Doctor Who: “The Pilot” and “Smile”

Doctor Who finally returns after a long hiatus for it’s tenth series (of the NuWho ones anyway) and as an avid Whovian: Attender of Cons I asked to tackle reviewing the current season and decided to review the first two episodes together to get a better sense of how this series, showrunner Steven Moffat’s last, felt at the kickoff. Initially I’ll say this, my feelings are mixed and traditionally I find myself more aggravated with Moffat than appreciative, but as I generally have kept my expectations low with Moffat!Who, I can say I have been pleasantly surprised so far.

The first episode, “The Pilot”, almost feels, as many online have said, like a soft reboot. The Doctor is and has been teaching at a university for apparently fifty years and is accompanied still by Nardole (who we saw in the last Christmas Specials). He appears to be rather Earthbound and guarding some mysterious vault. But this is the Doctor and let’s be real, capers will be afoot and so will a new companion.

Enter Bill Potts. A cafeteria worker who is spunky, clever, upbeat, and likes girls. This is important to note as this is Who’s first black, gay  female full-time companion, and a welcome step forward at more representation in Who. While the show hinted at Clara’s bisexuality a couple of times, it never really went there either, so having it a bit more explicitly implied that Bill is gay was a nice touch.

I found Bill super likable on the get-go, full of a frenetic sort of excited energy and taking in everything that begins to happen once she meets the Doctor with wonder and curiosity. That’s not to say she isn’t smartly afraid when the occasion calls for it as well, such as being chased across time and space by a relentless puddle monster/semi-dead crush.

And there, by the way, is what the plot of “The Pilot” is. The Doctor, resigned to staying on Earth and not taking on any more companions because he always loses them and he is still suffering from the loss of Clara despite not remembering her, meets Bill and despite himself decides to tutor her. And once a sentient puddle of sentient spaceship oil bonds and transforms the girl Bill fancies, Heather, into what is essential “the pilot”, Bill shifts from student to companion as the Doctor tries to outrun Heather and learn more about her new resilient form, which can even withstand being blasted by a Dalek and take one over. At least we’re getting the requisite Dalek appearance so the Beeb can keep the rights to them in early off the bat, although I’m sure they’ll be back again.  So the Doctor and Bill run through time and space briefly to outrun it, before they learn the solution to dealing with Puddle!Heather isn’t a scientific one or solved via magic wand-sonic screwdriver, but through human emotion and letting go of someone. My one quibble was this episode does fall into the “kill the gays” trap, with Heather’s fate being ambiguous but essentially clear that the human Heather was is gone, so it’s a bit of a thing to introduce a gay, female companion, give her a love interest in the first episode, and then kill off said interest. I also admittedly feel cautiously worried about how Moffat will handle Bill, given that I feel like his track record with female characters is largely hit or miss and I was not pleased with his narrative treatment of Irene Adler in Sherlock, another queer character.

Overall, this first episode felt something like as if Moffat was doing his best Russel T. Davies impression instead of “MYSTERIOUS GIRL! GRANDSTANDY DOCTOR! Look at how clever this is because we’re going to tell you how clever this is but really don’t look too closely at how clever this is and held together by paper thin plot”. It wasn’t an oustandingly great episode nor was it bad; it’s a solid premiere with promise and gives vibes of the show back when I really liked the narrative and tone and it’s as if Moffat is showing some restraint and learning that more isn’t always more, at least for now. Still, this is a good start.

Bill is remarkably and blessedly normal without any scrap of cosmic mystery, great destiny, or large puzzle around her. She isn’t “The Girl Who Waited” or “The Impossible Girl”, she is a regular human girl who finds her ordinary life thrown into the extraordinary. I sincerely hope she remains that way and finds excellence in her own merits without some timey-wimey bullshit behind it to prop her up as always having been SUPER IMPORTANT AND DESTINED TO MEET THE DOCTOR/LIVE FOR DOCTOR. In some ways she reminds me a little of Ace, the Seventh Doctor’s brilliant, inquisitive companion (where they also had a professor/student-like relationship). Now if Bill whacks a Dalek with a baseball bat as well that would be one of the best throwbacks of all time.

The Doctor himself felt like a bit like First & Three morphed together with a bit of Seven, which has been Twelfth Doctor’s vibe for the most part all along. He is weary, he is sadly resigned to not letting another companion in after losing Clara, who he tragically cannot remember but he knows the loss is there. Which, the scene towards to end, of Bill calling him out on how would he feel if he lost the memories of the best thing that ever happened to him and then we hear a strained version of Clara’s theme “Clara?” FINE SHOW, THAT KIND OF GUTTED ME A LITTLE. Clara has always left me a little mixed feeling despite me adoring Jenna Coleman, but damn if that wasn’t a well-played emotional moment.

The Doctor is mysteriously guarding this vault hidden in the university for reasons I’m sure we’ll learn later and hopefully doesn’t end up being an abysmal disappointment like the “hybrid” reveal of last season. I absolutely love the idea of him anchored around teaching at this school, and I hope they keep this up throughout the season too.

Overall, I’d give the “The Pilot” a B+.

Next we have “Smile”, which on the surface feels like maybe a retread of the Seventh Doctor story, “The Happiness Patrol”, where a future Earth colony is essentially policed into being happy, and unhappiness in eliminated by said patrol. I’d say “Smile” follows similar elements while remaining slightly different. In this episode, a future human space colony has their happiness essentially policed by emoji-bearing robots, who have taken their programming a bit too literally and kill off anyone who isn’t smiling and is unhappy, turning them into fertilizer. Naturally, when Bill decides she wants to visit the future, this is where she and the Doctor stumble to.

This episode is blessedly Nardole light. I don’t really gel with him as a character, and feel he was better more as a one or two-off than recurring. Matt Lucas is adorable, don’t get me wrong, but it’s sort of like Strax, best in small doses.

As the Doctor and Bill explore the surprisingly empty space colony and Bill is enjoying further wonderment at “omg this is the future! I am traveling through time!” the Doctor suspects something is off pretty early on.  The Doctor’s emojis, by the why, are delightful to see played out. They realize early on the city is made up of small nano-like robots, and to be honest they seem like the love child of the nanobots in “The Emtpy Child” & “The Doctor Dances” and the Vashta Nerada of “Silence in the Library” & “The Forest of the Dead”, both Moffat two-parters under RTD. Once they figure out more or less what’s happening and have to grin and bear it, literally, the Doctor is off doing what he does best (or worst): meddling as the savior of the day, or is he?

Bill calls him on it in this episode: he isn’t just a passer by, he stops and interferes and tries to save the day. That’s perhaps why the TARDIS has been stuck on the form of a police box, the Doctor doesn’t just point people to a helpline, he is the helpline. He cannot help but stop and try to fix the situation. He tries to deny this of course, but LOL Doctor come on after 2000 years and endless companions calling you on this, why you lying? But his interference, his assuredness in that he just has to blow up the seemingly empty ship to stop this bionic threat is shown to be, yet again, a great moment of fallacy for the Doctor because the ship is not devoid of life, and the robots aren’t just robots anymore. It’s sort of the same thing he knew in “The Parting Of Ways” and more horribly learned again in “The Water of Mars”, sometimes he rushes to a conclusion and if he isn’t careful, his actions can have terrible consequences. But I also appreciate that he came to the conclusion more on his own this time much like his younger, ninth incarnation did, after learning what else actually was on the ship/colony, and not just because his companion was pleading for another path. I mean, Bill did question him blowing things up a bit, but not the impassioned “find your humanity, just stop!” moments that have come before as the Doctor forgets the older he gets that he’d rather be a “coward, any day” than cause another genocide. I kind of like the Doctor becoming more self-aware this way again on his own when he realized he done fucked up. But ultimately, they figure out a way to deal with the situation and move along back to his office. Except it’s actually the Thames, frozen over. Whoops.

I’d rate “Smile” at about a B.

Assorted Musings

  • Blah blah River Song picture on his desk BUT HEY, SUSAN TOO!
  • The stationary cup of sonic screwdrivers was amusing.
  • The lines in “Smile” about how one doesn’t pilot the TARDIS, they negotiate with the TARDIS? Classic. Also, between here and the kettle being everything else was pretty cool too.
  • Um, but since when does the Doctor have psychic ability to touch an object and know its history??
  • They’re making the sonic less magic wand-like. I can dig it.
  • If they’re going with this First/Third maybe even Seventh Doctor-like vibe with the Doctor this season, maybe it’s time for an Ace cameo? Her and Bill would get on so well.

Until next time when we find ourselves in wintry, Regency London!

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