Archives For Pearl Mackie

Since its reinvention 12 years ago, Doctor Who, to me, has a particular pattern to the way it introduces new companions for the Doctor. The first adventure between Doctor and companion tends to be a knock about race against the clock that allows the writer to establish the relationship between the two: see Rose, Smith and Jones, The Runaway Bride etc. Though in fairness to The Runaway Bride, Donna Noble did undergo a soft reboot herself before resurfacing in Partners in Crime, becoming a much less abrasive foil to Tennant’s wide-eyed cock-er-nee Doctor.

The second episode inevitably sees the Companion quickly learn a facet of the Doctor’s personality that will make them wary at first, but ultimately, they’ll realise he’s just a big lug head who needs a bit of human interaction to make him decent. Perhaps the best example of this is, to return to season 4, is The Fires of Pompeii which dealt with The Doctor’s decree of never altering history regardless of how cold that made him appear. Having kick-started the volcano that destroys Pompeii, The Doctor is convinced by Donna to save at least one family in the chaos. The suggestion is that had Donna not been there, then The Doctor would have turned his back on the city and come across as a bit of a bastard. This same episode would be used to explain why the Twelfth Doctor looks like the very man he saved in Pompeii. Making the deduction last season, The Doctor reasoned that this was a subconscious reminder that his fundamental characteristic is that he is The Doctor and he saves people. I personally like to write reminders to myself on my phone, but we all have our ways of doing things.

And so here we are with Smile, an episode that allows Bill to understand The Doctor’s self-imposed purpose in life: to save people. Landing on a planet under some form of terraforming, the duo quickly discovers that the original settlers – those sent to set up the planet for everyone else – have all been murdered by their robotic handymen, the Vardi. Resembling a cross between an emoji keyboard and the big screen interpretation of Marvin the Paranoid Android, the Vardi had been entrusted to ensure everyone was happy, but when they witness grief for the first time they set about trying to rid the commune of this ‘virus.’ This, of course, has a domino effect; human being just don’t like being killed when they’re already feeling quite sad.

Having established there’s something wrong, The Doctor does what he’s entrusted himself to do and leaps in feet first to help. What’s interesting here is that Bill, initially, isn’t that keen to do same and questions whether they should just call the police. We’ve come to accept that The Doctor’s companions are drawn to danger and fuelled by curiosity, so it makes a nice change to see one that’s willing to have a long hard think before charging in blindly. As shown in last week’s episode, Pearl Mackie as Bill is shaping up to be one of the classic companions. After Amy Pond and Clara Oswald, it just feels good to have a companion who is consumed with excitement about what they’re doing, rather than seeming indifferent to the wonders of the universe. It’s not that Bill shouldn’t be The Doctor’s equal, it’s just nice to have her be a little in awe of who she’s travelling with. It’s for reasons like this that make me further believe Moffat is going all Russell T. Davies on us; stripping the show of his convoluted timey wimey theatrics in order to prove that you don’t need the universe to be constantly in danger in order to provide spectacle.

That said, Smile may have provided an opportunity for Bill to learn some more about the Doctor and for us to learn more about her, but as storylines go it was very pedestrian. The final act seemed to run out of steam so quickly that we were left with the Doctor literally turning things on and off again to make everything better. Despite great performances by Mackie and Capaldi, something didn’t gel right here. It actually felt that behind the scenes, conversations were had in order to get around the thorny issue of the Doctor leaving one of the last groups of human in the universe with the very robots that killed their friends and family. As if, maybe, writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce had to be forced into crowbarring in an explanation. Whatever the reasoning, it just didn’t work for me.

So, whilst Smile felt like a bit of a letdown in comparison to last week’s caper, it managed to get by on the strength of its leads and, whilst further setting up the big reveal of The Vault, shows that season 10/36 is showing some promise.

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.