Series Ten, Episode One
Altogether now: phew.
It’s been a while since Doctor Who brought on a new companion. The Doctor’s life, and seemingly the entire universe has revolved around Clara for years – frankly I’m surprised we escaped – so it’s a major relief that Steven Moffat has still got it. With, perhaps, a little help from the Russell T Davies era.
Say hello to Bill. She’s a nice person who serves chips at Uni. She lives with her foster mum and she’s a bit lonely, though she doesn’t go on about it. Oh, and she’s gay.
That latter point made the news, which seems hilarious when you see the episode. There are a couple of references (one a bit rambling and random but ah well, they do need to actually say it; the other probably meant to show her foster mum doesn’t know about it) followed by a story about a crush, which would have worked exactly the same if it was girl-boy. (And quite right.) If it were any lower key it wouldn’t be there. Are we sure this is Steven Moffat, who previously couldn’t contain his excitement about two women making a baby in Jekyll, and a woman marrying a lady lizard in Who? (Not to mention Clara and Amy both giving themselves the eye when the opportunity arose – phwoar, obviously.) Our little creep is growing up! Bless.
|Okay, but y'know... no touching.|
I know some people really liked Clara, but watching the Doctor interact with somebody else for once is like coming up for air. Based on this one episode – don’t panic, there’s plenty of time to balls it up later – Bill feels real in a way Clara didn’t manage in years. There’s a moment where she looks through photos of her mum, whom she doesn’t remember, and just smiles and cries in honest amazement. Her trips to see the Doctor, hiding out as a university lecturer, speak of her loneliness without making a fuss about it. She doesn’t have a very eventful life but unlike Rose, doesn’t grumble; she’d just rather have a more exciting one if it comes along. And she’s got a crush on Heather, a flighty girl with a pretty imperfection in her eye. When she is absorbed by an alien puddle (!) and transforms into an unstoppable puddle person (!!), the episode becomes about escaping a scary thing, of course, but it always comes back to that sense of longing Bill has, and the gutting sadness that it didn’t work out. It’s all so small and real; it’s the kind of emotional core Clara never had despite a ridiculous amount of time and effort, and consequently the show has lacked something as well. Well, now it’s back.
The Doctor is quite refreshed by all this. (He’s doing a thing and guarding a vault, which obviously is this year’s arc plot; you’re not allowed to avoid those, but much like Bill’s home life they don’t go on about it, so I’m actually intrigued.) He’s reluctant to go adventuring, but he can’t help being drawn to Bill, who has a lot of curiosity and a healthy sci-fi imagination. The scene where she gets him a Christmas present and, to pay her back, he orchestrates some photos of her mum is incredibly sweet. It’s only a pity I misunderstood it the first time as something of greater, arc-plottier significance. (Come on, we’re always encouraged to look for this stuff. What do you mean, “he was just being nice”? Mind you, it’s pretty odd that Bill doesn’t march up to the Doctor and ask a) how he knew her mum, b) why he didn’t say and c) how frigging old he is. But maybe she’s already assuming he can time travel?)
Escaping Heather is a good enough excuse to dust off the TARDIS, and before you know it the Doctor’s explaining how it works and facing down a Dalek. Well, that’s what he does with new friends, innit? Peter Capaldi wonderfully sells the Doctor’s excitement at getting his Doctor on after 50 years. (I also loved the TARDIS’s little “ahem” of encouragement at the end. The Cloister Harrumph.) Okay, he’s evidently had Nardole around this whole time, but that’s not the same, especially since Nardole has been retooled as the Doctor’s dogsbody. Good; I like him better as staff. (He’s far too silly to be a person, so it’s almost a relief to find out he’s some sort of robot. I guess that explains how he’s still here post-decapitation? Matt Lucas is playing him more robotty than he did at Christmas, anyway.)
This isn’t one of those New Companion episodes where she has to save his life to earn her place; it’s more that these two people could do with having each other in their lives. But at first he’s so concerned about his vault that he’s prepared to wipe her memories altogether. (Cue a great bit where she “knows what a mind-wipe looks like”.) It’s fair play to call back to Clara here – so long as that’s all, mind! – and use the Doctor’s own unhappiness at what he once lost to change his mind. Good continuity, have a biscuit. This whole arrangement is more organic than I’m used to.
As for the “monster”, which is really a form of spaceship that just wants a pilot and subsequently a passenger, and finds them in Heather and Bill, it would be fair to draw a line to The Empty Child: it’s Moffat’s Dumb Technology That Accidentally Kills You once again. But he’s doing something different with it this time, and it underlines that loneliness stuff for Bill, so I don’t mind.
|The "repeating what you said" thing is a bit Midnight,|
but hey, at least is isn't as irritating.
It is also holy hell creepy. Puddle-Heather just stands there staring most of the time, and sometimes hovers directly over the ground, which is euuuuggggghhhhhh NOPE. All of this is creepier than conventionally gnashing and threatening, although for some reason she does scream a few times. It’s rare that a “monster” can be explained as something innocent and, well, a bit sweet in the end and not ruin itself completely, but I found all of this just as unnerving the second time. There’s a tremendous sadness and horror to Bill’s would-be crush being paraded around like that.
The Pilot is, admittedly, a very small episode. I know I’m sounding like a broken record now, but I thought that was a relief: everything has revolved around supposedly massive questions and ancient mysteries for so long, it’s nice to shear all of that away and just make some Doctor Who. Besides, Episode 1s are supposed to be the accessible ones; you’re here to meet the new person, and here they are. Steven Moffat has been touting Series 10 as a great jumping on point, and while that seems like a wasted effort given that it’s all going to change again when he leaves, he’s not wrong. It’s one of those episodes that quietly gets on and does its job.
…aaaand okay, there are nitpicks. Of course there are. Shall we?
Bill’s chip story is funny and (uh oh) it introduces the gay thing, but it is very very irrelevant, which won’t exactly deflect the knives-out anti-gayers watching; Bill’s comment about a fat girl no longer being pretty is, uh, problematic, isn’t it?; “You know you’re my foster mum?” There’s a good chance she does, aye. Still, mustn’t grumble, a quick glance at forum-land indicates some people still didn’t get it; who put the Doctor’s rug down? Unless he moved the TARDIS, put it down, and moved the TARDIS back. Pfft!; what’s with all the flashbacks? When Bill sees Heather sitting on a bench, we’re treated to a repeat of them meeting in a club a couple of minutes ago. We’re not goldfish – was the episode massively running under?; Nardole works better than he used to, but he’s still just A Comedy Character, which seems especially redundant next to Bill trying to be all realistic and that.
And we’re done. A couple of details aren’t perfect. What else is new? There are plenty of other little things I liked, such as the Doctor’s lecturing style, the photograph of Susan on his desk (yay!), that bunch of classic series sonic screwdrivers, the fact that it’s Bill and Heather (Hartnell?), the bloody Movellans! Pearl Mackie makes a lovely first impression and Peter Capaldi has a wonderfully balanced Doctor to be getting on with. It’s a nice, neat little episode, and all of a sudden the future’s bright. I might even be sad that it’s so short.