TV Review: Doctor Who 10.1 “The Pilot”

Doctor Who
Season 10, Episode 1 “The Pilot”
Directed by Lawrence Gough
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Stephanie Hyam
BBC America
Air date: April 15, 2017

At last, at last, Doctor Who returns to the airwaves regularly for the first time since December 2015! The long wait is over. We finally get to see Peter Capaldi kick off his last season playing the Doctor. We also start to find out what Steven Moffat has in store for his sixth and final tour through the Doctor Who universe. To top it off, we are introduced to new companion Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie. The result is fairly wonderful introduction to a textured new companion, told with a grace and charm that highlights the strengths of the show.

Say what you will about some of Steven Moffat’s other skills, he does beginnings exceptionally well. The “fish fingers and custard” introduction of Matt Smith as the Doctor and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond was pretty damn magical. Likewise, the triple introduction of Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald across “Asylum Of The Daleks,” “The Snowmen,” and “The Bells Of Saint John” in which Clara died twice (once as a Dalek!) was a creative and unorthodox way to bring someone new into the TARDIS.

What Pearl Mackie gets for an introduction is something that feels very much like a reboot of the show. The Doctor is re-cast, not as the romantic lead, but in the role he more traditionally inhabited during the show’s first 25 years: a mentor, teacher, and guide. To do this, the show covers some familiar ground: the Doctor is first presented as an apparently timeless university Professor and Don (or tutor) at St. Luke’s University in Bristol. Fans of Douglas Adams will recognize this feint immediately as part of the premise Adams used for an ancient Time Lord in the uncompleted Tom Baker serial Shada and then recycled for the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

In the hands of Peter Capaldi, the shift works very well. As an older character actor with a more caustic delivery, the role of the brilliant and occasionally absent-minded professor fits him far better than that of the romantic leading man. His relationship with Clara Oswald was rooted in that romantic attraction however, because her character developed with his younger, more dashing predecessor Matt Smith. The episode “Deep Breath” presents Capaldi’s Doctor as a contrast, showing much of what he isn’t. Here, he sheds the dramatic baggage of the past and more definitively presents him as what he most directly is.

Even with all that, the episode is very much told from Bill’s point of view. The Doctor is almost an intriguing supporting character through the first half of the story and we get to learn about who Bill is; someone trapped by history and circumstance into a life path that leaves her very much yearning for travel in a bigger, wider world.

Not classically beautiful like Karen Gillan (who was a model briefly before her acting career took off) or Jenna Coleman, Bill is not middle class, not white, and (maybe) not heterosexual. She’s someone who comes to St. Luke’s not as a student, but someone who is just working a food service job when she falls into the Doctor’s orbit by attending his lectures. She’s someone who is very aware that she doesn’t completely fit in, and pairing up with another enigmatic misfit like the Doctor feels fairly natural.

Taken in total, this is a strong opening for the season. While borrowing some familiar material, it doesn’t fall into cliche. In the hands of director Lawrence Gough, it also strongly maintains a sense of personal perspective and avoids any tendency for bombast or spectacle like last season’s opener “The Magician’s Apprentice.” Peter Capaldi seems to fit the role of the Doctor in ways that he hasn’t for years, and the tone of the episode works well given the long break since Season Nine. That’s a pretty winning hand in my book.

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