Doctor Who 10.1: The Pilot — The Jokerside review

Time Lord, it feels good to write that title! 10.1. After 12 years the new, rebooted Doctor Who has made it to 10 series. And of course, as sure as the show combines fire and ice, there’s sorrow hitching a ride with that joy.

“They built taller ones for Smith…” Credit: BBC

Title: The Pilot | Series: 10 | Episode: One | Duration: 50 minutes | Doctor: Twelve | Writer: Steven Moffat | Director: Lawrence Gough

“Scared is good, scared is rational”

So ends the greatest hiatus in Doctor Who history, not with a bang but a rather pleasant whimper. The Pilot, with its production in-joke of a name, takes a soft approach to the open opportunity to soft reboot the series. Fortunately, it’s a clear retreat from the bombast of showrunner Steven Moffat’s previous openers. Rejecting his predecessor’s soft episode one build-ups, Moffat has previously given us Amercan ‘60s blockbusters, Dalek infiltration, a Davros ultimatum and Victorian epics. With The Pilot, he crafts a lilting re-introduction to the show for its tenth series, where the entrance of the Doctor and companion is more important than the light science-fiction plot wrapped around it.

But crucially, Moffat’s managed to control his urge to over-reboot. Much as the finale to Series 9 and the two light holiday episodes since gave him the chance, there’s no new title sequence or theme tune. Instead, he’s decided to repopulate the same TARDIS by sending the Doctor back to school.

An education

Or university more like - where the Doctor may have been a lecturer for a great deal of time or very little. Perhaps it’s a natural reaction to finding Gallifrey nestling in a quiet spot of space-time and unleashing his inner Professor Chronotis. As with the Doctor’s old secretive friend, seen in Douglas Adams’ Shada, there’s a secret. But this time it’s hidden in the basement of a university building and given the Doctor has parked his time craft in the corner of his office ready for short trips rather than move into it like a time temperamental camper van. And Shada isn’t alone. There are plenty of nods to the past, from surprise cameos to photographs of the two major women in his life, and even an out of order sign nabbed from the 1960s. Few fans could see the scorch marks around the puddle of the piece lies and not think of the same tell-tale signs in Remembrance of the Daleks (1988). But non of these references are too gratuitous, and most importantly, they’re at their strongest in the characters.

Entering his final season, Peter Capaldi’s in his element. The promise of his Doctor has been under-served by the scripts of the past two series, despite a few notable highs. While Matt Smith could elevate his Eleventh Doctor beyond the scripts, to some quite incredible and occasionally too powerful emotions, Capaldi’s Doctor seems prone to suppression. This series finds criticism ready to paint his tenure as an experiment with an older Doctor never to be repeated, so it’s a joy to see him pitch his performance with such passion and control, in such a traditional setting. Getting the obligatory, early guitar shtick out of the way early on, he not enjoys the freedom to pitch his character like never before, but also reference the past. There are distinct recalls to the Fourth Doctor when he’s dancing around the puddle at the centre of the story, once he’s back in full-throttle Time Lord mode.

Pearl at the centre

“What changed your mind? “Time… And Relative Dimension in space”
Interrupted by a plot at a most unexpected time. Credit: BBC

But much of the joy in watching this newly enthused Doctor is thanks to his strong supporting foil. The Pilot is a lightly cast show, with almost every scene dominated by Bill. This is Pearl Mackie’s big moment and she owns it, even when saddled with heavy lines about her facial expressions getting in the way (“it’s always doing expressions when I’m trying to be enigmatic”). The Pilot’s main nod to the past decade is Rose’s entrance in 2005. True, there are many beats in that direction, and it feels wholly comfortable as a result, but here’s a companion-in-waiting invading the Doctor’s world, not a bored, self-centrered everygirl interrupted.

There are many doleful asides from this new companion, but despite the tinge of sorrow evident in her former and current life, Mackie keeps it vital, real and personable. Combined with this refreshed, comfortable Twelfth Doctor and Matt Lucas on little-used but pitch-perfect form, there are very good signs for the new TARDIS crew. In Bill and Nardole, we’re reminded not so much that the Doctor hasn’t had a real companion for a while, but how complicated companion entrances have been over the past six years.

While the Doctor has once again inexplicably saddled himself with the need to reject companions (“I can’t do that anymore, I promised” he suggests, twice), the point isn’t as laboured, nor the outcome as sad as The Snowmen (2012).

Most importantly, there’s a rugged weight added by the academic setting, through the lectures, university and companion’s curiosity. As Bill’s wonderfully filmed introduction to the time-ship shows, this is about the TARDIS more than anything. It’s about Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. That’s life. It’s a love note to that idea, and Bill’s there as catalyst and instrument.

Rising damp

But this isn’t simply a meet and greet or a 50 minutes of Doctor Who: Private Tutor. Like Rose, there’s an alien intervention to force the two together, albeit one a whole deal more personal and cold than the Auton’s attempt on Earth. And that’s where the damp creeps into the story’s lovely, romantic touches. As the last half turns into a micro chase through space, the Movellan cameo adds to the idea that Moffat’s pinning the latter part of his tenure on Douglas Adams — all the more so after the Destiny of the Daleks-style Skaro that kicked off the last series. But their appearance is arbitrary, especially when pitched, nominally in an old conflict last seen in that Season 17 serial, screaming, wailing and somehow being zapped by bronze Daleks.

And the reason for the Dalek’s appearance in the season opener is horrifically contrived. Confronted with a mysterious, evidently alien conundrum, the Doctor quickly runs before deciding to destroy it, using his oldest foes as the method. It’s an odd, highly un-Doctorish solution: to destroy before finding understanding, to put a foe in front of the universe’s greatest evil. Apart from one face grab, the damp Heather displays little violence. That solution may serve a point, especially in reminding us that the Daleks exist, but it quickly weakens their role as they’re quarantined and beaten. Most of all, it poses an unhealthy healthy hook for the first episode of an otherwise successful, light, reboot.

The water ghost at the heart of the show’s horror is suitably unsettling thanks to Stephanie Hyam’s sad and distant performance. But an alien technology’s motivation eventually understood, is a well trod path in New Who. The enigmatic monster may have much in common with the chilling human-corruptions of Waters of Mars (2009), but more damningly, its motivation recalls the denouement of Curse of the Black Pearl (2011) and Moffat’s original show-stopper, The Empty Child (2005). It rather undermines any hope set by that enigmatic and oh-so-old school Who cut to the alien’s point of view early in the episode (“Pilot is located, link is established”).

Moffat also couldn’t resist pulling in some other familiar tropes. Bill’s phone realisation against the sound of a running shower was familiar from empty tape players and broken clocks, but was refreshingly brief and satisfyingly suspenseful.

Throwing the book at it. Credit: BBC

From the star-eyed defect to water form, the monster of the piece was subject to some beautiful cinematography at most points, some oddly framed CGI at a few others, but mostly made the most of under Lawrence Gough’s solid direction. Good thing to, this is one of the most powerful foes the Doctor’s ever faced, defeated in one wholly personal moment.

However, the fate of Heather will be less remembered than the fact that The Pilot is one of the most successful season openers for years. Some admirable constraint may add to the melancholy feel of the final Moffat/Capaldi series, but highlights a very bright future to come. The ready to unravel mystery of the vault is pleasantly light, the companion and in-built family element promising… But perhaps most warming is that the BBC’s fully back on board. After their weak support of the last series, and its resultant low viewing figures, the networks packed out with adverts and hooks that’s are a joy to see. But as for that John Simm with a goatee reveal in the season trailer - well, time storm in a teacup.

Stunning moment

On a beautifully realised alien vista, Bill’s first, all quarry, subterrannean escaping steam and glowing ‘lemon’ air, a flashback works to keep the companion front and centre. Before the slash and grab face attack from a puddle, the hint of a smile on Heather’s face that yes, no matter the cost, she’d escaped the misery of her life on Earth.

Everyday hook of the week

The Pilot is packed with nods, but also some well run Who-tropes. And at the heart is a comforting hook we can all relate to. how can your face not be right? “It’s not reflecting you, it’s mimicking you”

Doctor look of the week

Much of the episode finds the Twelfth Doctor in quiet contemplation as Bill babbles on. it’s a relief when he recognises his own, innate silliness when he again sets foot on an alien vista. But our favourite is the knowing nod when Nardole tells him how he set the Vault door’s security. “Friends only”

Production touch of the week

Perhaps no other episode’s had this much maturing time since Moffat’s The Eleventh Hour. From “Bill and Heather” — an extraordinary nod to William Hartnell and his wife” though to the intriguing insertions of references to the Fourth and First Doctors, and the multi-layered meaning of comings and goings, arrivals and departures. But that’s not just on the writing side. Bill’s second visit to the puddle — and subsequent introduction to space-time — finds her clad in a brilliantly pitched half face designed dress. Bravo.

A Jokerside view

There must be a part of Moffat that deeply regrets not stamping authority on the Daleks earlier. New Paradigms, a Parliament of the Daleks and their Asylum, Davros’ eyes? Shudder. He’s now happy to pitch the pepperpots back in Season 17. So much so that the Eleventh Doctor’s trip back to an acid rain soaked-Skaro is as forgotten as all the above. Except for Davros’ eyes of course. Eurgh.

Rating: B

A seemingly effortless return to the essence of Doctor Who, although the shoe-horning of a safe science-fiction plot brought back as many bad habits as fantastically off the wall nods to the past. High successful and captivating box ticking, The Pilot is a great start. While deceptively morbid at moments, its mostly docked points for the return of a rather careless, destructive, unwarranted Doctor.

Read all about Doctor Who, from features to retrospectives to the full set of Doctor Who Series 9 essays over at Jokerside.com

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