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Review: Doctor Who – ‘The Pilot’

After a two year hiatus in which we’ve only had a couple of Christmas specials to tide us over, it feels great to say that Doctor Who is back. It’s got a lot to live up to as well, after 2015’s series 9 represented the high point of the creative renaissance the show has enjoyed during Peter Capaldi’s reign as the Doctor. With this being the final series with Capaldi at the TARDIS controls and Steven Moffat as showrunner, the question is can they stick the landing with a series worthy of the fantastic work both of them have done for the show? Well, if ‘The Pilot’ is any indication, I’d say they’ve got every chance of doing so.

The funny thing about the episode was that, in a series which is always going to have the spectre of finality over it, it felt so much like a new beginning for the show. Moffat used the introduction of new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) much in the same way as the introduction of Rose all the way back in 2005, providing the outsider’s perspective on the Time Lord in order to ease newcomers into his world. If you’d never seen Doctor Who before, ‘The Pilot’ would be a perfect place to start, the title a winking reference to this. From the perspective of the established fan, I thought Moffat succeeded well enough in introducing all the elements of the show effectively enough for newcomers without boring the rest of us with longwinded explanations, and gave the opportunities for some hilarious observations on the inherent absurdity of many of the show’s conceits. Bill’s line upon her first journey in the TARDIS “This isn’t just a room is it? This is a lift!” genuinely made me laugh out loud, and throughout the script Moffat demonstrated his gift for witty, punchy dialogue that the show will sorely miss upon his departure.

Throughout the script Moffat demonstrated his gift for witty, punchy dialogue that the show will sorely miss upon his departure

I realise I’m 300 words deep into this review and I haven’t even mentioned the monster of the week yet, but this really was a low stakes episode in which the monster felt perfunctory to the characters. That’s by no means a bad thing in Doctor Who, which excels in using its background as a sci-fi runaround to explore its themes. Although there were a couple of effectively creepy moments and some good looking effects work to create the monster (think of a mashup between ‘Midnight’ and ‘The Waters of Mars’ if you’re a Doctor Who nerd like me), the focus was resolutely on new companion Bill, who makes a fantastic first impression. Her journey from working in a canteen to travelling in the TARDIS is very much the archetypal Doctor Who companion fantasy of being whisked away from ordinary life to journey throughout time and space, but Bill also looks to bring something new. Pearl Mackie imbues her with a quick wit, a curiosity and intelligence the Doctor respects and an affectionate knowledge of sci-fi tropes that should allow for some gentle ribbing of the show’s fantastical elements. The companion is just as important as the Doctor in creating successful Doctor Who, and thankfully the interplay between Bill, the Doctor and Matt Lucas’ amusing dogsbody Nardole looks to be a highlight of the coming weeks.

In the weeks leading up to the episode much was made of Bill’s status as the first openly gay companion (to the protests of those of us who fondly remember Captain Jack or that one time Amy Pond basically tried to get off with herself thanks to some timey-wimey nonsense), and that’s an issue that’s approached head on in ‘The Pilot’. Although it could maybe have done with a little fleshing out in the earlier portions of the episode, Bill’s doomed crush on the eventually possessed Heather is played well enough to lead to a real emotional sucker punch by the episode’s end. It’s the sort of quietly melancholic touch Moffat’s integrated so successfully in the past, and I don’t get the feeling that’s the last we’ll be hearing of this particular plot thread.

The focus was resolutely on new companion Bill, who makes a fantastic first impression

All in all, ‘The Pilot’ was by no means a perfect episode of Doctor Who, but it’s a great introduction into its world for newcomers, whilst standing on its own as a solid series opener with a promising new companion. Personally, I’ve got high hopes for the series ahead, even if I am a bit doubtful that they’ll be able to reach the very great heights of series 9’s best moments. Regardless, we’ve got a long term mystery on the boil with what’s hiding in that mysterious vault of the Doctor’s, some multi-Master madness to look forward to, and the mystery of just how much Moffat is trolling us with his constant teases of the Doctor’s regeneration in trailers.

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