The Good: Generally decent performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Very basic plot, Pacing, Thin character development/No big performance moments
The Basics: Doctor Who returns for its tenth season with "The Pilot," which is a subtle return to the franchise.
After all of the waiting and seasons of rumors, Doctor Who has returned for what is already being promoted as Peter Capaldi's final season as The Doctor. It is hard to think of an actor who has gotten a worse deal for a franchise than Peter Capaldi; only Scott Bakula comes to mind as having drawn a straw as short as Capaldi. Scott Bakula was given a Star Trek captaincy for a prequel series where the executive producer loathed the source material that he was constructing a backstory to. As a result, Bakula was given a prominent position in a popular franchise while the creators and business interests associated with the franchise were trying to distance themselves from the existing fanbase. In the words of the youth five years ago: epic fail. Peter Capaldi, in a similar fashion, was granted the coveted role of The Doctor where he was saddled with a Companion whose character arc had already jumped the shark (it's pretty much impossible to make new, exciting adventures with The Impossible Girl who supposedly went through The Doctor's timeline and saved his life in all of his incarnations and keep the idea of the character constant) and stories that did not do justice to his performance abilities. To be clear: Peter Capaldi is an amazing actor and he can pull off all sorts of moments, but the bulk of Doctor Who that has been written for him has been unfortunately unremarkable and not made good use of his range and talent.
Enter "The Pilot," the tenth season premiere of Doctor Who. "The Pilot" is our first new episode since "The Return Of Doctor Mysterio" (reviewed here!) and like that episode, it contains a narrative gap which essentially allows The Doctor to reboot. "The Pilot" not only follows the period of time that The Doctor spent with River Song, but comes an estimated fifty to seventy years where The Doctor has been keeping a low profile on Earth as a professor in England. While that creates some truly problematic concepts for past episodes of Doctor Who, "The Pilot" starts off almost immediately with a very different tone for Doctor Who. Promise-bound by past Companions, The Doctor is quietly saving Earth without traveling through time and space with a Companion, though Nardole is still keeping company with The Doctor at the University.
Bill Potts is escorted into the office of The Doctor on the University's campus. There, The Doctor demands to know why Potts is attending his lectures without being registered for his class. Potts tells a roundabout story that does not answer his question and The Doctor offers to tutor her, even though she is a cafeteria worker and not a student. One night while out, Bill sees Heather, a young woman with whom she seems to have instant and electric chemistry. Later, Bill sees Heather on campus and when Heather seems to be in distress, Bill offers her help. Heather takes Bill to a weird puddle where her reflection is not quite right and Bill is miffed when Heather runs away.
Months later, Bill returns to her foster mother's apartment and is freaked out when there appears to be someone in the bathroom showering, but when confronted there is no one. There is, however, an eye looking up at her from the drain and she runs right to The Doctor. With The Doctor's aid, Bill begins to investigate the mysterious puddle. When the puddle forms into a constantly-dripping, word-repeating version of Heather, The Doctor and his Companions are alarmed. Their alarm intensifies when the team takes the TARDIS into the future of a distant planet and water Heather follows them there! When The Doctor desperately tries to stop the new life form, Bill comes to realize the size and scope of who The Doctor is!
"The Pilot" does a few things right. While the pacing for the episode is slow, the tone of "The Pilot" is generally decent. Instead of yet another major alien invasion, "The Pilot" takes time to develop a very intimate threat that is primarily directed at The Doctor's potential new Companion. That tone actually works better than the moments of freak-out that make the basic plot feel very familiar. Similarly, near the climax of the episode, there is a subtle allusion to Clara that delivers the most emotional impact of the episode even if it makes no rational sense (The Doctor could not possibly know if someone he cared about erased portions of his memory).
As for the character front, "The Pilot" does a decent job of making The Doctor more likable (he delivers Bill photographs of Bill's dead mother after learning she does not have many) and clearly affected by both his time with River and the years of not darting all around the universe. The Doctor is not insulting in "The Pilot" and while he risks Nardole's life, he seems to have the situation under control and actually care about what happens to Nardole and Bill. Peter Capaldi does fine as The Doctor, but even the revelatory moments in "The Pilot" are not very extreme; The Doctor muses his way out of the puzzle in the episode as opposed to fighting or leaping to wacky conclusions based on information the viewer does not actually have. But there are no real impactful emotional moments for Capaldi to play in "The Pilot."
Unfortunately, the narrative gap includes what appears to be a retcon of The Doctor (in his current incarnation) on Earth. Bill mentions that The Doctor has been teaching at the University for a rumored fifty to seventy years, hence his ability to teach a nebulous lecture class. The issue with this that is not addressed within "The Pilot" is that it would put Capaldi's Doctor on Earth for every major event of prior New Who (and big chunks of Classic Doctor Who). Any alien life form that could detect The Doctor would detect the Capaldi incarnation of The Doctor along with whatever earlier iteration of himself was in play (unless the whole purpose of the vault teased in "The Pilot" was actually to sequester The Doctor during every single prior Earth attack to keep aliens from detecting him?!). The only other plausible explanation for the Capaldi Doctor being able to be on Earth for such a long period of time before now would be that he leaves the planet every time anyone who could detect him is nearby because he knows when that will occur. How no one has ever noticed that and how his TARDIS can be parked on Earth for so long with other versions of the TARDIS coming and going seems instantly problematic and is not addressed within the episode.
Bill is not particularly imaginative or clever for a Companion, which makes the viewer think of Rose. Bill lacks Rose's energy and enthusiasm and she does not seem particularly displaced in her life, either. A lot was made beforehand that Bill would not have any sort of romantic interest in The Doctor as she is a lesbian and in "The Pilot" that is expressed mostly as Bill's chemistry with Heather and her spoiling of a student with chips (fries) to the extent that she inadvertently fattened up her potential girlfriend. Pearl Mackie is fine as Bill, especially given that her character's biggest emotional moment in "The Pilot" is alone, opposite the box of photographs.
"The Pilot" is an unfortunately forgettable season premiere of Doctor Who where the stakes aren't particularly high and the emotional investment in the new characters is fairly low. The Doctor is heroic in an understated way that does not make for particularly engaging television. As a result, those who waited with excitement for brand new Doctor Who are much more likely to be underwhelmed by "The Pilot" than thrilled by it.
For other Doctor Who season premieres, please check out my reviews of:
"The Magician's Apprentice"
"The Christmas Invasion"
"The Eleventh Hour"
For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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