Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. Because writing an actual, full-on review is a very difficult, and possibly pointless exercise when you haven’t seen the whole series and are thus deprived of critical context – and also because it’s very fun to rant in community. We could have rented a bar or something and recorded our conversations while drinking some pina coladas, but thing is, nobody here lives in the same country, so it’s a delicate process. Also, not everyone drinks alcohol. Terrible difficulties, I tell you. But still – we pulled through, and here we are. Yay us.
For series 10, Scarves, Scribbles and Tibère will be joined each week by a different guest. Because variety of opinions is key, and because we would eat each other if left alone, a little bit like in that story with the sheep, the cabbage and the wolf. This week: Z. P. Moo, our first guest contributor for DoWntime, who also writes for Warped Factor, and is an adept of the mysterious science known as poetry (or physics?).
And now, time for “The Pilot” talk.
1) General Thoughts
TIBERE: the post-”Husbands of River Song” world, as far as Who was concerned, could look like it was going to be a “very solid, if not always overflowing with inspiration” kind of deal. I loved “Mysterio” just fine, and it showed a great amount of care and attention to details, but it didn’t exactly shook away that narrative. “The Pilot”, on the other hand most certainly did – it’s not an outright classic, but it has a lot of things to say and plenty of thematic focus. Maybe Moffat is resting on pre-existing narratives – that’s a point the press and specialized bloggers seem to have made often enough as far as this episode is concerned, and we may talk about it, but there’s enough freshness and novelty to it. It was a blast, frankly speaking – not perfect, but really fun.
MOO: I thought it was a very strong episode overall. Having a simpler episode to open the season was a welcome change too, especially after “The Magician’s Apprentice“ last series proved to be anything but. As much as I adore that story, one of my top five of all time, it really shouldn’t have been the premiere. And I think it follows in a similar vein to “The Return of Doctor Mysterio“ in that sense of being uncomplicated fun, just glad that The Doctor is back on our screens and continuing his adventures. As the Doctor says in that special “be happy”. “The Pilot“ doesn’t exactly reach the dizzying heights of openers like “The Eleventh Hour“ but it doesn’t try to nor pretend that it is.
SCARVES: It just really did a great job of making me excited for a new season of Doctor Who, which is exactly what a season opener should do. It was primarily a jumping on point for the show and an introduction to Bill, and did a fantastic job of being both.
SCRIBBLES: It’s just good to have Doctor Who back. “The Pilot” was far from the most demanding episode, but I think it’s pretty clear it doesn’t want to be. So it’s just a nice reminder of how much fun having Doctor Who around is, really, and a good introduction for new people to know that simple joy. I’m most interested in how it seems to be responding to the current political situation. The writers haven’t exactly been subtle on Twitter and the like about their feelings on Trump and Brexit and such. So the big question in my mind was, what’s Doctor Who gonna be in a reactionary world? I think it pulled out the best answer to that. It’s a safe space, like Twelve tells Bill the TARDIS will be. A place with pleasant diversity and hope despite people wanting to get the hell away. I don’t think this episode will ever be among my favorites, but it’s a solid starting point for what could be the most powerfully comforting run of this show. If we’re gonna speak out we need somewhere to take strength from and feel safe, and it’s clear to me Doctor Who is seeking to be that space right now.
TIBERE: I think it’s good that they don’t necessarily have to make direct parallels to the socio-political context, too – like, I fully expect the three-parter that’s coming in a few weeks will (Toby Whithouse, please be good), but for now, Who is kind of leading by example. Showing a world that’s just a bit better, more optimistic, more beautiful than the one we live in. I remember Moffat talking about diversity – specifically quoting the black soldier that pops in “Woman who Lived” at one point – as a sort of historical lie, or historical utopia. That’s what I get out of “The Pilot”, and I love it. SJWho, basically. Me like.
MOO: It’s good to see Bill for what she is in this episode too, she’s there and she’s very very gay but she never lets that be the only thing that defines her. It’s not all who she is, just part of it, and that’s a refreshing way to do it. It’s exactly the sort of thing we need to see in the media when we get characters like this, as is wonderfully happening more and more often, when the writers don’t go LOOK SHE’S GAY AREN’T WE PROGRESSIVE (hi Disney!) but still manage to get that message across. Moffat’s doing that right from the word go and it’s a very welcome statement of intent as the series kicks off.
SCRIBBLES: I think it’s worth noting too, though, there are shades of the trauma that current politics have left. I find it pretty difficult to read Heather’s desire to get away apart from the fear that the situation creates, particularly given, you know, she’s not straight and has a clear physical abnormality.
TIBERE: Definitely. I think it’s pretty clearly-coded as depression, and it’s always good to see that kind of mental health issues being addressed – but the current political climate is one that can really feed these feelings of inadequacy.
SCARVES: Good points. I appreciated the way Bill’s sexuality wasn’t made an issue of insofar as Moffat doesn’t want to make having to come out be a scary thing for the LGBT kids in the audience, but with the subtext of the Heather/ Bil dynamic, and the way it implicitly compares Heather’s suppression and fear to Bill’s openness, it touches on the real life issues LGBT people do face for the older LGBT fans who are more aware of those issues. It’s a good way of “”normalising” being gay (and following through on Moffat’s maxim of “willing a better world into being by wishing it so”) while also acknowledging the real world prejudice and fear LGBT people have to face.
MOO: Doctor Who has always been good at this since 2005. Right from Moffat’s first ever episode we have Captain Jack, since then we’ve seen LGBT individuals showing up all over the place but Bill is a significant step because she’s the first one to be fully out in the open about it from the present day. They’re not sidestepping the issues by making her from the future or an alien or anything, and that’s a very progressive step forward. It occurs to me that Moffat’s first contribution to Doctor Who was the comic relief minisodes “The Curse Of Fatal Death” in 1999. Among other things, we get the Doctor switching gender and still retaining sexual attraction to a woman as the male incarnations had done. Also an attraction to the Master. It’s a spoof and non-canon, but still.
TIBERE: Also, she’s POC. Intersectionality is important. We’re all as white as Santa’s bottom here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate it!
MOO: And while Bill isn’t the first POC companion, because Martha and Mickey exist, there hasn’t been one on the TV series for a decade now. Bill brings some welcome diversity in this area too as well as some LGBT representation. Note also that Nardole, while not shown to be of any particular orientation as of yet, is played by an openly gay man.
SCRIBBLES: There’s also the nicely ambiguous moment where he tells the Doctor he knows how powerful a crush can be. A lot of people are assuming he’s talking about Twelve and River, but I’m thinking the poor guy has a crush on the Doctor. Which if so is a delightful subversion of the usual New Who approach. Imagine if Mickey had been the one to fall for the Doctor!
SCARVES: My initial reaction was that Nardole has some kind of “lost love” backstory. But that would be potentially fun too.
TIBERE: Nardaldi. I can ship it.
MOO: “Scream of the Shalka“ has an android Master companion and an implied sexual element to his relationship with the Doctor, “The Time of the Doctor“ has 11 talk about accidentally making a robotic boyfriend. And now we have an android companion…
SCRIBBLES: As a die-hard Shalka shipper I can get behind this.
TIBERE: But what about Kamelion?!
SCRIBBLES: Oh, just one other thought I had. I know Trump in particular is slicing down education, and I don’t know the context on the UK end as much, but a fantasy of a magical, loving and encouraging man just letting you as a very underprivileged person into your dream university and helping you every step of the way is pretty beautiful right now.
TIBERE: Definitely. The Doctor as a lecturer is such a beautiful concept. And it sort of feeds something else I’ve noticed, a sort of string of literary references running through the episode – like, Doctor Who is very much, in its 2005 iteration at least, linked to YA and children’s literature, and I must admit I couldn’t stop thinking of Harry Potter during this episode. With better politics and actual gay characters. The transitions from season to season in the first half of the story are very Harry Potter-esque – at the very least, they echo the way the movies transition from one time period to another. So is the idea of a vault under the school – it’s kind of the plot of “Philosopher’s Stone”, actually, which makes me wonder if the lady Bill fattens is not kind of Slitheen magician or something. Also, the Doctor drops an “into the fire”, which I’m pretty sure is a line from the Hobbit – and the working title of the third Jackson movie, too. Probably just a coincidence, but it’s an amusing one.
MOO: Seventh Doctor cameo confirmed? Anyway – the way the Doctor is implied to have travelled back in time to get Bill a place at the university without her knowing it. That was beautiful, I thought. He’s seeing the potential in her and is in the privileged position of being able to help her fulfil that.
SCARVES: The girl Bill “fats” is perhaps worth acknowledging in a bit more detail, if only because that speech at the start of the episode has been criticised for fat shaming (by, in fairness, the usual Moffat Hate crowd). Those criticisms, I think, do ignore some important context, such as Bill literally concluding the speech by saying “I like chips, she likes chips, so that’s okay” (or words to that effect).
TIBERE: Also, they seem to be on pretty good terms when you see them interacting in the montage afterwards. It’s lovely, really. It’s not like Davies weird obsession with fat people …
SCRIBBLES: You say “good terms,” I say 100% up for making out after her shift. Those were some bedroom eyes.
TIBERE: Oh, they absolutely want to.
SCARVES: On the whole, I thought this episode did a great job of making Who a progressive leaning response to a world where reactionaries seem greatly emboldened.
TIBERE: And people seem to like it, too. ‘Cause the Clara arc is about the most progressive the show had ever been, before that, and let’s just say it didn’t exactly win all the popularity contests. Good PR, there, Lord Moffat, our leftist cohorts will soon swarm the Earth and drawn it under glitter. Mwahahaha.
MOO: Clara’s arc is a beautiful one but as her story goes on she does become less of a relatable person compared to at the start. Bill is a refresher for people who were turned off by that and I think that will go down well. Clara’s influence is still there, like when the Doctor refuses to mindwipe Bill, but her story has most definitely ended.
SCRIBBLES: My favorite thing about “Hell Bent“, even more than it being my favorite episode, will always be the “Radical Feminism: Doctor Who Hates Men” video it inspired. I’ve never watched it and never will, but knowing they were so outraged by everything it did brings me great joy.
MOO: These are the people we should be upsetting. Their toxic worldview needs to be called out as such.
SCARVES: Ah, Neoreactionaries. They never cease to amaze and depress me in equal measure.
TIBERE: It’s sort of weird kink, really. Watching them vomiting their bile on stuff. It’s repulsive, and yet, strangely compelling …
2) The episode as an opener
MOO: I think this is a Doctor Who episode you can show to people who haven’t seen it before because it’s got everything the series does well. You’ve got a mysterious old man, you’ve got his blue box that’s bigger on the inside, you’ve got said box jumping around time and space in mere seconds, there are monsters to fight and mysteries to uncover. And it’s all done from the perspective of someone who has never seen these things before.
SCRIBBLES: It’s interesting that for all it apes the style of the traditional RTD opener, Moffat’s quirks are very very present. There’s toying with structure and editing that’s right out of Sherlock, really, particularly that stunning speech. And the choice of the villain I think is quite telling. RTD tended to go for campy weird fun in establishing a run, like “Smith and Jones’” old lady vampire or “Partners in Crime“’s over the top villain and cute fat babies. I love that approach and those are two of my favorite episodes, but I appreciate Moffat pursuing poignance and horror instead, it’s very much his vision. And I think the puddle is really more in the pulse of the world and current emotional reality than space vampires, fun as they are.
TIBERE: There are some really unique features to it, as far as openers go. Mostly – I think it’s about the first time you get to see such a large span of a companion’s life. Like: “Rose”, “Smith and Jones”, “The Bells of Saint John”, “The Runaway Bride” – they’re all centered around one specific day, the moment where the life of the lead is turned upside down, the moment where they fall down the rabbit hole into the world of Who. Even “The Eleventh Hour” falls into that pattern, it just doubles down on it by showing three points of upheaval for Amy. Here, it’s a lot more gradual – and I like that. You almost get this idea Bill is being initiated, introduced to the world of Who through a series of steps, of trials: she visits different world, different areas that are all representative of what the show can offer.
SCRIBBLES: Ooh, yeah, decompressing events over a few months is a fascinating choice. I love that the first act is told over months, it really gives it a nice way to build up the characters.
TIBERE: I think the moment where she goes down into the basement is the most telling: it’s a wonderful beat of underworld symbolism – visiting the world below, the place where the spirits are, to find knowledge of yourself. Also there’s a vault, so you have riches there – and Hades/Pluto is, in the ancient world, god of riches as much as guardian of said underworld. Also, wonderful directorial touch: to get in, Bill passes a set of leaking pipes. Water is already there. Not to forget the fact the connection of the Doctor to this underworld is made apparent in the scene where he exhumes the photos of Bill’s mother: he can conjure up images of the dead, shadows of the past.
MOO: It’s like a Moffat opener for people who don’t like Moffat openers. All his usual tropes are present but he does it in a different way and I’d argue it’s much more accessible than the series has been in a while.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of, just in terms of openers, it’s interesting how even when trying to do the straightforward thing Moffat can’t stoop to her just walking in and going “it’s bigger on the inside.” Gotta wonder how people entering the show with “The Pilot” would take that delayed gag.
SCARVES: “Moffat opener for people who don’t like Moffat” is telling considering the number of “finally Moffat might redeem himself” posts. On the whole, it’s nice to see people who weren’t enjoying Doctor Who liking it again, but there is a part of me that feels like those people have a frustratingly narrow idea of what Doctor Who should be.
MOO: Doctor Who can and should be anything and people who don’t get that clearly haven’t watched enough of it. Series nine has one week a comedy romp with vikings, then you get a base under siege with ghosts, then there’s a political commentary with shapeshifting terrorists, a found footage episode, an hour with just one actor alone… How well is does all of those is disputed but the point is that it can do all of these while still feeling like the same show.
SCARVES: I liked the way it split the episode up, with the first half using the RTD opener structure to introduce Bill, and then aped the structure of the classic serial “The Chase” to introduce each main Doctor Who concept. And having Pearl Mackie in nearly every scene (as Matt Smith was in “The Eleventh Hour”) was a wonderful response to the “It’s Doctor Who, not companion who” crowd – as if the show’s saying “you want a show that’s all about a white man? We’ll put our co lead black lesbian into every scene, and he’ll just turn up to explain the plot.” I would now like to stress that the Doctor does get more interesting things to do than that, which we’ll doubtless touch on in a minute, just as a disclaimer.
TIBERE: Yeah, there’s a sort of unique approach to the companion in that story – not just in terms of screen time, even in her introduction scene. It doesn’t open on the morning clock, which strikes me as something Davies would have done, but with this wonderful symmetrical shot of Bill entering the Doctor’s office. There’s something very theatrical about it (and after all, Pearl Mackie’s background is in theater), that really fits the character, that’s always talking and telling stories and asking questions. I think that’s what defines a good companion introduction, really – the fact it manages to find a unique way to tell its story and introduce its character, a way that is unique to this character. Also, bouncing back on what Scarves said – it really feels like an episode designed to sell you on Pearl Mackie, in the same way “The Eleventh Hour” was designed to make you believe that Matt Smith could succeed Tennant: she gets to experienced pretty much every emotional state in the space of 50 minutes – excited, in love, crying, terrified, joking … It’s an acting rollercoaster, and she delivers perfectly. Also, consequence of that: it’s got an amazingly small cast. It goes in a lot of places, but has very few people – there’s a real strong character focus, and everyone gets a proper introduction. Even Moira, Bill’s foster mum. She only gets a handful of scenes, but they characterize her very well.
SCARVES: “Is that Brian? Because she’s out with Nigel and it’s not my fault.” Haha, Moira, you minx.
MOO: It reminded me a lot of “The Chase“ or “Seasons of Fear“ where we have a new setting for each scene. Moffat plays around with each one, and we get another of the Doctor Who tropes with each, and it allows him to slowly reveal what this show can pull off for an audience that haven’t seen it before without throwing them in off the deep end.
SCRIBBLES: I’m delighted by how casually it throws in the Dalek/Movellan war. As one of “Destiny of the Daleks” three and a half fans, I think it was a great little joke.
MOO: The Doctor says it’s in the distant past and that’s how he explains why the Movellans look like that. Genius writing!
SCRIBBLES: I like the implication that the Daleks have always been present day things. Certainly fits with other episodes of the era like “Asylum” or “Magician” where they can just hop over to Skaro from Earth, and it adds a relevance to it all.
MOO: If I recall correctly, “Destiny of the Daleks” is set in the 4900s or something. Moffat trolls the continuity obsessives, because of course he does.
SCRIBBLES: I like the approach of a first trip in the TARDIS being several dozen in quick succession to really showcase the potential of the show, and to break it to Bill gently with Australia is inspired. Certainly works better than the other time I’ve seen “The Chase” used as a first trip model in Dark Eyes, where it’s a fun but somewhat flabby and tonally divided piece where Molly doesn’t quite take the core. In this, it was a nice development used to focus on Bill and her reactions to the TARDIS and relationship with Heather.
MOO: It’s also a lovely nod to fans worldwide, there’s a huge cult following in Australia and it was nice for that to be acknowledged like this.
SCARVES: Sarah Dollard, take a bow. Also the excellent Caitlyn Smith/ abossycontrolfreak – anyone who hasn’t read her excellent meta on Clara should right now. I just love that the episode borrows the structure of the chase and the Movellans from “Destiny of the Daleks” – shamelessly referencing two Dalek stories most of fandom will claim are useless crap is inherently funny to me.
MOO: Neither of them are “useless crap” anyway. They’re just not ashamed to say that a Dalek story can be fun, but I guess this ties back into what was said earlier about certain fans having a narrow view of what Doctor Who is meant to be.
SCRIBBLES: I unironically prefer both “Destiny” and “The Chase” to “Genesis of the Daleks“. The Classic Who fandom has a tendency to dismiss the frocky romp approach still, “City of Death” aside, but I think both are delights. And the character moments in “The Chase” are genuinely some of the best scenes in Classic Who. Building character beats off a ridiculous chase through time has strong precedent.
3) The Doctor and Bill (and Nardole, too, sorta, I guess)
MOO: I love Nardole. He’s a bonafide alien companion (first on TV since Turlough) and he’s prepared to call out the Doctor and hold him to account. He doesn’t get much to do here but he’s a welcome third presence in the TARDIS and the scenes in the Dalek/Movellan conflict show he can be useful despite appearances, let’s not forget he seals the Daleks away without issue.
SCARVES: I think that’s a good way of putting it – he feels genuinely strange, in a way that makes him a good extension of the Doctor’s bizarre world as Bill is introduced to it over the course of the episode. See “Human alert!”
SCRIBBLES: He actually feels very human to me. I expected when he was announced that he’d serve as an interface between Bill and the Doctor, because the Doctor can be quite scary and difficult to understand, and that’s very much a role he plays here. It’s helpful. The line about how he never notices the tears was a great way of establishing Bill’s understanding about the Doctor’s flaws, but it also suggests some complexities and rawness to his own relationship with the Doctor.
TIBERE: You get the feeling that it’s, well, his job. He’s an assistant, a butler. He shows up and does stuff, but he hasn’t any kind of grand calling to adventure, he just clocks in, with limited amounts of enthusiasm. I do like it, even if his jokes can be a bit hit-and-miss.
SCARVES: “But no really!”
TIBERE: Yeah, that one is, as Shakespeare would say, a “hit, a very palpable hit”.
SCRIBBLES: Definitely gonna gif that bit.
MOO: It makes perfect sense for the Doctor to have someone like that around too.
SCARVES: Moving on to the Doctor, there were multiple wonderful character notes for Capaldi, that showed how he’s softened, but remains somewhat alien. Take, for example, the scene in the bathroom, where he recognises that Bill needs comforting, but needs her to tell him what she needs.
MOO: Twelve definitely felt more full of life than he has done during the Clara era, there’s the reminder of her final instruction to him there – “Be A Doctor”.
SCRIBBLES: Twelve has definitely cemented as a character, I think. We know who he is now, and the show doesn’t feel the need to change that understanding too much. He’s still playing Beethoven’s Fifth on guitar. This almost sort of felt like a best of Twelve package to me, right down to the “Hell Bent” riff at the end. I’m curious whether that’s just to establish him for new viewers or whether he will take the back seat to Bill in the character development overall. Moffat tends to be good at juggling multiple character arcs, but we still don’t know much about Nardole, so who knows where things might go?
MOO: I see Nardole as someone there to keep the Doctor in-check, he was being increasingly reckless before meeting Nardole and his presence is a reminder of that. It’s like the face revelation in “The Girl Who Died“, 12 can’t always see his face but he can see Nardole.
TIBERE: To add to the references package: he’s got the bust of Beethoven from “Before the Flood” in his office, and looks at the water sample with the same monocle he found during the events of “Heaven Sent“. But, more to the point – I feel like Clara is kind at the center of Twelve’s characterization, here. He lost a teacher, he becomes a teacher – and there’s this great idea that he has learnt from his mistakes, learnt to respect female agency a lot more. He is not an all-powerful patriarch with a duty of care, he is a teacher. I mean – he’s still not perfect: the scene where he takes pictures of Bill’s mum, who, we have been told, didn’t like to have her picture taken, is in a way a violation of her agency: but it sets up in a subtle way the ending dilemma, which is just a wonderful, and extremely well-acted scene.
SCARVES: Yes. And I loved the return to the mind wiping issue, and the respectful reprise of “Hell Bent“’s themes of consent in interpersonal relationships. Bill’s sci-fi savinness reminded him that he can’t resort to mind wiping without consent as a fix all, and Clara’s ghost/memory (or lack of it) reminded him that taking people’s memories away, even with their consent, is still something best avoided unless absolutely necessary. It also does a nice job of paying respect to Clara, and retaining emotional continuity from her era, without imposing on the new companion. Instead, Clara’s textual “ghost” is, in many ways, supporting the new companion, encouraging the audience to not hold different companions in competition with one another.
TIBERE: Not the first time Moffat did that, too. Amy is present in “The Snowmen”, through her glasses, and when the word “Pond” comes up in the one-word test scene. To be perfectly honest, I think “The Pilot” pulls it off way better and in a much more organic way. No disrespect to Amy! Anyway – it’s really great that his mind is basically entirely changed and challenged by female influences: Clara, Bill, but also River and Susan (wife & (grand)daughter), and even the TARDIS, which is coded as female since Neil Gaiman wrote “The Doctor’s Wife“.
SCRIBBLES: Do you reckon Nardole might have gotten his memory toyed with at some point? I dunno, random thought.
TIBERE: Maybe. I suppose that if he’s a cyborg, he might have a way to delete bad memories or something – but in general, he strikes me as too professional for the Doctor to really need to bother with the memory-wipe.
SCRIBBLES: And into the Doctor / Nardole dynamic comes Bill. I like the feeling of her breaking up an existing team, really, entering this world they’ve already built protecting the vault. And of course she herself is a fun breath of fresh air, her tendency to ramble awkwardly should go some great places.
TIBERE: And there’s something delightfully meta about her, too. Making her a sci-fi nerd is a great move: Nardole and her are both very genre-savvy companions, but in different ways that provide a cool, interesting contrast.
SCRIBBLES: I hope she ships Finn/Poe in Star Wars. I want references to her writing bad slashfic, please.
TIBERE: Basically you want her to meet Tanya from Class.
SCRIBBLES: I always want more Tanya.
TIBERE: I don’t blame you. There’s also, and I feel like this is impossible not to mention, the “penguin with his arse on fire” line. Delightful. Utterly delightful. Like, riffing on the main actor’s mannerisms is hardly a new thing for Who to do, but I look at this line, and (besides laughing, a lot), I tell myself “it’s such a Bill thing to say”. Good writing, good writing everywhere. Also it’s typically the sort of thing I would come up with, so yay for relatability.
SCARVES: I just think this episode built out Bill’s range of relationships very nicely – her mutually protective relationship with her foster mum (who questions the Doctor just as she questions he foster mum getting back together with the bad news boyfriend), her loss for the birth mother she never knew, her flirtations with chips girl and the central romance with Heather. It’s a nicely built out background for Bill, I think.
SCRIBBLES: My one niggle is that we get very little look-in on her relationship with her foster mum. I’m not sure how prominent she’ll be, but I’d like to get more of a picture of that relationship.
TIBERE: Yeah – the mother’s character is established well enough, but I’m not sure their relationship is, if that makes sense.
SCRIBBLES: I hope we’ll see more of her friends, too. It sounds like the Bartlett episode at the least will be using them, I wonder if they’ll use the same actors we see her hanging out with when she meets Heather.
TIBERE: Yeah, you actually see her with a group of friends in one of the trailers, I recall. “Knock Knock” is supposed to be about them finding this new house to rent from David Suchet’s character. Sounds exciting!
SCRIBBLES: And it might be interesting how that plays off her relationship with her foster mum. What brings her to moving out?
TIBERE: There’s quite a bit of tension between the two, that could get interesting down the line. The fact that Bill whispers her line about “men not being what [she] keeps her eyes on” kind of makes me think she’s not out to Moira.
SCRIBBLES: That’d be new. I don’t think televised Doctor Who’s ever really done a story on homophobia before.
TIBERE: Well, maybe not straight-out homophobia, but parents that don’t really understand your sexuality or don’t always allow you to express it in ways that make you comfortable can easily be part of a queer person’s life. It is for me, at least!
MOO: It does need to be addressed. We’ve had stories dealing with lots of prejudices before but that’s one that has always been conspicuous by its absence. Bill offers us a chance to explore this theme more and provide a critique of such toxic behaviour which the show simply hasn’t been given the opportunity to in quite the same way it has now.
TIBERE: That’s sort of what you get when most of the LGBT+ characters come from the far future. Got nothing against River and Jack, but they can’t really accurately reflect the experience of the community as it exists now.
MOO: Exactly, and while it’s nice to see that these things are more widely accepted in the future (which I do expect will prove an accurate prediction) the issue has always been sidestepped because it’s not contemporary. There’s no getting round that this time.
SCARVES: I did see something floating around tumblr today, a cut line from “The Time of the Doctor” where Linda refuses to treat a gay couple the family knows as being married. A shame that was never onscreen, as it would have added some extra depth to the conflict between her and Clara, in light of Clara’s implicit bisexuality (and Clara’s need to pretend she has a boyfriend in that episode).
TIBERE: Yes! That was brilliant. Shame it wasn’t acknowledged more – I adore Clara, but she gets hit a bit too much by bisexual erasure, which is a damn shame. Still, Moffat is making up for it with Bill, which is good.
SCARVES: Yeah, I think Moffat basically took his “representation in kids’ TV should be incidental” ethos (which is a respectable ethos to have) a little too far with Clara, and made her sexuality a bit too incidental, so that it was still on the “plausible deniability” scale, and Bill is him recognising this and being more explicit.
4) The Puddle and its symbolism
MOO: I think the mirroring aspect of the Doctor/companion dynamic – even if it’s not directly linked to the puddle – is brought up in a very subtle way. There’s the scene where he’s considering taking on Bill as his new companion and the camera points directly at the Susan portrait. The Doctor seeing his companions as ways for him to be reminded of Susan is always an idea I’ve found appealing and I think there’s a deliberate reflection of that here, complete with Bill being from a centre of education and the new companion encountering an incumbent companion when they join the TARDIS crew.
SCARVES: This episode once again returns to the eye motif that we’ve seen throughout Moffat’s era, through almost titular (for the working title) star in Heather’s eye – which is used for the episode’s major jump scare, the eye in the plughole (a jump-scare you could only get in Doctor Who), and to differentiate Heather from a real Dalek – it’s a revelation of her true identity (adding to the “out/ closeted” subtext surrounding Heather and the star in her eye).
TIBERE: Also, it’s a tired joke already by now, but we do get Daleks defeated by lesbianism. This is pretty amazing.
MOO: Especially fitting since the Daleks are space nazis. Moffat likes to poke fun at them – think of River’s “gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled” line in Let’s Kill Hitler – so I doubt there’s any accident involved here.
SCARVES: Never underestimate a crush. This time, the eye motif is used to explore the episode’s central subject: mirroring and symmetry. The puddle, is of course, central to this theme. First off, we have the puddle that shows, not your reflection, but your face as it actually is, setting up the way the teardrop ship sees Bill and Heather as they truly are. It detects their deepest desires: Heather’s wish to escape, and Bill’s wish not to be left behind: itself a further reflection, this time of Bill’s grief for the mother she never knew, someone she only learns about through photographs, the only other visual representations that, like the puddle, show people as they truly appear, and not in a distorted form. The Doctor’s lecture also plays into this theme – he likens the way still images in film are used to create an illusion of movement to the human construct of time, the way we always exist in the present, but past and future are illusions we construct to give our lives, what comes before, and has yet to pass, a sense of narrative and purpose. These themes are all set up beautifully in the first shot of Bill in the Doctor’s office, with the closed door that Nardole enters through, and the half open door we hear the Doctor playing his guitar behind. It’s a lovely (and subtle) bit of visual foreshadowing for the key role Heather’s asymmetrical eyes play in the plot, and the episode’s use of Moffat’s much used trope of dialogue-repeating monsters, which at first is the source of dramatic tension, but ultimately becomes the means through which Bill and Heather say a touching goodbye (and once again, it’s the slight asymmetry in Heather’s final line that lets us know she’s saying goodbye, too).
TIBERE: Oh, so this is the part where I go into a big rant about the queer reading of the episode? ‘Kay. Because I do think that whole plot can be interpreted that way. Heather and Bill are paralleled, throughout the plot, as two people that search for something more in life, a life that they enjoy more, that fits her better, so to speak – but Heather lets this craving consume her, to the point where she ends up subservient to an alien organism, a mere part in a greater whole. Bill is offered that same solution, but realizes that who she is, how she lives, is something she has to decide on her own terms – there is no magic solution that will instantly solve all the problems she faces, and while this is a beautiful illusion worth mourning, she has to let it go. Of course, at the end of the day, there’s still another “magical” route, but the Doctor says himself that the TARDIS is “science beyond magic” – and the most incredible and wild aspects of the TARDIS are rooted, well, in the Doctor and his personality. The road to freedom and discovery must pass through other people, through messy, complicated dialog. Oh, and of course, water is a fundamentally femine element, so it’s logical to have lesbian characters surrounded by it.
SCARVES: I like that a lot.
SCRIBBLES: To me, the puddle is inherently about escape. About wanting to escape an overwhelming and depressing and unwelcoming world. Heather’s clearly depressed, and this sees in her a desire to get away, offering up the same beauty the Doctor offers to a companion. Really, the ship’s basically offering to Heather the escape of being a Doctor Who companion rather than dealing with this world. And like I said earlier, to me that’s tied very much to the political moment as well. If anything, I think the damning thing with the puddle isn’t the need to run away, but to run away but never come back and deal with the problems.
TIBERE: Not just that – it’s also giving up on who you are. Heather only exists as a reflection, an echo. The road the puddle offers is basically one where you renounce being who you are, just to escape a reality that feels unbearable. She starts out as a person, and ends up as this formless, shapeless entity. That also pays homage – because it’s Moffat and he loves his syncretic storytelling – to Japanese horror flicks like The Ring or Dark Water (oh, that’s a familiar title), and to It Follows, which already had inspired the Veil in “Heaven Sent”.
SCRIBBLES: I can’t deny it feels tempting sometimes to step back from one’s life and problems, but that definitely is the step too far. It’s good that the show is providing a comfort that says it’s okay to run away, and then come back and live your life and fight for better.
TIBERE: Exactly. It doesn’t condemn or judge Bill or Heather for wanting to escape – but it does say that it must be done with precautions. That in a way, running away is only ever good if it’s an act of self-care. It’s kind of exactly what the Doctor has been doing since he left Gallifrey, after all.
SCARVES: I like that Heather’s relationship with Bill is another distorted reflection: this time of the Doctor companion relationship.
TIBERE: There’s also the fact that, in functional terms, Bill needs to affirm her agency twice: first against possessed Heather (and at this point, I think we can congratulate ourselves for not having made a single “wet” joke), and then against the Doctor – still feeding into these parallels.
SCRIBBLES: I think we saved all our sex talk for chips girl.
TIBERE: I wonder if she’s related to the Man With Chips from “Bells of Saint-John” …
SCRIBBLES: Her Daddy but not in that way because let’s not go there.
5) The Arc
MOO: Before getting into the questions of the vault, who the Doctor’s guarding it for, or why John Simm looks so great with a beard, can I just take a moment to praise how well this mystery is handled? Because I like that there’s a mysterious element to proceedings but that Moffat integrates it well into the story without holding a big neon sign saying LOOK IT’S A MYSTERY. He doesn’t get all pleased with himself for having a mystery in there (series seven) and he doesn’t suddenly throw it in there at the end (series eight), he just has it in the story and let’s events play out around it. It isn’t even important to this self-contained plot, it just happens to be there. Well done Moffat, say I.
TIBERE: So, question: what’s in the Vault? And don’t answer “Gwyneth Paltrow’s head”, please.
MOO: Damn, you stopped me from making a stupid joke! On a more serious note, I’ve long since given up guessing where Moffat’s mysteries are going. So with that in mind, I expect it contains a prison for a Time Lord prisoner named “Harold Saxon” and that the Time Lords have tasked the Doctor with guarding it. And then later this season along comes Saxon’s next incarnation to set herself free . . . cue Multi-Master insanity.
SCARVES: As usual, arc speculation is not my strong point. This feels like it’s going to be a more involved arc than the Hybrid or the Nethersphere, but not on the level of series 6, which is a nice balance to strike, I think.
TIBERE: Series 5 is probably what they want to replicate. Considering it’s still probably the most beloved Moffat series, I don’t blame them.
SCARVES: Which I suspect means we can expect major revelations around episode 6, I suspect.
MOO: Which fits with episode six being
- a) written by Moffat and
- b) kicking off a three-episode arc.
SCRIBBLES: Almost certainly. And that’d be good, waiting 12 weeks to open a door is a bit much. The vault will probably get more interesting when it opens, because that’s when the complications can arise as a result of the contents.
MOO: It would be refreshing to have the arc take a sudden shift around the middle instead of having to wait for the finale’s cliffhanger to reveal all. That’s different to what’s come before and it stops us being forced to wait for 12 weeks of teasing, which can occasionally be a tad grating in my experience.
SCRIBBLES: In terms of its role in “The Pilot“, I actually don’t think it was the best integrated arc introduction, I’ll be honest. The vault stuff felt like a somewhat forced thread into the story hindered by going nowhere this time out. I’m enthusiastic about where it could go, but for now, I don’t feel like it’s really built much up, just sort of “oh look, an arc.” I’m more intrigued by the dangling threads of the ship that left the puddle and the fate of Heather because I feel like they have more of an understanding and more character to hang on. I’m sure I’ll like where the arc goes, though.
TIBERE: The ship definitely strikes me as something that will come back at some point. I’m less sure about Heather – although, her birth defect might be something more -, although it’s pretty clear that they now have, in the first episode of the new series, already written a way for Bill to leave the show. It would be lovely, really, even if I don’t think they will go for a Heather reunion. As for the Vault, well, I really kind of liked it, actually. Mostly because, well, I already talked about it at length, the whole underworld symbolism. But, I don’t know, I feel it’s generally worth it for the “Doctor as a professor” motif – he does need a reason to stay, and while the Vault is a bit of an artificial one, it serves its purpose well enough. It’s not brilliant, but it’s efficient.
SCARVES: I think it was well integrated, insofar as it provided an explanation for the Doctor’s long term presence at the university, which was casually mentioned in the first scene, and we learnt more about it during key character beats – Bill first catching wind of the Doctor’s strange world, the first TARDIS trip during the montage of chases, and the Doctor’s attempt to mind wipe Bill to protect the secret. And I love the concept of the universe’s most easily distracted man having to stay in one place to protect something of great importance. Of course he’s failed in that task by the end of the run’s first episode.
TIBERE: Moffat had a really cool little speech about it in the episode of the Fan Show that aired just after.
MOO: I like the way it was integrated into the episode as something that just happens to be there alongside the main plot. Did we need the little joke at the end about a student throwing up outside it? Probably not, but it reminds us that the Doctor still has a means of making sure it goes undisturbed even if he isn’t there in person. Nardole’s influence there, I think, to make the Doctor remain accountable.
6) Conclusion – looking ahead
TIBERE: So, final thoughts?
MOO: A much stronger episode than I anticipated. It looked like there might be a lot of stuff being shoved in there – DALEKS! MOVELLANS! ALIEN PLANETS! BILL! NARDOLE! – but more or less all of these were handled well and it didn’t feel as rushed or overstuffed as I briefly worried it could end up. Very strong opener for me, probably the best that I could have hoped for given what it needed to do. And it seems to have gone down well with the wider/casual audience too, so that’s a plus. Not the best ever, but it never pretends to be. It doesn’t aim to be the next “Caves of Androzani” or “Blink” so people shouldn’t be criticising it for not doing that. It wants to be a reintroduction after a year of absence and it achieves that really well.
SCARVES: Really good episode, marvellous fun, with a surprising amount of thematic depth for a story that many are calling a light series opener. The dynamic between Bill and the Doctor is a delight, from the first scene in the office (what a lovely decision, to start on a moment of quiet instead of the usual fireworks!) The direction was stunning – I’ve mentioned some of the visuals, like the visual symmetry in multiple shots of the Doctor’s office, and the zoom out to the still shots during the Doctor’s lecture. And the final scene, with the reprise of the “Time and Relative Dimensions in space. It means…” motif was gorgeous – the lighting from the TARDIS door as the Doctor says “what the hell” makes for one of the most beautiful shots in new Who. The Doctor and his new companion running off for new adventures will never not be joyous to me, and that sequence made the concept seem as inviting as it ever has.
TIBERE: It was lovely. The first half is bloody perfect, as far as companion introductions go, and the second … Well, was, not a letdown, but not as strong. I think it’s one of those cases where our status as pretty hardcore fans is hurting our perception of the episode a bit: the latter half of the episode can feel a little too artificial, with these different vignettes opened on different worlds, and I’d probably say it doesn’t really get back up to its initial level until the big confrontation between the Doctor and Bill in the office. Nardole did have a couple cringey jokes, too, even if the majority hit just fine. I feel like for someone who’d discover Who with this episode, it would click into place far better – still, it’s a very strong episode, and there’s very little bad about it, even if it could have used more good, if that makes any sense.
SCRIBBLES: I’m afraid it was just serviceable for me. Good weight and implications and strong character beats, but it’s still a fairly slight thing by design, and that’s okay. The biggest triumph of it is that it’s clear the best is still to come. Introduction episodes rarely have the strongest plot to build, and that’s because they rightly have other things to worry about more. This gets those moments that matter most right on the whole. Like Scarves says, the direction was stellar, the show just keeps looking better. I imagine the episode works finest for people just coming in. I imagine for them it is truly something new and wonderful. For us, it’s something we’ve seen before, but a necessary step.
TIBERE: Lawrence Gough’s direction is really a thing of beauty. He’s not quite up there with the Talalays and Hurrans and Whilmshursts and Yips yet, but he’s getting close. He hits just the right balance between the experimental style of someone like Yip, and the quieter, more precise style of Talalay. Even if the directorial line-up for series 10 is a bit of a sausage fest, it’s at the very least a tasteful sausage fest. That TARDIS reveal scene is especially stunning – it probably edges “The Snowmen” as the best one so far. Wonderful use of the set, and of the lighting.
SCARVES: Gosh, that TARDIS reveal.
SCRIBBLES: I can’t believe we’re in a world where the lighting can be the finest part of the finest scene in a Doctor Who episode! It was breathtaking. Far cry from the days of old where everything was flatly lit. That was utterly gorgeous.
MOO: I loved the way it kept things dark so that Bill was the only thing we could see until the lights came on. Stunning, just stunning. The perfect way to reveal the TARDIS to a new audience. It reminds me of Rose when the title character comes in for the first time and we see her shocked reaction but not what it is that has shocked her until she goes inside for the third time. We see the bigger on the inside stuff at exactly the same time as the new companion. Perfect.
TIBERE: It’s really symbolically charged, too – it’s a moment of illumination for Bill, literally.
SCRIBBLES: I’d also say the editors deserve a shoutout. This really went for some weird and wonderful collisions of images and moments jumbled up, and it worked marvelously with the speech to guide it. They cut it together marvelously.
TIBERE: To conclude – little question. Which story are the most looking forwards to? Considering we got a “coming soon” trailer, it feels logical to ask.
SCARVES: I’m most hyped for “Thin Ice” (return for Sarah Dollard), “Knock Knock” (talented new to writer with a deliciously creepy sounding premise has good form in the Moffat era), “Oxygen” (Mathieson returning) and “Extremis” (Moffat’s last mid season episode, which even as something that will probably be arc heavy should give him a chance to do something a bit more personal) plus “The Eaters of Light” (Rona Munro can finally write lesbian text with Bill!) have me most hyped. But it seems to me that most stories this season sound really exciting, even the ones I’m less sure about – I can’t pretend the frock loving “In the Forest” defender in me isn’t looking forward to “Smile”, my intrigue for political Who has me excited for “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and “The Lie of the Land” – while there are good and legitimate criticisms of “The Zygon Invasion/ The Zygon Inversion”, I still like that story a lot, and even though I’m not the biggest Whithouse fan, I’m intrigued to see him taking on a different premise. “The Empress of Mars” should play to Gatiss’s strengths, while also having a fun take on the Ice Warriors lined up, and there’s nothing about Moffat and Talalay doing a finale with Mondasian Cybermen, and two Masters that doesn’t press all of my fanboy buttons. So yeah, I’m excited for series 10.
MOO: For me it has to be “Oxygen“ because Jamie Mathieson is wonderful and he’s going for scary this time – just yes. Followed closely by “The Eaters of Light“ again because of who’s writing it. Learning that Rona Munro was returning was a delight for me because I’m a big fan of her previous Doctor Who script (and it’s also a connection to the classic era, of which I’m a huge fan). I’m interesting in the finale too, because every Cyberman ever and two Masters – Can we take a moment to appreciate John Simm’s beard finally fulfilling that crude joke from “Time Crash“? – but my fear is that it risks feeling a tad overstuffed. Another worry is that, because the Master & Cybermen together were so good last time, there’s a tough bar to hit.
SCRIBBLES: I think “Smile“, “Extremis“, and the finale really have me hyped. I’ve yet to meet a Moffat finale I don’t love disproportionately, and I love “In the Forest of the Night”, so “Smile” looks wonderful, particularly with the concepts at play. Plus, any Missy works for me, so “Extremis” should be grand. “Eaters of the Light” is also really up there for me, love a Roman and love a Rona. This whole series looks great. Even my trepidation with Whithouse is alleviated by the arc it’s in.
TIBERE: “Knock Knock” sounds pretty wonderful – I’m a sucker for horror, really. “Oxygen” is written by Jamie Mathieson, so, yeah, of course, it automatically gets a mention. “Extremis” and the finale, because Moffat and Master(s) is always a win. “Smile” and “The Eaters of Light” get honorable mentions. I am cautious when it comes to “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and “The Empress of Mars”, though – Gatiss and Harness have, as far as I’m concerned, pretty messy track records. Oh, and “The Lie of the Land” is written by Toby Whithouse, so it will be either a wonderful conceptual piece or bigoted drivel. Or, if we’re out of luck, both. But overall, there’s nothing I really dread – really, it’s a very, very strong line-up. Maybe the strongest the Moffat era has had since series 5, actually. I do really think it has the potential to be his best yet – well, at least, to beat my subjective favourite, series 8. It’s gonna be hard, though, because that one is perfect. Shush. It just is.
MOO: You spelt series 6 wrong.
And that wraps up our “The Pilot” discussion!
Thanks again to Moo for having accepted to enter our den.
We will be back next Sunday to discuss “Smile”, with a new guest!
In the meantime, watch Doctor Who and be happy!