Review: Doctor Who: The Pilot

The Doctor returns with a bang, but it’s Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts who steals the show. Continuity geeks will be just as pleased as newbies.

It’s a Doctor Who super-geek fact less widely known that there was an aborted pilot episode of the BBC’s longest-running fiction serial before the first broadcast story An Unearthly Child way back in November 1963. Largely identical, it was deemed to have too many actor stuff-ups and a few minor details regarding the Doctor’s character and origins were tweaked.

Showrunner Steven Moffatt, returning for his swansong series following an enforced year-long hiatus after viewing figures dipped noticeably in the continuity-heavy, two-parter packed 2015 run, is clearly having some fun with the title then.

Written by Moffat and directed by Lawrence Gough, with only ten episodes and a Christmas special left for the sterling Peter Capaldi’s sorely under-appreciated iteration of the time travelling hero, this new season is both a course correction and a sly doubling down.

Just as the oncoming regeneration to a new face as yet unconfirmed is a chance to re-energise the constantly evolving show, so too is the introduction of a new companion, and in Pearl Mackie’s instantly engaging Bill Potts, Moffatt is on to a winner.

Working in the canteen of fictional Bristol University St Luke’s, she demonstrates the perfect balance of plucky adventurer and thoughtful explorer. It seems the good Doctor has put down some roots, as he is occasionally wont, and is now a much-loved lecturer at the university, attracting full-house crowds that include many non-students like Bill.

Matt Lucas also returns as Nardole, alumni of the previous two Christmas specials, acting as a sort of Alfred Pennyworth faithful manservant-type though a bit surplus to requirement. He shepherd Bill to a meeting with the Doc, who essentially offers to take her under his wing as a student, sneakily disappearing entrance exam considerations. As ever, he sees a spark in this young woman, living with a single foster mum (Jennifer Hennessy), someone who has big ambitions bubbling just under the surface and plenty of courageous heart.

Mackie is snappy in all the right ways and very, very funny. She’s also the first full-time queer companion, with a crush on uni student Heather (Stephanie Hyam) very nicely played without ever being a BIG PLOT POINT (hurrah to no more stale doctor crush antics). Alas, as is often the way with Who, true love is interrupted by a scary alien invasion, this time via a puddle that’s not quite right. The ensuing water-based menace will manage to terrify a whole new generation of nippers into going nowhere near the shower.

Yes, the new companion and university setting creates a great jumping on point. Bill’s introduction to the TARDIS is utterly hilarious. “Is it just me or is this taking longer than usual?” the Doctor asks Nardole when Bill’s “it’s bigger on the inside that out,” is much delayed, via instant classic line, “it can go anywhere in the univers(ity)?” As is the confirmation that there is, in fact, a loo on board. That only took 50-plus years.

But back to continuity – Bill’s name itself seems to hint right back to William Hartnell. Both Hartnell’s wife and his daughter were called Heather; then there’s the small matter of the black and white photo of Susan on the Doctor’s desk – his ‘granddaughter’ – right next to a picture of River Song.

The Doctor is also guarding something in a vault not unlike the Pandorica in a basement below the university, having made a promise to someone unnamed. And then, while fleeing the liquid monster via a stopover in Sydney, the TARDIS crew cross the Doctor’s own timeline during Tom Baker story Destiny of the Daleks, featuring both the maniacal tin pots and the metal dreadlocked Movellans, or at the very least from some point in the two races’ ongoing war.

Is Susan returning? It’s been Capaldi’s biggest wish next to the Mondassian Cybermen, and the latter are definitely back, as is John Simm’s Master, now with added evil beard, going toe-to-toe with Michelle Gomez’ Missy. Jumping on point or not, and the dynamic between Bill and the Doctor is bloody lovely, especially with a shoebox gift of great import, Moffatt’s going out with a continuity-laden bang and I, for one, cannot wait.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★

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