After a rather Who-less 2016, this year introduces a brand new series with a brand new companion. Series 10 (or, alternatively, Season 36) of Doctor Who kicks off with “The Pilot”, and what a solid start it is.
The episode starts with a quiet, yet meaningful scene. Nardole, the guest star turned regular from the previous two Christmas specials welcomes Bill Potts in the Doctor’s office. Yes, he has an office now, in Cardiff’s Bristol’s St Luke’s University, where he has been giving various lectures for decades. Apparently, there’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding the Doctor right from the start and isn’t that great. We know almost as little about him as Bill at this point, and all she knows is that he gives cool lectures on physics and poetry. Despite not being a student, she attends his lectures and the Doctor wonders why. The conversation pretty much goes like this:
The Doctor: Why d’you come to my lectures when you’re not a student?
Bill: There’s this cute girl I like so I give her extra chips.
The Doctor: ?
Bless Bill, everyone’s favourite gay daughter with just one episode in. The Doctor decides that Bill has potential and becomes her personal tutor. And so their meetings at 6pm, every weekday after a long day of lectures and serving chips start. Cue the montage of Bill living her everyday life and the Doctor giving lectures on Time And Relative Dimension In Space. The Doctor made it clear that Bill has to get a first class grade (70% or above) for every assignment he gives her, and boy does she deliver. She gets 90 somethings, what the hell. Maybe it’s just the Doctor not following standard university procedure, which wouldn’t be a surprise, or maybe Bill is just that goddamn smart, but getting 90% at university in the UK is almost impossible. So you know, that is a big deal. Bill’s foster mom, Moira, also notices and warns her daughter against these private lessons. There’s an interesting dynamic here between the two, with Moira clearly having good intentions but not really seeing Bill and knowing what she wants. One even gets the sense that Bill isn’t out to her, now there’s a story waiting to be told.
Some time passes and Bill meets Heather, the girl with a star in her eye who also attends the Doctor’s lectures. Right before the two have a proper introduction to each other, Bill follows the Doctor and Nardole down to “the vault”. Oh, I wonder what the season-long arc is going to be, surely it’s not this secret thing the Doctor and Nardole are up to and that makes them stay in Bristol? Anyway, back to Bill’s life and Heather. Because Bill is precious and she cares, she follows Heather so she can see the puddle that’s been bothering the girl. Heather finds it really weird that it’s there despite the good weather they’ve been having and insists that there’s something wrong with the reflection in the puddle. Bill goes along with it because British people are just really invested in the weather and everything that’s connected to it. Also, Heather’s cute and Bill is a hopeless lesbian.
Jump Christmas, when we see another telling scene between Bill and Moira. Followed by the somewhat disappointing Christmas the two have is Bill being precious again and giving the Doctor a rug as a present. He didn’t buy her anything, but that’s okay with her because she’s clearly used to being let down. Except that when she mentions her mother, her biological mother, to the Doctor and how she doesn’t even have pictures of her, the Doctor goes back in time and takes some photos and leaves them in Bill’s flat so that she can find them. This not only proves that the Twelfth Doctor can be nice if he wants to, but also that he’s not the best at being subtle. Bill spots him in a mirror in one of the pictures, because of course the Doctor would make this mistake.
This confirms in Bill’s mind that the Doctor is extraordinary and knows more than he lets on, so when Heather disappears near her puddle Bill turns to him for help. She figures out quite a lot on her own, and when the Doctor realizes what is really going on he shuts her out and tells her not to worry about it. We all know how things go when the Doctor decides to leave people in the dark, and so the expected happens. After a freaky experience in her bathroom, Bill runs back to uni and to the Doctor, and Heather follows her. It’s not Heather though, it’s the puddle that absorbed her and chose her as its pilot. Now it wants Bill as its passenger, so the Doctor tells her to run to his box where they’ll be safe.
This is that already classic moment when Bill enters the TARDIS for the first time. It’s drawn out but manages to be a unique scene, even though it happens with every companion. She eventually goes through all the phases and discovers the true capabilities of the TARDIS, step by step. First let’s see that it can travel down to that mysterious vault, then go to Australia, why not! Then 23 million years into the future, to a different planet. To all these places, travelling through time itself, Heather keeps following Bill, the Doctor and Nardole, so the Time Lord decides to fight water with fire. They go to the Dalek-Movellan war zone, where Heather defeats a Dalek and transform into one. After going through all of this, she doesn’t kill Bill, she just waits. The Doctor puts two and two together with Bill’s help, and they realize that the puddle, an oil leak from a spaceship, chose Heather as its pilot because she wanted to go away, and Heather promised not to leave Bill, so now she’s following her around and waiting for her to be the passenger. The two say goodbye and let go of each other, but not before Heather shows Bill the universe and what could have been.
Back in at St Luke’s, the Doctor reassures Bill that Heather was gone anyway and that there was nothing they could have done, that Bill made the right decision by letting go. She can’t stop thinking about what Heather showed her and glances at the TARDIS, which makes the Doctor panic that she would want to travel so he makes a move to wipe her memories. Bill protests, understandably, but the Doctor keeps insisting that no one can know about him. She asks him to imagine what it would feel like if someone else did this to him, and so cue Clara’s theme and the Doctor changing his mind because this is exactly what happened to him last season. He tells Bill to run before he changes his mind again, and after an argument with himself, he goes after her with the TARDIS. It’s unclear how much time passes for him, as he does have a time travelling machine after all, but he does ask Bill to travel with him in the end. She accepts the offer, and so the adventure begins.
The main point of the episode was the introduction of Bill Potts, so let’s take a look at her first. The way it was structured, how we saw things from her perspective and how she was the focus of the story, is the way it should be with Doctor Who, at least with main companions like her. It very much reminded me of the episode “Rose” and Rose Tyler herself, and I mean that in the best way possible here. I didn’t expect it to happen this way but I’m delighted that it did, because as much as I loved both Amy and Clara, Moffat’s main companions so far have been a change from the more “traditional” format. That being “normal human being’s world is expanded by the Doctor, whom we get to know through the companion”. I don’t just mean the Russel T Davies era by this, the show itself started like this back in 1963 with Ian and Barbara. Amy’s “crack on the wall” storyline and Clara being the Impossible Girl were an interesting point of view, but it does feel good to have Bill be more similar to the likes of Rose, Martha, and Donna. Just like each Doctor has to be different to their predecessor, the companions should also bring different perspectives, and Bill’s down to Earth attitude and simple, yet intriguing life is a nice change from Clara’s character and story.
Bill herself is promising to be a wonderful character with the potential to have a great dynamic with the Doctor and an inspiring arc. She’s truly refreshing, with her style and curiosity and kind but no nonsense personality. She definitely lacks the confidence Clara had towards the end of her run, which is going to make her own story much more interesting to see. She already has the courage and is not afraid to tell the Doctor off, but there’s something vulnerable about her that makes her feel very real and human. Especially with a Doctor like Number 12, we need a human like Bill. As I mentioned in the recap, it would also be interesting to see her relationship with her foster mother explored, this would be a great opportunity for the show to really go back to the RTD days and turn a bit domestic again. We can still have paradoxes that no one understands and spaceships on fire, but Doctor Who needs that human element to be a truly outstanding sci-fi show.
There’s also the fact that with Bill we have the first openly gay companion. Steven Moffat promised us that Bill being gay won’t be a big deal and so far he delivered. It’s not a shock to anyone in the story, and yet it is obvious in a natural sort of way and works as a part of the story, just like a hetero romance would. After it was announced that she would be a lesbian and everyone involved made sure to say that it is no big deal, I was afraid that they would try and be too casual about it and not explore it from a “human” sort of angle. That is, just say that yeah, she is gay and not care about the implications. Normalizing Bill’s identity is nice, but as a lesbian woman of colour who now can also travel in time, there’s an obvious opportunity here to explore some issues she may encounter. I got the feeling that we might see something like this later on in the series, whether with a historical story or with Moira and Bill. Either way, I’m not hoping that Bill being gay would become the most important aspect of her character, and I do agree with what Pearl Mackie and Moffat said about it not being a big deal in that sense, but it would be nice for it to be one acknowledged aspect of who Bill is.
Anyway, I just love Bill already, and most people seem to. I get the feeling that most people don’t know what to make of Nardole though, and I have to admit that I don’t either. He was fine in his first episode, “The Husbands of River Song”, he was a comic relief and Christmas specials tend to have those. But then he returned for the next Christmas special and now is a regular on the show, which means that he’ll have to become more than just the funny one because otherwise all he would do is take away from the already fascinating dynamic between Twelve and Bill. I’m trying to give him a chance because Matt Lucas is a capable actor, but I’m cautious when it comes to this particular character. Peter Capaldi shines as the Twelfth Doctor once again, there’s never any doubt about his abilities as an actor. His Doctor seems to have an agenda going on this season with the vault and that whole “no one can know about me” thing going on, and I’m betting we won’t find out the whole truth until the series finale. That’s okay, we need the Doctor to be a little mysterious sometimes, just please let this arc be better than the previous ones.
This mysteriousness works a lot better now that Bill is in the picture. “The Pilot” feels a lot like “Rose” did not only because it is a companion introduction and because we are following the same perspective with Bill that we did with Rose, but because it feels like the beginning of a new era. I know that the Doctor is regenerating this Christmas and a new showrunner is coming and generally a whole makeover is happening after series 10, but that doesn’t mean this can’t be a good starting point too. One thing I was looking out for while watching the episode was whether it would be a good way of introducing someone to Doctor Who through it, and I would say it is. Perhaps not as perfect as series 1 or 5 would be, with brand new characters and writers, but one doesn’t need to know anything about the Doctor or the TARDIS or anything to embark on this journey with Bill. Because we are seeing this from her point of view, one could learn about this crazy universe along with her. I very much believe that the title “The Pilot” was intended in this way too and I’m glad. Every now and then Doctor Who needs starting points like this; we can’t all just go back to “An Unearthly Child” and watch the show from the very beginning, some people have lives. “The Pilot” felt like a perfect balance between an episode that is open to new viewers but also rewards fans, with references such as River’s and Susan’s pictures, the screwdrivers, the Movellans, and, of course, Clara’s theme and the fresh wound caused by her departure. It wasn’t a glaringly obvious wound though, not like the ones left by every other companion ever since Rose and Bad Wolf Bay. That’s good, that’s very good because a show like Who needs to keep on moving and the Doctor does too, so the whole memory wipe thing with Clara was the best possibly ending in that sense. No rebound this time around.
I was looking forward to finally having Doctor Who back, but I wasn’t overly excited for the past year and a half, and looking back now I should have been. In a way I’m still a bit skeptical and don’t want to get my hopes up, but “The Pilot” was a solid episode and a promising start to this new series. It was relatively chill, compared to the epic series premiere of series 9, and of every other series since Moffat took over for that matter, but maybe that’s what we need. Maybe having many, many old faces back this series (including the Mondasian Cybermen, the Ice Warriors and not one but two Masters) is enough to keep the continuity nerds satisfied and in the rest of the time we can focus on Bill and what she’s bringing to the show. In any case, I’m tempted to be hopeful and say that this is looking to be a good end to both Moffat and Capaldi, although we’ll see what the emojibots of next week will do to that mentality.