Aired 15 April 2017
After some sixteen months since the airing of the last full series of Doctor Who, ‘The Pilot’ is an apt title for an episode tasked with re-introducing the Doctor and the mystery surrounding the enigmatic Time Lord as well as with introducing new companion Bill Potts played by Pearl Mackie. With the focus squarely on the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and Bill, one based on Bill’s intrinsically likable inquisitiveness and practical intelligence, ‘The Pilot’ is accordingly not a story that by itself fundamentally alters the long history and mythology of the programme. Indeed, using Bill’s sexuality and the fact that her mother died so long ago simply as character traits rather than prolonged plot points, the story is instead able to focus on quickly rounding out the character with traits rather than with intrigue, highlighted by her willingness to learn by attending the Doctor’s university lectures without even being a student and to ask questions about what others would take for granted.
The storyline itself is fairly straightforward as with most companion debut stories, but ‘The Pilot’ does still manage to present a suitably intriguing- if misunderstood- foe. Even if the resolution feels somewhat anticlimactic because of the necessary brevity of building up the friendship between Bill and Heather, the prospect of the entity using Heather as a vessel capable of hauntingly following the TARDIS throughout time and space is realized wonderfully and showcases the marvels that the TARDIS can achieve. The actual threat is somewhat underdeveloped, but it serves as a means to again re-introduce what the show is capable of going forward and where it has been in the past as the Doctor takes Bill to Australia, across the universe, and to the middle of the war between the Daleks and the Movellans first referenced in the Fourth Doctor era. Because of the time needed to introduce Bill as a character, there simply isn’t enough time to build up Heather as the other half of the personal crux of this episode, giving her eventual threat a great visual aesthetic lacking the emotional punch so desperately needed to fully make the entire sequence work.
‘The Pilot’ is certainly not devoid of clues potentially feeding into a larger story arc, and the fact that the Doctor has apparently taken up residence at a university for decades while protecting the contents of a vault certainly hints at bigger things to come. Whether Bill’s line that many people who are not students of the Doctor’s show up for his lectures plays into this or simply speaks to the Doctor’s quirkiness and magnetic amiability remains to be seen, but having the Doctor in residence for so long is a wonderful conceit that hearkens back to Douglas Adams’s time with the series. Nonetheless, Peter Capaldi is as dynamic as ever, and Mackie and he share an instant chemistry as Bill progresses from tutored student to full-time companion, a relationship highlighted by the Doctor traveling through time to take pictures of Bill and her mother as a gift. Matt Lucas’s Nardole is very much in the background as a supplementary character here, though it’s clear that he is very much involved in the Doctor’s grander schemes as well, but that’s understandable given the lengthy list of aspects ‘The Pilot’ had to achieve.
There are potentially some dark parallels between Heather and the Doctor as both show Bill the wonders of the universe, but these are very subdued and by no means brought to the forefront at all. Instead, ‘The Pilot’ is very much a prototypical companion introductory story that wonderfully hints at what is to come with Bill aboard the TARDIS. The story does try to achieve a bit too much by having the threat be so personal for Bill and the incidental music is sometimes a bit too bombastically intrusive, but ‘The Pilot’ expertly encapsulates the past, present, and future of Doctor Who as it confidently tells its tale.