[Editor’s Note: The following review of “Doctor Who” Season 10, Episode 1, “The Pilot,” contains spoilers.]
Finally, finally! After a year without a proper season, “Doctor Who” returned and felt familiar and comfortable, no mean feat when introducing a new companion. The episode lulled viewers and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) into complacency first by setting much of the early action at St. Luke’s University in Bristol, before shifting to the more spectacular aspects of the Whoniverse we all know and love. Overall, the premiere did well to set up a rapport between Twelve and Bill, while teasing out a few story arcs to come.
Here Be Monsters
Among the pantheon of Whovian monsters and aliens, the creature we met wasn’t exciting nor even threatening so much as misunderstood. We don’t even have a name for the liquefied, sentient shape-shifting, time-traveling goo that appeared first as a puddle which incorrectly reflected a person’s image. (Note: Nice touch with Bill wearing a t-shirt with a bisected face on it, playing off of the asymmetrical revelation.) Once the goo took on the form of its pilot Heather (Stephanie Hyam), at least it acquired some sort of purpose, which, once sussed out, was easily addressed.
Goo Heather had some fun “T2” or “The Abyss”-style liquefied face moments, but this monster was less interesting than it was useful as a device to get Bill to start her space-and-time-traveling adventures. Heather had the stars in her eyes, well one eye, after all. And let’s not forget that for Bill’s first jaunt, she got to meet Daleks and live to tell about it.
The Companion Who Smiled
Bill Potts’ essence was all color and energy and light, and these attributes might be why the rainbow motif is used so much with her (a patch on her jacket, the multicolored stripes in her clothes) and not so much because she’s the first openly gay companion. Her charming nature is just what The Doctor needs after his recent losses — he admitted that he had noticed Bill auditing his class because instead of frowning when confused, she smiled.
After a companion like Clara, whose very existence was tied to The Doctor’s throughout the ages, it was refreshing to meet Bill, who we hope won’t have that many puzzles to unravel. So far, everything about her seemed positive, ranging from how she passed the “Friend Only” security setting to her peace symbol earrings. Two other patches on her denim jacket looked promising as well: the word “Wow!” which felt very much like a Bill reaction to everything (such as her appreciation for the TARDIS, even when she thought it was only a knock-through), and a patch in the back that lists three symbols: “? & !” We might be reading too much into this, but the question mark has been a symbol representing The Doctor through multiple regenerations. Could the exclamation point represent Bill?
A few other observations about Bill: Despite working in the canteen serving chips, she has a brilliant mind for astrophysics. Could she have inherited this from someone? Also, she appeared self-sufficient and mature, despite the fact that her mother died when she was just a baby and her current foster mother is neither warm nor nurturing. We imagine we’ll be learning more about Bill’s past and her mother’s early death.
The Spin Doctor
The last regular episode we’ve had with The Doctor was the final farewell to Clara, and since then, we’ve only had two standalone Christmas episodes. We’re not really sure what he’s been up to, and the premiere dropped a few hints that we’ve tried to piece together.
Apparently, The Doctor has been lecturing undercover at the University for 50 to 70 years according to Bill. He even said, “I am here for a reason. I am in disguise. I have promises to keep. No one can know about me.” Some of these promises appeared to involve a vault that he and his assistant Nardole (Matt Lucas) are trying to access or safeguard. Another promise may relate to his level of involvement with Bill. At another point while he was alone in his study, he said while looking at the TARDIS, “I can’t do that anymore. I promised!”
Whatever the big mystery is, this promise felt personally motivated. The Doctor wasn’t his grumpy old man self, but seemed instead rather humbled and distraught.
Straight From the Two Hearts
With all of its time-traveling adventures, “Doctor Who” often hits us in far more intimate and bittersweet ways. Although we had only just met Bill, twice we felt the depth of her loss: first, when she was looking at the newly discovered photos of her mother (thanks, Doctor!), and later, when she bid adieu to Heather, a restless soul who found her ultimate escape. A bonus little stab in our hearts happened when Bill and Heather first met at a club with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” playing in the background. That should just be the theme for the entire series.
As for The Doctor, aka the most tragic character in the universe, we got gut punches when we first caught sight of the two photos on his desk — River Song and Susan, his very first companion — and later, when Bill asked him to imagine if someone had wiped his memory, which of course happened in the final Clara episode.
The time travel was fairly straightforward with few consequences that we know of, although since The Doctor did go back in time to take photos of Bill’s mum, we wonder if he got to know her as well, and if that affects his connection to Bill.
The Doctor’s lectures at the university touched on some concepts about time and drew parallels to how a memory is just one frozen frame that makes up the movie of our lives. In trying to explain how all time coexists simultaneously, he also suggested that those moments could comprise different parts of a city — all available at once, but limited by our human ability to access one experience at a time.
The photos of River Song and Susan were the most obvious callbacks to previous “Who” adventures, but The Doctor’s office also included a pen cup filled with sonic screwdrivers from regenerations past and an hourglass on his desk to represent the passage of time. There was even a bird figure on the desk, which could be construed as the raven that had caused Clara’s death.
The best Easter egg happened during The Doctor’s lecture. “Time is relative to ourselves. Time is the space made by our lives where stand together forever,” he said. “Time and relative dimension in space. It means life.” Remind us again what TARDIS stands for?
“Go be a proper student: texts, snogging, a vegan wrap.”
“It’s down there, first right, second left, past the macaroon dispenser.”
“Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry. Hunger looks very like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery. Or do you think your bacon sandwich loves you back?”
Watch a sneak peek of next week’s episode below:
— Doctor Who Official (@bbcdoctorwho) April 15, 2017
“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on BBC America.