By Ellie Scorah
First, a warning in the words of River Song: “Spoilers!”
‘New companion nerves’ rippled through time and space this Saturday as ‘Pilot’ opened on the swankiest university office I have ever seen (Elvet Riverside’s single-glazed shoeboxes were quaking in comparison). How would Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) measure up to her predecessors? Would there be chemistry with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor? And most importantly, would we like her?
The first episode of a new series of Doctor Who is traditionally an earth-based, companion-led, not-too-heavy meet and greet. And this episode certainly, and necessarily, delivered that. The plot was nothing seismic: it was no ‘Impossible Astronaut,’ but the dead-water-lady was just creepy enough to hook the audience while Steven Moffat completed his real task of introducing Bill.
Bill Potts is a working-class chip-server. Her lack of presumptions combined with instinctual smartness and humour were a welcome change from Clara Oswald’s somewhat smug, if spirited, cleverness. Bill performed her role as the necessary link between alien and human, unafraid to blurt out the things actually going through our brains, confirming that the TARDIS does indeed have a toilet. She also happens to be gay, but in true Doctor Who style, it was no big deal. There are more pressing things, after all, such as Daleks and the whole of time and space to consider.
From the start, Bill was a victim of the Doctor’s quirkiness, endearing her to audiences, and also refreshing the Doctor’s character to those familiar and immune to his alienness. In this episode he was irritable, distracted, unempathetic, unapologetically clever, occasionally too grandiose, and didn’t really have chance to show his true world-saving brilliance. He was a Doctor who needed Bill’s straight-talking and ever-so-human responses to his world, someone who needed his TARDIS comparing to a kitchen and reminding that sometimes it seems the most logical thing in the world to feed your crush extra chips. Well, until she is killed by a puddle that is.
The Doctor was removed from his position as peripatetic planet-protector and placed on earth as a professor, harking back to older days when the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was exiled to earth and working for UNIT. Placing the Doctor out of his usual context allowed the audience to experience him as Bill does, to sit awkwardly with her as he played Beethoven’s Fifth on an electric guitar; to sympathise with her slight bewilderment; and not immediately jump towards sci-fi conclusions.
The episode was a little let down by the disunity of its plot: its three elements – meeting Bill, the introduction of The Vault, and the deadly puddle storyline – seemed to bump into each other accidentally rather than properly knitted together as a single episode. Perhaps this is the nature of an opening episode: it had a lot to do and only fifty minutes to do it in. ‘Pilot’ did achieve what was required of it, it just wasn’t quite as seamless as could be hoped.
The random appearance of the Daleks, for example, was a little questionable. Placing dead-water-lady before a Dalek’s gun, the Doctor was essentially using a weapon against her. This appeared to contradict everything he supposedly stands for. Moreover, the hopping about in time and space was more of a taster session for the TARDIS – a whistle-stop tour of possible destinations for your TARDIS vacation – than a necessary plot-device. Perhaps the point was for Bill to become quickly acquainted with the Doctor’s lifestyle, to push her involvement beyond the point of no return, to give the Doctor an excuse to say “What the hell!” and invite her on board.
‘Pilot’ provided a warm introduction to both Bill Potts and the rest of the series; it promised an entertaining dynamic between her, the Doctor, and Nardole; and teased us with questions as to what will follow. It now remains to be seen what will happen when the TARDIS takes Bill away from her chip-counter and the Doctor from his plush office (and The Vault).
Doctor Who continues at 7:20pm this Saturday on BBC One with ‘Smile’.
Photograph: Paul Hudson