Steven Moffat’s introductions to both Amy Pond and Clara Oswald were of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, in the former case an extraordinary circumstance that had been created by the unusual manner in which she’d met the Doctor, and in the latter because of something she would go on to do but that – in the time paradox nature the series allows for – we as an audience had already been able to see the results of. Indeed Russell T. Davies had a habit too, of creating “ordinary” people and then fashioning something entirely extraordinary around them; Rose became the Bad Wolf and Donna the Doctor-Donna hybrid. Martha was Davies’ only companion who didn’t undergo some kind of supernatural metamorphosis during his tenure. Even Captain Jack got killed off then made immortal…
With The Pilot, Steven Moffat has fashioned a back-to-basics approach to introducing the Doctor’s new companion. There’s no doubt that further down the line, extraordinary things will happen to Pearl Mackie’s Bill – although whether that will involve some kind of physical transformation remains to be seen, but if the sudden focus on the photograph of Susan, when Bill was introducing herself is a clue, then it’s not impossible… – but for the moment she’s the epitome of the ordinary girl who is meeting the extraordinary man. The brilliant thing about this debut episode, is that Moffat has provided a premise and then extrapolated his plot logically out of the character he’s presenting. The “space engine oil” might be a fairly typical technology-going-wrong idea, but the way in which it operates comes entirely out of the potential relationship Bill might have built with its new pilot, Heather, and its focus on Bill – and the narrative deviations as it follows her around the universe – are extensions of that.
Pearl Mackie proves herself a delightful, natural, unaffected, engaging and very watchable actress, and the chemistry she has with Peter Capaldi was obvious from the moment he walked into the very first scene. In fact, the relationship she builds with Capaldi and Matt Lucas is already suggestive of one of those “defining” TARDIS teams that impose themselves on fan consciousness, like a nascent Sarah, Harry and the fourth Doctor, or Jamie, Zoe and the second. The three actors – and, crucially, their three characters – complement one another with divine ease, gently undermining any possibility of superiority within one another, while reinforcing the qualities that make each of them individually appealing. It’s small wonder that Nardole’s initially minor role at the beginning of Series Ten has been expanded and extended through the rest of the run; in some ways he’s Bill’s key to understanding what’s happening to her, while also being a foil for over-confidence. He’s K9 to Bill’s Leela, but in a way that humanises that very alien TARDIS trio and makes the current bunch the most likeable and most easy to feel affinity with for a long while.
Moffat also gave Mackie a lot to work with, in an episode that eased her in by putting her through her paces. At every juncture she was called upon to produce charm, while simultaneously undergoing all the usual reactions a modern Doctor Who companion can expect – including the beautifully understated scene with the photographs, and the recognition of what it must signify.
Using Bill as a way of reintroducing the concept while rooting it in a university was a stroke of genius. It’s unlikely that anybody watching would have been too unfamiliar with what to expect, so instead Moffat toyed with those expectations in a very playful but again entirely rational manner. “It’s bigger on the inside” was of course present and correct (and no faffing around with the wording this time either), but the hoops we jumped through to get there were both amusing, and illustrative of Bill’s character. She is, as we’d been told, someone who asks the sensible questions that anybody else might be expected to ask. But she does so with a slightly skewed view of her environment that demonstrates the difference in what she notices of it, and yet the clarity with which she does. Bill sees the world in the same way a poet does, she understands how everything fits together without getting bogged down in the nuts and bolts. It was refreshing.
There was a good deal of the familiar about The Pilot too. From the Japanese horror imagery of the watery pilot to the occasionally too knowing dialogue, this did feel like typical Steven Moffat Doctor Who given a slightly new set of priorities. The campus setting isn’t a million miles away from the regular appearances of Coal Hill School in Series Eight. And some of his reveals are becoming easier to spot (the face in the reflection being the right way around, for example). On the other hand, there were still surprises in store, like the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from the Movellans – about whom there’s got to be a disco-robot story worth telling – or the sight of the same Doctor who struggled so badly, albeit with supreme confidence that he was indistinguishable from the real thing, as The Caretaker’s fish out of water, energising an entire lecture hall’s worth of students by imparting the knowledge that TARDIS stands for “joy.” Just one of many delicious moments that peppered the episode, creating an anticipation of what small but striking moment might happen next. The Pilot was an accumulation of small but striking moments, adding up to a considerably greater whole than its relatively modest parts might have been expected to assemble.
This being Steven Moffat, there was also a considerable amount of ground-laying with an eye to the rest of Series Ten. In the spirit of mentioning things in passing that don’t need addressing, but coming back to fill in the detail anyway (Chips Girl being the obvious example), I wonder if we’ll eventually get to discover who the original pilot of the time - and spacecraft that leaked engine oil all over the plot was? It’s possible that’s something to be picked up later; it’s certain that the Vault will be. This year’s Bad Wolf is a hunking great treasure chest hidden in the depths of the university, and which the Doctor and Nardole have been empowered to protect. What might it contain? If Time Lord technology is involved, and given the references to Susan and the Movellans, and looking forward to a Master meet-up and the Mondasian Cybermen, then surely it’s another extension of the Matrix somehow, just as the Confession Dial was, and it’s the Doctor’s past that’s contained within it.
Well, probably not. Although this breezier version of Steven Moffat is bound to get wrapped up in continuity-baiting narrative complications somehow, but for now it’s just fine seeing him letting his hair down and having a little fun with the subjects of the series rather than its format for a change. Pearl Mackie is already well along the road of proving herself the most likeable companion possibly since first-series Rose, and that’s a feat that’s been achieved out of a combination of actor, character, and author all bringing a sense of not bogging themselves down in either expectation or history, but instead creating something new for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. And that’s what The Pilot was, in the end: the sheer enjoyment of doing it.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 1: “THE PILOT” / DIRECTOR: LAWRENCE GOUGH / WRITER: STEVEN MOFFAT / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 16TH APRIL)