threatening of villains (even after I’d spent most of the week dealing with my flat’s plumbing going to shit, I failed to be scared by it). It fits into the Steven Moffat trope of not being ‘evil’ but just causing trouble by mistake, which allows for a nice message but plays into the lack of threat. That doesn’t matter a great deal here, though, for what this episode has to do is get Bill and the Doctor together, and it does that very well.

Later in the episode, the puddle chases the TARDIS crew across the galaxy, and the episode changes from its grounded RTD-esque tone to a much more typically Moffat tour of the Doctor Who universe. The Australia gag is genuinely funny. The Daleks, however... a little crowbarred in, aren’t they? Running into a warzone and hoping the puddle gets killed by Daleks has got to be one of the Doctor’s worst plans ever, but spectacle wins over logic again.

(Oh, and Nardole’s still in it. Reasonably funny, not present enough to annoy me, hope there’s a point to him later in the series.)

The Pilot, then, is in no way going to go down as a Doctor Who classic, but it does exactly what it needs to do: revitalises the show in a way that feels at once exciting and, like its Doctor, settled – confident in what its doing. It also introduces us to, from what we’ve seen so far, the most rounded and instantly likeable companion of the Steven Moffat era. Most importantly, it make us want to know what happens next.


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