Doctor Who series 10: The Pilot review

Doctor Who series 10 episode 1 is The Pilot, by Steven Moffat. Here's our spoiler-packed review...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

10.1 The Pilot

“Banter”

Let’s start by talking about Pearl Mackie.

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In the build up to Doctor Who series 10’s premiere (I cling to the word ‘series’, accepting that ‘season’ will ultimately win), much of the press surrounding her character, Bill, was about sexuality. Yep, in 2017. Sheesh. Come the episode itself, far less fuss was made, and instead, we got to see just what a find Mackie is. As Bill, it already feels like she’s bringing something just a little different: intently curious, a respecter of the Doctor as an intelligent person, a problem solver (it’s she who effectively resolves the episode’s core conundrum), and a dab hand at cooking up some chips.

Finding a new angle for a modern-day Doctor Who companion is rightly an ongoing challenge (read Peter Davison’s excellent memoir for his thoughts on how the late executive producer John Nathan-Turner used to go about things), but I thought Mackie blasted her way through The Pilot, and was the clear standout. We’ve only got a few parts of her character thus far, but there’s clear promise.

That said, when the Doctor entered for the first time, banging out another tune on his guitar, I did wonder if we were just picking things up as they were (there was no tank this time, though). But it’s clear some changes are being made to Doctor Who. Little, but important ones. That episode title, The Pilot, gives but one of the clues, given that the basics of the show are repeated for anyone jumping on for the first time.

We know, to a degree, where it all needs to lead – I’m sobbing already at the impending Capaldeparture (as it’s not being called) – but the mechanic for series 10 since the show’s return starts off by feeling a little different. The Pilot’s sole survivor from the end of the last series was Capaldi’s Doctor after all, here seemingly having settled for a decent period of time in one place, following what’s been a particularly bumpy run of his history.

Nardole, played by Matt Lucas, is the quiet guide between old and new. With two Christmas specials to his name, here Nardole is upgraded to full-time companion, a valet of sorts to the Doctor. Lucas, I thought, was excellent, tickling his way around his smattering of lines here, at the heart of much of the comedy, but also a bridge between the softening Doctor (note how he zipped back in time to give Bill the family photos she craved) and the wide-eyed, yet savvy, Bill. The three feel interesting already to me. As with Bill, there’s no full sense of Nardole’s character yet (there’s a feeling of him being slowly moved from comedy support to something more rounded), but again, lots of room to explore.

Not that The Pilot was in a particular rush. This was an unhurried series opener (series 9 opened with a rush across a battlefield, as laser shots fired), to the point where I’d almost call the first 20 minutes relaxed. The Doctor, now settled in Bristol (a nice change of location), is teaching (to the point where students are filling up his lectures), and protecting something to do with ‘the vault’.

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That’s one of the mysteries – potentially the key one – that The Pilot sets up for the series entire, as we’re given no tangible clue just what’s brought him to this place and point in time. Nor what the vault holds. 

“Is it my imagination, or is this taking longer than normal?”

A further mystery is the picture of Susan on his desk. A picture that’s specifically cut to when Bill is mentioned. Lord knows where to start with the speculation there. Susan was, as long-term Who-fiends will know, referred to as the Doctor’s granddaughter when introduced as the first on-screen companion.

But was she? It’s a Who mystery that goes back to the William Hartnell years, and Steven Moffat – in his final full run in charge of the show – might just be going deep into classic Who – hardly for the first time – for his final stories (he certainly had a tickle around Destiny Of The Daleks here as well). Is Susan really the Doctor’s granddaughter? If she is, does that make her a Time Lord? And can she regenerate? And, well, how does she link to Bill? Bill gets through ‘friends only’ security that Nardole has set at one point: but how, if she’s a stranger to the Doctor? Is she a descendant of Susan? Is she Susan? Is the original Susan returning? Is this Moffat and director Lawrence Gough throwing out red herrings, or is there something there?

Don’t forget that River Song’s photo is on that desk, too. She’s got form with time travel, regeneration, and the Doctor’s heart(s).

Ah, I’ve missed Doctor Who speculation.

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A further line right at the start that Bill utters also made my ears prick up. She specifically mentions that lots of people who aren’t students go to the Doctor’s lectures. But I wonder who? Is that a throwaway sentence, or are others zeroing in on the vault that the Doctor is protecting?

Also: it’s well protected. Students possibly throwing up triggered an alarm, remember, and the Doctor shows us something psychic-paper-like as a means by which for him to be alerted to vault problems. We’ve had a vault before in Moffat Who, of course: the Pandorica was effectively that, but that was designed to lock the Doctor in. This time, I sense there’s something on the inside. Time will tell.

 “It’s hidden itself as a box with ‘pull to enter’ on the front?”

It’s only when I started unpacking it that I appreciated just how much The Pilot crammed in. The Eleventh Hour may remain peak Moffat for that, but there’s an effortless feel to how much was seeded. The perhaps inevitable casualty of it was the Doctor Who monster-of-the-week bit. Not unlike The Return Of Doctor Mysterio, the core plot mechanic felt just that: a bit mechanical, and the least interesting part of the adventure.

A puddle/shape-shifting liquid that was hunting for a pilot seemed a necessary Trojan horse for the episode to do what it needed to do. Plus it did provide a platform for some excellent horror homages and one or two good jumps – Japanese horror movies and even a dash of Body Snatchers seemed to be bubbling away here as touchpoints – but I’m perfectly okay if the puddle’s work is done now (ooh, appreciating we don’t know the source of its voice: it sounded a bit Zygon-y. Even though it wasn’t).

On the plus side, Stephanie Hyam as Heather was excellent, drawn to Bill, capable of getting under the skin, and spending around 50% of her screen time soaking wet. And I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of someone seeing the inside of the TARDIS for the first time, particularly if the character concerned is well versed already with the rules of science fiction.

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“What could be wrong with your own face?”

The Pilot felt like a few things. A soft reset of Doctor Who, an introduction for Bill, and the start of a new mystery for us, and for the Doctor. It’s a shame that a big forthcoming spoiler has been, well, spoiled, but I’m intrigued if Doctor Who is going to have a series that plans one big story-driven arc to go with the individual adventures. The Pilot is a steady start, with a fair few sparks, although I doubt it’ll be too many people’s favourite episode.

A good, solid launching point for a run, then. We’ll find out next week just where Frank Cottrell-Boyce – returning to pen his second Doctor Who adventure, following In The Forest Of The Night – takes us. See you in seven days for Smile…