[The Following Review Contains SPOILERS!]
Bill Potts is a canteen worker at St. Luke’s University in Bristol. Smart but never applying to go to university herself, she still found herself sneaking into the lectures of one of St. Luke’s more infamous presences – a professor known only as The Doctor.
The Doctor is a bit of a character, even by the standards of academia. He’s been teaching at St. Luke’s forever, with varying reports saying that he’s been there, off and on, for 50 to 70 years! He keeps a police box in his office, which he claims they took out a wall and a window to install since it was too big to fit in the door. And his teaching assistant – a big, bald man named Nardole – makes squeaking noises like rusty hinges when he walks.
There are many things about The Doctor that don’t add up and Bill starts to notice them after The Doctor notices her and offers to tutor her in the evenings. Her new studies are almost as fascinating as Heather – a student on whom Bill develops a crush. But Bill’s little world is about to become bigger and it will all begin with an unlikely puddle…
Steven Moffat has written some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. The Pilot, sadly, is not one of them. The biggest problem is the inconsistency of the the character of Bill, who spends half the episode being Moffat Stock Heroine – Strong, Smart And Confident, Mark III only to suddenly become easily befuddled at the halfway point. Presumably this was when Moffat remembered, “Oh blast! Everyone says all my female characters are too perfect! I’ll make this one a bit slow to grasp what The TARDIS is to take the curse off of it!”
Another problem is that the relationship between Bill and Heather is never properly conveyed. The two have such little screen-time together and they barely speak to one another. Because of this, the revelations that come at the end of the episode don’t ring true.
Despite this, Pearl Mackie proves a charming presence as Bill Potts. She gives the material a solid go, even if she doesn’t quite sell Bill’s sudden confusion in the face of her earlier brilliance as the result of a desperate panic attack. I put that more on the quality of the writing than her performance and it will be interesting to see how Bill comes off in an episode penned by a different writer.
Peter Capaldi still amazes as The Doctor, being as Scottish and rude as ever but clearly relishing the chance to play a literal nutty professor. Yet even then there is pathos and a suggestion near the end that all is not well within The Doctor’s considerably complex mind. And Matt Lucas remains an amusing enigma as Nardole.
One thing that can be said in favor of The Pilot is that it is accessible to new viewers. This is a welcome change from the last few series openings, which were weighed down by continuity. There’s still a lot of nods to the previous Series and the show’s long history (did anyone else smile at the quick cameo by The Movellans?) but the focus here is on the future and the bigger mysteries. Such as what is in that big vault under the St. Luke’s campus and why and who did The Doctor promise to stay Earth-bound to guard it?
On that note, the set design, which is brimming with Easter Eggs for the quick-eyed viewer, is one of the strongest aspects of the episode. The Doctor’s desk is a prime example of this, with a cup full of The Doctor’s old sonic screwdrivers looking like so many novelty pens. The pictures are less subtle but do lead to one of the better moments of the episode and a demonstration of just how far The Doctor will go to try and be the man who “makes things better” for someone outside the context of saving the world.
All in all, The Pilot is a solid episode and a wonderful introduction to the universe of Doctor Who. It remains to be seen how solid a companion Bill will be but there is enough good here to inspire hope. Time will tell. It always does.
Miss The Pilot? See it on the big screen April 17 & 19!