After a year off our screens, Doctor Who returns with a new companion in Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), as well as the ringing in the end of Capaldi’s tenure as the Time Lord and Steven Moffat as showrunner. The Pilot opens the series, also written by Moffat, as we meet Bill, a university cafeteria worker who secretly attends the Doctor’s lectures. Impressed by her determination and curiosity, he becomes Bill’s private tutor. Naturally, it isn’t long before alien nasties show up when a mysterious girl with an odd eye begins getting closer to Bill.
While its narrative may be a little lacking in originality or imagination, The Pilot does do a number of other things very right: Mackie makes a good first impression as the new companion in a way that her teaser last year did not do justice. Those fearing an overly self-aware hipster can relax as Bill does possess an actual personality: a working class foster girl, with a taste for sci-fi, who doesn’t let her circumstances stop her from wanting more out of life and enjoying it. Mackie imbues her with such a spritely warmth and delivers the lines very well, playing off of Capaldi’s more stern and enigmatic Doctor.
Speaking of which, Capaldi turns in another solid showing, playing a more wearied Doctor without coming off as needlessly brooding. He’s a man retired, someone who’s been around and knows the game. It shows a wiser side to this incarnation than the ‘cool grandpa’ schtick of the last series, and that is a good change of pace. Lucas gets in a few good chuckles as the timid yet loyal Nardole, but it’s clearly Bill’s show.
Also refreshing is how leisurely the episode is paced for a good majority of the runtime: it allows you time to get back into the world, learn about Bill and set up the bigger menace. Previous Moffat openers like The Magician’s Apprentice did feel overstuffed and in a hurry, but The Pilot allows the audience breathing room to enjoy the atmosphere and characters. It also helps that Moffat has crafted another often funny script that gives Bill’s first exposure to the TARDIS some amusing perspective (the kitchen line works a lot better in context than in the trailer).
What doesn’t work so well, though perhaps this is by design, is the threat of the episode: the puddle alien has a kind of novel idea at the core that ties directly into Bill’s attitude towards people and life, but it’s seldom frightening; the Moffat trope of ‘everyday things made scary’ has clearly worn out its inventiveness, and the lengths it goes to in its pursuit of Bill almost borders on parody (indeed, it plays like a straight version of a joke from Moffat’s Comic Relief special, Curse of the Fatal Death). Again, this could well be intentional, as it allows both Bill and newer audience members to sample the many things the TARDIS and the Doctor can do, as well as keep the focus squarely on her, but I do wish there was a slightly better balance of new and old.
The Pilot is all-around decent television: well performed, written and made (the effects and direction are solid but otherwise unremarkable, hence why they didn’t get much mention this time) and a good introduction to our newest companion. I do hope the imagination in the series starts cranking up in subsequent instalments, however, as this episode does feel very ‘been there, done that’ in a number of places. Indeed, it made me think back to The Six Thatchers from Moffat’s Sherlock: it does what it needs to, has some good moments, but you do wish it had a little something more to truly ‘wow’ you.