Doctor Who XXXVI/10.1 – The Pilot
Calling in with notes on the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who (and I might add more later as well as tidying up the formatting). I did, and significant amendments and additions are identified in this colour.
Bill is a wonderful addition to the Doctor Who universe. If she’s a mystery to be solved, she’s a human one rather than a science-fictional or mythical one, a woman whose educational opportunities have been limited and who longs for more and better. There’s still a mystery girl but the Doctor and Bill seek to explain her together. The romance between Bill and Heather is tentative and shown in fragments of Bill’s viewpoint; Heather is elusive, distant and committed at once, and in make-up, some costume and performance reminiscent of some media representations of the late Diana, princess of Wales. Both in her human and watery forms Heather reminds us that love affairs demand transformation; Bill sees the university as somewhere she can broaden her knowledge and become the person she wants to be, but for Heather it’s a trap, and she feels that she should be somewhere else.
For Bill and the genre-savvy viewer, the star in Heather’s eye is an indication that she’s predestined to be the ‘space engine oil”s pilot; some have complained that the question isn’t addressed fully, but for this episode to resolve itself it would be damaging to do so, because whether the star is a mark of alien intervention or just a misleadingly exotic defect in the iris is irrelevant. Bill is left at the end wondering whether she made the right decision in turning down Heather-pilot’s invitation to join with her, and this shapes her rejection of the Doctor’s attempt to wipe her memory and her persuading the Doctor to let her join him in the TARDIS. Bill departs having preserved for now her identity, which both Heathers required she give up. One wonders if this is a theme and whether it relates to the decision awaiting the Doctor before this year is out.
For the first half of the episode the Doctor’s story and Bill’s intersect at intervals across months. The Doctor, from Bill’s point of view, is a fixed point on earth as she is. Yet to an audience with prior knowledge, this isn’t so; there are adventures which only intersect with the episode at odd moments, such as the presumably necessary introduction to the Vault, and the arresting realisation that the Doctor is responsible for presumably all those pictures of Bill’s mother. In Moffat’s Who there are numerous gaps where the Doctor has activities the viewer doesn’t share, potentially far removed from his televised adventures. We don’t know how much time the Doctor spent with Bill’s mother, but the photographs suggest he got to know Bill’s mother very well. It upsets the symmetry of the episode and the relationship outlined therein, but could Bill even be a second generation travelling companion, or perhaps, from the Doctor’s point of view, first of two taken in reverse chronological order? Given the insistence of the programme’s publicity – its metanarrative, I suppose – that the Doctor walks in death, there is an implicit question (though marginal to this episode) over whether he was involved in some way in Bill’s mother’s death, or has become so in becoming involved in her life as part of his wish to be generous to Bill. For that matter, given that the Doctor is at St Luke’s University, and St Luke is (so the official site tells us) the patron saint of doctors (albeit of medicine; see the inset illustration) perhaps the Doctor has been there much longer than fifty or seventy years, and the institution has formed around him.
So much of this episode feels like a love-letter to the storytelling possibilities in television and recalled more articulately the occasional comparisons made between the TARDIS and the television set or studio in the first two series. The Doctor’s lectures are both physics and poetry, and ideally both are united in television drama. He talks to students about the movies and as he does so we pull out from the image and see this and other scenes (from this and other productions?) as series of stills. Credit to Steven Moffat, Lawrence Gough and their colleagues for carrying off the effect. There are ostentatious tricks with speed and and angles which demand our attention – books and sonic screwdrivers, perhaps, are symbols of trust and of the Doctor. Time And Relative Dimension In Space, the Doctor says, is life; drama helps us negotiate existence.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor seems very much at ease this year, carrying his position in the universe more lightly, while being both more penetrating in his perception, more authoritative but also more approachable. Pearl Mackie is a tremendous asset to the series as Bill; likewise approachable, humanly everyday and level in her emotional responses, generous and transcending the potential prison of her background. There are obvious echoes of Rose in the character’s context and the way the episode presents her, but this also draws attention to the differences. Bill seems more independent of social conditioning that did Rose, but perhaps having no parents and a semi-detached foster mother (which I felt at least were presented as issues in a way Bill’s sexuality was not) have forced her to find her own direction. Moira is realised as world-weary by Jennifer Hennessy; the joyful young mother of kittens of Gridlock is sidelined by Jackie Tyler’s more fatalistic and meaner counterpart, a concession perhaps to our more pessimistic age.
Updated 2130, 16 April 2017