Time And Relative Ease Of Entry

Review of The Pilot
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

The opening episode of Series Ten is aptly named. The Pilot nominally takes its name from the role a particular character plays, but it could just as easily refer to the introductory nature of the episode. It is, in effect, a "pilot episode" for a new era (the Twelve/Bill era) of the show.

As such, The Pilot is designed as one of those ideal "jumping on" points. While I firmly believe (as I've stated on panels at conventions before) that a good place to start watching Doctor Who is "whichever episode you happen to see," there are a few spots in the show that are designed as easy entry points for new viewers. This is certainly one of them, and I find that to be a feature rather than a flaw.

In particular, I've already seen a few complaints that the episode was boring or simplistic—not at all the whizz-bang kind of opener (or closer) we're used to seeing, especially from Moffat. Terms like "character heavy" appear in these comments as if it were a Bad Thing™ to have stories driven by who people are instead of by what happens to or because of them. I couldn't disagree more with those assessments. Writers know that readers/viewers will follow characters they care about (even if they're antagonists or anti-heroes, as long as we are engaged with them) through hell and back because we want to know what happens to them. All sorts of goofy shit can go on in a plot (even if it makes little/imperfect sense) and retain the audience, as long as the audience cares. (I believe this phenomenon explains both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Moffat era...)

Those commenters aren't wrong about the plot being more straightforward than usual, though. On its surface, anyway, there's just a mystery of a "sci-fi" nature that involves some creepy imagery and a set piece to shoehorn in some Daleks that gets resolved with minimal brain-bending. It introduces the new Companion, sets up her relationship with the Doctor, and finishes with the call to adventure as she steps into the TARDIS for realsies.

On closer examination, of course, it has all the hallmarks of an episode that will be vastly more significant in retrospect. Most obviously, we have the mysterious Vault that the Doctor and Nardole (did we have to bring this character back?) are guarding. Clearly it has Important Contents That Need Protecting, the Doctor feels duty bound to provide said protection, and he feels this duty somehow precludes gadding about the universe in his usual manner (though based on the previews for the rest of the series, I suspect he's gotten past that last bit). The Vault seems the most likely basis for the series's through line.

There are other loose ends that suggest more to come. While I'd personally love to think the blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameo by the Movellans was just a teaser, I suspect we've seen all of them we're going to. However, the craft that acquired its pilot strikes me as more likely to reappear. "Will we see her again?" Bill asks. While the Doctor dismisses the likelihood, the fact that the ship landed on Earth in the first place doesn't seem like the kind of thing the Doctor would let slide, especially if he's protecting something precious.

I also thought the Doctor's big university lecture that led to him scrawling the TARDIS acronym on the board—the one talking about someone's life laid about them like a city—sounded a bit too grand to be a toss-off. Perhaps it was just a way for him to get the term TARDIS wedged in Bill's brain, but it certainly came across as more momentous.

That explanation of what TARDIS means was just one of many tidbits that make this an entry-level episode. We get that acronym—complete with complaint that it wouldn't make sense in any language but English, and if the Doctor's not from Earth, then why name his ship in English (though I maintain that as it was Susan who came up with it, and at the time she was masquerading as an English schoolgirl, it makes perfect sense)—along with an introduction to the other main conceits of the show: the Doctor is an alien, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, and it travels in both space and time. Her discovery is a proxy for the new audience's.

Not to say there wasn't plenty for long-term fans. How many of our hearts skipped a beat when we first saw those photographs on the Doctor's desk (Susan! Oh, and River too, I suppose...)? The pencil cup full of old sonics made me smile even as I wondered where he'd gotten them all (did he rebuild the ones he'd lost or destroyed?), and callbacks to previous stories were everywhere (I saw stuff that could be linked to Rose, School Reunion, Remembrance of the Daleks, and Waters of Mars, for example).

For me, though, the most significant part of the episode was the introduction of Bill. I already adore this character. Not only is she clearly clever, she's observant, loves a challenge (she's not shy about pursuing a potential romantic interest, nor does she back down from the Doctor's tutoring offer—plus, she smiles when she doesn't understand something!), and tends to run off at the mouth in hopes that something useful will eventually spill out, just like the Doctor.

We get a little of her personal background, too. Her home life is less than optimal, as her foster mum seems painfully self-centered. Perhaps that dynamic has contributed to the circumstances that kept her from becoming an enrolled student (as, realistically, could her class and race). Time will tell whether or not her new studies with the Doctor (either on campus or off) will interfere with their travels.

I'm still trying to get a handle on the relationship between Bill and the Doctor, though. What made him pick her out if he had no intention of taking her traveling? (Possibly he simply couldn't help himself—he needs companionship, and I can't help but think Nardole isn't sufficient.) Why did he stare at his photograph of Susan before answering Bill's "why me"? Why was he so willing to go out of his way to do something nice for her? (OMG, kudos to Pearl Mackie for the scene of Bill looking through the photos of her mother. Brilliantly played.)

In the end, I think what I respect most about Bill is that she calls the Doctor out on his bullshit. She instantly recognizes his intentions to wipe her memory, asks for honesty (though she doesn't get it), and in the end still has agency over what happens. Despite the implications of his thoughts during that tinkling of Clara's theme, I hope the Doctor was also thinking long and hard about what he did to Donna. Maybe he finally realized how horrible he'd been to her, too.

And then of course we get his change of heart, inviting her into the TARDIS with a click of his fingers. "What changed your mind?" Bill asks. All he says in reply is "Time," but I can't help but wonder how much of that has passed for him. How many hours, days, or weeks have gone by between seeing her at the top and bottom of those stairs? We'll likely never find out, but as long as I get to keep following these two through the universe, I don't really care. All I know for sure at this stage is that I want more.

What a fabulous, refreshing feeling that is.

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Comments

To be honest, I wasn't that thrilled with The Pilot. It spent the first half of the episode with The Doctor choosing Bill and with us getting to know her a little. This was important to see I suppose, though some previous companions just wandered into the TARDIS or spent their first episode in an adventure with The Doctor before becoming official companions.

The second half of the story with Puddle Girl chasing them around was underwhelming. Daleks and Movellans were shown for no important purpose and getting Puddle Girl to go away turned out to be far too easy.

Now that I've seen the second episode (which was far better) I feel more sanguine.

I like Bill well enough. I hope they don't hammer constantly on the lesbian angle. They've already had Captain Jack who was boringly focused on his sexuality. It's nice to have diversity in the TARDIS but let's tell some interesting stories rather than crusade for issues.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Everybody comes to any given episode with a different perspective, of course. :) As I noted in the review, I quite liked a slower, more character-driven story to start things off.

And while I agree that Jack's sexuality was often flaunted (primarily for humor), I also think it's incredibly important that Bill's sexuality be presented straightforwardly and respectfully, simply as a part of her character (which I feel it was). I don't see that as "crusad[ing] for [an] issue," but as allowing more people to see themselves on screen. :) Having a queer WOC in the TARDIS is a huge step forward in representation, and I applaud the production team for taking that step.

I just hope Heather is the only [spoiler] dead lesbian/queer we see this series.

By mrfranklin

There was a character in Stargate Universe who was a lesbian, Camille Wray. I don't know if you are familiar with the Stargate shows so a quick explanation. In SG:U a bunch of assorted people were stuck on a Starship in another galaxy. They had no control over the space ship and no way to pilot it back to Earth.

They did have a device which would allow them to switch bodies with people on Earth, allowing guest stars to come on board and for regular characters to return home for short periods of time.

Camille Wray, a middle aged diplomat was gay and had a wife with whom she spent her time during her limited visits home. God were they dull! I understand that the show was trying to impress everybody with how ordinary LGBT people are and how Wray's relationship with her wife was the same as if it was a male character. But all I was left thinking was that if it was a male character they wouldn't waste our time with petty arguments about getting rid of a chair that was comfy but ugly or discussions about evenings at the wife's book club.

I'm hoping that when they make mention of Bill's gender preferences it will be for genuine story purposes, not to impress us with how ordinary it is to be LGBT.

And who says Heather is dead? I got more of the impression that she was joined to the alien, not killed.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

It's always down to the writing, though. Any character—no matter their gender or sexual orientation—can be dull as dirt if written poorly. If we have no reason to care about the character or their relationships, we won't care when those relationships get bumpy.

We don't necessarily need to see relationships to understand that Bill is a a three-dimensional human being, but neither do we need to scrub them away. We saw in this episode that Bill likes the ladies, and that facet of her identity led to a plot-relevant interpersonal tie. Shenanigans ensued. It's much like Rose getting a little gooey-eyed over Adam, who then came along on the TARDIS and ended up with a little door in his forehead. ~shrug~

As for who says Heather's dead, Bill did. ;) Of course, that was her perception, and there is always the chance that the character will return later. I actually really hope she does, because that would be a more satisfying character arc. :)

By mrfranklin

I'm not saying I EXPECT Doctor Who to handle Bill's sexuality in a superficial or exploitative manner. When SG:U was made it was radical that a scifi series should include an openly LGBT character. I suppose subtlety was too much to ask.

We've been asking for a while for more diversity in companions. A non white LGBT character is a good step (though she is still a contemporary, British female). We'll have to wait and see how she works out.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I'd like someone who wasn't a contemporary British female, too. :) I look forward to seeing how our mutual views of her evolve over the series!

By mrfranklin

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