Doctor Who #983: The Pilot

"Time. Time doesn't pass. The passage of time is an illusion, and life is the magician."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.15 2017.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor teaches at a university and becomes new companion Bill Potts' mentor and helps her deal with a watery entity/potential girlfriend.

REVIEW: That cheeky title... The Pilot, yes, does feature a "pilot", but Moffat really did want to make a new jumping-on point, the first since The Eleventh Hour some seven years ago, though more like Rose than that episode. As such, it gives us the new companion's point of view (no scene without her) and introduces her to all the concepts fans of the show take for granted - the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, the Daleks, and so on - while also giving the Doctor a new (Pertwee-esque?) status quo. According to this set-up, he's been teaching at St. Luke's University (on and off?) for 50 years and is defending a secret Time Lord vault hidden under the campus. Given the trailers have shown us several versions of the Master, could it be the prison Doc10 had promised Simm's Master? I'm not ready to file anything under Theories quite yet, but Bill's ring tone is the same as Martha's (4 beats) and the Doctor has a record of His Master's Voice in his office.

Regardless of the season's arc and what it will mean for the Doctor, this episode has to sink or swim based on its introduction of Bill. And guess what, she's pretty great. In fact,  dare say there hasn't been such a strong companion right out of the gate. Looking purely at introductions, she's more interesting than Rose, Martha or the adult Amy, and while I rate Donna and Clara higher than I do Bill at the moment, both characters took their time getting to that level of admiration (the very end of The Runaway Bride and Season 9 respectively). Bill has all the qualities you want in a companion: curiosity, compassion, resilience (more than the Doctor initially attributed her), and a sense of wonder he can share. She's funny, and has a tendency to burst his balloon, comparing the TARDIS to a kitchen, for example, and asking for the loo in the middle of swelling music and Time Lord speechifying. The reason he's interested in her is that she's a bit transgressive in other ways as well, crashing his lectures (which seem amazingly loopy, by the way, I love his musings on time and repurposing of what TARDIS means) even though she's not even a student, and that she smiles rather than frowns when she doesn't understand something. While neither the first black nor LGBTQ+ companion, Bill comes off as a greater win for diversity by being unremarkably these things. Martha's skin color wasn't remarked upon in Smith and Jones, but was a plot point in historical stories down the line, but the wild 'fro seems more proudly black than Martha's hair styles. More importantly, the fact that she's gay is handled matter-of-factly. Her romance with other girls presented like any hetero relationship, with no remark. Bill's foster mother seems not to have a clue, and Bill may be tardy in coming out to her, but that feels real. And the central romance of the episode has nothing of the prurient joking inherent in Captain Jack and generally in Moffat's writing. She's just black and gay and the writing doesn't need to point it out or congratulate itself on it, and yet both feel integral to who Bill is, and the latter even drives (or pilots) the plot forward. That's amazingly restrained, and I think the reason everyone seems so taken with Bill right off the bat. We're not annoyed by any overt agenda.
I like her as a "normal" person so much that I really hope there's no secret story here. When the Doctor and comic relief assistant Nardole (who's good for meta-commentary, but largely jettisonable to me) discuss her apprenticeship while at the vault, there's talk of not getting involved. Now, it's entirely possible the Doctor is not getting involved with humanity in general, focused on his present mission, but what if he can't get involved with Bill specifically, and that she was chosen to be groomed for something? Keeping a secret about the companion FROM the companion is something that was done with both Amy and Clara, and I'd rather it be left alone.

The plot itself more or less kicks in at the 20-minute mark by which point we're well invested in Bill and her favorite professor, and is the weakest part of the episode... which may not mean it's all that weak. On the one hand, the "space oil" that takes Heather's form and motivations then starts trying to make Bill its "passenger" is so script-powered it can do anything. It can take any form, including a Dalek's, and transport itself across space and time at more or less the "speed" the TARDIS does. Whatever ship it belonged to, it must have been a time ship. The TARDIS does have fluid links, doesn't it? But no other evidence supports this, and it's entirely likely Heather will never be seen again. It's just a means to an end. But regardless of how "magical" the antagonist is, it's well used. Its quest to recruit Bill is a mirror to the Doctor's and Heather's despondency somewhat touching. There may even be a touch of the psychosexual in their relationship, between the fear of commitment and a certain wetness. While the monster is obsessed with Bill, the latter's own feelings before Heather changed merely fell in under the heading of "interest". Heather suddenly comes on too strong. Does Heather's fate connect to the girl Bill "fatted", i.e. someone ultimately changed by Bill's well-meant interventions? How will the Doctor remain a non-interventionist when Bill is so obviously someone who changes people? In fact, she (as much as time) changes the Doctor at the end, with an assist from Clara's theme, i.e. the Clara-shaped hole in his memory. I only need the show to stop doing flashbacks to information given only some minutes before; we're not that dumb.

The relationship between Bill and Heather is a sweet reference to the first Doctor of all, Bill Hartnell, whose wife was named Heather, and not the only reference to Doc1 in the episode. Is there some truth to his returning (as another actor) down the line, or is it all supposed to prime us for Susan's return? The Doctor's granddaughter has a picture sitting on his desk, after all, right next to River Song's. Bill's foster mom goes out with a Neville (Neville Main, the Hartnell comic strip artist?) and has another friend called Barry (Christopher Barry, one of the directors of the first Dalek serial?). His out of order sign on the TARDIS looks a lot like Doc1's from "The War Machines". We know Mondas (The Tenth Planet) is coming up, which may be foreshadowed in the silver globe in the office. There's a sign taken off the Mary Celeste near the vault (The Chase). And Rembrandt's enigmatic "Self-Portrait with Two Circles" looks like he posed for it in the original TARDIS. That's not to say all the references come from the first Doctor's era, but that's still a LOT. The fan squee moment is instead falling smack dab into the Dalek-Movellan War (Destiny of the Daleks), which was great, but see Theories.

THEORIES: At first glance, the Doctor brings Bill, Nardole and Heather to a skirmish in the Dalek-Movellan War, but hold on, the Daleks didn't look like that back in Destiny and Resurrection of the Daleks! My first thought when the Doctor said he would try to lose the space oil entity in "the deadliest fire in the universe" was that they were somehow bringing it to the Time War, and the appearance of the bronze Daleks definitely fits. I could well imagine the time-active Daleks trying to destroy the Movellans in the past (which the Doctor says this is) before they became a problem in the 50th Century. Since the original history had the two races deadlocked and the Daleks excavating Davros to break the tie, I could easily see the Dalek Emperor want to undo those events and consolidate its power. Within the Time War rages an out-of-control Dalek Civil War to see which iteration of the species can best defeat the Time Lords.

VERSIONS: "Friend from the Future" is a scene that was released to tease Pearl Mackie as Bill expanded from the Dalek material in "The Pilot". It puts her ability to poke fun at Doctor Who's tropes center stage, as she questions the Daleks' ridiculousness on behalf of new audiences. It's not quite as endearing as her first full episode turned out to be; that trait is better in smaller doses.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A great introduction to a new companion and new status quo, with the Doctor making some incredible speeches that might become important to the larger arc. The antagonist' magical powers are a weakness, but by making its story more personal to Bill than, say, the Autons were to Rose or the Judoon to Martha, it's hard to criticize it too much.


Anonymous said...

Bill seems to be constructed roughly correctly to be a companion, I'm happy with that.

I like Nardole more than most people, apparently. Perhaps because I saw him on "QI" first and therefore he's not "just some guy". Turns out he's got some immune system ailment that leaves him hairless. Anyway, I like that he's a foil to the Doctor merely by virtue of understanding him and giving him honest input. My only complaint -- and it may be addressed next episode -- is that Bill doesn't assume the Doctor and Nardole are an old gay couple. That's how I'd read them if I were in her position.

I like that this ia a Doctor who has been looking to his past for a long time. But as a "Due South" ologist, I have not forgotten that, when a man starts living in his past, it means he sees no future. ("The Man Who Knew Too Little") I guess maybe I'm happy that perhaps even the Doctor finds himself in those ruts sometimes, and that probably speaks to the value of companions. (The puddle didn't detect any wanderlust in the Doctor; you'd expect him to be the passengeriest passenger to ever passenger a passenger.)

I do hope Heather is returned somehow. I watched the episode hoping that the liquid was a portal to a more traditional ship -- kind of like the time portals in "The Girl in the Fireplace" -- but the episode seems to be making like the liquid IS the ship or at least is capable of traveling on its own, and thus there's no way for a human body to survive absorption. Fair enough, but I do get a little sick of people being gratuitously killed, just because it's an easy way to establish a threat.

Anonymous said...

One other thought: I wouldn't have minded if Bill had worked out that the Doctor isn't "just" an eccentric professor, but doesn't know exactly how to interpret this apparently unaging character that seems to be able to step into a person's past (the photos). She eventually just took it in stride that he has a complex life and is (at least currently) devoted to sharing what he knows.


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