“What, in the end, are any of us looking for? Someone who’s looking for us.”
Yes, I’ve been very lazy about writing on this blog for the last few months. The second half of The Walking Dead’s most recent season left me largely indifferent, though I may return to look at it some time. Meanwhile, the world seems to be plunging into a new Dark Age in which the American public have knowingly handed the keys to their nuclear arsenal to a dangerous man-child whose every petulant utterance is demonstrably untrue, and yet is still considered fit to occupy the Oval Office. Which has been just too depressing to write about.
But! Doctor Who is back, after a year’s absence (Christmas special apart), and that I will write about. The end of the previous seasons felt like a line being drawn, with the final departure of Clara Oswald, the longest serving companion since the show’s 2005 return. This, then, felt like it had to serve as a new beginning, introducing us to a new companion (the first since 2012), and setting in motion new stories for Peter Capaldi’s often acerbic (but mellowed) Twelfth Doctor.
In this it succeeded with some aplomb. Written, as is traditional for a season opener, by show runner Steven Moffat himself, The Pilot was cleverly entitled. Yes, it referred literally to the pilot being sought by the leftover alien tech in a puddle; but it can also refer to the first ep of a TV show. And despite numerous references to the show’s long and tangled history, this ep worked extremely well as a new introduction. If you’d never seen the show before, it worked just as well as 2005’s Rose as a starting point for a new viewer.
Principally, of course, it had to introduce us to Bill Potts, the new companion. This too felt like an echo of Rose; the story was told completely from her perspective, as an ordinary person catapulted into an extraordinary universe. Unlike the plot enigmas that were previous Moffat companions, Bill seems (at least for now) to be refreshingly ordinary,not some jigsaw piece in a labyrinthine plot arc.
Pearl Mackie, who I’d never heard of until the BBC publicity announced her casting, was nicely identifiable as Bill, an optimistic person who, despite the Jude the Obscure connotation, seems perfectly happy to work in the canteen of a university she wasn’t able to attend as a student. The juxtaposition of this very normal person with the otherworldly Doctor led to a lot of amusing puncturing of the genre’s usual pomposity; Bill’s first glimpse of the TARDIS leading her to enquired, “is this a knock through?”, and the Doctor’s grand declamation that, “this is the gateway to everything that is or ever was” followed by her plaintive query as to where the toilets were.
It’s nice to know, after 54 years, that the TARDIS actually has a toilet (hopefully more than one, I’d hate to have to find my way through those infinite corridors if I was caught short). But that was probably the slightest of the referential in-jokes (except maybe that it also has a macaroon dispenser). Right from the start, we saw the Doctor’s university office has a desk tidy containing every sonic screwdriver ever (so do I, actually), and his desk was adorned with framed photos of both his wife River Song and his granddaughter Susan.
Fans of the new show are likely well aware who River is, but (despite references) would be unlikely to recognise Carole Ann Ford as Susan; neither would they be likely to have spotted that the dreadlocked foes of the Daleks shown later were actually Movellans, seen for the first time since their one and only appearance in 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks. But neither reference was essential. For fans, it was lovely to see them, but for the casual viewer, they didn’t distract from the plot.
Which is probably a good thing, but actually the plot was pretty slender. The concept of chaos being caused by malfunctioning alien tech only trying to do what it was designed to is a familiar trope of the show, not least from Mr Moffat himself – remember the ‘nanogenes’ in The Empty Child, or the clockwork droids in The Girl in the Fireplace? Still, it followed another Moffat trope in effectively making something very everyday very creepy. Last time it was a crack in a wall; this time it was a puddle.
And its manifestation as a malevolent, dripping version of Bill’s would-be love interest Heather pulled off the trick of being initially very eerie, like a combination of every creepy dead girl apparition in Japanese horror films; then genuinely sympathetic and tragic when we realised her motivation, to keep her promise not to leave Bill behind. It was an emotional moment when Bill ‘let her go’ – and revealing when Matt Lucas’ Nardole noted, “the Doctor never notices the tears”.
Actually, though, this ep saw the continued thawing of Peter Capaldi’s initially hard to like Twelfth Doctor. The previous season mellowed him considerably, introducing sonic shades, hoodies, and a fondness for electric guitar solos; but he was still somewhat hamstrung by the ongoing saga of his relationship with Clara. Given a chance to start afresh with a new companion for the first time, he was far less forbidding; his role as a university tutor not only recalling Douglas Adams’ Shada but also, in his interaction with Bill, Willy Russell’s classic Educating Rita.
The university is an imposing setting, nicely photographed by director Lawrence Gough. In fact, the direction throughout was impressive, the Doctor’s inspirational lecture on the nature of time nicely interpolated with clever visualisations of the concepts he was explaining. The reveal of the TARDIS interior to a new companion has seldom been done better,alongside Bill taking an uncommon (and comical) long time to reach the usual conclusion “it’s bigger on the inside than the outside!” Nardole’s explanation of that was fun too, an obvious echo of the explanation given to Leela at the beginning of Robots of Death – “you’ve got to imagine fitting a large box inside a small one. And then you’ve got to do it. It’s the second part people get stuck on”.
We’ve evidently got the beginning of a new story arc here, not yet as head-scratchingly twisty as previous years. Why has the Doctor been lecturing at Bristol University for 70 years? I’m assuming, given his possession of a time machine, that he hasn’t literally been there all that time. What’s in that mysterious vault in the university basement, and what’s the ‘promise’ the Doctor is trying to keep? If he’s “not supposed to get involved”, what exactly is he up to? And is his adoption of his new companion as innocent as it seems, or is there a hidden agenda? On that last, I bloody hope not – I’m sick of ‘Girls’ who are ‘Impossible’ or ‘Who Waited’. Let’s just have Bill being ordinary, like Donna Noble, still my favourite companion of the new era.
Also like Donna, it’s a bloody relief that she’s not going to fall in love with the Doctor – I got fed up with that after about three episodes of Ten and Rose, and it didn’t get any better with Martha. There has, ridiculously, been an outcry in certain sections of fandom that Bill is gay. Leaving aside the fact that a) it shouldn’t matter either way, and b) they seem to have forgotten the ‘omnisexual’ Jack Harkness, I think it’s great that she’s gay. Not for reasons of diversity or visibility, more that it means her relationship with the Doctor will be devoid of any romantic connotations.
So, what have we got to look forward to in this tenth full series of the revived show? Well, much as I’d have loved it all to come as a surprise, in these days of a globally connected communications network spoilers are all but impossible to avoid (though the BBC’s publicity than could do a better job).
As a result, the ending of the ep gave us the now de rigeur “Coming Soon” trailer – and yes, it does look exciting (though of course it’s edited to look like that). We have Ice Warriors, Mk1 Mondasian Cybermen, what appears to be the Doctor regenerating (in the season rather than the Christmas Special), the reappearance of John Simm’s Master. Those last two worry me a bit – I want to hang on to Capaldi as long as possible, and while I liked Simm’s nutty Master, I don’t want to see him back if it means losing Missy,my favourite interpretation of the character ever. Still,we know Missy’s back too, and if we can have The Three Doctors, why not The Two Masters?
All that’s to come of course; for now the first new ep in ages was an enjoyable introduction of a welcome new companion and a new set of plotlines. Yes, the actual plot of this ep was slender at best, and very much lacking in originality; but it was well enough done and served to keep the focus on the new companion and her relationship with this spikiest of Doctors. Capaldi, resplendent with a new blue velvet variant of his coat, continues to to be superb, and I’m sad to think we’ll be losing him by the end of the year. I hope the new guy (or girl) is every bit as good.