BBC One – 7:20pm – Saturday 15th April 2017
Written by: Steven Moffat
Directed by: Lawrence Gough
BEAUTY OR CHIPS?
With series ten confirmed as the last hurrah for current Doctor Patrick Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat, this seems like a premature time to have a soft reboot, but as the introductory episode of latest companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), the facetiously-titled “The Pilot” was as good a time as any to reinstate some of the long-running BBC institution’s ground-rules to a new audience. So we have a joke about the enigmatic Time-lord’s name (“Doctor what?”), a cameo from his greatest adversary, frequent nods to the true nature of the stuck-in-the-guise-of-a-Police-Box T.A.R.D.I.S., and bemused questions from the perspective of a franchise newbie (“Is this a knock-through?”).
As the noughties revival of Doctor Who has progressed it has become ever-more timey-wimey and wibbly-wobbly, sometimes to the detriment of the emotional drama (latest Christmas special “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” completely left me cold). “The Pilot” gently continues this tricksy tradition by revealing that the sonic screwdriver-using planet-saver has been trapped on Earth for the past half a century, taking up residence as a quirky-but-popular University Lecturer, while he and additional sidekick Nardole (returnee Matt Lucas) guard a secret vault beneath the campus grounds from evil eyes.
I wasn’t sold on Pearl Mackie based on any of the pre-release promotion – she just seemed too intentionally idiosyncratic, all wide-eyed and wacky-haired, but on-screen as the inquisitive canteen assistant-cum-part time student she was surprising engaging; bold, curious and charmingly individual (“Men ain’t what keep my eye!”). Writer Steven Moffat unashamedly revealed her sexuality in a pleasingly in-your-face way, but professions of lesbianism aren’t the only way that “The Pilot” skirted convention for a family audience in a Saturday evening prime-time slot.
“Never underestimate a crush!”
Student Heather (Stephanie Hyam) – the girl with a star in her eye, courtesy of a defective iris – catches Bill’s attention, but when a mysterious puddle with a “wrong reflection” is revealed to be more than just an optical illusion, Bill must team up with the Doctor as a gushing, watery shape-shifter tracks her down across time and space in order to integrate with her. Stephanie Hyam is a real beauty, but when the ‘puddle’ chooses her as its pilot, she becomes a truly creepy antagonist; ethereal, ghostly and with a cunning ability to make us jump with her mimicking tomfoolery. Cushions at the ready, people!
Needless to say, I loved the eeriness, which was another factor in making this new series feel more mature than ever before. Elsewhere, the sci-fi jargon and playful philosophising (“Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry,”) was all in place, so too the witty banter and snappy rapport between characters (“Why’d you run… like a penguin with its arse on fire?”). Nardole feels a bit like extraneous comic relief at the moment, but he is neither eye-rollingly invasive or offensive and I’m sure he will be put to better use in future weeks.
“The Pilot” may be a bit too small in scale to be looked back on in years to come as an iconic classic Doctor Who episode, but everything it sets out to do it does with aplomb, and I was blown away by how much I enjoyed this return to the T.A.R.D.I.S. The term ‘soft reboot’ may be a worry for fans, but when done this well they have nothing to fear.
CR@B’s Claw Score: