Promise you won’t go?
In one of the admittedly less memorable jokes of the episode – and this is only because of how high the standard everything else is – Bill brings up a sci-fi show that she watched on Netflix. It has lizards, in people’s brains. The Doctor responds that he’s going to have to “up my game”. In a world of Netflix and a new golden age of television, he’s not wrong – Doctor Who does have to up its game, consistently.
And with The Pilot, Doctor Who absolutely did up its game.
So much of this comes down to Bill. It’s almost become a cliché to say that Bill is a breath of fresh air, but then, she absolutely is. I loved Clara, and I’ve loved a lot of the Capaldi era, but there’s still something so invigorating and exciting about having a new companion – and Bill has made a great first impression.
Much of this episode is structured to allow her to, of course. We absolutely revel in Bill’s presence, luxuriating in those long scenes, where the joy of the episode is simply to spend time with such a fantastic new character. Every other aspect just falls away in her presence, as Pearl Mackie anchors the episode around her performance. On paper, this is something that might have looked like a risk – taking your relatively untested new character and hanging every aspect of the episode on the strength of the new actor. But then, of course it works in practice – because Pearl Mackie is excellent. This wasn’t a risk but the most sensible choice; you almost find yourself wishing the episode could be longer, to be able to spend more time hanging around with Bill. The wait until next week was a long one, and it’ll be a massive shame if we don’t see Bill continue on with the Natalie Dormer Doctor next year in the Chibnall era.
Why is Bill so excellent? Well, like I said – a huge part of it is Pearl Mackie’s performance. There’s a real charm to the character; Bill has such a boundless enthusiasm and sense of wonder that its difficult not to feel the same way. That early description of her – “When other people don’t understand something, they frown. You smile.” – is not only the perfect starting point for a new companion, it’s the best way to breathe that new life into the show. As Bill is introduced to the world of Doctor Who, we’re able to see it all anew, through her eyes.
And isn’t it wonderful?
This episode also marks the first of Peter Capaldi’s final series – the first episode of his victory lap. And what a lap it’s set to be.
As ever, Capaldi’s performance is pitch perfect; he’s clearly relishing the chance to depict a new take on the Doctor/companion relationship, and working with Pearl Mackie is clearly pushing him to new places too. The pair of them have an excellent rapport together – wouldn’t it be wonderful to see these two together for another few years? If only we were so lucky.
But then we should still count ourselves lucky to have this episode.; The Pilot is a wonderful piece for Capaldi’s Doctor. There’s a whole host of lovely moments for the Doctor here; obviously, grounding him in academia is wonderful, and there’s something about the Doctor playing professor that just feels right. Indeed, letting this professorial role form the basis of his relationship with Bill is great, and matches her enthusiasm wonderfully – he’s showing her the universe and fulfilling that curiosity. That’s not the only great moment to come from the Doctor in academia, of course – everyone loved the “Time and Relative Dimension in Space” lecture, didn’t they?
However, those aren’t the only great moments for the Doctor here; often, many of the highlights of this episode are far subtler than that. There’s a real progression of the Doctor’s character here; he’s matured since we last saw him, become more considerate. In many ways, it’s a fulfilment of the arc we saw him start upon in series 8; he doesn’t need someone to care for him anymore. The little moments where the Doctor asks Bill if she’s alright, or takes pictures of her mother, or reassures her that she’s “safe here, and always will be” – that’s when the character sings.
Further, though, it’s that scene. The confrontation between the Doctor and Bill where he nearly takes her memory, and all the raw emotion it entails. It’s not just a standout moment for Peter Capaldi, but Pearl Mackie too – and, indeed, in terms of both the writing and direction of the scene. What an excellent place to start for these characters – and what an excellent way for the Doctor to shake off academia and get back out there into the universe.
After all, that’s the moment we were all waiting for, wasn’t it? Much as it was lovely to see him in the university, we know where we really want the Doctor to be. All of time and space. Anything that ever happened, or ever will.
Where do you want to start?
This episode has something of a thin plot, yes. But then, it’s not the plot that matters – rather, it’s the story.
I’ve already highlighted, of course, how much of this episode is dedicated to fleshing out Bill. It makes sense then to have a relatively simple plot; just a jaunt through the universe, laying out the basic concepts of Doctor Who, and letting the characters carry our attention. (It’s still worth noting, of course, just how well this is all done; one of the problems of having left this review so long is that everyone else has already pointed out just how fantastic the TARDIS reveal is. But then, it is, and it’s worth pointing that out – as well as noting just how good Lawrence Gough’s direction was.)
However, despite the simple plot, there’s actually quite an involved story here. In a sense, it’s all about promises: the promise Heather made to Bill, the implicit promise the Doctor made to Clara, and the Doctor’s promise to someone to guard the vault.
Of course, the episode began with another promise – The Pilot, and its promise of a new start. It is, I think, a promise that’s realised; everything comes together here to create an episode that really does show how much Doctor Who can do, and how much it can be. In that sense, there’s so much to comment on, and so little time – Lawrence Gough’s direction, Stephanie Hyam’s performance, the lovely dialogue flourishes. It’s enough to make you wish you could just go on forever about how good the episode is, but at that point you’re better off just showing people the episode again and letting them enjoy it for themselves. You’d love it – I promise.
But then, The Pilot is also about a different kind of promise. The promise of what’s to come. The promise – the allure – of the universe. All the days of your life, laid out like a city. The day you were born; the day you died. The day you fell in love and the day love ended.
Time and Relative Dimension in Space.
It’s a promise.
The promise of everything.