STORY 267: THE PILOT
It's no secret that Doctor Who has been having a bit of a crisis. Despite the constant propping up of professional sycophants like The Nerdist's Kyle Anderson, who keep telling its readers that the show is still both brilliant and highly popular, the formerly can't-miss sci-fi show has lost a lot of its luster. Apart from the Christmas Special that met with mixed reviews and interest, Doctor Who has been on hiatus for a year (and for some, not been missed). The show also has lost its lead, as star Peter Capaldi will have his final season this year.
With all that, we turn to The Pilot (formerly known as A Star in Her Eye), as pun-worthy a title as any we've seen. For the uninitiated, The Pilot is what you usually call a premiere episode of a new series. It's as if showrunner and writer Steven Moffat, held in equal terms as a genius and a monster, wants us to think of this season as a fresh start, as if in effect The Pilot were a whole new beginning for the decade-long plus show. The Pilot also refers to the thrust of the story: aliens who find someone to 'pilot' them out of Earth. The Pilot also introduces us to a new Companion: Bill Potts, who is touted as the first openly-gay Companion on Doctor Who (Captain Jack and River Song notwithstanding).
Now, the question to ask is, "Does The Pilot work to restart the show, or is it a case of false branding?"
Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) serves chips, and is a biracial lesbian (aside: is it me, or does it look like Doctor Who has some sort of list of minorities it feels it has to check off to meet some kind of quota). She serves chips at the university, where The Doctor (Capaldi) and his other Companion, Nardole (Matt Lucas) have been hiding out (shades of the unfinished Fourth Doctor Shada). The Doctor is intrigued by Bill (who despite being in her mid to late twenties apparently still lives with her foster mother). She's not a student but attends his lectures, and her reactions are always different from all the other students.
Taking her under his wings as a mentor, even getting her enrolled at the University, Bill proves a sharp and inquisitive mind. She also finds herself attracted to Heather (Stephanie Hyman), whom she met at a club and who also goes to the University. Bill quickly gets involved in the Doctor's mysteries when she follows him and Nardole to where they have a secret vault containing something wicked, and when it comes to Heather, she notices what looks like a star in Heather's eye (which Heather describes as a defect).
Heather appears rather obsessed with a puddle and asks Bill to look at it, asking two questions: how can there be a puddle when there's been no rain, and if there is something wrong with her reflection. Bill doesn't give that much thought, but does sense that something is off. Shortly after, Heather is at the puddle again, and she promises Bill that she won't leave.
She does disappear however, and Bill is a bit upset about that. However, something wicked this way comes in the form of a water-dripping Heather, who now pursues Bill with an almost murderous abandon. The Doctor, Nardole and Bill first go the vault, fearing that Water-Heather is after whatever is in the vault.
Nope, it's after Bill, and thus the trio fly on a mad race: first to Australia, then to the very edge of the universe, only to find Water-Heather following them. Finally, the Doctor takes them (and the pursuing Water-Heather) to a place with fire: the war between the Daleks and the Movellans (a nod to the Fourth Doctor story Destiny of the Daleks). Heather-Water even takes the form of a Dalek, and this hunt has been to try and get Bill to be the passenger. Over the Doctor's objections, Bill takes Water-Heather's hands and sees the universe, but tells her she has to let go. Water-Heather does so, and thus ends the crisis.
Back on Earth, The Doctor wants to erase Bill's memory but she pleads to remember for a week, or at least this night (reminding me of Desdemona's plea to Othello, "kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight). The Doctor doesn't have it in him to wipe out her memory and tells her to run. Quickly, however, he offers her a chance to go on the TARDIS.
The Pilot is an improvement over some of the horrors of the past few seasons. Granted, that's a low bar, but at this point, one should be grateful for getting any positives. A good part of the credit should go to Mackie, working on her first big project as an actress.
I personally don't care whether Bill's a lesbian, biracial, a biracial lesbian, or a biracial lesbian who lost her virginity to a non-binary transgender and celebrated this by doing cartwheels while singing I've Written a Letter to Daddy.
Her sexuality isn't a major part of the story, at least to me because I didn't believe that she'd be that heartbroken about losing Heather. I'm going to put her sadness to seeing a person die, not because she lost someone whom she didn't have an actual romantic relationship with. I didn't buy that Heather was this big love of Bill's life (at certain points, I don't think Heather even knew who Bill was despite meeting at a club). Yet I digress.
Mackie's Bill is smart, eager for a change, and genuinely pleasant. Her longing for her birth mom, her lack of honesty with her foster mom (who thinks she's straight), and her ability to put things together quickly are all positives in the characterization.
I can do without the comic stylings of both Nardole and Matt Lucas, who didn't have that much to do here (and whose appearance as a full-on Companion is strange to me). Why he has become so important to the series is something I can't get behind, and some of his comments are cringe-worthy (such as telling Bill to "give it a minute" before going to use the TARDIS toilet). I think he could have been written out of The Pilot without it affecting the story. Capaldi does strong work as the not-as-grumpy but still a bit eccentric Doctor, and he brought a sense of tragedy to his role (even if it involved that awful River Song via photos of her and Susan Foreman, whom I know some NuWho fans have no idea who she is).
There were other elements that I didn't care for. Moffat still cannot resist throwing in a "Doctor Who?" line, or in this case, "Doctor What?". That pretty much has grown stale to being cliché in any Moffat-penned script. While I did enjoy hearing Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart (one of the great songs in my opinion), it's another case of something being too on-the-nose to what is going on.
I suppose there was a logic to having Water-Heather being able to fly about through time and space in pursuit of Bill (though seeing Heather all wet wasn't scary as it was slightly amusing).
I just wasn't overwhelmed with The Pilot, though if it had been an actual pilot it might have scored higher. I don't think you can ask Who fans to ignore a lot of what has happened, and I don't know that they would even if they were overtly asked like they were with The Pilot.
Neither a horror nor a masterwork, The Pilot is slightly above average. Given some of the absolute drivel we've been handed, that in itself is almost a miracle.
Next Episode: Smile