Friday, 28 April 2017

The Pilot written by Steven Moffat and directed by Lawrence Gough

This story in a nutshell: Bill Potts had no idea that she was about to walk through a door into the universe when she started attending the Doctor’s lectures…

Indefinable: Peter Capaldi has been having something of a Goldilocks experience during his time as the Doctor. From a public perception point of view, I mean. In series 8 he was considered too cold and inhospitable (‘SHUT UP!’), in series 9 he was redefined into a rock Time Lord and just a little too hot to handle and now in series 10 there seems to be some kind of middle ground forming, and he feels just right. I would say that this much more relaxed, amiable 12th Doctor emerged in The Return of Doctor Mysterio and it almost feels a terrible shame that he will only be around for a single year now that that the character (and the performance) has been perfected. But let’s dwell on such minutiae when the net result is that Capaldi has finally been handed a character that seems to have won over the public at large. I think the inclusion of a new companion helps immeasurably. And it’s clear that there is an immediate rapport between Capaldi and newcomer Pearl Mackie. I love the idea of the Doctor lecturing at a university for over 50 years and simply teaching whatever he wants with nobody having the audacity to question him because he is clearly a genius. There has always been something rather scholarly about the Doctor, even in his most playful and irreverent of incarnations and so this post seems to fit him like a glove. Also winning is the concept that it isn’t a student that the Doctor notices, but the girl who works in the canteen who keeps sneaking into his lectures. He notices how she reacts differently to everybody else in the class, her uniqueness. The whole teacher/student angle has never truly been exploited before and it’s such a natural and instant dynamic it is difficult to see why not. It’s one of those aberrations that becomes apparent when somebody has a crack and gets it right (like the whole Rose being missing a year angle). There seems to be more of an effort to give Nardole a purpose in the Doctor’s life here, rather than just a comedy tackalong without purpose. If you would have told me that scenes between Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas would be the mainstay of Doctor Who in 2017 I would have laughed in your face but somehow this pair of high profile actors shine when working together. You can always tell when two perfomers are having fun together and it really feels as though there is the weight of history behind the Doctor and Nardole now, after having spent so much time together. Watch the Doctor fly when Bill puts a mystery in his path. Clearly he has been bored guarding the vault all these years and is desperate for a bit of adventure. 

Funky Chick: What a revelation. Who would have thought that Moffat was capable of introducing a character as a companion? Not an arc plot like River Song or a plot device like Clara Oswald or a fusion of the two like Amy Pond…no Bill Potts is a regular Josephine who exists simply to stumble into the Doctor’s world and offer a fresh perspective on events. She’s a living, breathing person, somebody that I can buy into totally and for the first time in an age I have a window into the Doctor’s adventures because I have character that I can go on these adventures with that I really care about. Pearl Mackie has to take most of the credit because she gives an effortlessly real performance, there is no point where I felt she was trying. There’s an earthiness to her acting style that wasn’t even hinted at in the preview for her character last year. Moffat has to be applauded for a slice of the good work that has been done here; Bill functions as a far less momentous event in the Doctor’s life than all of the previous companions in his era and yet is far more fresh and vital because of it. She’s uncomplicated but never uncomplex, inquisitive, curious and engaging. I liked her very much. The fact that Mackie is a relative newcomer to television matters not one jot…her inexperience is never there to see. More importantly, her rapport with Capaldi simply shines on screen. I was hungry for them to have more scenes together at the end of the episode, which bode well for Smile that seemed to promise just that. The last time I was this interested in seeing what happened with such a sunny Doctor/companion dynamic was way back in the halcyon days of the Doctor and Donna. And even then there is something slightly less showy and razzle dazzle than the, still dazzling, combination of David Tennant and Catherine Tate. 

Bill is clearly the companion to ask all the questions that should have been asked but never have been before. ‘I had fatted her’ – Bill has dialogue as alien and unusual as Ace did in the eighties but Mackie simply has a better way of dealing with it. I love her asking the Doctor if she built the TARDIS with a kit. Did Bill come to the university to serve chips or to learn? The Doctor could spot the answer to that questions the first time he met her. Her buying the Doctor a rub is the cutest thing ever (‘It’s okay. It was cheap’). Bill’s mum dying when she was a baby sounds like something we should be remembering, so I am. Her foster mother is self involved and thoughtless, but clearly loves her. I think there are more mother-daughter relationships out there like that than you might think. Bill admitting that she has never liked her face is a truly honest moment, and I think we have all had a moment like that. She doesn’t strut about going ‘oh yeah it’s bigger on the inside because it’s dimensionally transcendental’ as everybody seems to these days as if dimensional engineering is a subject taught in schools. Bill is in genuine shock at the nature of the TARDIS and what it can do and she has a million and one questions. The moment Bill asks the Doctor how he would feel if somebody wiped away his mind and took away all the wonder of the universe she has more than earned her companion stripes. She reminds him of his conscience, just as Donna used to. A shame Donna didn’t use that line when he took away her memories…but then she would have died. Bill on the other hand survives that fate but something tells me with the hints that he had an involvement with her mother’s death, she might wish one day that he had. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why do you run like that?’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like a penguin with his arse on fire.’
‘What is sky made of?’ ‘Lemon drops!’ ‘Really?’

The Good:
· The design work on Doctor Who these days is simply stunning. Not only does the TARDIS interior look sexier than it ever has before (unless you genuinely liked Willy Wonka’s dayglo orange lounge in the Matt Smith era) but the Doctor’s study comes alive in unusual ways too. The personal touches such as the various sonic screwdrivers arranged like pencils in a jar and the pictures of River (I’m hoping the next showrunner drops the references to her completely, she’s become a bit of a vice like Rise was during Davies’ time) and Susan are lovely. Goodness knows what that latticework in a jar is, let’s leave that to the imaginations of the audience. He’s got a beautiful silver globe too. And they clearly have quite the imagination, they are watching one of the most creative shows on television. The design work throughout is impressive, but I particularly like the two representations of the Doctor. His home and his work, both stylish, full of fascinating nooks and crannies to explore and exploding with personality.
· I was unsure about the super-fast cross cutting of scenes that establish the Doctor and Bill’s relationship (mostly because it is presented in Moffat’s clever clever lecturing style not unlike a number of sequences in series nine – Missy explaining about the Doctor escaping from an impossible situation is a good example) but it ultimately served a purpose. We get a lot of the opening months out of the way, quick as a flash and can move on to moments of character like their first Christmas together. It reminds me of the sequence in Forest of the Dead that pointed out how television cuts out the narrative flab of real life and relationships and just allows us to get to the good stuff. This is the epitome of that approach. It also means that for once the Doctor has a solid few months under his belt with his latest companion before she even steps foot inside the TARDIS. I can only think of Liz Shaw (who never did) and Jo Grant (who did) who had such a deferred invitation. It’s rather nice to have the relationship established before it is shattered with a million and one questions about the Doctor’s insane lifestyle.
· Would this feel as much like a Davies opener if it didn’t obsess so much with chips? Actually, yes it would. A down to Earth companion with a life we can recognise, a light plot to ease her in to the series and show us what she is capable of, a focus on mood and humour and how it obsesses on the abilities of the TARDIS in a very punchy way. The last time I enjoyed a series opener this much was Partners in Crime, the last time that Davies wrote one. This kind of economic storytelling, giving far more attention to the characterisation is the last thing that I expected from Moffat at this stage. What a pleasant surprise. Also the whole nature of the vault and what the Doctor is guarding is just the sort of seeds that Davies used to plant at the beginning of his seasons. Moffat has always been more overt with his arc plotting previously and this is a real refreshment.
· Is it worth acknowledging the fact that Bill is the first openly gay companion? Only insofar as it is never made an issue of at any point in the episode and in a climate where gay rights are being infringed in America and concentration camps are being used to detained gay men in Russia that this is a very positive message to make, especially in a family programme. Imagine being a child that knows they have desires for the opposite sex and listening to the all the news around the world that suggests that it is a bad thing. Now imagine them sticking on this episode of Doctor Who that presents it as the most natural thing in the world. I guess the message is don’t fall for any cuties with stars in their eyes.
· Moffat reaches his apotheosis with trying to make the mundane frightening. What he manages to achieve here with a puddle is terrific. Who has ever looked at a puddle and thought that it could be a scary portal to another dimension? The idea that a puddle isn’t a puddle but that the reflection is something in the puddle pretending to be you is super creepy, and an intriguing way for an alien to attempt to escape from the planet. It is worth acknowledging the similarities between the watery Heather and the Flood in The Waters of Mars (the physical effects utilised are very similar) but in storytelling terms it is a very superficial similarity.
· I simply accept that the music in Doctor Who is going to be of a reasonable standard these days, whilst being plastered all over the episodes in a slavish manner. The Pilot stood out for me as an exceptional example, especially the jaunty introductory music and the chilling, fingers down the spine string work during the tense scene in Bill’s flat.
· One of the best TARDIS introductions ever (‘er they’re made of wood…’) with the pull back from the doors and the ship coming alive being matched only by Mackie’s wonderful reaction. If you are looking to discover the magic of the TARDIS within one episode, this might just be the one for you. Sydney, the Movellan War, an unknown alien planet…the Doctor gives Bill a little taster of what she can expect in a life with him.
· The scene with the Doctor, Bill and Nardole on an alien world trying to figure out what the nature of the alien is reveals a fascinating new dynamic to the show that really works. They investigate by asking and answering intelligent questions.

The Bad:
Is Nardole a robot? Have I missed something? Why does he sound as though he has hydraulics in his arm? I thought we had disposed of the electric guitar. It would be quite cute if it was used at some point in Capaldi’s final year as the resolution to a plot (like Victoria and her endless, pointless screaming). Otherwise I would be quite happy to never hear from it again. I couldn’t entirely buy into the relationship between Bill and Heather because there was a distinct lack of humour between the two and little is done to establish affection between them. Heather has something of the Dawn Summers (from Buffy) syndrome, drearily miserable and longing to be elsewhere. It makes you wonder what somebody as vibrant as Bill would see in her. It seems to come down to the fact that she is quite cute. Which is plausible, but a little shallow. The Movellans? Hahahahahahaha. And might I add…hahahahahaha. Fancy taking the naffest alien race from the classic series and giving them a dynamic repolish and a war to fight with a bigger budget. The Movellans look great being thrown around an exploding set but this is little more than fan lip service. My other half groaned at the use of the Daleks and questioned aloud if the show was bold enough to have a season without them.

The Shallow Bit: Bill has one of the most expressive faces of any companion. She’s really quite beautiful but not a regular way. I love seeing her react to things. She’s a snappy dresser too. I love a good dresser.

Result: Welcome back Doctor Who after two Christmas specials that have erred on the side of high camp entertainment and the show has been off our screens, seasons wise, for longer than the hiatus is 1985. The Pilot would have felt like a welcome return even if it had turned out to be shit but the fact is there is much more to this than your standard Doctor Who episode. Whilst this will receive the same mark as both of those Christmas specials (Husbands had a glorious last ten minutes and Mysterio was one of the cutest pieces of television ever) because it has a number of issues holding it back, this is far more my kind of Doctor Who than either of them. The pacing is lethargic in the first half but that is just to give us time to get close to Bill and drawn into her relationship with the Doctor but things really pick up from the halfway point and it is ghoulish attacks and a whirlwind tour of the universe until the touching conclusion. As I’ve stated elsewhere, Bill Mackie is a revelation and I think this is the biggest surprise, in the eyes of fandom, since Catherine Tate turned out to be one of the strongest actresses to ever appear in the show. She’s effortlessly good and extremely watchable and much of the episode relies on you liking Bill and wanting to stick close to her so that is a really good thing. I love how much she questions and doubts whilst employing a keen mind and allowing herself to be afraid. Clara I know everything and nothing bothers me Oswald she aint. Gough’s direction is worth noting for its atmosphere, he gives The Pilot a lightness of touch and still manages to throw in a couple of effective scares. This is a very easy piece of television to like. Downsides? The Bill/Heather relationship never really came alive for me so I never truly felt anything when they were forced to part, there are the trademark unanswered questions that might frustrate the casual audience (my other half was baffled that so much was left hanging) and looking forward with Smile also being a little low key it is a very gentle introduction to the season. I wouldn’t expect a newcomer to be particularly knocked off their feet. But overall this is a triumphant return for the show in what feels like reboot before the reboot takes place. It’s funny how the introduction of a new companion can give the show a massive facelift and The Pilot confirm my suspicion (which I stressed in several reviews last year) that Clara simply hung around for too long. This opener belongs to Bill and Bill is fabulous and that means Doctor Who is fabulous for me again. Go figure, when Moffat said the show is all about the companion perhaps he was right. I’m optimistic once again: 7/10


Liam Morrell said...

I heartily agree with everything you said. I like the explanation that Nardole is a robot but really it should have been in Mysterio. The slow pace is quite refreashing and i'm glad it carried in on Smile.

Daniel Leonard said...

I think the suggestion is that the Doctor fitted a robot body to Nardole's still-living head.

Anonymous said...

I think they have to include the Dalkes otherwise the Terry Nation Estate will threaten to not let them use them.

Alice Fox said...

I'll be honest, I would stumble on upon your old(old....) reviews and wince. This is well written, well analyzed, and nothing about your review had anything to do with Bill's orientation. Kudos. And you DID mention how important Bill being a lesbian (as am I) is to everyone. I especially liked you mirroring Mackie's own comments on young kids seeing her as "someone like them"

It's also lovely to read a review by someone who is more familiar with classic Who than I am. Hearing comparisons to Classic era in a sea of new people is quite lovely.

One final note. I found Bill and Heather very believable and intense. I found it shockingly​ similar to how I would talk to a girl. And as for her being.. mopey Well I can't disagree with you there. I think me and Bill may just chase the same types of girls. Although, as the only lesbian in my discussion circles, I have no comparison I wonder if it's a relationship that is uniquely lesbian. Or perhaps it just is Uniquely me. Ultimately the Episode works really well and your review is what I would hope for from a apparently straight male reviewer. Thanks bud.

David Pirtle said...

I loved Bill's introduction and getting more development in the relationship between the Doctor and Nardole, but the actual story in The Pilot left me feeling just plain bored. Perhaps that's because it's trying to be an entry point for new viewers, but it left me wanting to see a proper adventure with this new team.