Previously on Doctor Who, “Hell Bent”
After a whopping 16-month break, Doctor Who is finally back for Season 10 with a bit of a Grand Opening, Grand Closing. With Chris Chibnall due to take the helm next season, both Peter Capaldi and his brand new companion Pearl Mackie are expected to exit at season end. Very recent rumors suggest Kris Marshall, known primarily to Americans as Love Actually’s Colin Frissell, has been cast as the new Doctor. Regardless of official denials, I can see this casting given his physical comedy, solid presence, and bombastic expressions. Although he is still white, and certainly not a woman, there is one thing he is that the Doctor has never been: a ginger. But the truth of that rumor remains to be seen…
So How Was Bill Potts?
Based on the season previews, I must admit to trepidation regarding this new companion, if only because I am not an enormous fan of companions whose primary talent appears to be yelling. Thank the gods, this was not the case at all. In fact, Bill Potts had an excellent debut, challenging the Doctor with her unique yet logical perspective. Finally someone asks all the pertinent questions, trying constantly to pin the situation down, not only for herself but ultimately for the Doctor, the key moment which wins him over in the end. While Bill rolls with revelations as any companion should, she also needs to take a minute occasionally, making her quite relatable. Well done, Pearl Mackie.
For reasons still unknown to us, the Doctor has been a resident professor at St. Luke’s University for 50 years with Nardole as his robot butler, photos of River Song and Susan Foreman decorating his desk, the TARDIS stuck in his office corner, and a mysterious vault to guard in the basement. These duties keep him from leaving Earth for any appreciable time, although it seems to be voluntary. Bill, the cafeteria “chips” lady, earns an invitation to his office after sneaking into a great many lectures and, rather than frowning at things she doesn’t understand, she smiles. The Doctor offers to tutor her privately.
Question: Bill tells a story of how she flirted with a cute student by giving her more chips, then over time, once the girl finally truly noticed her, Bill realized she’d “fatted” her by giving her too many extra chips. Later, there is a flash of them continuing their flirtation over the daily exchange of chips, but Bill ends up entangled with another student, Heather. Is this really a metaphor for how the Doctor inadvertently changes his companions’ lives for the worse, but continues humoring them until he meets someone else?
As the Doctor lectures his enthusiastic students on the passage of time as an illusion and time as the magician, aka Time And Relative Dimension In Space, aka TARDIS, Bill flashes through key moments: explaining to her foster mom that he’s like a foster tutor, meeting Heather at a club, the Doctor and Nardole working on the vault. Sneaking back out, she runs into Heather, notable for a star-shaped defect in her eye, who asks her to come see something, a puddle which seems to reflect oddly. When they walk away, the puddle whispers, “Pilot is located.” Upon a second visit, the puddle pulls Heather in, drowning her.
And We’re Off…
Flummoxed that Heather promised not to leave her alone, Bill seeks out the Doctor, wondering why it might reflect her face strangely. He runs to the puddle, allowing her to posit her theories based on sci-fi. Is it possession? Lizard people? Scorch marks? Finally he realizes it is a mimic, hustling her away as the puddle whispers to itself, “Passenger selected.” The Waters of Mars-type horror follows her home into the bathroom, then university lawn, under the office door, to a mirror in Australia, and finally to the end of the universe.
Amidst these travels, of course, is the requisite introduction to the TARDIS in person, which Bill turns on its head by comparing the place to a fancy kitchen with cheap doors, then an elevator. Each time it seems she will come to the obvious conclusion, the music swells, but amusingly, she veers. Finally on the third try, she notes, “It’s bigger on the inside!” at which Nardole shakes the Doctor’s hand in congratulations while the Doctor smiles exasperatedly. Great moment.
But Bill Potts isn’t done. On their next stop and upon realizing he’s an alien, she questions why the TARDIS acronym conforms to English if he’s not from earth and why the TARDIS camouflage picked a sign saying “Pull to Enter” if it was trying to hide. All valid questions.
Deadliest Fire in the Universe?
Trying to see how far “Heather” will follow them, they arrive at the end of the universe where they ponder the puddle’s nature. Is it dangerous, Nardole wonders? The Doctor explains that most things aren’t truly dangerous, but hungry. The puddle, he suggests, might be a shape-shifting intelligent oil leak, so what is it looking for?
“What are any of us looking for? We’re looking for someone who’s looking for us.”
Amidst the revelation, the puddle indeed reappears and narrowly misses Bill, so the Doctor lands them in the middle of the Dalek-Movellan War, hoping to use the distracting fire. Heather follows, mimicking the Dalek and taking its form, but he realizes she hasn’t used its gun. At last Bill remembers that Heather’s last promise was not to leave without her, so she must release her from this vow, unable to resist one touch, which contains an invitation to join Heather and travel in this form. Instead they say goodbye, leaving Bill in tears that the Doctor doesn’t notice, grousing at Nardole,
After Bill laments being too scared to travel with Heather, the Doctor attempts to wipe her memory, but Bill immediately recognizes his attempt, negotiating for more time with her memories. She eventually assents but asks him poignantly to imagine how he’d feel if someone did that to him. With the Clara piano theme playing, he chucks her under the chin and shoos her away, fussing at his desk photos and the TARDIS to leave him alone and pleading his promise to stop traveling so much. But by the time Bill walks outside, there he is, with the TARDIS, waiting.
“Time and relative dimension in space… It means, what the hell?”
The premiere was most effective in reintroducing us to the Doctor and Nardole and providing Bill with a sympathetic setup. The twist on “what it wanted” was both clever and tragic in classic Whovian form. Importantly, it felt like a good Who episode, although not everything worked on a logical level. If the puddle was an oil leak that could travel by itself, why was it in a ship to start with? How did Heather run across it? Why had no one else? What was so special about Dalek fire other than the opportunity to use it as cover? Least effective perhaps was the puddle morphing effect, especially when overlaid with Heather’s face, and it depended on your familiarity with the much more horrific “Waters of Mars” monsters to gain any real purchase in the scare department. Despite these lapses, “The Pilot” was a solid start and left us with big questions that will no doubt shape this season:
What is in that vault, and why is it worth 50 years of the Doctor’s time?!
Other Favorite Bits
- Bill gifts the Doctor with a rug for Christmas, which he strokes absentmindedly like a dog.
- On her face: “I’ve never liked it. It’s always doing expressions when I’m trying to be enigmatic.”
- About the Doctor: “I know you’re not exactly a sci-fi person.”
- Mysterious use of Western-tinged music as the caper ends.
- Nardole regarding he and the Doctor as a true team, affectionately noting the Doctor’s promising banter with Bill, prompting her, “Now you go.”