10 Things about Who: 10.1 The Pilot

Image © BBC

A few years back — in modern numbering terms, Doctor Who’s 7th season — I got into the habit of writing weekly posts to accompany each episode. Not reviews as such, more a series of ruminations, mind wanderings and general impressions, each Ten Things About Who post had 10 points of discussion.

I eventually packaged up that collection of posts as an ebook which is still on sale from Amazon.

I tried carrying on the habit for season 8, but struggled keeping up with the schedule, so the posts fell by the wayside. And to be honest, my first impressions of Peter Capaldi’s first two seasons weren’t enough to keep me going.

Now feels like a nice time to try again, though, especially as this is season/series 10 — what better time to revive Ten Things About Who?

1. Where there’s a Bill

Introducing a new companion is probably one of the more fraught jobs a Doctor Who writer has to do. True, writing a new incarnation of the Doctor may seem like the more daunting prospect — but beside a few character quirks that usually settle down after a season, it’s the same character underneath.

The costars, on the other hand, have to be sufficiently different from each other. Too close, and the grieving for a departed character never really goes away — meaning that the replacement character, and actor, never get the chance to shine.

While Steven Moffat may have had a template for Bill in mind before Pearl Mackie was cast, it’s probably fair to say that the actor’s character and temperament will probably have a far greater role to play in forming the onscreen character than a new role in any other long-running drama.

So there are several stages to creating a new, fully formed companion: the scriptwriter’s idea of what the role should be, and the actor’s idea of how to play it, mix together to, hopefully, form something new.

And I really think that’s done here. Bill seems fully formed straight away. Sure, there are traits we’ve seen in others: the Doctor is impressed with her attitude to things she doesn’t understand, just as he was with Martha’s in Smith and Jones. Her technique of talking and talking in the hope that an idea would eventually form feels very Donna-like, even if the latter would never admit it.

But Bill is Bill. Different, but archetypal in her own way. And I love her.

Clara who?

2. A Nardole enigma

Of course, we can’t talk about companions without talking about the one the Doctor already has. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio we got little hints about why the Doctor might have resurrected him, but nothing substantive.

Here, all we get are more questions. Is his body fully robotic, as his first scene might imply? Does the Doctor see him as a friend, a lab assistant-cum-servant, or what? Is their relationship one of necessity, if the Doctor needs someone to help him with whatever he’s doing with those vault doors?

Which leads us to the next question…

3. What’s in the box?

It seems we can’t have a season without an overarching theme. Sometimes it’s been repeated phrases, as with the ‘Bad Wolf’ and ‘Torchwood’ references in the first two seasons of the show’s post-2005 revival. Other times, it’s more subtle: a recent rewatch of Matt Smith’s first season as the Doctor made me realise that nearly every story is about memory, and its importance in storytelling — sometimes explicitly when the ability of the crack in time to erase people from existence was referenced, but also in the PROTEST/FORGET buttons in The Beast Below and in showing Vincent Van Gogh how he lived on through his art in Vincent and the Doctor.

Here, it’s clear that the Doctor’s current residency at a university in Bristol, keeping a promise to an unnamed individual that has something to do with the mysterious vault in the cellar, will play out over the next twelve episodes. Given the guest stars already confirmed as appearing nearer the end of the season, one can theorise that their appearance will have some connection to it.

But right now, the vault itself could be more of a McGuffin that keeps the Doctor anchored to Earth. It looks like Bill will, like all the companions of Steven Moffat’s era, have a life away from the Tardis, and we’ll just happen to drop into her life when the Doctor does. Having the Doctor on Earth for an extended period makes that set up more believable.

4. The sonic set

In The Day of the Doctor, it is established that the War Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is fundamentally the same object as the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor’s same device, even if the outer shell has changed.

That sense of uniqueness is inherited from the “original” sonic, which was destroyed in the Peter Davison story The Visitation. A production decision to try and rid the series of what could become a ‘get out of jail free card’-style convenience, that’s a plot point that only makes sense if the Doctor can’t lay his hands on any others.

And yet now, he has a whole collection of them. Maybe universities in Bristol have a lot of sonic shelves that need putting up?

5. Hide and seek

The scene where Bill returns home to hear the water running in the bathroom is incredibly tense, not least because it uses well established means of providing suspense in horror films. The slow, tense approach, the pulling back of the curtain to reveal — nothing. And then a jump scare as the monster is revealed.

All in all, it’s textbook scare tactics. And it’s nearly effective enough to divert attention away from the questionable tactics the Pilot is using here. If it is looking for Bill, why hide at this point?

The Pilot’s other approaches towards Bill make more sense in terms of the eventual explanation for its actions. It’s only this one where its primary concern seems to be to scare the beejeebus out of Bill, and those of us observing her.

6. Mirror, mirror

Director Lawrence Gough helps the episode’s theme of reflections with some stylish directorial flourishes. From the near-symmetrical opening shot of the Doctor’s study to the way Pilot-Heather glides towards Bill as the companion steps towards her, there are some lovely visual touches throughout.

My favourite, though, is the shot of “Heather” emerging from the puddle on the (unnamed but very Planet of the Ood-like) planet in the far future. As Stephanie Hyam’s face emerged from the water, we see it in profile, paired with its own reflection in the pool’s surface.

Screen grab © BBC

7. Not the mind wipe!

I do hope that Bill’s knowledge of science fiction tropes doesn’t become too overstated in dialogue. It wouldn’t hurt the writers of future episodes — of this or any other series — to have her voice in the back of their heads, though. “If Bill can figure it out,” that voice might say, “maybe it’s time to come up with something else…”

It does makes you realise how long the break between seasons has been when you realise that the reference Bill makes to how the Doctor would feel if his mind was wiped was only a callback to the last non-Christmas episode, way back in December 2015.

The brief re-emergence of ‘Clara’s Theme’ was a nice touch, but I hope that particular thread is over. When Donna’s mind was wiped at the conclusion of Season 4 lest her brain burn up, the heartbreaking tragedy of that moment was lessened by the “oh, didn’t I say I’d built in a safeguard?” moment in The End of Time. Let’s leave Clara in the past. Please.

8. Movellan mischief

Younger fans of Doctor Who — and let’s not forget that there are 10 and 11 year olds hopefully watching now who were not born when Christopher Eccleston first said “Run!”— may not have grasped the relevance of the soldiers fighting the Daleks in the Doctor’s brief, barely explicable foray into a war zone.

The white-clad, silver-dreadlocked Movellans only appeared in one TV story, 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks, where it was revealed that they were all androids, locked in a war they could not win with the Daleks because neither side could think illogically enough to break the stalemate.

That’s a concept that is probably only strong enough to support a single TV story, although they have made brief appearances in spin-off media including comics and a novel.

One thing that remains, even from their brief appearance here, is the startling originality of their costume design. Would any of the bands of fighters that have appeared in Doctor Who since its 2005 revival be so recognisable with just a few seconds’ screen time?

9. Out, but not out

Oh, the fuss when it was announced that Bill would be the series’ first out gay companion (as opposed to Captain Jack, who doesn’t count for presumably the same reason that Noel Clarke’s Mickey didn’t count as the series’ first black companion when Freema Agyeman’s tenure was announced).

The shrieks and howls from the “PC gone mad” brigade were, of course, all bluster. And the proponents of such viewpoints are often liars, as well — one person that I did attempt to engage with on this matter claimed to have never watched the series for years, but managed to reel off the living arrangements of Madame Vastra and Jenny at the drop of a hat.

On the strength of this first episode, Bill is a rounded character whose sexuality is as intrinsic to her character as everyone’s is. The fact that it is not a big deal at all, despite driving her relationship with Heather, is subversive only because it’s taken us so long to get to the point where LGBT sexuality is treated sensibly.

That it is, of course, will further enrage those people who claim that the BBC is “indoctrinating” young minds. Even though time and again we see that young children who grow up with gay relatives, friends and parents have no trouble accepting it. It is those who seek to make them fear gay people who do the indoctrination.

Ahem. I hadn’t meant this section to go on so long. I thought a point would emerge, but…

Oh, yes.

What is actually interesting to note is that, despite Bill being outwardly confident in her sexuality and able to talk about her crushes to the Doctor upon their first meeting, she hasn’t told her foster mother yet.

“Coming out” isn’t a straightforward, linear process for most people. Some people are out for years amongst friends before coming out to their family; for others, the reverse may be true. For the papers, nobody is “out” until they’ve “admitted” or “confessed” to them, as if nothing’s true until the tabloids confirm it.

That Bill is not out to the one person who’s possibly meant the most to her for most of her life offers an interesting slice of character. For me, it makes her all the more believable.

10. That lecture theatre

The place where the Doctor was giving his lecture is actually the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre, part of Cardiff’s National Museum of Wales.

In February, as part of LGBT History Month, Pride Cymru hosted an event in that theatre called ‘Who’s Queer Now?’. A series of panel discussions around Doctor Who and LGBT+ visibility, guests included Russell T Davies, Doctor Who Fan Show presenter Christel Dee, and Dalek operators (and in real life, the sweetest couple you could hope to meet) Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg.

The event was a huge success, even if some of the discussions ran a little out of steam. One feels that, should Pride Cymru repeat the event next year, we’ll have much more to talk about…