I intended to write up the episodes of the new series of Doctor Who — and I have finally started doing so, have seen “The Lie of the Land”. There will be plot spoilers, but in this entry I’m trying to avoid bringing stuff I know from later episodes in. This may change. And I may give up.
Doctor Who: “The Pilot”
“The Pilot” is the name given to the first episode of a TV series, a testing ground to see if it works, and sometimes it is remade before the series is actually transmitted — this happened with Doctor Who in 1963. Steptoe and Son had its origins in a series of Comedy Playhouse with one called “The Proposal”, a neat establishment of the two central characters who were to be trapped together.
Here, of course, we are long past a pilot episode, but this new season acts as a new reboot for the series, before Moffat hands the baton across to Chris Chibnall. The pilot here is more literal, the pilot of a space ship, but the beginning of each series is a chance for new viewers to come aboard. (Although I started mid-series, just missing “The Deadly Assassin” in favour of “The Face of Evil”.)
So we have a new companion, who has to discover the Doctor, time travel, space travel and the bigger on the inside TARDIS. The rumour was that this was a character for a single season, so I do wonder if she’s marked for death; the other story point is that she is a person of colour and the first gay companion.
This is a little open to debate — what about Captain Jack? And I wonder if in Old Who we were ever clear about Steven, Ben, Jamie, Harry, Adric or Turlough’s sexuality for the male characters, or the longer list of female characters? A number of them left to get married — but sex as such was one of those things that never quite came up. In recent companions we’ve had a certain amount of Unspoken Sexual Tension between the female companions and the Doctor, to a tedious amount, so my worry was that Bill was an attempt to break away from this. Given I feel that Moffat’s recurring female characters are a little one note I was worried in general — River and Missy share a certain archness, for example.
And then there’s the spectre of Irene Adler in Sherlock — a lesbian who is turned by Sherlock, as I recall.
So Bill is a worker in the cafe in St Luke’s University, Bristol, and turns up to the Doctor’s lectures — he apparently has been teaching there for fifty years or more. He seems to have selected her for Special Attention, and offers to become her tutor. This immediately establishes a more paternalistic relationship, but Bill is clearly not afraid to ask questions.
And then she stumbles onto a plot and the Doctor’s plot.
Nardole is back — although Ottocourgette wants to call him Margot. He was the annoying character in one of the annoying Christmas specials and my memory was that he’d been killed off. But here he is, as a sort of Igor manservant comic relief and aiding the Doctor with Mysterious Stuff in a vault the Doctor has in the basement of the college.
Meanwhile, Bill has been falling for a woman called Heather and building up to a date, but Heather wants to show her a Mysterious Puddle. And then Heather disappears — into the puddle it turns out, although it is clearly not a puddle but an entry to a spaceship, which I assume is less flat on the inside. Heather has been selected as the pilot and it has latched on — via Heather — to Bill as the passenger. Bill is suddenly a target — and I suddenly became troubled about homophobic or misogynistic psycho bunny boiler characters who become stalkers when spurned.
The rest of the episode is the Doctor’s attempt to help her escape — whether jumping to Australia, through time or to another planet. This is an education to Bill (and to the audience) that the TARDIS travels through space and time, although we should note that the Doctor is better as navigation than in Old Who. Margot is along for the ride — or narcolepsy, as ottocourgette wants to call him — and he is somewhat in the role of chaperone. He notes that this new pairing banter — and we maybe need to remember those romantic comedies, where represented verbal athletics precedes unrepresented physical ones.
At the end of the adventure, the Doctor decides to wipe Bill’s memory for her own safety — we’ve seen him do this before, to Donna, yes? He relents when Bill asks him if he would like it someone did it to him — hasn’t he had his memory of Clara wiped? So through the episode she is recruited to be the passenger to the Doctor’s pilot. It is possible that we may bump into Heather again — we have no sense of who these aliens are and how they have such power to travel through the universe or why they need a pilot. Is it driven by love?
The episode does a pretty good job of hinting at story arcs to come, whilst establishing the parameters of the series for newcomers. There are teases at the variations on bigger on the inside and the question asked by Bill is “Doctor what?” rather than “Doctor who?”. At the same time, it cannot avoid fan wank. The Doctor has photos of River Song and Susan Foreman on his desk — his wife and granddaughter, although we have yet to meet the first Mrs Doctor. Or his child or children. We get to see a Dalek — which even non-regulars would recognise — but also Movellans — which haven’t been seen since “Destiny of the Daleks” (1979), although they have been mentioned. But most in-joke of all, we have Bill and Heather, named for Bill Hartnell and Heather McIntyre. Whilst the possibility of Mondasian cybermen suggest a First Doctor recurrence, it seems little more than a chance for us to bask in cultural capital.
But overall, fun, sharp dialogue and it answered my question of whether I would finally give up on the series.