This review is spoiler-free. Come back after the episode’s broadcast for additional, spoilery viewing notes.
An Unearthly Child was the first ever episode of Doctor Who, aired on 23rd November 1963, and, although it remains an impeccably crafted piece of television, it’s entirely illogical as a starting point for anyone wanting to catch up on the BBC’s remarkably long-lived sci-fi show. When a show lasts as long as this one, and regenerates as often as it does, there has to be a soft reboot every once in a while.
In the last 12 years of the show, Rose, Smith & Jones and The Eleventh Hour have all been prime examples of Doctor Who shedding its baggage and reintroducing the mad universe of Time Lords, Daleks and time travel through the eyes of a new character. But the latter of those, aired in 2010, has been the last relevant opportunity for new viewers to climb aboard the TARDIS with no prior knowledge. That is, until Season 10’s opener, cheekily titled The Pilot.
After a year and a half off air (barring Christmas specials), Steven Moffat kicks off his final series by penning an episode that sheds the heavy continuity and arc-driven storylines of recent season openers (Series 9’s The Magician’s Apprentice, in particular) and gives audiences a fresh new insight into the series. Enter Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, a university canteen worker and grown-up foster child with an insatiable yet unfulfilled desire to learn.
Her favourite lecturer is the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), a tenured scholar on his subject of Time & Life, who keeps an eccentric valet (Matt Lucas) and a police telephone box in his office for some reason. The feeling is mutual – the Doctor takes a special interest in Bill’s off-the-books education and becomes her personal tutor. Elsewhere, she falls for Heather (Stephanie Hyam), a girl with a star in her eye and a restless urge to get away. But before long, these two parts of her life collide and reveal a universe bigger than she could ever imagine.
Pearl Mackie is a revelation here and her chemistry with Capaldi is apparent from the episode’s cold open. There’s a teacher-student dynamic between the Doctor and Bill, which should please fans who have bristled at any romantic implications in the past. Mackie makes Bill a bubbly, inquisitive and utterly charming presence; she is arguably the foil that Capaldi’s Doctor has needed since 2014.
Even if we’re slightly ahead of Bill on some of the series’ lore, we’re with her all the way here. As in the preview scene that announced Mackie’s casting last year, it’s played for laughs when she asks questions whose answers we’ve taken as read, if we’ve seen the series before, but she also overtakes the usual routine with her sci-fi fandom and actually challenges the Doctor as well. (That scene, featuring some old enemies, has been re-shot and put into a new context for this episode.)
They’re not the only reference here, though. For those who are caught up, Lucas’ Nardole remains a curious addition to Team TARDIS, embodying the “assistant” tag more than any companion character has since 2005, and there are numerous other callbacks scattered around the Doctor’s office, including an explicit reference to who Bill reminds him of. They don’t detract from the story, but they don’t add too much either.
We won’t go into that story, except to say that it involves a puddle in a typically creepy Moffat way. What’s different is that this relates to Bill personally and, even though she’s not equipped in universal troubleshooting, it’s her intuition, not the Doctor’s, that matters – a strong introduction for a new companion.
By the time you find out the intended meaning of the title, old and new viewers alike will be won over by this same old, brand new vision of Doctor Who. The Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration is yet to come, but with the introduction of Bill Potts, this soft reboot suggests a series that’s raring to show us some new tricks. It’s hard to think of any other TV series that can start as fresh as this 10 seasons in.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– There are a few other mementos of continuity in the Doctor’s office, aside from the TARDIS. The pictures of River Song and his granddaughter Susan are shown often, but we also spotted the bust of Beethoven that the Doctor used to explain the bootstrap paradox in Season 9’s Before The Flood. There’s also that pen-pot of old sonic screwdrivers – Nardole uses the Fourth Doctor’s model to run interference with the Daleks, as they fight the Movellans – a conflict going back to 1979’s Destiny Of The Daleks. But yeah, not too many callbacks here…
– Mackie and Hyam are beautiful together as Bill and Heather, which gives all the more weight to their tragic separation. The sentient engine oil is another in a long line of conceptual Capaldi-era antagonists, and, for a moment, we wondered if they were going to refer back to the unknown monster from 2008’s Midnight, which also mimicked and then assimilated people.
– However, it does make a marked difference to start a season with a relatively benevolent science-gone-wrong threat, rather than a more obvious monster-of-the-week. The Daleks make up the difference, but the Doctor’s line about the relativity of evil shows how you can do a simple standalone adventure without sacrificing the nuance or complexity of the previous runs.
– Moffat’s back to taking the mickey out of his stars’ appearances again here, giving Bill a line bemoaning her own wonderfully expressive face and having her compare Peter Capaldi’s brilliant run to “a penguin with its arse on fire”.
– On the other hand, while he’s had some lovely ideas relating to time travel in the past, the Doctor’s Christmas present to Bill is an all-timer. On Christmas morning, she finds a shoebox full of photos of the mother she never knew, who never really liked being photographed. It’s a touching moment that also feels original in the Doctor’s interactions with his companions.
– The other question we have: what’s inside the vault that the Doctor and Nardole have been guarding? According to what Bill has heard, the pair of them have been there for half a century, so what could be in the university basement that the Doctor wants to keep safe?