Doctor Who: The Pilot
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Lawrence Gough
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
A review by Billy Seguire
“Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It means life.” Could any statement better describe what it’s like to be a fan of Doctor Who? The Pilot is an episode that does things like that. It sums everything up and introduces you into the universe as a totally fresh launching point for Doctor Who, complete with all the little idiosyncraticies and fifty-year-old easter eggs fan have obsessed over for years. While not as showy as last series’ opener, The Pilot did the job of setting up a very different series in a new way. It made me fall in love with the show all over again.
Each series of Peter Capaldi’s run of Doctor Who so far has introduced a different version of the Doctor in its first episode. Series eight was the stern outsider, a return to William Hartnell’s sense of purpose. Series nine was the vagabond, a guitar-playing punk with sunglasses and Tom Baker’s whimsical charm. Series ten introduces us to the Professor, a powerful and calculating shade of Doctor that harkens back to Sylvester McCoy. This is the most wisdom we’ve ever seen from Capaldi, informed by his long tenure at the university and the commanding presence he holds over every scene. He’s the sort of Doctor you would imagine could give private tutoring or endlessly lecture for fifty years. There’s a weight of responsibility to his interactions with Bill that makes me genuinely excited.
Bill Potts is everything I want in a new companion. Pearl Mackie reinvents the show in the best way possible. There is so much humour and life in her character. This episode is told from Bill’s perspective, making the Doctor seem mysterious and impossible. Bill is instantly relatable and her relationship with the Doctor is so far removed from what came before. Compared to Clara, Bill feels small and way more real. Which is incredible. To be small and real and still stand up against the wonder at the universe takes something truly special, and there’s a cosmic quality to series ten already showing thanks to Bill.
Like other introductory episodes, there’s less of a focus on monsters and more on Bill herself that gives The Pilot enough of a soft reboot to introduce us to the world with a threat that’s deeply connected to Bill. The most thrilling part of that is that it highlights Bill being queer absolutely immediately. Her sexuality is actually pivotal to the way she interacts with Heather, the way the threat of the episode plays out, in a totally organic, touching way that doesn’t feel tacked on, but also isn’t avoided. It was the latter that I worried about Bill isn’t gay in name only as I feared she would be. She is actively seeking partnership, honest and blunt about her feelings, and lonely, in a truly relatable and grounded way. And yet, even with this focus on character, there’s still plenty to be afraid of in the shadows. The Pilot makes water feel as scary as it did in The Waters of Mars with puddles, showers, and condensation all being legitimate threats, with the repeated image of dripping bodies still being a terrific effect.
Nardole is the real game-changer. I am all about three-person Tardis teams and having an older, male, slightly asexual and definitely more alien presence in the Tardis is welcome. Nardole definitely made an impact in the way Bill was first introduced. Matt Lucas cracked me up with his explanation of how the Tardis works but there were some surprisingly touching moments in there as well. The look on his face when he told Bill “the Doctor never notices the tears” was as genuine as it gets. He’s way less of a cartoon The Pilot as evidenced by his toned down costume and even though I’m way more superficially excited about the fact that HE USED THE FIFTH DOCTOR’S SONIC SCREWDRIVER I’m intrigued by the character progression he’s received so far.
This series steps up the game visually. Lawrence Gough gives a great look to this episode and the effects work in particular is impressive. When the Tardis opens on a truly alien world, it looks incredible. I couldn’t imagine a BBC series even two years ago making a planet look this good. So much is done right about the cinematography. The nighttime scene where Bill and Heather reunite was unyielding in its darkness and made it one of the most interesting scenes we’ve seen in years and the episode is filled with interesting angles and camera movement that makes The Pilot feel far more dynamic than it has any right to be.
To be honest, the only scene I wasn’t truly a fan of was the one with the Daleks. I don’t know if it was because we had already seen that sequence in the preview last year or it just didn’t fit the pacing of that point in the episode, but it just felt tacked on to the episode as a whole. I nerded out afterwards when I realised those were Movellans the Daleks were fighting, but what does that actually matter to the episode itself? It does make me optimistic that their presence here means that we likely won’t get any Dalek episodes in this series. While The Magician’s Apprentice did an amazing job with Davros, I still don’t think the New Series has truly captured the horror of the Daleks since Eccleston.
As a classic series fan, The Pilot delivered so many little easter eggs and treasures that I didn’t expect to see. The Dalek/Movellan war is just casually seen in this episode. The picture of Susan on the Doctor’s desk was possibly the most touching. It was singled out in a way that said that Moffatt wanted to call attention to it. I’m not quite naive enough to think this means we get Carole Ann Ford to make an appearance this season, but I know it was one of Capaldi’s greatest wishes for his tenure. If it actually happens, I’ll be blown away.
I haven’t even mentioned the Tardis! It looks incredible. It sounds incredible. Did I mention the interior is white now? There’s so much of a classic vibe that’s crept into the Tardis over the past two series and I couldn’t be happier about that transformation. This is an interior that connects to William Hartnell, revealed alongside what I’ll consider the best companion introduction to the Tardis in a long time. Capaldi owned every inch of the space with his speech and Mackie just stole the show on her own level. And she said the thing! The bigger on the inside thing! How many times have we subverted that? It feels right to use it properly and without irony once again.
The Pilot also sets up a potential arc for series ten with the vault beneath the university. Has the Doctor really been lecturing for fifty years at the university protecting whatever was in that vault? You know Moffatt isn’t going to set up a hook like that and leave it dangling. This is the hybrid of series ten. Can I also say how Dirk Gently that is? Capaldi felt more like Professor Chronotis than the Doctor for the first half of The Pilot, and I really, genuinely loved that dynamic.
Watch It! Doctor Who feels like a whole new show with The Pilot kicking things off. Rather than resting on his laurels with the incredible success of series nine, Moffatt is still playing with his toys until he has the whole box taken away next year. I have my own thoughts about Moffatt as a showrunner in general, but you can’t deny he’s made Capaldi’s run one of the best in the franchise, and The Pilot in particular feels incredibly mature in terms of craft and ambition. Even if you’re not already a fan of Doctor Who, The Pilot makes a great starting point to the franchise, introducing you to everything you need to know and delivering a killer episode in the process.