The Pilot Review
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
April 16, 2017 @ 3:17 am
The Doctor’s lecture after the titles wouldn’t have been out of place in Jerusalem.
“Every moment of your life, laid out around you like a city.”
April 16, 2017 @ 1:07 pm
It possibly says a lot about me, and my most familiar/beloved era of Doctor Who, that the first thing I thought of was Cat’s Cradle: Times Crucible.
John G. Wood
April 20, 2017 @ 1:45 pm
It’s not my most familiar or beloved era, but that’s exactly what it made me think of as well.
April 16, 2017 @ 3:38 am
Something’s definitely being set up about Bill. And I wonder if it has anything to do with Susan, too. No mention of the Doctor’s appearance in that photo of her mum? (I’m assuming, I was rushing back in when the show returned from commercials, but I always missed a couple seconds. Her foster mother gave her the box, and she was looking through it, because she didn’t have any photos of her mother, who was camera shy. Admittedly the woman in the photos did resemble Bill, so I’m wondering about that.)
April 16, 2017 @ 4:03 am
It’s heavily implied that the Doctor went back in time to take the photos as a gift to Bill, but it’s never brought up again in the episode. I think Bill put two and two together after this adventure, though I’d like to see her at least ask him about it at some point.
Though it may mean we get a “Mother’s Day” episode where Bill wants to go back and meet her mom. I don’t see where that would fit in the episode titles, though, so maybe not.
April 16, 2017 @ 12:20 pm
When Bill looks intently at the last picture in the box (the box of pictures that of her moth, that up until now her Foster Mother hasn’t ever noticed, hmm) there’s a fuzzy reflection in the mirror of Capaldi’s face obscured by a camera. It’s brief and hard to make out in standard definition but it’s there. And this comes after the scene where the Doctor says he hadn’t bought a Christmas gift for Bill.
April 16, 2017 @ 12:21 pm
When Bill looks intently at the last picture in the box (the box of pictures that of her mother, that up until now her Foster Mother hasn’t ever noticed, hmm) there’s a fuzzy reflection in the mirror of Capaldi’s face obscured by a camera. It’s brief and hard to make out in standard definition but it’s there. And this comes after the scene where the Doctor says he hadn’t bought a Christmas gift for Bill.
April 16, 2017 @ 5:30 am
This episode was… interesting. Notably, the first twenty minutes were by far the best part about it. The Doctor as a university lecturer is such an amazing premise, and now I secretly want a series where Moffat just writes nonsense lectures for Peter Capaldi to give the audience. Maybe a DVD extra? Bill is quite charming; she seems less sure of herself than Amy or Clara, less assertive, and it adds a sweetness to her character more immediately apparent than any other Moffat companion (maybe Rory, but she hasn’t earned that comparison yet). The Doctor himself got a lot of good work in this one; he’s a lovely teacher, and is far more thoughtful than he’s ever been before. Befits his age. Nardole is decidedly meh. The monster gets a bit too much focus, actually, which is weird for one so undeveloped. Frankly, I would have liked a little bit more time just exploring how Bill has to react to proper sic-fi situations, and her rapport with the Doctor, but that’s what “Smile” is for, I suppose.
April 16, 2017 @ 5:33 am
I wonder if “Don’t worry about them” was because it’s OK to show people in Milli Vanilli wigs and pink conical handguns, but you can’t call them Movellans or you have you pay royalties to the Terry Nation estate?
I also liked the line there, “Is this the future? It looks like the future?” “No, it’s the past.” The past as in “things that have already happened” even though they’ve already happened in your future.
The actual plot was pretty lightweight (kind of like The Bells of St John) and reused some Moffat tropes, e.g. semi-sentient mechanical systems running amok trying to fulfill their programming after it serves no purpose. But I enjoyed the idea of the Doctor settling in like Professor Chronotis as one of those university professors that no one can quite figure out what exactly he’s on the faculty for. As you say, season openers (especially ones that introduce new companions) are generally pretty fluffy things.
I guess the implications of “How would you feel if someone did this to you?” with Clara’s Theme playing in the background resolve the question of whether or not the Doctor’s memory was wiped in Hell Bent.
April 16, 2017 @ 7:26 am
Despite not being a masterpiece, I loved every moment, and K think it’s a significantly stronger start than last season’s, which (imo) are cringe-inducing fanwank. This had a lot of heavy lifting to do and did it very nicely.
I think it’s also a good idea to give a mention to one of the most overlooked aspects of Doctor Who production – the editing. I was blown away by the editing in the first sequence, which successfully took Moffat’s fantastic (and hopefully scene-setting) lecture and not only illustrated it, but gave it real depth and made me think of Dziga Vertov, who I very much doubt Moffat was trying to invoke:
“I’m an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, manoeuvring in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations.
Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.”
Looking at imdb, this was edited by William Oswald, who, as the editor, might have been the great unsung hero of Heaven Sent. There’s such a significant commonality between the effect of Capaldi’s lecture here and his spliced-together monologue in Heaven Sent that it jumped out at me immediately. After the director (and in Doctor Who arguably the writer), the editor is the person who most affects what we actually see on the screen – good on William Oswald for this episode.
April 16, 2017 @ 7:30 am
(Also, Phil – I mentioned this on twitter mistakenly thinking you’d done it in the past but: would you consider putting up a blank post after the episode airs so us EP readers can discuss the episode here before your review is posted? This is my favorite comment section, and I wanted to post here as soon as I saw the episode.)
April 16, 2017 @ 5:27 pm
Maybe. The downside of that is that it either splits the discussion into two threads or means that RSS feeds and autoposters don’t notice when the review proper goes up. So it’s something I go back and forth on every couple minutes.
April 16, 2017 @ 8:07 am
I think it hit a sweet spot between not trying too hard to be different versus lazy recycling. Not that there wasn’t a lot of recycling (e.g. ideas from Rose, The Lodger) just it didn’t feel lazy.
April 16, 2017 @ 8:15 am
Well, I rather loved it. Personally, I think the season openers are consistently very strong – even if they aren’t all classics (and this one was just short of that), they’re usually at least solid and fun episodes, with New Earth being the only real exception.
Thematic reflections – You’re absolutely right, this episode was made for Jane.
This episode once again returns to the eye motif that we’ve seen throughout Moffat’s era, through almost titular (for the working title) star in Heather’s eye. This time, the motif is used to explore the episode’s central subject: mirroring and symmetry.
First off, we have the puddle that shows, not your reflection, but your face as it actually is, setting up the way the teardrop ship sees Bill and Heather as they truly are. It detects their deepest desires: Heather’s wish to escape, and Bill’s wish not to be left behind: itself a further reflection, this time of Bill’s grief for the mother she never knew, someone she only learns about through photographs, the only other visual representations that, like the puddle, show people as they truly appear, and not in a distorted form.
These themes are all set up beautifully in the first shot of Bill in the Doctor’s office, with the closed door that Nardole enters through, and the half open door we hear the Doctor playing his guitar behind. It’s a lovely (and subtle) bit of visual foreshadowing for the key role Heather’s asymmetrical eyes play in the plot, and the episode’s use of Moffat’s much used trope of dialogue-repeating monsters, which at first is the source of dramatic tension, but ultimately becomes the means through which Bill and Heather say a touching goodbye (and once again, it’s the slight asymmetry in Heather’s final line that lets us know she’s saying goodbye, too).
April 17, 2017 @ 10:51 am
The Symmetry/asymmetry thing was full-on from the very first shot, specifically pivotted around Rembrandt’s famous late portrait ‘the one with the two circles behind him.’ Or, henceforth, the two roundels.
So if it’s a shot of the season, ep 6/7 will be the pivotal point. Much symmetrical and asymmetrical timey-wimeyness going on, that will mean the first half won’t make full sense until we’ve seen the rest. Like reading Cloud Atlas.
April 16, 2017 @ 9:38 am
Lesbians are great, tragic lesbians – less so. The goodbye between Bill and Heather really felt like a goodbye, on the other hand – they seemed to heavily set up Heather’s eventual return, so I’m willing to wait and see how this turns out.
In general, I liked it very much. A lot of it was built out of familiar Moffat stuff, but I feel like maybe this was done so we could concentrate on the one new element: Bill. And it worked very well in that regard. I loved Bill and I can’t wait to see more of her.
I think Australia and the water coming out of the mirror was the point where I thought: “Jane would probably love this”, so I’m very happy it’s going to be her on the first podcast.
April 16, 2017 @ 9:55 am
Weird observation which probably means nothing, but the incidental music for the scene where Bill is following The Doctor and Nardole down to the vault is a riff on the theme to, of all things, bizarre late 60s Hammer SF fiasco Moon Zero Two. Which added a delightfully goofy edge to it for me,and probably no one else
April 16, 2017 @ 11:16 am
I’m pretty sure the new series has been stuck on ‘dimension’ singular for some time. Is that true or am I misremembering?
April 16, 2017 @ 5:26 pm
Actually, on a brief scan of transcripts it looks like this was the first time the acronym was expanded in the Capaldi era at all.
April 17, 2017 @ 1:28 pm
….Huh! That is surprising!
April 17, 2017 @ 8:11 pm
Actually the first time it was expanded in the Capaldi era was in the excellent “Zygon Inversion”
But it’s a unconventional version
“OSGOOD: What does it stand for?
DOCTOR: What? You’re kidding me? Surely you know that?
OSGOOD: Well, I’ve heard a couple of different versions.
DOCTOR: I made it up from the initials. It stands for Totally And Radically Driving In Space”
Now was that Harness or Moffat?
April 16, 2017 @ 11:29 am
While we’re ticking off the recurring motifs, the role of chips is surely another Rose allusion.
As for Moffat’s own tics, he’s now on 3/3 for main companions having Significant Absence of Mother.
The Susan thing seems all too easy to understand in the context of Moffat having to scrape together an extra season when he thought he was going to be done. Having already tied off all his own loose ends, there’s a kind of logical progression to chasing up the loose ends of the series in general.
Roderick T. Long
April 30, 2017 @ 3:40 am
Speaking of loose ends, what ever happened to the Doctor’s clone daughter, Jenny? Davies recalls Moffat asking him not to kill her off; Moffat doesn’t recall it. …
April 16, 2017 @ 12:30 pm
Well, almost, The difference is that Rory tried to read up in-universe physics to understand the Doctor. With Bill, the Doctor is teaching her physics, but she knows in-universe fictional sci-fi tropes (lizards in the brain, knowing what a mindwipe looks like).
April 17, 2017 @ 3:43 am
April 16, 2017 @ 1:42 pm
The British press is reporting Kris Marshall as a done deal, though in all honesty I don’t believe it yet. Still feels like a fake-out (if he has been cast, perhaps this is Moff clearing out the valeyard before he goes? I dunno), or more likely yet it is just an over-excited press.
Not my choice but he’s probably capable of being decent, I don’t want to pre-judge. He’s been in a lot of shit, and been shit in the shit he’s been in, but he’s done solid work here and there.
The big reason I don’t buy it is that after Eccleston, Capaldi, Tennant, Smith he would be a strangely low-rent choice – not too dissimilar from, say, Colin Baker. He’s the type of doctor you’d have expected them to pick 6 doctors down from McCoy had the show never gone off air and returned with more hype and a higher budget.
fwiw either of his My Life In Film co-stars, alice lowe & andrew scott, would make extremely credible doctors.
April 16, 2017 @ 2:11 pm
My theory is that this is a smoke screen. Capaldi will regenerate into Marshall at the end of the season, then Marshall will regenerate into the Fourteenth Doctor in Christmas special. Moffat spoke about how he wishes they could do regeneration as a surprise, yet they show regeneration footage in the trailers? He must know that this stuff leakes, so maybe he bets on everyone assuming that Marshall is going to stick around for some time and stopping the hunt.
I’ll be the first to admit this is far-fetched, yet I find it strangely plausible that Moffat (and Chibnall) would think of something like this. This would also explain why the bookmakers first stopped admittig bets on Marshall and then on Phoebe Waller-Bridge (assuming they can to any degree be taken for reliable indicators of who the next Doctor is going to be).
April 16, 2017 @ 5:20 pm
I cannot imagine a situation whereby Marshall would be Moffat’s choice for a mayfly Doctor.
April 20, 2017 @ 3:06 pm
Alice Lowe as the Doctor! I gasped.
April 16, 2017 @ 4:09 pm
First impressions. One of those lightweight premier episodes of a new season complete with flimsy CGI monster. It had one job to do and that was introduce new companion Bill. The problem was it kept doing that for 45 minutes so that even an actor with the obvious talent of Pearl Mackie struggled to maintain the level of wide-eyed wonder required by the script. Oh yes, the script. Moffat gave us his regular prescription of subtle references to the past (pictures of the Doctor’s grandaughter Susan from the classic 1960s iteration and his wife, River from what must now be considered Moffat’s imperial phase on the Doctor’s desk.) Along with his trademark running about chasing shadows. Or in this case a wet student. Oh yes, the Doc has a job now. He’s a wacky prof in Bristol Uni who lectures on anything he feels like. Unfortunately his lectures are written by Steven Moffat whose increasingly tin ear for dialogue let him down royally in this episode. Apart from a couple of reasonable one-liners his characters continue to trade the kind of ‘witty’ banter that students with an unhealthy addiction to sit-coms shout at each other on the night bus.
So…okay…yeah alright I liked it despite all that. There were enough hints and reflections and rumours of a secret agenda to keep me watching. What’s in that vault thing in the cellar? Susan? The Master? Why is the Doctor hanging round with a robot Matt Lucas? Also is it just me or was there a moffaty woffaty hint that the Doctor we see greeting Bill and inviting her into the Tardis at the end had arrived from a point further in the future of this season and that the Doctor who refused her is still in his study? He certainly got a bit nippy with the TARDIS in this episode. Also the threat of Michelle Gomez v John Sim has got to be worth the price of admission.
Without wishing to pre-empt jane’s podcast the themes here are clearly mirroring, doubling, eyes and water. Also mothers and daughters and lovers. Interesting that the Doctor has sequestered himself with images of the females he has loved – Susan, River and of course the Tardis. Is Moffat in his final season going to not only bring back Susan but answer the question of who her parents were?
As to Kris Marshall. No just no. I sincerely hope this is a smokescreen.
April 16, 2017 @ 5:19 pm
IF it is a smokescreen it is a bit cruel tbh, I feel bad for Kris if he ends up getting slagged off online for a week or two, before people move on or breathe a sigh of relief. You’d feel a bit shit in his position, especially if he actually had auditoned and not got it.
He could be alright, I don’t think it’s a disaster if he really has been cast. My gut still says he isn’t actually the doctor but last time once Rory Kinnear but the rumours to bed the press did call it right, so maybe it is what it looks like.
It is just such an odd move tho if true.. They need a really cast-iron choice and Marshall is, to be generous, a C-list actor.
It’s funny as Chibnall wasn’t my preference either, but the strength of Broadchurch season 3 really made me rethink (and, fwiw, i think he has grown a huge amount as a writer since his last DW submissions). I was finally sold on him, and then this news makes the coming era more of an open question again. It is interesting to think about whether Marshall, as an actor, would play up Chris’ strengths as a writer or not.
April 16, 2017 @ 5:19 pm
*put the rumours to bed
April 16, 2017 @ 6:57 pm
I’m also hopeful about Chibnall Who on the basis of Broadchurch season 3 (I feel like Chibnall is a solid writer and nothing more when it comes to the nuts and bolts, but I appreciated the sensitivity with which he handled the rape plot, not to mention a few scenes really shining through, like the conversation between Beth and Paul in episode 7), so the news about Kris Marshall bummed me out a bit. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he cast a woman or a person of colour in the role – and definitely some higher-tier actor (Broadchurch had some great casting, after all). I guess I should pay less mind to rumours in the press.
April 17, 2017 @ 10:19 pm
Also is it just me or was there a moffaty woffaty hint that the Doctor we see greeting Bill and inviting her into the Tardis at the end had arrived from a point further in the future of this season and that the Doctor who refused her is still in his study?
Yeah, I wondered about that; he specifically says that “time” changed his mind. Could be interesting when he brings her back, and has to say “Now, don’t tell Lecturer Me anything about this, it’ll just complicate things…”
April 16, 2017 @ 4:13 pm
I get that the editing is meant to tie in with the Doctor’s non-linear conception of time, but I think it did the episode a disservice. We only see Bill doing her actual job in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashbacks, which robs us of experiencing her baseline normality in the way we did Rose’s.
You’d think this would be a perfect opportunity for one of those “Doctor Who invades a genre” stories – I agree that the Doctor as a lecturer is a fun premise, but it’s odd how quickly the story abandons that fertile ground in favor of something thematically unrelated. Where are the fusty old administrators, the forbidden library sections, the outcast academics with wild theories?
April 16, 2017 @ 4:43 pm
Yeah, this is basically where I am (except for the Sydney bit, which I thought was a stupid waste of time).
I want to know why Moffat thinks that the audience either needed or desired a lengthy, slow recap of the format of the show. I know it’s been a little while since the last full season but come on. If anything needs recapping it’s who the biddelly fuck Nardole is. I can’t be the only viewer who couldn’t tell you a single thing about him beyond the fact that he closely resembles the guy from Little Britain.
April 16, 2017 @ 4:54 pm
To copypaste from my own review elsewhere a bit, but I’m not sure the puddle monster is quite a “minimalist creation”, as such. Sure, it’s threadbare as hell, but there’s some above-minimalist amount of thought behind it – insofar as it’s designed to bring about a Fairy Seduction story, of a type that goes, within the Western tradition, as far back as Hylas the Argonaut, stolen by the nymphs of the spring of Pegae while fetching water there. (A link that was implicitly acknowledged in the bit on the alien planet on the other side of the universe, where the cinematography basically recreated the Waterhouse painting of Hylas’ abduction). There is also the degree to which the “puddle” design allows the story to plays itself as a ghost story – Heather can thus have a watery, drowned appearance that can be obviously corpse-like without any grotesque rotting.
That said, wouldn’t it have been much better if Doctor Who had done the “invade a genre” thing for real, and play this out as a proper Ghost Story? Traditionally, this sort of story has been about guilt – the living had failed the dead in some way, so the dead is back to settle that karma. Maybe have it so that Bill has to run off for the tutorial with the Doctor and hence leave Heather alone – and as it turns out, vulnerable to the alien water – after she’s promised not to? That would at least make use of the Doctor’s insistence on Bill turning up on-time, which is an unfired Chekhov’s Gun as far as the episode in its current form is concerned.
April 16, 2017 @ 5:19 pm
I didn’t mean minimalist as a knock on the monster at all, hence that being my charitable description. I meant it in the sense of artistic minimalism – a case of sketching a monster with the bare minimum of strokes needed to capture the concept.
April 16, 2017 @ 6:43 pm
Thought The Pilot was alright. Nice to see that Moffat has read Jerusalem too. Pearl Mackie impressed, got me interested in Bill, which is what the first appearance of a companion is supposed to do. Not a fan of Matt Lucas (Little Britain went on for 2 & a half more series than it needed to IMO) so there needs to be an explanation for Nardole’s appearance sooner rather than later.
As to the Regeneration, I thought it was common knowledge that Capaldi was going at the end of this series, which makes sense production-wise – the Christmas specials are seen as part of the forthcoming series so Chibnall & the 13th Doctor starting there makes sense.
As to the Kris Marshall getting cast rumour, the BBC might as well say we’re happy to moth-ball the show for a few years. Nothing interesting about his work.
April 16, 2017 @ 6:46 pm
Heather with the wanderlust and the star in her eye was clearly set up as a mirror for the Doctor and her ‘seduction’ of Bill a reflection of the usual ‘choosing the companion’ dance we get with a soft reboot such as this. I liked the way this allowed the episode to explore the romance of meeting the Doctor without the problematic sexual predator undertones that have dogged Nu Who.
The photos of wife and granddaughter, while very cleverly being just what an elderly professor might have on his desk also reminded us that the Doctor does have emotional needs. The reprise of Clara’s theme was a nice touch to remind us that none of our ‘heroes’ are beyond a bit of mind-wiping (let’s never forget Donna) and Pearl Mackie’s playing of Bill’s rejection of the Doctor’s hands approaching her face could also be read as a powerful defense of personal space in a student/teacher scenario.
April 16, 2017 @ 7:51 pm
I really liked this episode, but in the same way, I felt like it’s definitely time for Moffat to go. It’s not that he’s running out of energy to write well-constructed stories. But he’s already revealed all the basic structures of his storylines and explored a lot of what they can do in Doctor Who. Moffat is a farce writer at his best, which is why he’s also so good at mysteries like Sherlock. There’s just nowhere else for him to go.
Anyway, as usual, I’m piggybacking on your reviews to steal your thunder, Phil.
April 16, 2017 @ 8:32 pm
Nardole is Moffat problematising K9 by having the Doctor treat a human-shaped companion that way.
April 16, 2017 @ 9:08 pm
I really enjoy this blog – it’s gotten me acquainted with Classic Who that I missed when younger and I’ve been waiting for the right moment to jump on.
I’m not Moffat’s biggest fan, but this episode was pretty decent. A little too much setting-up, which slowed proceedings and an unusual move, given that the series can rely on a fairly loyal fan base from recent years. However, there is good chemistry between Capaldi and Mackie and that fact alone made me want to carry on watching. If I’m right, they’re going to be fun together.
April 17, 2017 @ 2:54 am
Best companion intro story since Rose. Everyone is firing on all cylinders here: I’ve really loved Capaldi up till now (and he has been one of my favourite actors since I was about twelve) but here he has finally brought all the elements of his portrayal together and added extra twinkle. I swear he’s the twinkliest NuWho doctor (even moreso than Eccles).
Monster was almost comically standard-issue Moffatt. Good. I didn’t want to think about the monster I just wanted to watch Bill and Doc do their thing.
I really hope they do nothing with the star in her eye- it’s some off pigmentation. Not everything is an alien mystery. That fat kid at school isn’t a Slitheen etc.
Susan? So hard to say what they’ll do with that. It’s pretty clearly been on Capaldi’s wish list since he started but it’s a total minefield for any showrunner to touch.
I watched it with a non fan as I knew it would be a good jumping on point, she was fairly impressed and very, very scared. I’d always gone with Lawrence Miles’s line about “things children pretend to be scared of” but no, it can actually scare an actual adult with actual life experience.
Nardole? He’s fun. Never liked Matt Lucas before but I’d never like Catherine Tate either and she was brilliant as Donna. The Doctor needs a coconspirator in this. CyberJeeves seems like a good choice.
I think this is going to be a wonderful season. Shout out to ABC’s rather sweet Whovians show. A post-match panel show for a genre series rather than a football game is such an obviously great idea it’s a wonder we haven’t seen it before. Tough to get right, but they pitched it really well- frothy but nerdy and pleasingly camp.
One of the best nights watching Doctor Who I’ve had since 2005.
April 17, 2017 @ 3:01 am
ALSO LOVED: Bill’s rejection of the mindwipe. Taken along with Hell Bent it seems to be Moffatt telling us that yes, he’s learning and yes, he stares a Doctor Who a little too much and can recognise when things are problematic. It’s a similar impulse to his rewriting/ruining of the Time War in Day of the Doctor, only here the motivation seems to be to improve the ethical and political dimensions of the show going forward. To say, “there’s been some awful stuff in the past, I’ve been responsible for a lot of it, but it’s not what this show is and we will keep striving to be better”
April 17, 2017 @ 11:40 am
Hang on, what? The Donna mindwipe was Davies. Comparable things like Torchwood’s “retcon” weren’t Moffat either. On the contrary, the sanctity of memory was always a major Moffat preoccupation – just look at season 5. It’s Davies he’s telling off there, not himself.
And surely his motive for replacing the Davies version of the Time War with something less genocidal was also at least partly “to improve the ethical and political dimensions of the show going forward”. I mean yes, it was about addressing something in the past of the series, but it was the nature of the Time War concept to hang over what came after, and fully lifting that shadow for the future meant going back and revising it. (Well, “fully” except where Toby Whithouse is concerned. He doesn’t seem to have got the message yet.)
April 17, 2017 @ 10:06 pm
Sorry I was a little unclear on that. Yes, Donna mindwipe was Davies but there are comparable things in the Smith era, where the doctor was similarly invasive- Christmas Carol being the obvious example, the headbutt info dump in The Lodger, the stalking of Clara, the mind wipe in Journey (that may have been some Tardis-based time differential thing but I’m never going to rewatch it so I don’t know, but it was bloody convenient and he did nothing to stop it) etc. the way I see it, Eleven was an abusive bully with very little respect for others’ autonomy and agency- it was the most consistent part of his characterisation beyond flapping his hands about and pretending not to understand sex. I liked that when the doctor went into a character’s past in this one it was just to take a couple of pictures, to heal Bill’s wounds going forward rather than change her lived experience.
DOTD’s retcon felt more about squaring up the doctor’s characterisation and healing the scars of the wilderness years than atoning for the show’s political missteps. Unless a disregard for The Children was something the show had got seriously wrong in the past.
April 17, 2017 @ 1:52 pm
We know the Ice Warriors are back later this series- and given the Puddle’s hissy voice before it acquired Heather, and how very Waters of Mars its behaviour was, is the Puddle an experimental ice warrior ship that tried to harness the power of the Flood? Or was the Flood created by Ice Warrior engineering experiments gone wrong? Either way, I reckon we’ll see Heather again in Empress of Mars…
April 17, 2017 @ 3:59 pm
Good call. I got a Waters of Mars vibe too.
April 19, 2017 @ 3:41 am
I thought of both Waters of Mars and the repeating creature in Midnight.
Roderick T. Long
April 30, 2017 @ 3:48 am
The stranded spaceship that wanted a pilot in “The Lodger” seems similar too.
April 17, 2017 @ 4:29 pm
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.
Yeah, especially since the fat joke and the mitigating factor were in different languages–Bill says that the extra chips woman “was beautiful” and “now she’s fat,” implying these are mutually exclusive, but her body language later in the episode says otherwise. The latter is both easy to miss (especially if you’re seething about the former) and visual rather than verbal.
I think the problems with the episode are essentially summed up by this exchange (paraphrased):
Doctor: Why do you come to my lectures?
Bill: I like girls.
Doctor: What does that have to do with my lectures?
Bill: Dunno. Moffat was hoping it’d go somewhere by the time he got to the end of it, and it didn’t.
It’s visibly trying to be charming, where past companion introductions by Moffat (especially Jack and Amy) were charming without the self-conscious awkwardness. This feels badly in need of a rewrite–for example, either cutting Bill’s story about the chips woman, moving it to somewhere that it makes sense to tell it, or finding a way to make it actually answer the Doctor’s question. Or failing that, at least do a better job of making it flow naturally–“Bill randomly reveals personal information when flustered” could be a fun character trait in a companion, but other than that one instance it doesn’t really seem to be the case.
Still, it’s already clear Bill is going to be a fun companion, Mackie and Capaldi already have good chemistry, and I’m looking forward to the season.
April 17, 2017 @ 6:51 pm
I assumed that the point of the joke was the bit about she prefers chips to not being fat. So do I. If so the direction/acting put the emphasis too early.
April 18, 2017 @ 2:04 am
I ~think~ the payoff/gag was meant to be “You make my mind get fat.” Only, it doesn’t quite come off.
Bill fancies cute girl, Bill gives her unsanctioned freebies from her job, but because that happens to be serving chips, the girl gets larger.
The Doctor fancies/sees something in Bill, Doctor gives her private lessons, because the Doctor’s “job” is adventuring through space and time … Bill’s mind expands.
Moffat left us to make the parallels, but they’re too tenuous and culturally mis-aligned (in our culture fatter = bad, smarter = good) that it gets missed. I missed it till the next day, when puzzling it out over my Weet Bix the next morning.
At least, I think that was the intent.
April 17, 2017 @ 9:40 pm
I find it interesting that they seem to be setting up a two-track season arc. One focusing on Bill as the companion, who seems to be taking a traditional new-companion role.
The other with Nardol as the companion. He is in a collaboration with the Doctor, as they work together on whatever is under the university. Whatever led to the promises that have kept the Doctor there for half a century. Whatever is making the Doctor resist taking Bill as a traditional companion, and makes him think he ought to wipe her memory.
The setup for this second arc seems to be going mostly unnoticed, but I think it will prove far more significant than the details of Bill’s introduction.
April 17, 2017 @ 10:25 pm
Moffat is pushing out of his comfort zone with an episode that’s obviously got a debt to Rose in key regards
I think the most telling example of this is Bill’s foster mother. Moff’s first attempt at a Jackie Tyler or Sylvia Noble, even as he continues with his first instinct of companions not having mothers at all.
On another note, someone pointed out on Twitter that Heather was the name of the significant other of another Bill with a major Doctor Who connection, so that’s interesting.
April 18, 2017 @ 9:15 am
If I recall my Press Gang credits correctly, Bill was also the name of Moffat’s father…
April 20, 2017 @ 10:19 am
Wild theory time here. I will be on cloud nine if it’s true.
In the Christmas special, per rumors, Bill and Twelve have a grand adventure with pre-series start One. Twelve and Bill both make the supreme sacrifice… and both regenerate. During their double-decade “one night” together, River and the Doctor had a baby. That baby became Bill’s mother. When Bill regenerates, for some reason as yet unhinted at, she takes on the name Susan, and leaves the series in One’s TARDIS.
I find this wild theory pleasing on so many levels. Even if it’s completely wrong, it will be right in my imagination forever.
John G. Wood
April 20, 2017 @ 4:06 pm
Late to the party as usual (I only got to see it last night), but thought it still worth commenting.
First off, I like Bill, and am happy with Pearl Mackie’s portrayal and how the two stars work together. I think it wasn’t until the chips montage that I thought of Rose, and then I kept thinking “another London accent” – which is unfair since it’s the first under Moffat. I didn’t react to it as badly as I did with Martha’s or Ace’s, however.
“it’s interesting that we have a classic Davies-era present/future/past triptych for the first three stories.”
Clara was an interesting case for this: if you look at original Clara, it goes present/future/past; if you include splinters, it goes future/past/present.
“The companion who knows sci-fi tropes is one of those ideas that’s simultaneously obvious and never actually been done”
This instantly made me think “hey, what about Izzy?!”; but it’s certainly not been done to such an extent on TV (although, as pointed out, Mickey and Rory had their moments).
I’m more than cautiously optimistic for this series. For me this was the best series opener since The Eleventh Hour; yes, the idea of the monster was a bit rubbish, but it didn’t matter because the story was so obviously not about that.
[Incidentally, we were doing a Capaldi marathon in 2016 so that we would be up to date – there are still some episodes we’d only seen once – but we stalled when we got to Under the Lake/Before the Flood. There were several reasons for that, but the main reason was, well, Before the Flood.]
April 20, 2017 @ 8:44 pm
I hope Moffat isn’t bringing Susan back. I know he likes to meddle with the show’s past and normally I would trust him with such a task but… well… Sherlock’s third season was not good at all. That’s also the reason why I’m somewhat worried about Capaldi’s “complicated regeneration”. I really don’t want to be frustrated with the end of Moffat’s era just before the sure-to-be-frustrating Chibnall’s era.
I liked the episode. The plot was a little disappointing but Bill was fantastic. I hope this season’s writers know how to handle a genre-savvy character without resorting to cheap meta-commentary. There’s a lot of potential there.
I also like how the Twelfth Doctor has softened since his early days. I almost stopped watching DW during Season 8 because I couldn’t stand him. My girlfriend still refuses to rewatch these episodes. But now Twelfth is one of my favourites. I’ll miss him.
April 22, 2017 @ 12:07 pm
And by “Sherlock’s third season” I of course meant “Sherlock’s fourth season”.