Doctor Who S10 E1 – The Pilot
Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
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Doctor Who is back once again, and with the end for the Capaldi and Moffat eras in sight it feels genuinely energised for one last run.
Doctor Who is back with a 10th full season, following a year-long delay during which time viewers only received two Christmas specials – one relatively enjoyable, and one absolutely dreadful. That gives the new new season premiere a little extra sense of anticipation. In addition it not only heralds a new year but a new companion in the shape of Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) and the final season for showrunner Steven Moffat and star Peter Capaldi.
Bill works in the canteen of a Bristol university, but spends half of her spare time sneaking into lectures by the university’s mysterious academic known only as the Doctor. When she forms a crush on another student named Heather (Stephanie Hyam), Bill follows her to an unusual puddle in a back alley – and into deadly danger from a fluid-like alien hunting her down.
“The Pilot” takes advantage of the lengthy break between seasons to offer something that’s about the most accessible season premiere since “The Eleventh Hour” all the way back in 2010. Cleverly the episode does not begin with the Doctor. It begins with Bill Potts: bright, optimistic, smart, gay, and both immediately and enormously likeable. It then uses Bill as a viewpoint through which we can discover Peter Capaldi’s Doctor all over again. He has been living in Bristol for 50 years. He now appears to have a sort of assistant-come-manservant named Nardole (Matt Lucas), who was seen in both preceding Christmas specials but feels much more comfortably included than before. The Doctor guards a high-tech vault underneath the university: we get no significant clues to what’s inside, but he has been guarding it for a long time.
There is an underlying sadness to the Doctor here. His desk is decorated with two photographs: one a long-departed granddaughter, the other a long-dead wife. Through Bill, it seems, he may finally rediscover some happiness. There has been a nice character arc to Capaldi’s Doctor over the past three years. He started a severely dislocated alien with a poor sense of humanity and tact. He slowly developed both. Now he has been struck by tragedy: a wife gone, and the vanished memory of a much-missed companion chafing at the sides of his mind. I admire the references to Clara’s absence, but I am rejoicing in that same absence; she was a relatively dull character performed in a relatively inadequate way, and the series immediately feels sharper and more entertaining without Jenna Coleman in it.
The episode’s narrative is relatively slight, but excels in providing nice science fiction beats and creepy moments of horror. It sets a strong tone for the season ahead and introduces the new companion – and the Doctor’s current status quo – very effectively. Guest star Stephanie Hyam is brilliantly unsettling and intense as the possessed Heather. Her name is also a nice small touch, given her brief romance with Bill – Heather was the name of William Hartnell’s wife. The episode abounds with kisses to the past – the photographs, a cup filled with sonic screwdrivers, the return of two old Doctor Who aliens – but I think Heather’s name is probably my favourite.
Doctor Who is back once again, and with the end for the Capaldi and Moffat eras in sight it feels genuinely energised for one last run. Bill seems great, Nardole is showing a fresh potential, and Capaldi is in excellent form. Let us hope the quality continues for the next eleven episodes.