The title ‘The Pilot’, like many Doctor Who titles, has more than one meaning. It has an in-universe meaning, (which we’ll get to later), but it also has one as a TV show. It suggests a new start. This did feel like a new beginning, and while it is in a way with the new companion, this series is also the beginning of the end of an era. But it felt very much like an introduction for brand new viewers as well. That Doctor Who is capable of doing that after ten series (and even more if you count the classic series) says a lot for it. But it offers, dare I say it, Easter eggs for long term viewers to look out for too.
At St. Luke’s University, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) is called to a professors office. This professor is none other than The Doctor (Peter Capaldi)! He’s there playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony of his electric guitar, and the TARDIS is in the corner, and Nardole (Matt Lucas) is his assistant.
He has asked Bill to his office as she attends all his lectures, but she isn’t a student at the
university, she works in the canteen. Bill says she likes his lectures, and has a few questions of her own. Like, how did he get the police box in the room when it’s too big to fit through the doors or windows? And how come his lectures are on everything from quantum physics to poetry? Apparently he’s also been lecturing at the university for a long time, between 50 and 70 years. Bill is also far from the only person who attends his lectures that isn’t technically supposed to, but the Doctor is intrigued by Bill as she smiles when she doesn’t understand something rather than frowns. He says that he wants to be her personal tutor, but Bill isn’t even a student. The Doctor says he can sort all that out later. Bill counters that it’s the sort of thing you have to sort out earlier, but with the Doctor later and earlier can be the same thing.
Bill sees a girl named Heather (Stephanie Hyam) with a star in her eye. Heather says the star is a defect in her iris that she wants to get fixed. She also says she is unhappy at the university and wants to leave. She takes Bill to a puddle in the middle of a pavement. It’s been there for ages even though it hasn’t rained for weeks, and there is something odd about the reflection in it. Bill notices that when she looks in. She isn’t sure what’s wrong, but she knows something is. We then see a view from under the water as if under ice, and a creepy alien voice saying it has located a pilot and established a link.
It’s Christmas, and Bill mentions to the Doctor that her mother died when she was a baby. Apparently her mum looked a lot like Bill, but she hated having her picture taken so there aren’t many photos of her. Later in the day, Bill’s foster mum gives her a box she found on that day full of photos of Bill’s biological mum. Bill is tearful and moved to finally see some pictures of her mum… but notices in one that the Doctor is in a mirror, taking a picture with a camera.
At the start of the new term, Bill sees Heather, who tells her to come and look at the puddle again. Bill asks her to promise she won’t go, which she agrees to. But when Bill gets to the puddle, Heather isn’t there. This is because she is underwater in the puddle…
Bill talks to the Doctor about Heather and the puddle and how there was something wrong with the reflection. Before she knows it, the Doctor has run out of his office. Bill runs after him, and he is looking at the puddle. The Doctor says Heather’s eye defect made it easy for her to see what was wrong with the reflection. Heather’s face wasn’t symmetrical. You never truly see your face the right way round in a reflection, as that’s just what it is, a reflection. It’s puts everything the other way round. The puddle was showing things as they actually are, as it isn’t a reflection at all. It’s trying to copy and mimic the people who look into it. The Doctor and Bill leave, and the puddle begins moving.
Bill goes home and hears water running in her bathroom. She assumes it’s her foster mum having a bath, but then her foster mum calls her from a restaurant. Bill arms herself with an umbrella and goes into the bathroom. Nobody is there, but she sees Heather’s eye in the plughole!
Bill runs to the university, and sees Heather. She is dripping wet. Bill and Heather have a conversation, but Heather is just repeating word for word what Bill is saying. Bill runs into the Doctor’s office. Liquid comes under the door, and shapes itself into the form of Heather. The Doctor tells Bill to run into the TARDIS. Seeing the full TARDIS for the first time, Bill is impressed, but at first thinks it’s just a big room, then when the TARDIS starts moving she thinks it’s a lift. But soon she realises it’s something out of this world.
The TARDIS goes to a secret bunker the Doctor has at the university. There is a vault which he doesn’t want anyone to open, but it becomes clear the entity following them isn’t interested in that. The TARDIS goes to Australia. This is all a bit much for Bill, who asks the Doctor if he is from space. He says that nobody is from space… but he is from a planet that isn’t Earth. Heather arrives, she followed them to Australia and got there in under one minute. The Doctor takes the TARDIS to another planet the other end of the universe 23 million years into the future to see if Heather will still follow and find them. The puddle at the university had come from outer space and needed a ‘pilot’ so it could get out of its state as a puddle. Heather looking into the puddle and wanting to leave established a link, so it attached to her. But why is she still following the TARDIS crew?
The Doctor takes the TARDIS to a war zone some time in the past where the Daleks are fighting. Heather arrives. A Dalek fires at her, but she just absorbs it, fires it back and repeats what the Dalek says (which, obviously, is “Exterminate!”).
The Doctor and Bill run back, and find a Dalek, but it looks and sounds wrong. The Dalek melts away into liquid, and the liquid reforms as Heather again. The Doctor tells her to leave, but she doesn’t. Bill remembers that the last thing Heather said was a promise not to leave without Bill. That was the last thought Heather had before the entity consumed her. Bill and Heather talk again, but it is just Heather repeating what Bill says. Heather offers her hand, and Bill takes it, then she sees a beautiful vision of the universe. The Doctor warns that this is a trap, and Bill says “Goodbye Heather”, and Heather replies “Goodbye Bill”. Bill lets go of Heather’s hand, is back in reality and Heather melts back into a puddle.
Back at the Doctor’s office, Bill says she was tempted to go with Heather, but didn’t as she was too scared. The Doctor says fear can sometimes be a good thing. He then attempts to wipe Bill’s memory. Bill says she doesn’t want him to, and asks how he would feel if someone did that to him. The Doctor changes his mind, but says Bill has to leave. Bill then finds the Doctor outside with his TARDIS. He says it’s a big universe, but they could still find Heather again, and he invites Bill to join him travelling in the TARDIS.
This is new companion Bill’s first episode, and she makes a great first impression. I really like her. She is very funny. She asks the Doctor’s name by saying “Doctor what?” rather than “Doctor who?” She tells him he is “Running like a penguin with its arse on fire”. She says the TARDIS looks like “a really posh kitchen, all metal!” She asks her foster mum if she’s seeing a bloke called Neville again. Her foster mum denies it outright, until Bill tells her she can tell she’s calling using his phone!
Bill had a crush on a girl at the university and kept giving her extra portions of chips in her job at the canteen, to the point where the girl ended up putting on weight!
Bill is notable as the first LGBT+ character as the Doctor’s ‘main’ companion. There have been some previous travellers with the Doctor (Captain Jack, River Song, Madame Vastra & Jenny). I suppose Clara was a little bicurious, at least for Jane Austen and Ashildr, but Bill is the first to openly identify as LGBT+.
The news was welcomed by some, but also brought out all the “It’s political correctness gone mad” types out of the woodwork. The thing is, a lot of people moan about “political correctness”, but representation is important. I think Pearl Mackie said in an interview that as she is mixed race she grew up not seeing many people who looked like her on TV. There will be many children watching Doctor Who now who may be LGBT+ or are in ethnic minorities, or both, and they probably appreciate a rare chance to see someone like them represented on TV. Frankly, I think the fact that simply having a mixed-race gay character as one of the leads has caused reactionary complaints about the show being “too PC” means that there should be more representation if anything. Clearly, it isn’t a level playing field yet.
I thought this was one of the best episode for this incarnation of The Doctor too. I loved the Doctor as a university lecturer, it’s a job that really suits him. The dynamic between him and his companions Clara and Bill is more like a teacher/student one than other versions of the Doctor. Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant had romantic plot arcs with Rose and Martha, also a best pals one with Donna, Matt Smith’s Doctor had more of a family dynamic with Amy, Rory and River. Speaking of which, in this episode the Doctor like many people has family photos on his desk. His are of his wife, River, and his granddaughter, Susan, who was the very first companion for the very first Doctor, William Hartnell.
William Hartnell was also known as Bill, and his wife was named Heather! I think the naming of two characters who are part of a love story in this episode as Bill and Heather was an probably an intentional reference.
Doctor Who has Christmas specials, and while there is a history of a new series of the show being launched on Easter Bank Holiday Weekend, not so much Easter specials. I’d quite like to see one, especially some plot with an evil Easter bunny and/or chocolate cosmic eggs. That said, Easter specials are pretty rare in general compared to Christmas specials or indeed Halloween specials, which Doctor Who has never done. Actually, a Doctor Who Halloween Special could be interesting too, it’s had its fair share of darkness.
The Doctor changing his mind about wiping Bill’s memory has echoes from previous episodes. He wiped Donna’s memory in ‘Journey’s End’ in series 4, and though that was to save her life, he felt a lot of guilt for it. He tried to wipe Clara’s in ‘Hell Bent’ in series 9, but she protested, and they decided to leave it to fate over whether his or Clara’s memory would be wiped. It ended up being the Doctor’s, so he knows full well how awful it is to have a memory wiped.
The unnamed alien entity in this episode reminded a lot of viewers of the people effected by The Flood virus in ‘Waters Of Mars’, and the way the possessed Heather kept repeating what was said to her was similar to the possessed Sky in the series 4 episode ‘Midnight’. Whether there is an in-universe connection between these entities (like the Silurians and Sea Devils being related) or just a similar idea I don’t know. Perhaps this wasn’t the most unique monster in the series, but I liked how it was executed. The entity behaved similar to water or at least liquid, and reflected those it came into contact with such as Bill and the Dalek in various ways, copying and mimicking. Heather herself was interesting, even more so with the “Goodbye Bill” suggesting she wasn’t at that point just mindlessly mimicking and there might be some part of the human Heather still in there. The Doctor also suggested that they might encounter her again.
I wasn’t too keen on the Dalek cameo, it was a little like a gratuitous celebrity cameo. It also seemed a bit, I don’t know, grudging? As if the producers were thinking “The Daleks are the most popular monster, people will want to see them, there you go audience, there’s your Daleks, job done, done our duty, let’s move on”.
Finally, is what’s inside the vault going to be a running theme for this series?
‘The Pilot’ was a good series opener, and a fantastic introduction to the new companion. It made it all seem very fresh and yeah, like a reboot, which apparently was the intention. It is a little strange knowing that there is going to be even bigger changes soon, with this being Peter Capaldi’s last series as the Doctor and Chris Chibnall taking over as showrunner. When Steven Moffat took over from Russell T. Davies, it saw big changes and the start of a brand new era, that looks like what will happen again. But for now, ‘The Pilot’ is a good start to the current series.