I’ll confess, I went into this with no small amount of pessimism. It was hard (and still is, really) to imagine Moffat crafting a better way to go out than Series Nine. Sherlock felt so utterly tired and creatively spent that it became easy to fear that Moffat was simply done. The Return of Doctor Mysterio was neither here nor there. So it was easy to assume that we were already past the peak in terms of what I wanted out of Moffat writing Doctor Who. And with the sure to be frustrating Chibnall era looming, well, my excitement’s definitely short of 100%. None of that’s changed based on The Pilot. That’s not to say I didn’t like the episode or anything. It was fun; in no way a classic, but Moffat’s season-openers generally aren’t. It’s just a sort of necessary bit of context. My initial setting here is cautious engagement.
And perhaps more to the point, that feels like the mood. I’ve been thinking about the Capaldi stretch of TARDIS Eruditorum, which I reckon will happen in 2018, Patreon willing. And obviously, there’s a Pop Between Realities on Brexit and the awful Doctor Who-less shitstorm that was 2016. I don’t think there’s been as obvious a Pop Between Realities since Jekyll. Which implicitly asks the question “what does it mean to do Doctor Who in the age of Brexit and Trump,” which is of course an awful question in the same way that “what does it mean to do Doctor Who after 9/11” was, but it’s a real one that asks itself, stupid and trite as it is. And of course there’s never been an era of Doctor Who that’s up to that task any more than there was one that was up to any other vast cultural task one sets upon a fucking kid’s show, but it’s worth saying, all the same, that the fandom mood going into The Pilot was not exactly one that seemed to think Moffat was going to acquit himself particularly well in those terms.
Let’s start with the title, then, with all its contradictions. On the one hand, an overt promise of newness, actively flagging the episode as a jumping on point. On the other hand, the paratext of Doctor Who never drops out. The writer, lead actor, and probably both members of the supporting cast are all going away in twelve episodes and the show is getting a complete overhaul. It’s the beginning, but the moment has been prepared for.
Within the context of this self-consciously late period reinvention the focus drifts naturally to Bill, who is the actual primary focus of this episode. Broadly speaking, she’s a solid creation. The companion who knows sci-fi tropes is one of those ideas that’s simultaneously obvious and never actually been done, and Moffat’s approach to it, whereby she knows tropes as opposed to making specific references, is a good way of keeping it from falling into most of the more blatant traps of the concept. Instead Bill comes in at something genuinely resembling “audience surrogate” for what a Doctor Who audience in 2017 actually looks like. And on early returns, Pearl Mackie is yet another fantastic bit of work from Andy Pryor.
The flipside is that this is not entirely a great showcase for her. Moffat is pushing out of his comfort zone with an episode that’s obviously got a debt to Rose in key regards (note in particular the alarm clock scene), but the worldly drama of a college non-student just isn’t something he’s a natural at writing. It’s not, as the usual tiresome critics are no doubt already suggesting, that she has no character. She clearly does. Rather, it’s that there’s not actually an arc for her in this. I mean, yes, obviously there’s the Heather plot, but Moffat’s so busy trying to write a complete fresh start for Doctor Who that he weirdly neglects the thing he’s got exquisite form writing and doesn’t actually flesh out the love story at all. Instead he’s writing the stuff that’s supposed to set up “let me have good dreams for once,” which is by miles the most interesting thing he’s written since Hell Bent, but is manifestly not what he’s good at and not something he actually does set up very well.
This results in an episode that’s not so much uneven as threadbare. He clears so much room for selling the mundaneness of Bill that the episode plot is an afterthought. The puddle – that’s clearly what this monster needs to be called – is, charitably, a minimalist creation. Its explanation does not make anything vaguely resembling sense, and more to the point doesn’t actually try to. The best bits end up being what they often are with Moffat, which is the ritual performance of set pieces. His last big “bigger on the inside” is his most baroque yet, a glorious shaggy dog working its way towards the straightforward classic resolution. Objecting to the TARDIS being named in English is a solid choice of “let’s have Bill say something different.” The Australia gag’s actually great. As are a plethora of details: the Doctor’s “how can I help,” Bill’s “I don’t think they’re mine,” and of course Susan, River, and the TARDIS yelling at the Doctor to take her as a companion. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It still adds up to a lot, but that’s still an entirely true statement about “The Pilot.”
Is that such a bad thing, though? This episode had a job to do. It wasn’t a small or easy job. And this doesn’t half-ass the task. There’s never been a season of modern Doctor Who where the opener is the important one in the end. But even still, this is trying, and trying harder than it has to. Maybe Moffat’s past his peak. But he’s not coasting. He’s still pushing himself. Sure, the fact that “obvious Russell T Davies imitation” is what he’s got left on the “new things” list isn’t a great sign, but it’s not a bad one. Doctor Who’s back, and it has my attention. Job done.
- The Doctor casually running through a Dalek war as an errand is an interesting positioning of them for what could, let’s face it, be their last appearance under Moffat. The Doctor’s pained expression at the Movellans, wanting to help them but being unable to, is beautiful.
- Unsurprisingly, I liked the invocation of Clara, especially as the lead-in to the anguished attempt not to take Bill. One assumes at some point who he made that promise to will come up, presumably alongside our designated meta-plot of what’s in the vault. Which my first instinct says “God I hope doesn’t take all season to work out,” because that seems too big a thing to be a throwaway “like… a hybrid” part of episodes and thus risks getting old fast.
- So. The reversion to the singular dimension in space. The photo on the desk, actively invoked alongside River and the TARDIS itself. He’s bringing Susan back, isn’t he?
- We also seem to be set for Heather to come back, which probably gives Bill the most built-in departure of any arriving companion to date. Wonder if Heather will acquire character. Or if the star in her eye aspect will get explained as well. It seems too odd a detail not to touch on…
- Unsurprisingly Moffat’s getting beaten up by the usual suspects for the fat joke. As usual if one looks at the content closely it’s not fat-shaming – Bill just seems to feel bad having gotten the woman fat on free chips without being noticed, but is still shown to “perv” on her (and what a marvelous choice of words for Doctor Who) latr in the episode. The contrast between beauty and chips is wince-inducing, but seems to mean “conventional beauty standards” as opposed to what Bill crushes on. And yet it’s hard not to think that by this point Moffat must know that gags like this, even if he meticulously balances their actual content with regards to body shaming, are still going to attract a furor and hurt people who don’t watch closely enough to appreciate those nuances. And it’s fair to ask why he keeps stepping in it for what are, frankly, not nearly funny enough gags to be worth it.
- Two episodes into his unexpected addition to the series, it remains hard to really articulate what Nardole adds to proceedings. He’s not quite annoying me, though I’m sure there’s plenty of people he is annoying, but he’s not exactly working either. Still, perhaps there’s some clever pay-off in mind. It would hardly be the first slow-burn of a Moffat character. Just the one with the coldest start.
- The Doctor’s lecture… has Moffat been reading Jerusalem?
- Looking forward a bit, it’s interesting that we have a classic Davies-era present/future/past triptych for the first three stories. I suppose when you’ve got a new companion to introduce you do it in a particular way.
- Also looking forward, and also up at this bulleted list, I think I’m going to let reviews slip to Sunday this year. That’s not a guarantee that they always will, but I’m looking at this and wishing I had another day to let it cook. I was secretly writing the last two years’ reviews on Thursdays and Fridays, but the means I had to do that are no longer available to me, and I’d rather let the super-fast posting schedule slip than the quality. So they’ll be up as soon as I’m happy with them, which may often mean sleeping on them once before posting them.
- Look for a podcast this week guest starring our very own Jane Campbell. I don’t know what I was expecting when I paired her with this episode, but having seen it, I don’t think I could possibly have picked that any better. I reckon Thursdays will be the day for those.
- For US viewers, this was followed by the first episode of Class. I reviewed it and the second episode together here. (They were released together in the UK.)
- The Pilot