2017 Series Episode 1 tx 15/04/17. Written by Steven Moffatt. Directed by Lawrence Gough. Episode reviewed by John Connors
Chips, lemon drops and macaroons!
Modern Doctor Who is now an old series. 12 years on screen and counting. The newness has worn off, the freshly painted exterior needs a fresh coat. Under such circumstances- and having admitted publicly this is the series too far, the one he initially had to be persuaded to make - it would be easy to expect Steven Moffat to brew something dark, bitter and even uncommitted. However `The Pilot` from its cheeky title in is so fresh and totally committed you wonder whether secretly a new showrunner has already arrived and he’s still called Steven Moffat! This episode is such a leap from last series’ darker hues that it feels like the whole team has overdosed on jelly babies!
WARNING- SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT.
The Doctor has a macaroon dispenser! `The Pilot` is the most satisfying and entertaining companion intro since `Rose` with which it shares a joyful optimism about adventure, knowledge as well as a sense of fun. Just like that 2005 episode it distils the essence of Doctor Who into its running time though it is a more sophisticated take. There’s a definite Educating Rita vibe about the university setting and the meeting of someone ordinary with someone exceptional. Bill Potts works in the kitchens but attends the Doctor’s lectures because she finds them fascinating which is a great way to introduce a new companion as it says something about the potential for anyone to educate themselves or to be educated.
The character seems to have inspired Steven Moffat to pen some of the best scenes of his tenure in charge of the show. Every line of the Doctor and Bill’s conversations dances off the screen mixing Bill’s incredulity at what she’s seeing plus her frank explanations with the Doctor’s reactions and interest in her because she seems to remind him of Susan. This link is further underlined by the fact that the girl with the star in her eye is called Heather. A modern day Bill and Heather.
The on screen rapport between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie is instant and perfect- I could actually just watch the two of them bantering away for the whole episode! Pearl’s experience shows here as she makes Bill a warm, curious and interesting person. Unlike either Clara or Amy she seems like someone you or I might conceivably meet. Bill’s reactions to the Tardis are priceless. “Is it a knock through?” she first asks before declaring that it looks like an expensive kitchen! Before long she wants to use the toilet! There are some funny observations too, notably Bill’s description of the Doctor running “like a penguin with its arse on fire.” All told a flawless debut with even that scene shown a year back to introduce her re-edited (or re-shot?) to take out the more annoying questions and focus more on the sheer overwhelming feelings Bill is having.
After a promising debut as a regular in the Xmas special, Nardole is even funnier here, but in a good way. Matt Lucas manages to make a change of expression provide a commentary on the Doctor’s behaviour and it’s portioned out just enough to be amusing.
As for Peter Capaldi he is just getting better and better. If in his first series he was a little too Malcolm Tucker without the swearing and last time he spent seemingly behaving like Matt Smith, the balance struck with the Xmas Special has been further tweaked. In this episode he is excellent, alien yet approachable, dismissive then fascinated in a second. The script also has less of a manic tone allowing him the space to put more nuance into his performance. There are some lovely notes for the character in this episode especially his travelling back to take photos of Bill’s mum which is a big contrast to his behaviour in his initial series. Compare Capaldi’s entrance this series with that overblown `stadium rock` nonsense last time. Here, the guitar is heard then put away; the contrast could not be more telling. Such a shame Peter Capaldi’s leaving just when he’s nailed it.
The plot itself is slight but enough to fulfil the need for some scares – the eye in the plughole in particular is a jump off the seat moment- and some action. The chase sequence adds in briefly glimpsed Movellans and a Dalek but even better is a planet in the far future that really shows Bill how far she’s travelled. The narrative works in Bill’s sexuality without making a big thing of it even though it is the mutual feelings of Bill and Heather that drive the later plot. The space oil is reminiscent of the Flood from `Waters of Mars` and it even sounds like the same noise they use when she screams but the resolution is different enough.
Visually the series remains as sumptuous as ever but the darker tones increasingly evident in recent years have given way to a lighter palette- it even looks summery sometimes. Having a menacing puddle in daylight proves you can do atmospheric scares without always going somewhere with no lights! Director Lawrence Gough is not averse to the odd trick- loved the photo montages that pop up- and supports the story’s increasing momentum very well. The scene where Bill faces Heather on the mist shrouded lawn outside the university building is especially atmospheric.
The hints of a bigger arc plot work well; clearly we’ll be revisiting that vault in the basement and Bill’s phone seems to have that `rhythm of three` ring that we associate with a certain villain. Also to whom was the Doctor’s promise made? The camera lingers several times on the photos of River Song and Susan. Could it be that we will see one- or even both – of them before the series end? The episode finishes with a lovely sequence suggesting that the Doctor’s promise may have been to stop his travelling (“I never go anywhere” he says earlier) but now he’s been tempted to break that promise for Bill. Again it reminds me of the sheer optimism for adventure and “what the hell” that featured at the end of `Rose`. Indeed there is more of an echo of Russell T Davies’ period in this episode than we’ve seen in a long time. It does prove really that the absolute best of modern Doctor Who works when you take both show runners’ approaches and mix them together.
It is peculiar for someone leaving the programme to deliver such a fresh, vibrant recalibration that is more like a new show runner’s debut but perhaps the realisation that he is going has freed Steven Moffat to tear up some of his now well worn tropes and have a bit more fun. For me the best episode since `Flatline`. What a great start!!