Throughout his tenure as showrunner of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat has – for better or worse – been happy to experiment with the show’s format; offering episodes treated as mini-movies like season 7 or bringing in multipart stories as in season 9. Based on the evidence of season 10’s opener, Moffat appears to be at his most daring by giving us stripped back storytelling that (so far) isn’t weighed down by the events of the seasons before it. I know! Who knew?
Like Dan Harmon’s fifth season return to Community, Moffat appears to be applying a soft reboot to Doctor Who that doesn’t ignore his contribution to the show but offers potential new viewers an opportunity to see what the fuss has been for ten seasons. In some ways, this is his version of Rose, the episode that kicked off the show’s relaunch 12 years ago. Yes, really, 12 years ago! To be honest, if there had been a big reveal that this had been written by Russell T Davies in secret, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Tonally, The Pilot is so different from previous seasons.
Through the eyes of audience surrogate Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), veteran fans are reintroduced to The Doctor as a beguiling university lecturer, who enthrals Bill with his idiosyncratic lectures ranging Fromm quantum physics to poetry. Bill, we quickly discover, isn’t a student at the university, instead working at the canteen where she gives her crushes extra portions of chips in order to get them to notice her. Like Davies, Moffat manages to paint the fullest picture of Bill in such a short time. She’s gay, she has a stepmum, she’s intuitive, she’s intelligent, she likes sci-fi. In short, she’s a person! A real breathing person that lives off screen. Let’s be honest, Clara was great and all, but any growth she had was completely dependent on what the story needed from her at the time.
Young and sassy, comparisons to Rose Tyler are to be expected but there’s also a hint of Donna Noble in Bill, as she questions the nature of who the Doctor is. Moffat gets dragged across the coals by certain corners of the internet for a supposed disregard for the show’s 50 year canon, but as The Pilot proves, that’s really not the case. The Sherlock writer has a clear love for the show, one which he uses to dismantle and examine its supposedly sacred cows. In his time we’ve established time lords can change race and gender, that they have a sexuality (you hear that Lungbarrow) and, as Bill points out, they weirdly use English to name their ships. No, there’s always been a cheekiness to Moffat’s writing but it’s never to be mean or disrespectful. Though I think he does enjoy needling some of the more hardcore fans.
This respect for the past can be seen in The Pilot’s numerous nods to the series of yore. Having set himself up as a lecturer, the Doctor’s office is littered with paraphernalia from his past. Most prominently, two large photos on his desk of his out of time wife River Song and, most intriguingly, Susan, his granddaughter. Since being left by her grandfather on earth several eons ago, Susan has been alluded to throughout the show’s later years. However, outside of tripping over constantly in The Five Doctors, we’ve not heard much from her. Whether this is just one of Moffatt’s red herrings it’s yet to be seen, but those watching this season’s opener would fail to have missed that there’s some connection being hinted at between Bill and Susan.
Returning to character growth, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor appears to have softened greatly since the lacklustre Christmas special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Still being fussed over by Nardole, played by the always wonderful Matt Lucas, the Doctor might be bristly, but he’s not adverse to moments of charity. To be fair, The Doctor under Moffat is a big fan of the secretive grand gesture towards others, and you’d be lying if you said your heart didn’t glow when we found out he’d gone back in time to take pictures of Bill’s deceased mother as a Christmas present. Under Russell T Davies, this the kind of thing that would have been played out with perhaps too much sugar and syrup. Here, Moffat gets the balance just right, ensuring that we never forget that this is still the Doctor that doesn’t hug. Though it is somewhat odd that Bill, who catches a glimpse of the Doctor in one of these photos, never brings this up with her grumpy lecturer.
What I haven’t mentioned here is the episode’s big bad and, to be fair, that’s for good reason. Whilst the concept of a killer puddle of oil was admittedly fun, The Pilot was never about the creature that stalked Bill and the Doctor in the guise of the former’s crush. It’s about the bond that’s forged between the duo – and Nardole – as they skip through time, country and beyond to escape it. To make it anything more than one long chase sequence would perhaps have done the episode a disservice and overshadowed the sterling work done by Mackie and Moffatt in setting up the character of Bill. We have a whole season to watch her get in over her head, so I’m happy to get to know her first. And what of the Vault that was, until the end, keeping the Doctor on Earth? Obviously, we’ll find out before Capaldi takes his bow but let’s hope it’s not as complicated as McGuffins in the past. Hello, Pandorica!
We can’t hide from the fact that this Capaldi’s last season but, based on the strength of this opening, we can hope that it will give the actor a perfect send off. That said, after you’ve had a previous regenerate after falling off an exercise bike, you can’t get much worse.
So, hello to Bill and welcome back Doctor, I look forward to seeing what awaits you.