The Pilot

Story No. 290 What a drippy girl
Production Code Series 10, episode 1
Dates April 15, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Lawrence Gough
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Doctor has taken up residence at St Luke's University, where he meets a would-be student and is guarding something in a vault.


A New Beginning by Niall Jones 25/11/20

Following on from a series defined by its complex, occasionally experimental stories, The Pilot marks a deliberate return to the basics. The TARDIS features extensively, there are other worlds, spaceships, Daleks and that classic Doctor Who staple, corridors. In a short behind-the-scenes film, Steven Moffat describes the episode as 'an opportunity to meet the Doctor all over again' and hopes that the story would be 'a jumping on point for the show', highlighting its accessibility to general audiences. While there are plenty of Easter eggs for established fans - the photographs of Susan and River Song, the return of the Movellans and the Doctor playing Beethoven's fifth, to name but a few - the plot is straightforward, linear and independent of previous stories.

The episode begins at St Luke's University, where the Doctor has been moonlighting as a lecturer in order to guard a mysterious vault, aided by Matt Lucas's Nardole, last seen in The Return of Doctor Mysterio. The Doctor as teacher is an intriguing proposition, and Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat's take on the character - eccentric, gruff and compassionate - is well-suited to the profession.

A teacher is nothing, however, without a student, and it is in this role that Bill Potts enters the story. A dinner lady who nevertheless attends the Doctor's lectures, she is taken on for private tuition by the Doctor. 'Normally, when people don't understand something they frown. You smile,' the Doctor explains when Bill asks why he singled her out. Indeed, Bill's approach to the unknown is characterised throughout by sharp observation and warm humour.

Like all companions, Bill enters the TARDIS ignorant of what it really is, yet her response to it hilariously undermines the Doctor's expectations. While her description of the TARDIS interior as being 'like a... kitchen' seems iconoclastic, there is a clear logic to it. Similarly, she undercuts the Doctor's poetic description of the TARDIS by asking for the toilet. It goes without saying, therefore, that Bill's questions are both sensible and unlike those asked by any previous companions. In this way, Bill humorously undermines many of Doctor Who's tropes.

Despite containing both a shape-shifting alien and Daleks, The Pilot is really all about Bill. Pearl Mackie gives a strong performance as Bill, full of comic energy, and her dialogue with the Doctor is one of the highlights of the episode. While Clara ultimately became one of Doctor Who's most interesting and successful companions - complex and flawed, but likeable - it took a while for her character to become properly established; Bill's character, in contrast, is made clear from the off.

The extent to which the story places Bill at its centre means that the plot takes a bit of a back seat. Although pacey and enjoyable, it is neither hugely memorable nor massively original. The Pilot herself, although an interesting concept, essentially combines elements of the Flood from The Waters of Mars and the Veil from Heaven Sent, while the appearance of the Daleks feels perfunctory. At times, the Doctor and Bill's attempts to escape from the Pilot seems like little more than an excuse to show what the TARDIS can do.

Ultimately though, this doesn't matter. The story succeeds in its intention of acting as a gateway for new viewers and does so in some style. For example, the scene where Bill meets Heather for the first time is shot and soundtracked with breath-taking bravura, highlighting the chemistry between the two characters and establishing Bill's sexuality without fixating on it.

While The Pilot may not quite be a Doctor Who classic, it is nevertheless an exciting and enjoyable opener for a new series. Perhaps more significantly, it introduces one of the greatest Doctor-companion partnerships of recent times.