I’ll get to it later, but I wasn’t especially upbeat coming into this series. That was only because the Christmas episode – which prompted an extremely positive reaction in general – left me cold (no pun). This, I thought, was representative of the new direction for Peter Capaldi’s final year.
It sort of was too. But, as it transpired, once Bill was locked into the equation, I really enjoyed what was to follow.
This review is from DWM #512.
Regimes have changed, beloved figures have passed away, and bitter cultural winds have torn up the land. Plus, hoo boy, the Shadow Kin. A lot has happened since there was last a series of Doctor Who.
It’s true. A cosmos without the Doctor does scarcely bear thinking about. But now he’s returned, maybe the world can get back on kilter. On the basis of The Pilot, it seems hopeful. He’s breezed in as if he’s never been away, whipped out that screwdriver and reignited the seam of Saturdayness that has lain latent, until now, in those evenings. It’s a rarefied commodity, Saturdayness, easier to recognise than encapsulate. Here it is, in big, brilliant, broad bursts.
An introduction to new travelling companion Bill Potts, Steven Moffat’s story is also a reintroduction to the show itself, and the lightest, most accessible, least intimidating episode for ages.
This is Doctor Who which doesn’t look uncomfortable in the gravitational field of Pointless Celebrities, or a few tiers up and along on the EPG from Britain’s Got Talent. I probably align myself more with the less lovable more introverted parts of our show. Those that flatter the intelligence with codified plot points and arcane perils – like something buzzing on Netflix. They’re are the markers of quality drama, yes? But when I’m back at work on Monday morning, the truth is, it does my heart good to hear from the mums and dads and aunties and uncles who are reporting in about the fun their family had on Saturday night. Doctor Who is for everyone.
And while, you can already tell, I’ve judged The Pilot a success, it’s partly so because the story hasn’t been created to stand up to the obsessively detailed appraisal my word-count here demands. When you get this close to it, you see its thinness: a linear, chase story, resolved to be – oh yes, that one – malfunctioning tech. But the slightness also lets through light to illuminate those within.
Bill’s good. Even before the titles, Pearl Mackie has assured us of that. The character communicates a lot in those opening moments, not just her sexuality, but her own small prejudices (“I’d fatted her” – with slight disdain) and her intense curiosity. Even more pleasing, Mackie shows she can grab Moffat’s most writerly and witty dialogue and deliver it conversationally, rather than as repartee. A little later in the episode she has a line about her expressive face, and it’s true. There’s so much to see. Which isn’t to say she’s greedy on screen, but that she’s giving herself to it entirely, catching every moment; thought-processes mapped out in looks. “I always wanted to come here,” she tells the Doctor, in reference to the university. “Just to serve chips?” he replies, unkindly. The merest glimmer of heartbreak crackles across her features. She has become, already, the person we check in with when we need a steer about what’s going on. How freaky is this? Ah, yes, fairly freaky.
I also like her name. Bill Potts. It’s got that loaded feel of the ordinary, and the same mix of proper and common noun that worked for Amy Pond – except Bill isn’t like her. She comes more from the world of Rose Tyler: Big dreams, low income, still living at home with a flighty maternal figure. She’s a real person, saying real things like, “Hey! I’ll make you a cuppa for the bath!” Some sources (I don’t know which, it all becomes mulch) claim she was named in recognition of La Piper, and certainly her final scene in this episode is a homage to the last moments of Rose. I think that makes sense. A decade on, that first ‘new series’ companion still feels like the bassline for all who’ve followed. It is a good point from which to relaunch Doctor Who.
Where Bill departs from Rose is in how she shapes the Doctor.
Year one, Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord was resistant, defined by his inability or refusal to emotionally engage. And angry. About something. Year two, a redeemed hero, reconnecting with life. Although at times that swung a little too far – the overuse of dark glasses and electric guitar were like a campaign for approval from the cool kids. But mostly a nicely cranky and operatic Doctor. The process of softening his frightening elements continued over two Christmasses, to the point he was becoming a little lost. The detail burnished off. But in The Pilot, we see him adopt a new role. For the first time since Jon Pertwee’s stint, the Time Lord becomes a guardian. That feels apt for this incarnation, and, perhaps, this actor, but also it makes immediate sense of the Doctor and companion dynamic – which in this modern era has required some underlying thesis (usually, she fancies him).
“I noticed you,” he tells Bill, his eyes flickering to check-in with the photo of his granddaughter, Susan (does that have some greater portent?). There’s a melancholic kindness about his offer to tutor her, in that he’s recognising her disappointments. It’s instructive, then, how quickly she comes to him when she’s in trouble. This is our hero as ‘the mother hen’, to use Pertwee’s own progressive gender-bending analogy. Not that Bill is the perfect ingénue. She’s au fait with sci fi clichés, and her response to the TARDIS – “It’s like a… kitchen! – plus her refusal to do the old ‘Doctor who?’ gag going into the title sequence, all put him on the back foot. But not so much that they’re sparring, thank God. Yes, it’s a good place for the Doctor to be, a vantage from where he can remain remote, an authority figure of sorts, but a nurturing one.
That’s how it’s working with Bill, and I’m going to think of her – at least for the time being – as the Doctor’s charge, because that’s a nice Doctor Who phrase and you don’t see it so much. Matt Lucas’ Nardole, meanwhile, is his assistant. Sort of. Although he demurs to the guvnor as ‘Sir’, their gentle bickering as they tinker with the vault’s mechanics (“So turn it, and then it’ll…”/”I’m turning it!“) is the kind of thing you’d hear from a couple trying to start the family car, and gently confers a level of intimacy between them. But should we read anything more into their later exchange? The one where the Doctor declares, “Never underestimate a crush”, and Nardole comes back, “Ooo, you’re telling me!”
At the press launch for Series 10, Lucas spoke movingly about what Doctor Who meant to him, and his hope he hadn’t now “ruined it” for viewers. It seemed a strange anxiety, further described when he sought to assure the room he will be less comedic as the series continues. It’s as if he wants to box-in those qualities we most associate with him. Actually, it is true that when he’s grabbing hard at the funny stuff, I liked him a bit less. That “I’d give it a minute if I were you” line is pretty well-thumbed, but would have been improved if he’d thrown it away a little more. No, he’s at his best when the character is busy. Shuttling off on side missions, punctuating his work with a stream of small, effete exclamations. He’s a capable Frank Spencer, if that’s not an oxymoron, and that works well enough for me. He hasn’t ruined Doctor Who.
Here is our show for 2017. The Doctor and Nardole, who are guarding a vault for some reason, upholding a promise our hero has made to someone or other. I’m going to guess we won’t see inside the thing for another couple of months, and that’s a fine tease. Then there’s Bill, who is fun, funny, capable, and, new. From the set-up, to the direction (a brilliant, fluid debut from director Lawrence Gough) to Murray Gold’s overhauled score (notably sparse at times, with really beautiful woodwind and bass for Bill) the whole thing feels lighter on its feet. It’s as if divested of a hundredweight of luggage.
It comes at an unlikely time, perhaps. These are the last days of this regime, as Peter Capaldi, Steven Moffat – and more besides – will all be gone quite soon. But rather than winding down, the show is winding up the mechanism, its own, wonderful “What the hell?” gesture as it takes back Saturdays once again. The Pilot won’t be the greatest story this year, but it is great. I’m so happy to see Doctor Who again, and that feels reciprocal. As if it’s happy to see all of us too.