Doctor Who The Pilot review: “at its heart is a romance, an attraction that transcends space and time”

As a new companion jumps on board for a new series, the opening episode explores afresh the mysteries and joys at the core of this 54-year-old show, says Patrick Mulkern

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★★★★ The agonisingly long wait is over. After a 16-month hiatus, proper weekly Doctor Who is back for 12 episodes, and the fact that the first of series ten is called The Pilot is not to be taken lightly. There’s a reference to a pilot within the dialogue, but you could – if you’ve just materialised from a parallel, Who-free universe – take this as your jumping-on point, your pilot episode. If you’re already anticipating the complete reboot promised for 2018 under new showrunner Chris Chibnall, well it almost feels like Steven Moffat has accomplished it a year earlier.

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Through the eyes of newcomer Bill Potts, The Pilot explores afresh the mysteries and joys at the core of this 54-year-old show. She asks all the questions that any normal person would about the incongruous police box and its strange owner and his identity – except, for once, it’s not “Doctor who?” but “Doctor what?”. It may take her a while to work out that the Tardis is bigger on the inside – but thanks to Bill we finally discover the location of the Tardis toilet. Essential information for all novice adventurers with loosened bowels.

From the opening scene, the Doctor is established as a lecturer at St Luke’s University in present-day Bristol. He’s been based here a very long time (perhaps 50 years, perhaps 70) and delivers captivating lectures. He has his own splendid wood-panelled, red-painted quarters adorned with a Rembrandt self-portrait and etchings, while his blue box stands invitingly in the corner. For die-hards, this scenario smacks of Shada, the unfinished and unaired 1979/80 serial written by Douglas Adams, which had Tom Baker’s Doctor visiting a Time Lord professor at Cambridge.

More, it reads like Educating Rita as Peter Capaldi’s prof offers Bill private tuition. A canteen worker with an enquiring mind she’s been slipping into his lectures. Who wouldn’t? Capaldi is a magnetic force. You wouldn’t bunk off or nod off while he’s in full flow. Pearl Mackie is instantly winning as the fledgling companion. She may not have had much education but she isn’t dim; she’s quirky, big-hearted, a 20-something who lives with her foster mother, works on campus and develops a crush on a young woman she’s been serving generous portions of chips. 

While The Pilot focuses on building a bond between the Time Lord and Bill, it allows plenty of leeway for Matt Lucas as the Doctor’s batman, Nardole. Lucas has impeccable comic timing, spinning sarky asides, peculiar squeals and amusing lines, at one point quoting Kenneth Williams from Carry On Spying (“I’d give it a minute”).

Inevitably, there are nods to Doctor Who’s past. On his desk, he has framed portraits of loved ones: a snap of River Song and a BBC publicity shot of his granddaughter. Susan has barely been mentioned since her departure in 1964. Carole Ann Ford reprised the role in The Five Doctors (1983), we saw a blur of Susan fleeing Gallifrey in The Name of the Doctor (2013), and of course Susan was An Unearthly Child, the focus of the original “Pilot Episode” in 1963. For now, I’m not reading too much into this sudden reminder of her existence.

Along with Shada, there’s a further allusion to season 17, to Terry Nation’s 1979 serial Destiny of the Daleks and their “interminable war” with the Movellans. Only a glimpse, mind. The camp disco-era androids with beaded hair dash about in the background, not quite in focus. It’s rather sweet to see the Movellans again 38 years later, although as they’re robots, why do they howl with pain during battle?

Back to the now. The Pilot has a lovely visual flair and is given an energetic snap from director Lawrence Gough. The effects of the menacing puddle and the watery transformations are expertly handled. But there’s a simple pleasure to be had in the presentation of our old friend, the Tardis. Never has it looked more stunning than in the gradual zoom-out from Bill at the police box doors as the lights and mechanisms flicker to life. Kudos to designer Michael Pickwoad and the lighting department. I hope this is the one aspect His Chibs does retain when he takes charge. The soundtrack is unusually varied, even encompassing snatches of Beethoven and Joy Division – fittingly, Love Will Tear Us Apart.

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What I enjoy most about this episode is that at its heart – partly cloaked in intrigue and menace – is a romance, an attraction that transcends space and time. It’s not just the Doctor who exposes Bill to the delights of space/time travel. The force that has consumed Heather – the girl with a star in her eye – pursues Bill to the ends of the universe. Bill puts her trust in this peculiar liquid lifeform and experiences a mind-blowing cosmic trip. A beautiful and poetic resolution to this new chapter. 

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