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Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

The Doctor Who revival series has made it to its tenth season! To me, this feels like almost as much of a milestone as the series’ overall 50th anniversary, and as it turns out the 10th season premiere, “The Pilot,” is a worthy start. In fact, I’d say it’s the best Doctor Who season premiere since “The Eleventh Hour” back in 2010.

I took to new companion Bill Potts very quickly, quicker than I thought, perhaps because she is so different from Clara in exactly the way Clara herself was not very different from Amy. Bill also has a good rapport with the Doctor, one that’s based on a shared intellectual curiosity, which is a nice change of pace from companions who have a crush on him or who are simply thrilled with the adventure of it all. I continue to be amused by Nardole’s presence as the Doctor’s de facto butler, even if he didn’t have a whole lot to do this episode. I hope he sticks around and becomes a more active player in future episodes. I adored the collection of old-time sonic screwdrivers on the Doctor’s desk, as well as the picture of his granddaughter Susan. I was intrigued by the mysterious vault the Doctor is guarding. What’s inside it? It must be something pretty important for the Doctor to give up traveling and disguise himself as a university professor for the past fifty years to keep an eye on it. (Then again show runner Steven Moffat is pretty terrible when it comes to season-long arcs, so I’m halfway expecting to be disappointed when the vault finally opens.)

But mostly I came away from “The Pilot” mourning the knowledge that this is Peter Capaldi’s final season as the Doctor. I think he is superb in the role, a monumental step up from Matt Smith (come at me, Smith fans, I will fight you!), and when the Doctor is written right, as he is in “The Pilot,” Capaldi stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of John Pertwee and Tom Baker. I wish he would stay longer. This “three seasons and out” pattern the actors seem to have fallen into is too bad. We barely get a chance to know a Doctor before the next one comes along, with the unfortunate side effect that the regeneration episodes become trite, formulaic, and expected.

“The Pilot” was written by Moffat, so it does suffer from a few annoying Moffatisms. We get a fat joke right up front when Bill describes what happened after she continually gave her crush extra chips in the cafeteria. Plot threads are raised and then immediately dropped (Bill notices the Doctor’s reflection in the old photographs of her mother but never asks him about it). There’s a needless riddle (“What’s the one thing you never see when you look at your reflection?”). The antagonist’s powers remain just undefined enough to let Moffat do whatever he thinks will make for a cool scene instead of something logical (how and why does it shapeshift into a Dalek? A Dalek can’t look down into a puddle’s reflection, and changing into a Dalek has no strategic importance anyway for a creature that can’t be destroyed by their weapons). The Doctor’s electric guitar and (sonic?) sunglasses make a cameo at the start of the episode, which hopefully will be the only time we see them this season because ugh, enough already. And of course the power of love saves the day, because Moffat can never seem to resist treacle.

There’s not a whole lot of Doctor Who neepery to share this time. I already mentioned the old sonic screwdrivers and the picture of Susan. But one marvelous bit that was only seen briefly made me smile, and that was the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it return of the Movellans, a race of alien androids with silver dreadlocks last seen in the 1979 Fourth Doctor serial “Destiny of the Daleks.” The Movellans were locked in a never-ending war with the Daleks, and in fact it was this war that made the Daleks return to Skaro to resurrect their creator, Davros, whom we saw again as recently as last season.

“The Pilot” is a promising start to a milestone season. Longtime readers of these reviews will recall that I thought last season was a strong one, perhaps the best since Moffat took over, and I’m hoping this season will continue the upward trend. With a cast of characters this strong it ought to. However, the next episode features robots that only speak in emojis, so…


9 responses to “Doctor Who: “The Pilot””

  1. R. Francis Smith says:

    Ha ha, I knew you’d spot the Movellans. I shouted it out when I saw it and my family of course ignored me as they should. But what a great easter egg, and on Easter weekend and everything. 🙂

    I agree with most everything you said (quelle surprise) and while the Daleks appearance was in fact pretty pointless to the story, hopefully this will take care of whatever obligation it is they have or feel and we can without further Daleks this season. (While I liked the Davros two-parter last season okay, what I liked about it had nothing to do with the Daleks except Davros, and really, they could use a break. Every season is too much.)

    I guess we can blame the three-and-out on Patrick Troughton, who legend has it advised Peter Davison to save his career by staying no longer, and it seems to have become traditional since (admittedly neither C. Baker nor McCoy really had a choice, and one could argue that Tennant was really essentially around for four, but still.) Where are the Pertwees and the T. Bakers? Ah well. I think it is also instructive that Troughton’s seasons were 48 half-hour episodes long! The modern folks are staying for only a bit more than half that, although I concede they probably actually do more filming than he did, so… well, anyway.

    I remain optimistic about the emoji robots, since Doctor Who has a fine tradition of “look at this cute thing that is actually terrifying” — no guarantee it won’t be terrible instead of terrifying, but one hopes.

    I like Bill. I fear that Moffat, being Moffat, decided on a gay companion as his only way to achieve one that isn’t in love with the Doctor, but no matter, it was actually handled gracefully (nobody exclaims, well, anything about it) and everything about Bill so far is wonderful, really, and yes, Nardole rounds it all out and I hope they develop into a proper trio (and that Nardole speaks slightly slower, but I’m old.) My teenager who has been pretty much down on the last two seasons is back on board — the whole family is. I hope this episode is a sign of things to come, not a blip.

    But full circle, yeah, then Capaldi leaves. Ah well.

    • Nick says:

      I remember back in the classic series when each Doctor would meet the Daleks once, maybe twice in their entire run. Now, as you correctly put it, it’s every season. It’s too much. Especially since they were supposed to have been wiped out by the Time War!

      Tennant’s specials are considered part of season four, which is a cheat, but Matt Smith’s first season is referred to as season five. So I guess technically Tennant only had three seasons, just like Smith and just like Capaldi. If only Eccleston had stuck around for two more seasons to match them!

      Any theories on what’s in the vault? If I know this show, it’s probably a person (or entity) rather than a device or a spaceship. And if I know Steven Moffat, it’s likely something that’s a part of the Doctor’s life that will be a pointless addition to the canon!

    • Mark Condon says:

      I like Bill too, but fear that Moffet, being Moffet, decided on a lesbian companion for the exact opposite reason: That by the end of the season the Doctor WILL have feelings for Bill, which, in Moffet-reasoning, is great idea for why the Doctor will regenerate into a female on the next go-around.

      Not that I have any problem with a female Doctor. I just don’t want it to be for creepy reasons.

      Overall, a decent and enjoyable episode even if the trip to the Dalek battle was largely pointless.

      • Nick says:

        I agree that the Dalek excursion was totally pointless, but I did enjoy seeing the Movellans again.

      • Mark Condon says:

        Quick clarification: When I say “creepy reasons,” I mean that voyeuristic male-perspective of “Wouldn’t it be HOT if these two chicks were into each other?”

  2. I’m pretty sure it’s going to turn out that John Simms’ Master is in the vault — speculation, not spoiler.

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