Season premieres of Doctor Who are typically high-energy affairs, but the start of season 10 crackles with energy of a different sort. It’s partly due to the fact that, apart from the annual Christmas Special, the series hasn’t had a regular season episode since December of 2015. Such a long time away certainly proves absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the season 10 premiere feels like a major event all on its own, even if it weren’t more notable for several other reasons. Chief among those reasons is, of course, the understanding that, perhaps more so than any other installment in the long-running franchise – and certainly since it was revived 2005 – this season brings with it a brand new companion in Pearl Mackie’s Bill, and also a major changing of the guard, as both star Peter Capaldi and longtime showrunner Steven Moffat are set to move on.
TV being what it is these days, the information about Capaldi and Moffat’s pending departures has been known and discussed at great length for months already. That sort of advance knowledge has a unique impact on the series long before the first episode airs; the viewer goes in knowing it is the beginning of the end – or an end, considering Doctor Who doesn’t really ever end. As such, the pending transition from Moffat to incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall, and the more noticeable transition from Capaldi to whoever will be tapped to replace him alters the very atmosphere of the show itself; every moment is essentially fraught with significance, both real and imagined.
That’s certainly true of the season premiere ‘The Pilot’, which has the exciting yet unenviable task of getting viewers back into the Doctor Who frame of mind, while also doing the heavy lifting with regard to serving as a proper introduction to Mackie’s Bill.
Introducing a new companion is no easy task; it runs the risk of alienating longtime fans, and still Doctor Who does it with regularity. The same goes for choosing the new Doctor. And while Season 10 will eventually have to tackle both, ‘The Pilot’ is tasked solely with the former.
Early on, the focus on Mackie’s Bill alters the perspective of the series in an interesting way. ‘The Pilot’ examines an exceedingly ordinary person’s run-in with the Doctor from her point of view, but does so to an almost extreme degree. For a good chunk of the hour, Capaldi’s Doctor is either off screen or he’s presented as a wildly enigmatic force, something as captivating and strange as the alien worlds and creatures Bill is introduced to after a sentient intergalactic oil slick hitches a ride with a young woman Bill has a crush on. The resulting adventure feels, for the first time in a long time, like the Doctor’s companion can greet her adventures with a great deal of enthusiasm and the requisite wide-eyed wonder.
Astonishment at the splendor of it all is part and parcel to Bill’s appeal, and Mackie delivers it with aplomb. Her introduction to the TARDIS alone is one of the most charming reactions from a companion – or anyone, really – in years. Much of that has to do with the nature of the episode itself. ‘The Pilot’ isn’t concerned with anything more than getting to know Bill. Intergalactic oil slicks aside, the lack of an over complicated plot or need for exposition – as was needed, to a certain degree, with both Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond and Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald – affords the episode freedom to understand who Bill is through Mackie’s performance. Without a pending alien invasion or the fate of the entire universe at stake, ‘The Pilot’ has the time to slow things down, and to enjoy Bill’s story of fattening up a girl she has a crush on by putting extra chips on her plate at lunch every day, or the sensation of discovery and overwhelming wonder. Bill, the Doctor, and Matt Lucas’s Nardole are all on the run from the aforementioned oil slick that’s killed Heather, a student who works at the university Bill works at and the Doctor – because he’s the Doctor – lectures. It’s a simple and straightforward story that doesn’t need much in the way of set up or resolution, giving the lion’s share of the hour to Bill’s gradual introduction to the Doctor by way of some private tutoring, most of which unfolds via montage.
The Doctor being a university lecturer is one of those new avenues that Doctor Who can introduce and explore thanks to the relativity of the Doctor’s existence and his day-to-day life. Essentially, there’s no reason he can’t have taught at a university for, as Bill mentions, like 50 years, since there’s really no reason he can’t have spent a considerable amount of time in or around any place in the universe. Moffat’s script makes good use of Who shorthand in that sense, opening the door for a quick getting-to-know you between the Doctor and his new companion that takes place off screen for the most part. It’s a cheat, but a smart one. The Doctor and Bill know and are familiar with one another on a personal level, so when her understanding of the world and the universe at large expands in a very rapid series of events, the hour doesn’t also have to carry the weight of two strangers struggling to communicate with one another.
Normally, an episode that makes good use of so many shortcuts might feel like it was wasting the viewers’ time or taking advantage of the fan base by giving them what they want by delivering a Dalek encounter and some fun timey-wimey stuff. But rather than simply present a rapid succession of Doctor Who elements, ‘The Pilot’ makes use of its narrative shortcuts to put Bill front and center – which is, after all, the only real task it has. In addition to introducing audiences to the wonderful and very welcome presence of Mackie, as well as her terrific performance as Bill, the time saving elements also give Capaldi a chance to shine as his more alien Doctor reveals an underlying reluctance to take on another companion. Despite his limited memories of Clara, the emotions of last season’s ‘Hell Bent’ are still seemingly fresh, giving his inevitable choice to not only not wipe Bill’s memories but also invite her along the emotional payoff necessary to starting a new companionship.
The task of bringing on a new companion is no easy feat, but Moffat made it work with some clever rearranging and editing of typical Doctor Who conventions. But really, ‘The Pilot’ shined because of its focus on individual characters over plot. The episode was a convenient single-serving streamlined adventure without too much on its plate, something Bill knows a little a thing or two about.
Doctor Who continues next Saturday with ‘Smile’ @9pm on BBC America.