Contains some spoilers for the episode
It wasn’t until the opening credits rolled on Saturday’s brand new series of Doctor Who that it was fully brought home to me just how long it’s been since we’ve had a proper first-run episode to savour, Christmas specials notwithstanding. It’s been more than 16 months since the end of series nine – already the travels of the Doctor and Clara seem like they belong to a completely different era of the show.
Clara’s extended tenancy in the Tardis also means that it’s been four and a half years since we last had the pleasure of being introduced to a new companion. In that time we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the show, seen one Doctor bow out and another take over who himself is already about to move on. Fond as I was of Jenna Coleman, that’s probably too long a period than is entirely good for the show: while the Doctor might regenerate from time to time he’s still the same character, and these days it’s the companion who offers the best opportunity for the production team to refresh the show from the ground up with new blood.
Given that series star Peter Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat are both moving on after the current run, they would have been forgiven if they’d simply opted to just coast to the finish line on auto-pilot, before handing things over to Chris Chibnall who will do his own thing in 2018. But that’s not their way; revitalised by the lengthy interval between seasons, Moffat throws himself into this latest reinvention with the enthusiasm of a three-day-old puppy playing with a new favourite toy rather than the jaded 55-year-old who’s been grinding away at this every day for almost eight years now. It’s not the first time he’s reimagined the show: he transformed it into a charming fairy tale with Matt Smith’s first season, before going for a more hard-edged science fiction approach with convoluted time travel plots that continually tested the audience’s ability to keep up. He reinvented the show once more when Capaldi took over the role by daring to be darker, and played with the format again with more two-parters in 2015 than ever before.
At first glance you wouldn’t think that all that much has changed for season 10, but in fact almost everything has. It’s like someone has dismantled a vintage motorcycle and spent the next year sequestered in their garage buffing up all the individual component parts before meticulously reassembling it as it was. The end result might look much the same, but there’s not a single part that hasn’t been looked over, worked on and perfected. All those little tics and rattles and coughs and splutters that were annoying but part of the charm of the original have been addressed, and it’s now working much smoother and more reliably than ever before. At the same time that’s a bit unsettling for those of us who liked things how they were however much we liked to grumble about them, and it will take a while to get used to before we’re entirely comfortable with this new state of affairs. However it’s surely better that we go through a period of slightly awkward transition now, rather than continuing with the unreconstructed model and risking a potential costly breakdown by the roadside in the near future.
Okay, strained engineering metaphors aside, what did we actually think of the product of Moffat’s sabbatical year of working on the show in his writer’s workshop?
On one level, “The Pilot” is a tailor-made opportunity for new and lapsed fans to return to the fold. Like “Rose” – the episode which launched modern Doctor Who in 2005 – the story focusses on an ordinary 21st century person who happens to come into contact with the Doctor and gets pulled into his orbit. In this case, the newcomer is Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) who works in the canteen of St Luke’s University in Bristol. She’s intrigued by eclectic lectures given by an eccentric academic called the Doctor who has apparently been teaching there for 50 years or more. Her presence is noticed and she’s summoned to his office to be presented with a surprise offer, but then events overtake them and soon she’s running for her life with only the Doctor and his odd assistant Nardole (Matt Lucas) to help her.
In many ways, the episode feels like a pilot (the story’s title clearly being no mere coincidence) for a brand new spin-off show. It’s one that’s immediately more successful in flavour than Class, the BBC’s actual attempt to produce a Doctor Who sidekick in 2016. The idea of having the Doctor largely earthbound as in Jon Pertwee’s days (although this time by choice rather than as punishment) has a comfortingly old-new feeling to it. Meanwhile the idea that he’s there to safeguard a mysterious vault in the bowels of the university adds an intriguing series arc to the structure of this year’s 12-episode run.
Just as time has moved on in the real world, so it has for the Doctor. It’s an appreciably different Time Lord that we meet in “The Pilot”, worlds away from the harsh, unearthly alien with little concept of human niceties that we originally encountered in “Deep Breath”. Clearly working at the university for decades has inclined him to ‘go native’ in the nicest of ways: of his own volition he travels back in time to take some photographs of Bill’s long-dead mother for her to discover to her delight in the modern day. That would never have occurred to the Doctor we travelled with in series eight and nine. Nor is it an isolated detail, with Capaldi subtly transforming his performance this time around into a much more approachable, twinkly charm than previously.
‘Subtle transformation’ are the by-words for “The Pilot” as a whole. Director Lawrence Gough adopts a much more lively and grounded way of shooting the episode than usual, with a lot of hand-held camera movement adding an authentic intimacy and urgency to what is actually quite a leisurely story by modern standards. He finds strikingly new ways of shooting the Tardis which ground it in this new reality, and frames shots that make this look like our modern real world rather than a stylised fairy tale or science fiction parallel universe version. Murray Gold has also received the memo and produces his most varied and contemporary score for the show in many years, which makes the moments when he does fall back on bursts of some of the show’s more familiar and grandiose orchestral themes all the more effective when they do come.
All of this makes “The Pilot” feel like it’s more recognisably real in a way that’s unusual for Moffat but which was a hallmark of his predecessor Russell T Davies’ tenure. And that approach is clearest in the character of Bill, arguably the first companion created by Moffat to look and feel and sound and act like a regular human being rather than a sassy fast-talking plot device such as The Girl Who Waited or The Impossible Girl. In this, Bill Potts feels far closer to Rose Tyler or Martha Jones or Donna Noble than she does Amy Pond or Clara Oswald. Her longing to do more with her life than just serving chips to students makes her one of us – the viewing audience – and means we can follow in her footsteps when the opportunity arises for her to travel with the Doctor, having survived the companion’s right of passage of their first look inside the Tardis. Unlike Clara (who ‘got’ the Tardis straight away and who immediately subverted the usual ‘bigger on the inside’ moment by declaring it was ‘smaller on the outside’), Bill takes several minutes before the penny finally drops – just as it would for the rest of us. But at the same time she’s one of the first companions to arrive with a working knowledge of the science fiction genre’s standard operating tropes thanks to having watched films and TV programmes down the years – just like the audience.
Full marks should go to Pearl Mackie for establishing such an entirely credible and relatable character in her first 50 minutes in the series. “The Pilot” is very much her show. The Doctor is for once working as a supporting character, and Nardole’s participation is similarly kept very low key. Even so, I confess I found myself utterly won over by Matt Lucas’s promotion to full time companion, despite how much I dreaded the idea after his over-the-top comedic début in painfully poor 2015 Christmas special “The Husbands of River Song”. In this outing, Nardole got all the best lines and Lucas showed that he knows just how to deliver them with a fine acerbic edge when required, which once again reminded me of the similarly delightful contributions of Imperial droid K-2SO to Rogue One.
The focus could be kept on the new regular line-up partly because the episode overall is not unduly burdened by plot. The jeopardy is supplied by an anomalous sentient puddle in a building site located somewhere on the university grounds. Feeling very much inspired by 1990s Japanese horror films such as Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water, the puddle co-opts the form of a student named Heather (Stephanie Hyam) who ends up dripping water in a style not unlike the zombie creatures of 2009’s “The Waters of Mars”. It gives Bill and the Doctor something to bond over as they end up being pursued across time and space. There’s also a late cameo from the Daleks just in case the whole thing has ended up being too slow and talky for small children watching, but this is the least successful part of “The Pilot” and feels crowbarred in with only minimal impact as a whole. Not to worry: the whole thing is an effective and accessible start to the season that the whole family will be able to enjoy in just the way that Moffat’s previous labyrinthine plots occasionally ran the risk of excluding all but the most dedicated viewers.
Yet while accessibility to the mainstream viewer is undoubted the watchword for “The Pilot”, at the same time it also operates on a completely different second level for the dedicated fans. In many respects it’s a compendium piece encompassing themes and elements from almost every aspect of Doctor Who’s 54-year history, so much so that there’s probably rarely been an episode more steeped in series lore and callbacks to past events. From the photographs of the First Doctor’s granddaughter Susan and the 11th Doctor’s wife River Song, to a mug stuffed full of old models of sonic screwdrivers and the fleeting appearance of obscure 1979 disco monsters the Movellans, there’s all sorts of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grace notes flying around. Even Clara gets a “mention” in terms of a music cue played when the Doctor seeks to wipe Bill’s memory of recent events in order to send her back to her untroubled normal life.
How much of the new flavour of what we’ve seen this week in “The Pilot” will end up transferring to the remainder of season 10 remains to be seen, of course. It’s early days. It could be business as usual in next week’s story “Smile” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce – but I suspect not. This has the feeling of a statement of intent about it from Moffat, who clearly wants to show that he’s going out on a high at the top of his game, and not because he’s run out of ideas and energy.
And on the evidence of “The Pilot”, he’s going to pull it off. Again. And with some considerable style at that.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 29 2017 with the second half of the season following on July 17.