This review is spoiler-free. Our spoiler-filled review is live once the episode has screened on Saturday April 15th.
In series past, Doctor Who has had a habit of shooting out of the proverbial traps, with a hugely energetic series opener that throws us straight back into the middle of the Doctor’s particularly unusual life. The Pilot doesn’t do that. In fact, as Steven Moffat admitted in the post-episode Q&A at the series launch this evening, The Pilot is an episode title with a double meaning. And one of those two meanings – the only one you’ll get in this spoiler-free review – is very much that this is Doctor Who throwing its doors wide open, and welcoming new passengers.
If there’s a relatively modern parallel in Doctor Who, it’s Rose, the episode that brought the show back to our screens in serial format for the first time in 16 years, and also to an audience who had no idea what it was. Rose introduced the new companion first, and through her eyes, gave us a guided tour/refresher as to just what Doctor Who’s basics were, and a taste of who the Doctor is. The Pilot does a similar job. Pearl Mackie’s Bill is a very different character to Rose Tyler, lest you be looking for a hidden comparison between the two in there. Furthermore, it’d be remiss and inaccurate to call this a reboot. But the first chunk of the episode itself is a very clear jumping on platform.
We meet, then, a seemingly surprisingly settled Doctor, back in the surroundings of academia, with Matt Lucas’ returning Nardole ushering Bill his way. Bill, we learn, is a dab hand at cooking chips, has a little crush or two – that clearly, for the benefit of any reading tabloid reporters, results in wild, frenzied sex orgies * – and wants to learn things. She wants to grow her brain. And she’s in luck. Plot-wise, the rest you’ll have to find out for yourself (there’s quite a lot to digest in the spoiler-y version of this review, that we’ll put live post-transmission).
Noting its apparently laid back pacing in the early stages, The Pilot still gets through a lot of business, and when Steven Moffat’s script starts upping the ante as it heads towards its back end, there’s a sense that the key pieces for the journey are quickly in place. We get the start of some mysteries that will presumably play out as the series continues, and some questions left lingering without answers. The core explanations – it’s bigger on the inside! – are also duly done, and I never tire of seeing them.
The core underpinning monster plot is kept relatively straightforward, and one cast member in particular must have had a series of pretty uncomfortable days on set. Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows are as sublimely magnetic as always, and his Doctor remains a joy.
This one isn’t his show, though. Here, Capaldi takes just a little bit of a back seat. This, instead, is Pearl Mackie’s big moment. And she really, really takes it.
Mackie’s portrayal and instantly likeable characterization of Bill is a real highlight here. We’re only one episode in, granted, but I liked her enormously. She’s a character who knows her way around sci-fi – she tells us herself – and that means she and the story can take a few slightly different ways around things. Moffat’s offering no retread of companions past here either, even as he gets through her introduction to the Doctor’s world.
Matt Lucas gets less screen time, now established as Nardole, effectively the Doctor’s valet. But Lucas can and does deliver a zinger with quiet, understated, pinpoint accuracy. His timing, and even the audible volume of his lines, is often exquisite. Even more importantly, there’s a growing sense of a much more important character here.
Whether you take it as an entertaining refresher course in the ways of Who, or a starting point, The Pilot is good fun. A way of settling everyone in for what lies ahead, with the added bonus of some good laughs and one or two jump moments (credit to director Lawrence Gough, who seems to have been swotting up on his horror films). There are interesting things that hark back to Who past in it, and tantalizing teases of Who future. Plus enough Who present to tie it all together.
And keep an eye on Pearl Mackie. Doctor Who, not for the first time, has unearthed a real talent here.
Doctor Who series 10 begins on BBC One on Saturday 15th April. We have utter confidence that the BBC will find a fixed timeslot for it every week, and won’t bodge it around by 10-15 minutes here and there to accommodate other shows. **