Sunday, 16 April 2017

TV Review: As the series count crosses double figures, Doctor Who hits the reset button

S10E01 - "The Pilot"


Contains spoilers.


After sixteen long months, Doctor Who is back for a new series. It's been an agonising wait, mostly because the show's last full series was its strongest to date for a number of reasons: it combined its head and its heart in more intricate ways than ever before; it allowed Peter Capaldi to fully demonstrate the strength of his acting abilities in episodes like "The Zygon Inversion" and "Heaven Sent"; Jenna Coleman was able to bid a heartbreaking and poetic farewell to the wonderful Clara; finally, pretty much every individual episode was just flat out great.


It was always going to be a tough season to follow. While the year and a half long wait has been frustrating, it's simultaneously allowed the highs of Series Nine to settle, bringing expectations down a bit before Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi's final year on the show. Immediately, "The Pilot" lacks the confidence and high-wire energy of last series' fantastic opener "The Magician's Apprentice" but, thankfully, it's a necessary sacrifice in a solidly entertaining if rarely spectacular premiere.


We begin with Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), a young woman who works in a canteen at a local University. She frequently attends lectures given by a man who calls himself the Doctor and, after he eventually calls her up on it and questions why she attends his lectures, he takes her on as a kind of personal student. Meanwhile, Bill develops an attraction towards a girl with a star in her eye, but a mysterious puddle and an important vault below the University lead the Doctor and Bill on a ride through time and space to find the answers before it's too late.


"The Pilot" works as an episode title for two reasons. Firstly the episode's plot does hinge on the usage of a pilot, but more so this episode feels like a reboot, like a pilot of a brand new show. The premiere is framed from Bill's perspective, we follow her into the Doctor's office rather than siding with him and waiting for her. We rarely spend time with the Doctor and away from Bill, each passing scene sticking to her side. It's an effective way to revitalise the show heading into its tenth (yes, tenth!) series - it allows the Doctor to feel magical again. The sequence of Bill entering the TARDIS for the first time was breathtaking, while delivering the line "TARDIS, for short" the joy on Peter Capaldi's face made my own light up.


Pearl Mackie had big boots to fill when taking up the companion slot following Jenna Coleman, but her performance here is great. Framing the episode from her perspective certainly helps, but Mackie demonstrates an impress range in this premiere alone - her quirky one liners to the Doctor show a fun and inquisitive mind, but her demeanour and attitude are noticeably more subdued and tired whenever she's at home. A small scene of her looking through photos of her deceased mother is impressive for how well Mackie makes us feel Bill's sadness so early into her characterisation.


As can be expected with an episode introducing a companion, the A-plot feels kind of lacking. The fast paced race through time was a terrific scene - and a brilliant way of helping Bill get accustomed to the novelty quickly - but water Heather never feels like a real threat. It could be the dodgy CGI, or it could just be that puddles are tough to really be frightened of. I'd argue the latter.


Still, "The Pilot" is an effective way to kick start the new series. The performances all round are winning - Capaldi is as great as ever, the more fun he's allowed to have in the role, the better - and Moffat's script effectively balances humour with smaller character beats. Humour is the best way to a character's heart, so it's nice to see Bill demonstrating this from the get go. It feels like everyone both on board the TARDIS and behind the camera just want to have fun this year, go out on a fast paced, adrenaline fuelled high. I'm more than on board already.


Notes-

  • Matt Lucas' presence this season initially worried me, mostly because Nardole had all the makings of a one off character never to be seen again. Lucas is terrific here though, his comic timing is pinpoint accurate and the way he plays Nardole as if he's always ten seconds behind everyone else should prove consistently funny. My worries have been calmed.
  • What with the pictures of River Song and Susan on the desk, as well as the raven model and the Beethoven bust, "The Pilot" is packed with callbacks to previous stories and characters lost.
  • The memory wipe scene was a touching way of transitioning from Clara to Bill. When Clara's theme started playing I nearly lost it. "Hell Bent" has broken me when it comes to that piece of music.
  • Bill seems to have no filter, asking questions left right and centre. So it's a bit difficult to believe she wouldn't bring up the fact that the knows the Doctor took those photos of her mother. It was a touching scene though, so we can let that slide.
  • The three things the Doctor most associates with being a student? Texting, snogging and vegan wraps.
  • "Poetry, physics...same thing"

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