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Doctor Who: The Pilot (Review)

“That’s my face?”

“You seem a bit flexible on the idea.”

“You have no idea.”

The Pilot does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.

It is effectively a soft jumping-on point very much aimed at a back-to-basics approach to Doctor Who. It is an episode that is not particularly ambitious or original, but instead serves to lay out the groundwork for the season ahead. Like so many episodes introducing new companions, it uses the companion in question as a window into the world of the Doctor and as an opportunity to effectively redefine the show. Given the overlap between Amy and Clara with Asylum of the Daleks, this is arguably the cleanest such introduction since The Eleventh Hour.

Getting on board…

It has been almost two years since the last full season of Doctor Who. There is every possibility that The Pilot could be a young fan’s introduction to the series. By that measure, The Pilot is reasonably successful. It runs through a fairly solid checklist of things that a reintroduction to Doctor Who should do. It introduces a new status quo. It features a simple villain that is driven by an intriguing high concept. It hints at a nice long-form mystery. It establishes a sense of character and identity for the new companion.

The result is an episode that feels more like a springboard and a mission statement than a strong episode in its own right, a reminder of what to expect from Doctor Who served as something of a warm-up lap.

Time (War) out…

The tenth season of Doctor Who will be the last season overseen by Steven Moffat, a writer who has done the show some great service over the better part of the last decade. His successor will be Chris Chibnell, a veteran of the Russell T. Davies era who grew a great deal during Moffat’s tenure. Chibnell will be taking over with the eleventh season, with Steven Moffat overseeing one last run of twelve episodes followed by one final Christmas Special. This is the last go-round.

However, there is a clear sense that Moffat has largely done everything that he has set out to do. He has written two separate iterations of the Doctor. He revealed a secret incarnation of the Doctor in The Day of the Doctor, the first multi-Doctor special of the revival era. He reintroduced Gallifrey in Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. He confirmed that Time Lords could change gender during regeneration, revealing Missy as a female version of the Master in Dark Water and Death in Heaven. He had a companion evolve to the literal counterpart of the Doctor.

Celebrate good times!

In terms of formal experimentation, Moffat has done everything that showrunner could hope to do. He attracted writers like Neil Gaiman and Frankie Cottrell-Boyce to work on episodes like The Doctor’s Wife, Nightmare in Silver and In the Forest of the Night. He crafted intricate arcs across entire seasons and entire tenures. He even arranged for (pretty much) an entire season of two-part episodes as part of a bombastic spectacular ninth season. It is hard to imagine that Steven Moffat has much left on his Doctor Who to-do list.

In fact, the tenth season feels almost like a victory lap for the producer. Chris Chibnell was only confirmed as showrunner after the end of the ninth season, and undoubtedly needs time to plan his first season. He will also have to cast a new lead actor, as Peter Capaldi has signalled his intent to depart the role at the end of the year. However, because Doctor Who had already taken a gap year following the ninth season, it seems like the tenth season is largely an excuse to keep the seat warm before the new management arrives.

Eye see.

There is nothing wrong with this. After all, Russell T. Davies did something similar when Moffat was announced to take over the series. As the show was upgrading to high-definition photography and as Moffat was planning his first season as showrunner, Davies oversaw the production of a number of seasonal “specials” to fill a gap year. The quality of these episodes was highly variable, although The Waters of Mars became something of a late Tennant-era classic. Still, there was a sense that Davies was largely buy his successor time.

There is a slight sense of that here. The tenth season has the texture of a “postscript” season. Moffat has wrapped up most of his long-running arcs. The Pilot introduces the character of Bill, knowing that Pearl Mackie will most likely be shuffled out of the show at the end of the year to allow Chibnell a clean break. In fact, the introduction of Heather in The Pilot feels conspicuously like a trapdoor for a one-season companion, a tidy “get out of jail free” card that would allow Moffat to neatly retire Bill at the end of the year.

Come, Heather.

Even beyond the fact that this is both Bill’s first and last seasons, the plans for the tenth season have a delightfully gonzo feel to them. The information that has been announced has a delightfully odd quality, akin to a weird post-script season of crazy ideas that nobody really needed. However, there is an endearing zaniness to them. Mondas Cybermen! Two Masters! Another Frankie Cottrell-Boyce script! These are undoubtedly fun ideas that will lead to interesting results, but they do not feel like stories that have the same urgency as Moffat’s previous seasons.

The Pilot very much affirms this. In some ways, it feels like a rather conscious retreat from the more ambitious and audacious storytelling of the Moffat era. It is the first season premiere to do a straight-forward present-day companion introduction since The Eleventh Hour, six seasons and seven years ago. More than that, it  is very straightforward in its execution. It avoids many of the stylistic markers of the Moffat era, eschewing any heavy engagement with “timey wimey” plotting and never getting too caught up in clever narrative trickery.

Going by the book.

To be fair, The Pilot retains some of Moffat’s stock tropes and quirks. The leap from evening in the United Kingdom to morning in Australia is a clever twist on the leap to the next morning in The Bells of St. John, with Bill even suggesting that they travelled in time rather than space. Similarly, the idea of the Doctor committing to a particular place and time for an extended period – teaching in university for decades – recalls Moffat’s fondness for having the Doctor stay rooted for extended periods in stories like The Big Bang or The Time of the Doctor.

However, in other respects, The Pilot feels a conscious return to some of the iconography of the Russell T. Davies era. Bill Potts is very much a Davies era companion. She is not a mystery or a puzzle. She is not tied into some larger game. Unlike Amy Pond, her life has not been distorted through her connection to the Doctor. Unlike Clara Oswald, she is not pitched as “the Impossible Girl.” Bill has much more in common with companions like Rose, Martha and Donna. She is a person who yearns for adventure and stumbles into an opportunity.

Chasing their quarry.

(Indeed, it is tempting to point to Bill’s sexual orientation as another marker of the Davies era. Certainly, the moral panic over an explicitly lesbian companion recalls the paranoia over Davies’ so-called “gay agenda.” The willingness to engage with Bill’s sexual identity recalls the more overt sexual politics of the Davies era, something that fell by the wayside in the early years of Moffat’s tenure as executive producer. However, it should be remembered that Moffat was responsible for introducing the franchise’s first explicitly queer companion in The Empty Child.)

More to the point, The Pilot goes out of its way to emphasis Bill’s class status. Class anxiety was very much a concern of the Davies era, perhaps reflecting the writer’s interests outside the show. Rose was firmly established as a shopgirl who lived on “the Powell Estate”, while Donna was a working class office temp who lived in a housing estate with her mother. As a rule, Moffat invested a lot less attention in the class status or backgrounds of Amy or Clara, instead treating their origins as more abstract.

A screwdriver loose.

Bill is defined as a working class character, a fish out of water in the university. “Why do you come to my lectures if you’re not a student?” the Doctor challenges. There are shades of Educating Rita to the dynamic, with the Doctor taking on Bill as a private tutor and introducing her to a world that had long been off-limits to her based upon her social class. The use of Educating Rita is a touchstone illustrates how keenly Moffat is drawing upon the sensibilities of his predecessor. Davies always was much more in line with that class-conscious school of British drama.

The Pilot hammers the point pretty hard. Although Bill is missing the same family support structure that defined Rose or Donna, she still reflects their class anxieties. The Doctor presses, “Why did you come to university?” Bill responds, “Because I wanted to.” The Doctor pushes further, “To serve chips?” The implication is that Bill did not come from the kind of background that encourages or supports university attendance. The only way that she could see the inside of the establishment is serving chips to those who can afford to attend.

Doctor Who, heal thyself.

This is more than just an abstract connection to the Davies era. Bill seems to have been conjured from a particular element of a particular episode. When the Doctor infiltrated the education establishment in School Reunion, he posed as a teacher while Rose went undercover as a cafeteria worker. Bill is in many ways an extension of that image, the class anxieties of the Davies era reincarnated as a Moffat era companion. While much has been made of how Bill breaks new ground as a companion, she is very old-fashioned in terms of construction. She is a stock companion.

In fact, Bill often feels like a conscious reaction against some of Moffat’s earlier work with companions. Bill is in many ways a response to some of the more strident and vocal criticisms of Clara as a character. Clara was a very nuanced and intriguing character, but one somewhat hobbled by Moffat’s insistence on introducing her as a mystery rather than a character. Over her time on the show, Clara evolved from a cipher into a multi-faceted individual. However, there is a vocal section of fandom that took exception to her confidence and her assertiveness.


Bill seems to have been written to play against that idea. The Pilot works very hard to present Bill as insecure and awkward. Bill never seems comfortable in her own skin, never entirely sure of who she is. Looking at the reflection of her own face, Bill concedes quietly, “I never liked it.” The climax of the episode is driven by Bill’s desperate and lonely appeal to the girl she met at the pub. “Promise you won’t go.” Bill bristles when the Doctor asserts himself, getting defensive about his perception of her. “I’m not stupid,” Bill insists. “I know what a mind wipe looks like.”

In some respects, it feels like an over-compensation to the criticism of Clara as “too bossy.” Pearl Mackie does good work in the role, but there is something frustrating in the decision to portray Bill as so insecure and so unsure of herself. It certainly makes a contrast with the more confident new series companions, and it certainly makes sense in terms of a working class character who works in an environment implied to be openly hostile towards people of her background, but it is a somewhat underwhelming introduction for the first explicitly lesbian companion.

Reach out and touch faith.

To be fair, The Pilot does offer some sense of context. The episode makes it very clear that Bill is not alone in her yearning or her desperation. At one point, the Doctor philosophically reflects, “Everything wants. Everything needs.” When Nardole points out that the Doctor acts like he knows everything, the Doctor responds by admitting that he is also over-compensating. “I act like I do, because I don’t,” he acknowledges. To be fair, this was also implied to be a defining character trait of Clara, just hidden behind her confidence and bluster. Bill just lacks that bluff.

There is also a continuing trend of taking the edge off the Twelfth Doctor. Audiences have bristled somewhat at the more callous and awkward aspects of Peter Capaldi’s performance, which contrasted sharply with the humanism and compassion that David Tennant and Matt Smith brought to the role. The Pilot suggests that the Twelfth Doctor is learning to understand human emotional attachment, going so far to allow Bill some contact with her long-dead mother. It is another storytelling choice out of the Davies playbook, evoking Father’s Day.

Into the Dalek.

It is interesting to see Moffat pitch Bill as “generic companion”, after developing more unique and distinctive supporting players in characters like Amy Pond, River Song and Clara Oswald. In particular, Bill falls into that traditional role as the audience surrogate, the window into the wild and wonderful world of Doctor Who. While Amy and River and Clara were mysteries to the Doctor, the Doctor is a mystery to Bill. It is a much more conventional dynamic, one more in keeping with the companion’s historical role over the franchise’s fifty-odd year history.

In particular, Moffat seems to write Bill less as a blank slate who asks plot-driving questions like “what’s that, Doctor?” or “what now, Doctor?” Instead, Bill is presented as somebody fluent in the conventions of the genre. Bill is media savvy. She might not know about Time Lords or Daleks, but she knows of concepts like “lizard people” and “mind wipes.” She is conversant in the language of the story, just without the right vocabulary. In some respects, this is a slight Moffat era twist on a stock character. Bill is almost aware that she is trapped in a story or fairytale.

“There’s something in the water.”

In fact, the climax of The Pilot even returns to the Davies-era use of “run!” as an imperative from Doctor to companion. Moffat had played with that command a number of times over the course of his tenure, subverting and undercutting that basic reading from the moment that the Doctor issued the command to the hostile aliens at the end of The Eleventh Hour. In contrast, The Pilot harks back to its unironic usage in Rose or Smith and Jones. Again, there is a sense that series is going back to basics, evoking its more iconic form.

This is also true of the monster at the centre of The Pilot. The episode is built around a very “Moffat” fear, a monster built around the mundane that is sure to convince children to look at the world in a new and exciting way. Blink made statues scary, while Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead introduced the idea of killer shadows. The Pilot features a person-eating puddle, a creepy pool that offers a distorted reflection before consuming what lies on the other side.

Professor Who?

The monster is something at once mundane and mythic, evoking legends like the lady in the lake and something as routine as petrol leaks from commercial vehicles. It is similar to the crack in the wall of reality from The Eleventh Hour, although not nearly as complicated and frightening. A small puddle that is something much greater, a plot point that suggests something magical lurking on the most boring street in the sleepiest town. It might not be as memorable as the Weeping Angels or the Silence, but it is still a pretty effective (and effectively simple) monster.

More interesting is the idea of the sentient puddle as a reflective surface. Again, this evokes all manner of folkloric fairy tale imagery, with the puddle taking the shape of a mirror in Sydney and suggesting entire new worlds to Bill. The puddle reflects Heather, and it reflects a Dalek. However, it also reflects the Doctor himself. “She’s not chasing you,” the Doctor warns Bill. “She’s inviting you.” Isn’t that what the Doctor does? In its own weird way, is the puddle reflecting back the Doctor’s loneliness, and the promise that he offers his companions.

Wet work.

However, the puddle arguably reflects back more than just the Doctor himself. When the Doctor suggests that the puddle is “shape-shifting fluid that can be anything that it needs to be”, he seems to hint that puddle is serving as a reflection of the show itself. After all, one of the core strengths of Doctor Who has always been its willingness to evolve into whatever form is necessary. Doctor Who can be anything that the public wants or needs it to be, from season to season or episode to episode.

Certainly, the puddle provides amble opportunity for the show to reflect upon itself. In trying to escape its pursuit, the Doctor plunges the TARDIS into the middle of “the deadliest fire in the universe.” Although not confirmed by dialogue, The Pilot finds the Doctor journeying back to the middle of a skirmish during the Last Great Time War, complete with cameos from the Movellans who featured in Destiny of the Daleks. It is a weird little diversion, which treats the Last Great Time War almost as an aesthetic within the show itself rather than something outside the show.

Things we lost in the fire.

After all, the Time War was established by Russell T. Davies as something that existed firmly outside the series, a metaphor for the trauma of cancellation that left an open wound on the soul of the franchise. The Time War was a metafictional acknowledgement of the chaos that existed between Survival and Rose, of the various failed attempts to revive the series in different media with different voices and with different continuity. The Time War hung over the Davies era like a spectre, a gaping wound that cut deep.

Then again, one of the big recurring themes of the Moffat era has been an attempt to heal that wound. Victory of the Daleks reaffirmed the Daleks as a galactic power such that they could return without evoking that trauma. The Day of the Doctor made a point to retroactively rewrite the climax of the Time War to render it a lot less horrific. Heaven Sent and Hell Bent brought Gallifrey back into continuity. The Moffat era has consistently tried to downplay the trauma of the Time War. In its own way, it feels like like Doctor Who is trying to heal itself.

Office hours are a pain.

The use of the Time War as a location in The Pilot feels like a big step in that direction, notably primarily for how little fuss is made of the situation. In episodes like Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, the Doctor made a big song and dance about how the Time War existed under a time lock that rendered it remote and inaccessible. In The Pilot, the Doctor is able to journey back into the conflict without breaking a sweat. The Time War is just another point of the franchise’s chronology, like the Eighth Doctor or Skaro or Mondas or Mars or Peladon.

Interestingly, the casual use of the Time War in The Pilot also fits with other trends within the larger Moffat era. Most notably, Moffat has largely pulled back from the idea of the Daleks as stock “season finale monsters” that emerged during the Davies era. Under Davies’ supervision, the Daleks appeared in Bad Wolf, The Parting of the Ways, Army of Ghosts, Doomsday, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. The Daleks lurked at the end of three of Davies’ four full-length seasons, as big and bombastic blockbuster baddies.

Dialing back the Daleks.

The Moffat era has steered away from this idea of the Dalek as “event” baddies, treating them as part of the show’s iconography. Tellingly, the Moffat era has been more likely to feature Daleks in a season premiere (or towards the start of a season) than in the season finale; Victory of the Daleks, Asylum of the Daleks, Into the Dalek, The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. When the Daleks appear in big event stories in the Moffat era, like The Day of the Doctor or The Time of the Doctor, they are seldom the main attraction.

The use of the Daleks in The Pilot seems to affirm this. The Doctor is perfectly willing to throw himself into the middle of a heated battle between the Daleks and the Movellans in order to lose the monster of the week. This approach to the Daleks is at once frustrating and charming. It is disappointing to undercut so much of the effort that the Davies era invested in building them up, but it is also reassuring to see the Daleks woven so tightly into the iconography of Doctor Who. They are an essential part of Doctor Who, even if they no longer tower over it.

The grandfather paradox.

Even outside of the reflective puddle, The Pilot reinforces this sense of reconnecting with the show’s history and past. On his desk, the Doctor keeps a picture of River Song, one of the defining characters of the Moffat era. However, he also keeps a picture of Susan. Susan has long been the subject of fandom fascination, owing to her familial relationship to the Doctor. However, because of the baggage that Susan represents, the series has largely avoided referencing her too directly. After all, “the Doctor’s Granddaughter” raises all sorts of questions.

As such, it is interesting to see her acknowledged so candidly and so explicitly. Like the Time War, The Pilot seems to suggest that Susan is just another part of the character’s history and continuity. She is not something so special and traumatising that she should be considered “off-limits.” After all, ignoring the character completely and forcing her outside the narrative grants her a weird power. It makes great deal of sense for Moffat to begin his final season by trying to integrate these long mythic elements into the series. Moffat’s Doctor Who is the great unifier.

Fitting the Bill.

Certainly, the relatively light plot of The Pilot allows Moffat to play with ideas like these. He gets to reflect a lot on the nature of Doctor Who, and the weird place that it holds in the popular canon. When the Doctor suggests that there is no real divide between “phsyics” and “poetry”, he seems to be explaining the romantic appeal of the franchise’s surreal blend of science-fiction and fairy tale storytelling into a joyful science fantasy aesthetic. When the Doctor asserts that time is an illusion, Moffat suggests that he has read a lot of Adam Frank.

The Pilot is a solid season premiere, and a commendable reintroduction to a show that has been off the air for far too long. It is not Doctor Who at its best or its most compelling, but it does provide a strong sense of identity and purpose going forward.

12 Responses

  1. I wasn’t really happy with the show at the end of the previous series, having disagreed with a lot of Steve Moffat choices, mostly over Clara. However my long standing love of the show (and watching a lot of ‘Coupling’ on Netflix – still one of my favourite sitcoms ever) made me forgive him enough to come back. I’m glad I did.

    I love the feel of the Doctor as a college professor. It really sits the character well, especially Capaldi and I hope that angle isn’t dropped completely.

    Bill was an interesting change of pace. I thought it was quite a bold choice to go with someone more normal and down to Earth after Clara. As you point out shades of Donna there and like Donna she is decidely non-glamorous (as against Rose who was nominally non-glamorous but was still being played by a beautiful pop star.)

    I do have to disagree with the idea that Susan has been somehow normalised, or at least normalised in the sense you have been suggesting. If she had we wouldn’t have repeated glances towards her picture (and conversation with it too). I suspect Susan will be back in some form (not a spoiler, just fan speculation.)

    • Yeah, I mean, I’m kinda hedging my bets with the Susan thing. I mean, I could see him bringing her back in. And I suspect she’ll be explicitly acknowledged for her special place in the canon at some point over the year, which would be the first time in a long time. But I wouldn’t bet on her being the end game here. (I wouldn’t bet against it. Hence, hedging.)

      I didn’t get to it in the review, but the Doctor going undercover as a Professor is very Douglas Adams. In particular, it reminded me of Shada. Then again, Adams is a big influence on Moffat, with his absurdist sense of humour, love of wordplay and the fact that his tenure as script editor is one of the few previous occasions when Doctor Who got consciously “timey wimey.” Albeit not to the same degree.

      • Well, I think he’s a much more human writer than Adams but I understand what you mean.

        I do like Moffat’s dialogue even if some of his characters can be impossibly smug and self righteous (*glares at Vastra*). Oddly though I had sort of the opposite reaction from yours earlier today – how serious and emotional a writer Moffat can be. As I said I’ve been binge watching ‘Coupling’ on Netflix and I was surprised how many episodes ended with or contained an emotional gut punch – Series 3 in particular is nominally still a sitcom but is actually more like a hilarious but often bittersweet dramedy. I can easily see a lot of the seeds he’d later use in this show (incidentally Gina Bellman would make a great female doctor.)

      • That’s a fair point, although I think Adams certainly has a lot of humanity in his work. But it is somewhat buried underneath all the cynicism.

  2. Nothing substantial to add to the conversation – just wanted to say how glad I am that you’re back to reviewing Doctor Who again! I first hit this blog for Batman comic reviews, but stayed for the Doctor Who stuff. I still think you are one of the best Doctor Who reviewers writing today (perhaps tied with Phil Sandifer).

  3. A pretty “meh” episode. Good lines, and Pearl Mackie is interesting to watch, but there’s a lot less to the episode than meets the eye.

    • Yeah. I mean, it’s a very safe season premiere. And, to be honest, I’m not sure that there’s a reason for his season beyond “Chris Chibnell needs some time to prepare.”

  4. Moffat is notoriously unsentimental in ditching story elements that have ceased to be useful. This is just the latest in a long series of “pilots” that have reintroduced Capaldi to a new audience.

    If you want to sandbag an actor, this is how you do it.

    • I don’t know. I really liked season eight and season nine, although I acknowledge I’m in the minority of fandom on that.

      • Oh, I wouldn’t say so. Yes, Season 8 was divisive (some people thought it was bad, others – including myself – thought it was the best season of Doctor Who, full stop), but everyone except for the stfumoffat crowd seem to agree that Season 9 was pretty fantastic (although I’m not as enthused as everyone; too disconnected to really cohere as something great for me, but even I’ll grant that individually the episodes were great)!

      • Yeah, that would probably be my assessment as well, particular of S9.

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