Only a show with Doctor Who‘s cavalier approach to chronology could have an episode called The Pilot at the start of its 36th series, but that’s exactly what this is, following the same basic template as An Unearthly Child and Rose. It does strike me as strange to mark such a clear line in the sand for what was already known to be the last series for this Doctor and showrunner, but it does a great job of setting up a whole new approach for the show, even though it’s one that’s doomed to be extremely short-lived.
That’s thanks to Bill, who makes as strong a start as any companion, easily up to the task of carrying a story told from her perspective – it’s like we’re meeting the Doctor for the first time through her, despite her being the new one. The “Doctor what?” joke in the opening scene is a subtle way of establishing early on that while Bill asks a lot of questions, they’re not necessarily the ones you’d expect from a companion. Her inquisitive nature is infectious, inviting us to look at the show with fresh eyes and re-evaluate things that we take for granted. That thing about the TARDIS abbreviation only working in English is going to bug me now.
Pearl Mackie is an absolute star from the start; what an amazing find by the casting team. As Bill says, she does indeed have a face that’s always making expressions, and she’s fascinating to watch. Meanwhile, Matt Lucas is still being effortlessly Matt Lucas, and Capaldi is giving us something different too – I loved all his different versions of the Doctor, no matter how dark and moody they got, but Capaldi with a twinkle in his eye is a joy to behold.
And I love the setup of the Doctor as a reclusive professor, with his pictures of his wife and granddaughter on his desk, along with a mug full of sonic screwdrivers. The situation is a cross between Chronotis from Shada and Pertwee being stuck working for UNIT, which gives his eventual decision to go gallivanting off with Bill a rebellious element, making his adventures seem mischievous and even slightly dangerous once more. The mysterious vault gives the series a spine to build around; it retrospect it was always going to be Missy in there, but my only other theory at the time was that it might be John Simm’s Master, given that we already knew he’d be back before his appearance in the trailer at the end.
Anything else? Oh yeah, the plot. Well, it was relatively lightweight on the surface, but it was merely a framework on which to hang scenes that establish how great this collection of characters are, and how well they work together. It was also there for the Doctor to show off to Bill, and to new viewers alike, just what he can do. The Movellans turning up is hilarious and bizarre, but it’s the ideal choice really – a little reward for the hardcore fans, but anyone who doesn’t know them isn’t missing anything, they’re just the generic race that the Daleks are fighting.
This series will go on to lose its way a little bit towards the middle, but for now this stands out an exciting start to Moffat and Capaldi’s final hurrah, and the first step towards Bill becoming a short-term but nonetheless much-loved companion.