Doctor Who made its welcome (and long overdue) return this past weekend, and it was all decidedly new: A new companion, new tone, and in some ways, a new sensibility from showrunner Steven Moffat, as compared to his past few seasons on the series. Still, for all its freshness, season 10's opening episode couldn't help but return to explore some emotional drama that Doctor Who is more than familiar with.
In many ways, "The Pilot" feels quite unlike any other Steven Moffat story from his time as showrunner. If anything, it very deliberately feels instead like a story his predecessor, Russell T. Davies, would have written as a season opener. Gone is Moffat's penchant for slow-paced cleverness, building up to a third act twist that everything else in the episode hinges on. Gone, even, is the obfuscating air of mystery behind the new companion like we saw with both Amy and Clara, in the form of the refreshingly normal Bill (played wonderfully by newcomer Pearl Mackie), a canteen employee at a university rather than someone with an ominous title like "The Girl Who Waited" or "The Impossible Girl". Aside from the odd reappearance of Nardole from the past few Christmas specials — a fun if slight turn from Matt Lucas, even if I'm struggling to remember or really care why his character is still around — it was also free of the sort of continuity quagmire Moffat has loved to revel in during his time as showrunner, even in his prior "jumping-on point" episodes.
If anything, this opening episode — cheekily titled to refer to both the main "villain" of the piece and its soft-reboot nature — felt a lot more like "Rose", the one that kicked this all off again back in 2005, than anything Moffat has done since. It was, on the whole, everything Doctor Who needed to do in an episode that marks its return after essentially being off air for two years.
But at the same time, "The Pilot" delves into a concept Moffat has returned to time and time again in his run on Doctor Who: The power of love, and the need sometimes to let go of something holding you back, in order to move on. That plays into the story that brings Bill into The Doctor's world, after Bill befriends and quickly develops a crush on a pretty student named Heather while at University.
After a weird fascination with an even weirder puddle, Heather gets transformed into... well, a very wet Heather, a hybrid of the sentient spaceship oil that inhabited said puddle (probably a regular occurrence on Doctor Who's Earth) and Heather's attraction to Bill. Having found its "pilot", the oil translated Heather's feelings into making Bill its "passenger" — becoming a slightly terrifying, relentless force that chases Bill and The Doctor to everywhere from a Dalek-Movellan war to the most deadly, alien landscape of all — Australia. Like many a Doctor Who monster lately, it takes a bit of understanding on Bill and The Doctor's part to realise the creature isn't as monstrous as they first thought, but it still requires Bill to let go of her feelings for Heather, so both she and the sentient space-oil can both get what they want: Big adventures in the great wide somewhere.
This is all interestingly contrasted in The Doctor himself, even if he's hesitant to admit it. While Bill's introductory arc is all about having a willingness to let go, The Doctor's is about the fact he can't, no matter how hard he tries (and regardless of the fact that he can't remember why he needs to let go). The way the Doctor slowly, almost absentmindedly draws Bill into his life — at first the promise of private tuition, and then a thoughtful Christmas gift in the form of pictures of her dead mother (taken from the past, of course), and then the surprising willingness he has to fling her into the TARDIS to escape Heather — shows his need for companionship in the wake of Clara's departure (and Clara's wiping of his memory of her) two years ago. He might have wrapped himself in the trappings of being a lonely outsider, hiding out as a University lecturer with Nardole for 50 years, and not using his TARDIS, but no matter how he tries to push Bill away, there's something within him that needs to find a friend to go on adventures with. Never letting go of that wanderlust is pretty much what has driven him for centuries of time-and-space adventures, after all.
The moment the Doctor realises that — as he attempts to do a Donna Noble-style mindwipe on Bill, set to the strains of Clara's theme — is perhaps one of the most tragically beautiful moments Moffat has written for Capaldi's Doctor. Even if The Doctor can't quite recall why what he'd be trying to do to Bill would be so horrifying, his realisation that forcing her to forget about this strange new world would be, in its way, just as bad as the space-oil's primal desire to subsume Bill as its passenger. It is an interesting starting point for their relationship as Time Lord and companion. Hopefully this new vibe can persist throughout Bill and The Doctor's adventures as the rest of the season progresses.
Assorted Musings (in Time and Space):
- So the implication from that opening scene with Nardole, where a screw randomly falls by him and he makes some weird noises, is that he's a robot right? That would explain why he's suddenly alive and well and actually has a body again after the events of "The Husbands of River Song", but I assume we'll get an explanation of that (and why The Doctor is palling around with him) later.
- Speaking of implications, was it meant to have been implied that Bill said something offscreen about the fact that The Doctor showed up in a bunch of pictures of her dead mother? Because why the hell wouldn't she ask about that!?
- I really like that this opening episode was basically a story about Bill developing a crush on another woman. While it's never as on-the-nose explicit as to saying she's gay, it was made clear and was both relevant to the story and yet, at the same time, not really a big deal. It was a better way to handle the introduction of an LGBTQ character to the show than some other big pop culture releases have recently.
- I'm just gonna leave the "coming this season" teaser that played at the end of the episode right here, because how good is that shot of John Simm's return as The Master? He's even grown himself a Master beard! Delightful.