Doctor Who took off Saturday with The Pilot, the premiere episode of the show’s tenth season. The episode effectively introduces a new companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), whose character’s development dominates the episode, and returns the long-running program to the type of smaller-scale personal stories that marked Matt Smith’s early episodes, tinted with the signature darkness of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
Much of the episode is told from Bill’s perspective, as the viewer is re-introduced to the Whoniverse through her eyes. This choice by writer Steven Moffat and director Lawrence Gough allows long-time viewers to reset their relationship with Capaldi’s doctor (like they would have with a new character in a “pilot” episode for a new show—get it?), experiencing both the joy and terror involved with meeting The Doctor for the first time. Those who already loved Capaldi get to see him from a different angle, while those who never really connected with him over the past two years get to reset their relationship with him as he begins his final season.
Pearl Mackie is excellent as Bill, playing the role with a wide-eyed quirkiness that belies an incisive mind. She comes off innocent and vulnerable at first, but she soon shows the qualities which have caused The Doctor to take an interest in her even before the episode’s monster appears. She raises some interesting questions—ranging from The Doctor’s obsession with Earth, to the location of the bathroom on the TARDIS—many of which The Doctor is uncomfortable answering. She also banters well with Capaldi, a fact noted by Nardole (Matt Lucas), reinforcing that she won’t accept The Doctor’s BS at face value, as well as adding levity to the dialogue that has been largely missing from the past two seasons of the show.
Bill is also the Doctor’s first openly gay companion, and this aspect is handled very well in this episode. Her sexuality features prominently in the episode’s plot and is an essential part of her character, but, like previous portrayals of homosexual relationships in the show’s long history – from Vastra and Jenny, to Captain Jack Harkness distracting male guards—Bill’s orientation fits seamlessly into the diverse Doctor Who universe.
Speaking of The Doctor, Capaldi is excellent in this episode, which opens with him as a university professor who gives lectures about whatever he wants. Playing the professor is a good role for Capaldi’s Doctor. The university lectures give him a platform for the grand speeches that have characterized his tenure as The Doctor, and this job seems a natural progression from the little lectures he has given the audience using the blackboard in his TARDIS over the last two seasons. Capaldi seems to relish his role in the mentor/student relationship with Bill, and the fresh start with the new companion, along with the aforementioned banter, makes him seem funnier and warmer than he has in past seasons.
Perhaps the most welcome aspect of The Pilot was its return to the paradigm of the Doctor saving a single person, rather than saving the entire world or universe. The poignancy of Bill’s personal relationship with this particular monster is reminiscent of early Matt Smith episodes, and reveals a compassion and empathy in Capaldi’s Doctor that reminds the viewer of Christopher Eccleston’s run, as well. Yes, Capaldi still displays his signature darkness, but that darkness is balanced by his human-like emotions. His empathy allows the viewer to empathize with him.
While there is much new about The Pilot, there are also plenty of allusions to seasons past. From the pictures on the Doctor’s desk in his office at the university (spoilers!), to the variety of sonics used throughout the episode, there are plenty of nods to the past to satisfy long-time fans.
The new monster in this episode also seems to look backwards, as it clearly has been influenced by the Tennant-era episode Waters of Mars. It is, as the Doctor explains, more hungry than evil, is scary nonetheless, but, thanks to its personal connection to Bill, it evokes a sympathy not commonly found in a mindless predator.
Not everything in the show, however, was integrated as smoothly as the references to the past episodes. Nardole’s presence—while seemingly necessary to set up plot lines that will be explored in future episodes—seems largely superfluous to this particular story, as do the Daleks, who don’t contribute much during their brief time onscreen.
Overall, The Pilot is an effective re-introduction both to the Doctor, after a long hiatus, and to his new companion. The chemistry between Capaldi and Mackie, as well the return to smaller-scale storytelling, both bode well for the rest of the series. Hopefully, Moffat has finally found his stride writing for Capaldi, and this season, which is the final one for both the lead actor and the long-time show runner—will prove to be as strong as its first episode.
Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter as @thesurrealari .