Doctor Who: The Pilot geeky spots and Easter eggs

Huge spoilers, as we unpack the Doctor Who series 10 opener - The Pilot - in search of references and treats.

This article contains spoilers for Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is back for its 36th series, and with it are our viewing notes – a weekly guide to the references, similarities (intentional or otherwise!) and generally interesting things about each episode. Whilst we’ve crammed in as much as we can find, this is by no means a definitive list – so if you’re sat there thinking ‘You fools! You missed this!’, feel free to plop it down in the comments below. But remember: Don’t phone, it’s just for fun.


This isn’t the first Doctor Who story to be known as The Pilot – until now, the term has been more commonly used to refer to the first recording of An Unearthly Child, the series’ very first episode.

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Whilst fairly similar to the episode that transmitted, the original version featured a number of technical problems, fluffed lines and, most interestingly, a slightly colder version of the already-spiky First Doctor, who tells schoolteachers Ian and Barbara that he and his granddaughter Susan are from the 49th century.

A version of this finally saw the light of day when it was aired as part of BBC Two’s Lime Grove Day on August 26th 1991 (Which, incidentally, was this writer’s first proper exposure to the series…).

Speaking of Susan, the character played by Carole Ann Ford from the series’ birth in November 1963 to the final episode of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth on Boxing Day 1964 appears prominently in this story as a photograph on the Doctor’s desk. The way the Doctor reacts to the photos of both Susan and River Song (Who we’ve covered extensively in the past, most notably in this article about her life: suggests that Susan is no longer with us, but we haven’t seen her since 1983’s The Five Doctors (unless you want to count 1993 EastEnders crossover Dimensions In Time, but we’d rather not if you don’t mind), from which she departed alive and well. Additionally, actress Carole Ann Ford is still alive and attending conventions, and Peter Capaldi himself has repeatedly said he’d like to see Susan return. With at least one of Capaldi’s other wishes being granted later this series, could this episode be foreshadowing Susan’s return..?

In An Unearthly Child, it was Susan who claimed to have come up with the name ‘TARDIS’ from the initials ‘Time And Relative Dimension In Space’; given that the First Doctor and Susan spent some time on Earth prior to the start of the series, with Susan attending Coal Hill School, this would answer Bill’s question about the fact the acronym only works in English.

Other Time Lords have referred to their craft as TARDISes, but this may simply be the Doctor’s TARDIS translating the real name for the benefit of the companions/viewers.

There has been speculation that Bill is named after First Doctor actor William Hartnell, with the announcement of Pearl Mackie’s casting made 41 years to the day after his death in 1975. There doesn’t appear to be any official confirmation of this, but it’s worth noting that Bill’s love interest in this episode is called Heather – both Hartnell’s wife and daughter bore this name, suggesting that even if Bill was not originally intended as a tribute to Hartnell, Steven Moffat was happy to work in a tribute. 

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On a final First Doctor-y note, the Out of Order sign placed on the TARDIS is almost identical to the one used when the Doctor and Dodo landed on contemporary Earth in 1966’s The War Machines – the only difference is that the new sign has added a border.

Doctor Who’s one actual pilot in the traditional sense aired in May 1996; the television movie starring Paul McGann was intended a backdoor pilot for a potential Fox series – though it performed well in the UK, the US ratings were not high enough for a full series to materialise. (Incidentally, a key plot point in that film was an atomic clock – atomic clocks are mentioned in the title of the third of Bill’s essays for the Doctor)

Just Another Day At The Office

This is not the first time the Doctor has held down a job; previous gainful employment has included a stint as UNIT’s scientific adviser during the Jon Pertwee era, president of Gallifrey on multiple occasions from 1978’s The Invasion Of Time to 2015’s Hell Bent, and president of Earth, a title bestowed on him during emergency situations as of 2014’s Death In Heaven.

It is also not the first time he has been a teacher – the Tenth Doctor took up temporary teaching positions on two occasions, in 2006’s School Reunion and 2007’s Human Nature/The Family Of Blood – the former of which also saw the Doctor’s companion Rose take a job in the school canteen serving chips…

The Doctor isn’t the first Time Lord to take up residence at a university; the Doctor’s old friend Professor Chronotis, from unfinished 1979 Douglas Adams adventure Shada (and later re-used in the Dirk Gently novels), taught at the fictional St Cedd’s College in Cambridge (The Doctor teaches at the equally fictional St Luke’s University in Bristol) for several hundred years.

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Also walking the cloisters at Cambridge are the Doctor’s first companions, schoolteachers Ian and Barbara who, according to Sarah Jane Smith in the Sarah Jane Adventures episode Death Of The Doctor, are rumoured not to have aged since their time in the TARDIS.

There are a number of reminders of the Doctor’s past adventures scattered around his study; as well as the aforementioned photographs, there is a pot containing a number of his past sonic screwdrivers – which appears to contain two previously believed destroyed. These are the version wielded by the fourth and fifth Doctors, which was destroyed by the Terileptil leader in 1982’s The Visitation; and the ninth and tenth Doctors’ sonic, last seen in 2010’s The Eleventh Hour.

However, as seen most recently in Hell Bent in 2015, the TARDIS is able to provide the Doctor with sonics – indeed, the tenth Doctor burnt his sonic out in 2007 episode Smith And Jones, only to replace it with a near-identical one.

Other items spotted in the study include a bust of William Shakespeare – who the Tenth Doctor met in The Shakespeare Code – and a stained-glass depiction of Robin of Loxley, aka Robin Hood, who the Twelfth Doctor befriended back in 2014’s Robot Of Sherwood.

Bill’s tentative rifle through the Doctor’s possessions is interrupted by the Doctor playing a snippet of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on his guitar – we previously heard him do this in the introduction to Series 9’s Before The Flood as he introduced the concept of the bootstrap paradox.

During one of his lectures, the Doctor asks his students to “imagine if time all happened at once.” However, the Doctor himself doesn’t need to imagine, as this was exactly what happened during 2011’s The Wedding Of River Song after River Song broke a fixed point in time by refusing to kill the Doctor.

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Much has been made of the fact that The Pilot is designed as a fresh jumping-on point for the show, and our own spoiler-free review drew comparisons between this episode and 2005’s Rose in the sense that we meet the Doctor through the eyes of his new companion. Perhaps it is also worth noting that in both Rose and The Pilot, the first sound effect we hear following the opening titles is the companion’s alarm clock – though with Bill Potts being a student, her alarm was probably set for much later than Rose Tyler’s 7:30…

In another moment comparable to Rose Tyler, the Doctor travels back in time to provide Bill with photos of the mother who died when she was young. Not only did Rose’s father die when she was young, as seen in Father’s Day, but the Ninth Doctor suggested in The Doctor Dances that he was responsible for the red bicycle Rose received for Christmas when she was 12 years old – an idea that was built upon by former script editor Gary Russell in 2016 anthology The 12 Doctors Of Christmas.

This isn’t the first time Doctor Who has tried to make water scary; 2009’s The Waters Of Mars pitted the Tenth Doctor against the Flood, a sentient virus that infected Bowie Base One, a human colony on Mars, via its water supply.

The Doctor deduces that a spaceship landed on Earth via scorch marks around the puddle; this is reminiscent of 1988 story Remembrance Of The Daleks, in which the Doctor realised that burn marks on the playground at Coal Hill School were the landing pattern for a Dalek spacecraft. Remembrance Of The Daleks also revealed that the Doctor had left Gallifreyan artefact the Hand of Omega on Earth for safekeeping, in a similar manner to the Doctor and whatever lies in the Vault here…

Dalek Cutaway

As in Rose, the Doctor informs his new companion the TARDIS doors are impenetrable – in 2005 he tells Rose “The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t get through here, and believe me they’ve tried.” Though rare, it is possible for certain aliens to enter the TARDIS uninvited – notable examples include Sutekh in 1975’s Pyramids Of Mars and the monstrous House (not that one) in 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife.

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Over the years we’ve seen or heard about many rooms in the TARDIS – libraries, wardrobes, swimming pools, a botanical house and a cricket pavilion (Really – see 1982’s Castrovalva) – but this is the first time it’s been confirmed that there is a toilet within its roundelled walls.

The Doctor’s ruined attempts to create a grand moment for Bill upon entering the TARDIS are accompanied by variations on ‘The Mad Man In A Box’, the track from the 2010 episode The Eleventh Hour which played as Amy Pond entered the TARDIS for the first time.

Though it apparently takes her longer than normal, Bill eventually gets round to exclaiming that the TARDIS is ‘bigger on the inside’, much to the relief/delight of the Doctor and Nardole. Though the TARDIS has always been dimensionally transcendental, the phrase ‘bigger on the inside’ didn’t appear until 1972’s The Three Doctors, ironically when the third Doctor asks Sergeant Benton “Aren’t you going to say ‘it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside’? Everybody else does.” It’s been used on many, many occasions since then, most recently in 2015’s Before The Flood.

Nardole tries to explain the idea of dimensional transcendentalism to Bill by getting her to imagine fitting a big box inside a smaller one. This explanation hearkens back to this classic scene…

… from 1977’s The Robots Of Death, in which the Fourth Doctor uses a similar technique to try and explain the concept to savage companion Leela.

Bill questions the wisdom of travelling around in a police box; the Doctor’s TARDIS has been stuck in the form of a police box ever since the first story in 1963, when neither the Doctor nor his granddaughter were able to work out why it hadn’t changed shape to blend in with its surroundings. 

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The mechanism by which it does(n’t do) this is usually referred to as the ‘chameleon circuit’, but in this episode the Doctor calls it the ‘cloaking device’, a term coined by Star Trek writer DC Fontana for that show’s 1968 episode The Enterprise Incident. The phrase has popped up in Doctor Who before, though; the Twelfth Doctor used it while discussing Trap Street in 2015’s Face The Raven, while Rose used it to describe the chameleon circuit in 2005’s Boom Town and the Doctor himself used it to explain the TARDIS to American Dr Grace Holloway in the 1996 TV Movie.

The TARDIS has landed in Australia on a few occasions, the first of which being in 1967’s The Enemy Of The World, in which the Second Doctor found himself on an Australian beach in the far-flung future of 2018, along with his companions Jamie and Victoria. We then had a brief glimpse at an Australian adventure in 2010 Christmas special A Christmas Carol, as the Doctor took Kazran Sardick and Abigail Pettigrew to see Ayers Rock and the Sydney Opera House.

This episode sees the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it return of the Movellans, the enemies of the Daleks who were introduced in 1979’s Destiny Of The Daleks. A race of logical androids who prefer not to reveal their true nature to outsiders, the dreadlocked Movellans have waged a lengthy war against the Daleks, one which would go on to be mentioned in 80s Dalek tales Resurrection Of The Daleks and Remembrance Of The Daleks.

After the Doctor tells Bill “never mind; it’s a Dalek”, there is a sharp cut to the Doctor and Bill being chased down the corridor. This is where the two-minute scene released by the BBC last year. This one, in fact…

At the time, the scene was produced purely to publicise Pearl Mackie’s debut and give viewers a hint at what to expect and a small morsel to nibble on during a Who-light year. However, Steven Moffat later told Doctor Who Magazine: “Knowing how pedantic I am, I’ll probably work the scene in somewhere, but there is also an absolute possibility that I just won’t bother.” Well, now we know…

The Doctor goes to wipe Bill’s memory using the ‘mind meld’ method previously seen when the Doctor took Donna’s memories in order to save her life at the close of 2008’s Journey’s End. Bill turning the tables on the Doctor is an obvious reference to his previous companion Clara, who erased the Doctor’s memories of her during the 2015 finale Hell Bent. To emphasise this point, Murray Gold’s score briefly reprises Clara’s theme.

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And that’s your lot for this week. Did you spot something we’ve missed? Let us know below!

Pete is the co-presenter of The Mostly Made-Up Doctor Who Episode Guide, a comedy podcast chronicling the Doctor’s adventures that is almost as well-researched as this article. You can find it on iTunes or at