Aside from a set of so-so Christmas Specials bookending either end of 2016, Doctor Who has been notable by its absence from our television screens over the last 16 months. It’s been a long, agonising wait, not made any easier with the foreknowledge that there’s a new companion waiting in the wings, one which we’d have liked to have met sooner rather then later.
But rejoice, for the grandaddy of sci-fi shows finally makes it’s long-awaited return to our beloved Saturday Night rituals, fully refreshed and ready to kick the rest of TV’s proverbial posteriors.
And yes, it does feel refreshed. Series 9 was a barnstorming run (and arguably one of the best in years!) but the past few years of the show have been aimed primarily at the existing fanbase as opposed to new, more casual channel hoppers. A later autumn time slot certainly hasn’t helped matters! But season premiere The Pilot frequently suggests a back-to-basics approach is on the table, with the emphasis being solely on fun. Exciting, funny, occasionally creepy but otherwise light sci-fi fun.
The introduction of a new companion makes this re-pilot somewhat easier to go with. From the off, Pearl Mackie‘s Bill makes for an interesting, rounded and likeable addition to the cast – a welcome mixture of intelligent, cheeky, caring and funny, Bill elicits the audience’s fondness and sympathies from the off. Her sexuality, much publicised in the run-up to the series premiere, is thankfully not her character’s only defining feature, nor is it mentioned briefly and subsequently ignored thereafter for the sake of publicity. Mackie’s chemistry with her co-stars is perfection from the off, and she also manages to make even the most hardened Whovians feel a pang of emotion in an excellent little scene concerning photographs of her late mother. It’s early days, but from first impressions, she’s a keeper.
The plot is free of complex, arc-plot elements or over-complication, instead weaving a relatively small scale story concerning puddles, liquid spaceships and stars in eyes around Bill’s introduction. It’s a breezy romp from Steven Moffat, one concerned with character first and foremost, and wisely keeping Bill front and centre. Peter Capaldi‘s Twelfth Doctor also continues to evolve, to the point that he’s almost completely unrecognisable as the snarly, grumpy version of the character we first met way back in 2014. Here he’s more wonderfully eccentric then ever, yet less emotionally closed off as previous stories have painted him. Capaldi has thus far proven himself the perfect choice for playing the Doctor, but Series 10 may be the year we finally see this version of the Doctor at peak perfection.
The Pilot is clever, pushing spectacle to the back in favour of intimacy. Yet despite a solid story and a great amount of character development, there are some missteps along the way – once again, the producers and directors seem to think slow motion can make any insignificant moment ten times cooler (Guess what? It really doesn’t. It looks tacky and desperate), whilst a rather badly placed fat joke slightly sours proceedings in the first quarter). Minor missteps, but missteps nonetheless. And yet, they do little to derail the whole show, so excellent is everything else on offer here.
There’s still some nice geeky nods on display, for the more-seasoned fans – some subtle (River and Susan’s pictures, old Sonic Screwdrivers), some not so subtle (Dalek cameos and some Movellans from 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks getting their ass handed to them). Likewise, the hints regarding what the Doctor and Nardole’s secret mission is and what is hidden within the vault beneath the University are intriguing mysteries left unresolved, certainly to keep us debating in the forums until season finale time.
As season premieres go, The Pilot does almost all of the right things – reintroducing the core concepts of the show for new viewers whilst remembering to keep the existing fans entertained, setting up a new main character and her relationships with the established cast-members whilst remembering to tell a rollicking good story to boot.
Consider us starry-eyed!