Doctor Who is back and, after a ninth series that can best be described as spotty, it seems that the time is ripe for a soft reboot of the show. The introduction of a new companion for the Doctor has always been a great opportunity to welcome in new viewers with a quick primer on the basic mythology and provide a softball story to get everyone on board without too much of what David Tennant‘s Tenth Doctor would almost certainly have called “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”. That was indeed the case with series 10 opener ‘The Pilot’ and the first appearance of Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts.
We first meet Bill when she is welcomed by Nardole (Matt Lucas) into the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) study at Bristol University, where he appears to have set up a base. Bill isn’t a student, but she has been coming to the Doctor’s weird lectures and she soon finds herself being tutored by him. After an encounter on a night out with pretty fellow student Heather (Stephanie Hyam), Bill finds herself with a new friend, who has a literal star in her eyes and is very interested in a strange puddle on the university campus.
It’s a standard Doctor Who setup, with a slim but intriguing storyline in place in order to showcase the new companion. Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi have great chemistry out of the blocks and the fact she’s explicitly and openly gay means that the tedious pseudo-romance between Doctor and companion is completely out of the question. Bill is an inquisitive character who is constantly questioning the Doctor in a way that is far more quizzical and critical than it is bewildered by the enormity of time travel. The fact that it is her and not the Doctor who resolves the final problem here is hugely significant.
Away from introducing Bill, this episode gave us a genuinely touching central story. The idea of a terrifying puddle is vintage Steven Moffat (“what are we going to scare every child in Britain away from this time Steve?”), but the execution felt like the best of Russell T Davies – sweet and untroubled by knotty issues of continuity. We do, however, get a glimpse of something that could run throughout the series in the shape of the strange vault that seems to be the entire reason behind the Doctor’s residence in Bristol. Maybe he just really likes Banksy and maritime history.
The most striking thing about this Doctor Who series opener, though, was its simplicity. Too often, Moffat’s time as showrunner has been marred by an over-reliance on twisty-turny plotting. Moffat’s denial of narrative convention in favour of longform storytelling sometimes prevents him from making a fun show week-to-week, which is what Doctor Who has always been about. In his final year at the helm of Doctor Who, Moffat has placed a vault full of tricks at the heart of his opening episode, but there’s also every indication that he has an eye on telling a fun weekly tale.
It’s not all plain sailing here for Doctor Who. Mackie still seems quite raw as an actor and her reactions weren’t always as good as they should have been but, given how brilliantly she was able to subvert the hackneyed “bigger on the inside” chat, that’s only a minor quibble. Who is back, it’s got a new coat of paint and it’s great fun again. What a relief.
Next week: The Doctor and Bill travel to a glittering utopia… and soon meet unusual robots with emojis for faces. Looks like it’s going to be Who versus the millennial generation. Where’s my vegan wrap and beard trimmer? Instagram needs to hear about this! #ItsOnDoctor
Doctor Who is airing on Saturday nights on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
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