After four months off the screens, Doctor Who is back. Only, to phrase it like that is slightly disingenuous. Yes, it is four months since the 2016 Christmas Special, ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’. It’s also, however, a year and four months since the last episode before that, the 2015 Christmas Special, ‘The Husbands of River Song’, and the last episode that was part of a particular ‘series’ of the show, the series 9 finale ‘Hell Bent’, aired 20 days before the 2015 Special. So while the specific gap since the show was last on might match the usual time between ‘Special’ and ‘Series’, in actuality, this is Doctor Who coming back after a long time away.
All of which surely means there should be less filler and more discussion of the episode itself, right? Well… yes and no. Let me put it this way: do you remember when Doctor Who used to take itself a bit more seriously? Or more accurately, do you remember when Doctor Who plots weren’t exclusively vehicles for really thin thematic messages? I do, but only because I happened upon a Jack Harkness compilation earlier today, which reminded me of the time before Steven Moffat. But otherwise, we’re left with the various stories like this across Moffat’s time at the helm. It was something I referenced in my review of ‘In the Forest of the Night’ way back in series 8 – cue an obligatory and overstated ‘I feel old’ comment to myself. The drama of the plot doesn’t work if it’s secondary to the drama of the theme.
That, though, is exactly what it felt like was happening in ‘The Pilot’. We had the introduction of a new companion in Bill, we had the mystery of whatever’s meant to be inside the vault (presumably there’ll be more of that as the series continues), and we had the return of the show after two episodes in over a year. Yet none of these were the crux of the episode. Bill was a key part, sure, but a key part of what? In the end, the episode was about the power of a crush; the Doctor said as much. The premise is flimsy enough, but even worse, the crush was one of those TV crushes were there’s about 1 minute of setup before we’re reminded how serious the attraction is. There was the scene in the club where they stared at each other, which was replayed a number of times throughout the episode. There was their trip to the puddle, where we did catch a small smile from Heather even as they completely disagreed on pretty much everything else. There was the scene on the bench. Maybe that’s enough for some viewers, and maybe it alludes to an off-screen connection, but for me, it wasn’t a strong enough portrayal of such a key element of the episode.I will throw in the necessary praise for the handling of Bill being the first gay companion, in that she simply is who she is, and there’s no big deal made of it, but beyond that, it was the same old Moffat. There is intelligent, alien oil, a brief – and bizarrely tonally indifferent – foray to a Dalek massacre, a trip to the ‘other end of the universe’, but ultimately, it’s all about the power of human emotion. Heather’s attraction to Bill is so strong that she’ll follow her to the end of the world and back. Literally. This was supposedly to be a soft reboot of the show, dialing things back a bit – and before the full reboot when Chris Chibnall takes over next year with a new cast and crew – but it was hard to separate the episode from the rest of Moffat’s time at the helm.
Putting my cynicism aside for a moment, Bill actually wasn’t as bad as I thought she would be. That was mainly due to the fact that, at least in this episode, she was completely unlike how the trailers had portrayed her. As I mentioned in the Christmas Special Review, the Bill of the trailers seemed like Nardole without Matt Lucas’ timing. I failed to see why they would have the new ‘main’ companion, Bill, be zany, ‘say what you see’ and eccentric, while also keeping on Nardole, who is zany, ‘say what you see’ and eccentric. One of them had to change for it not to go completely slapstick. As it was, both characters were fine-tuned. Pearl Mackie’s portrayal of Bill was at its best when imbuing the character with the pathos appropriate for the situation she’s placed in. Paradoxically, she wasn’t afraid to be afraid – bar the casual death by Dalek scene – and at other times, she felt like the right balance of the everywoman she’s clearly meant to be, and someone who is their own person. The million-dollar question is whether the trailer was just cut to appeal to a particular demographic, or whether the Bill of ‘The Pilot’ will slowly lose that pathos as the series progresses.
As for Nardole, his role was both reduced and toned down; here, he acted more as a conduit between Bill and The Doctor, in a way that seemed oddly reminiscent of President Obama’s anger translator as portrayed by Keegan-Michael Key. It allowed the Twelfth Doctor to be his usual, distant self around a sort-of stranger in Bill – she hasn’t got used to him even if he’s hopped back in time to take pictures of her mother for her – while Nardole was the PR face of the company.Returning to cynicism, there are but two points on villainy to add. The first is that judging by the Dalek inexplicably missing a shot on Nardole from striking distance, I’m thrilled to announce an exciting new ‘Doctor Who/Star Wars’ crossover featuring Dalek Stormtroopers. The second, however, is that what exactly was the plan, if not for Bill? Let’s say for a moment that for whatever reason Bill doesn’t get to know Heather – I know, given their undeniable chemistry, it’s hard to imagine; then what? Does the oil just take Heather and run? Does the puddle just sit there until a car comes and parks on top of it, or someone steps in it and gets sucked in? In essence, much like the rest of the episode, there needed to be more development outside of the immediate action on-screen. Apart from anything, seeing Heather dripping with water and screaming just made me think that this was the Ice Warriors return that’s coming at some point this series. Thankfully, it seems not.
Overall, it’s hard to find much to be positive about here. The episode is perhaps best as an introduction for Bill, but then it didn’t really do much introducing; the most important element for her going forward – that she was given a glimpse of all of time and space, something she makes clear she’s not going to forget – wasn’t that big a part of the episode, and is unlikely to factor into future episodes either, judging again by trailer footage. It did give me some belief that she can be more than just slapstick, however, which is a positive. As an episode unto itself… it was average. There are enough American shows that overstate the value of love to the sanctity of the universe without it seeping into Doctor Who. Am I being cynical again? Definitely. But Doctor Who can do better than this. Hopefully, that’ll be evidenced next week, rather than after Steven Moffat finally departs in a year’s time. Hang on… Next week: Emoji robots. Perhaps it won’t be next week after all…