It’s been a long, long time. But Doctor Who is back. And we’re going to talk about “The Pilot”. No, not the pilot. “The Pilot”. You know, a perfectly normal thing to title the premiere of the tenth season of the reboot and the fifty-fourth year overall. But hey, Seinfeld did it. There’s precedent! Anyway, the Doctor has a new mission, we meet a new companion, and there’s a new menace. It’s swell and I plan to talk about it at length.
There’s a cold open instead of going straight to the theme. Nardole ushers a young woman who we now know is named Bill into a fancy office. In one corner of the room is a dusty TARDIS bearing an “out of order” sign. On the desk are framed pictures of River Song and Susan, the First Doctor’s granddaughter. There’s a mug full of previous Doctors’ Sonic Screwdrivers, which is pretty funny. And then, the hum of an electric guitar as the Doctor comes in to talk to Bill Potts. She’s not a student, but she comes to his lectures, and he wants to know why. She deflects by asking about the TARDIS. Finally, she admits she really likes those lectures even though she doesn’t know what subject he’s actually teaching.
Hey, she says he’s been teaching there for fifty years and the university (St. Luke’s) seems to just let him talk about whatever and it’s not clear what subject he’s teaching. He offers to tutor her, even though she’s not a student and he’s barely a professor. And they do the usual bit with his name, but this time when he says “Just call me The Doctor”, her response is “Doctor what?” HA! And now, opening theme! I’ve missed you so!
There’s a montage of Bill working in the dining hall and the Doctor lecturing. There’s a pretty lady who keeps making her way into the shot. Bill’s foster mother thinks it’s weird that the Doctor is assigning her homework despite not being a student and she assumes he’s up to something creepy. As the montage rolls on, Bill meets the attractive lady (Heather) and after some time has passed, Bill spots the Doctor and Nardole running off and decides to follow. She tracks them down to a basement where they’re clearly doing something but we can’t really hear them well enough to make it out. She sneaks out after they almost spot her. And outside, she runs into Heather. Heather has a star in her eye – actually a heterochromia but the discoloration looks like a star. She wants to show Bill something and brings her to a puddle of water on the pavement. It hasn’t rained in a week, but there’s a puddle. She asks Bill to look at her reflection and asks if she can see what’s wrong – Bill can tell something’s off but doesn’t know what. Heather leaves and under the puddle, a voice intones “Pilot is located. Link is established.”
Months pass and seasons change. The Doctor and Bill celebrate Christmas together. She gives him a rug, but he forgot to get her anything. Bill talks about how her mother died when she was a baby and she never really knew her – she doesn’t even have pictures. “When someone’s gone, the pictures really help”, which gets the Doctor looking over at the photos on his desk. Later, at her house, a box full of pictures of her mother turns up. Pearl Mackie is really good in this scene, by the way. In one picture she sees the Doctor’s reflection in the mirror – he’s the one holding the camera. Next time she goes to his office, the TARDIS is in a slightly different place.
Later she finds Heather, staring into the puddle again. Heather calls her over to take another look, and as Bill heads around the fence, she makes Heather promise she won’t go. But once Bill gets there, Heather is gone. Bill leaves, but we see Heather apparently trapped beneath the surface of the puddle as the voice says “Pilot confirmed. Pilot engaged.”
Bill goes to see the Doctor to tell him about the puddle and how she couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her reflection. As she explains, she looks out the window and suddenly sees the Doctor outside at a full sprint. Sure enough, his chair is still spinning behind his desk. Hee! She runs out to follow him to the puddle and he figures it out. Heather spotted the difference right away because of her heterochromia – her face isn’t symmetrical and the puddle doesn’t reflect images – you see yourself the normal way ’round that other people see you. Between that and the scorch marks on the ground, the Doctor decides to get Bill out of there and tell her that it’s nothing. As he pushes her away, something rises from the puddle.
Bill comes back home and hears the water running, but she’s there alone. She checks out the bathroom and finds it empty except for some water going down the drain. And when she looks at it too closely, the water looks back at her with a heterochromatic eye. This naturally freaks her out and she runs back to the University. There she sees Heather, but a soft around the edges version who drips. Yeah, Heather is made of water now and she repeats everything Bill says. Bill runs to the Doctor’s office but the water just starts flowing under the door and re-forming into Heather. The Doctor brings Bill into the TARDIS, and she is not convinced that it’s safe at all until he turns on the lights and she sees the control room. Also, Nardole is just hanging out. She thinks it looks like a really nice kitchen, until the Doctor activates the controls and then she thinks it’s an elevator.
They seem to be in the basement now, where the Doctor and Nardole has been previously. That’s when Bill realizes the TARDIS is bigger on the inside and Nardole is so happy to hear her say it. Turns out, there is something in a vault there that the Doctor can’t let anybody see and either the creature is trying to get to that thing or it’s a coincidence. Speaking of, they hear the sound of water and slowly make their way to the TARDIS. They have to walk past the rapidly forming Heather puddle to do so, and it’s only interested in them, not the vault. They get in the TARDIS and decide to give the creature a challenge. They end up in Australia and it starts to hit Bill just how weird all of this is. She points out to the Doctor that the TARDIS acronym only works in English and why would that happen if he’s from another planet – which is pretty funny, and the Doctor doesn’t have an answer for that.
Heather starts to form and they run again, this time leaving Earth. Nardole is worried about leaving the vault unattended – the Doctor says it’ll be fine. “If there’s any trouble, I’ve got a message on this.” and it looks like he holds up the psychic paper, but we’ll deal with that later. And with that, they travel to the end of the universe, 23 billion years in the future. As they wait, the Doctor explains the scorch marks were from a spaceship and the puddle was the equivalent of an oil leak. It just waited there for ages until somebody who wanted to leave (Heather) looked too deeply and it turned her into a liquid spaceship. But he doesn’t know why it’s coming after Bill. As he talks it out, Bill looks into the puddle and sees Heather emerging peacefully, until she grabs her face and then explodes out of the ground like a geyser. Back to the TARDIS!
His next move? Run that thing through the deadliest fire in the universe. The Doctor tosses Nardole an old sonic screwdriver (the Fourth?) and asks him to run interference while he and Bill lead Heather to the Daleks. Yeah, they’re on Skaro, in the middle of a war. They run toward the Daleks just as Heather arrives. A Dalek freaks out and opens fire, but Bill and the Doctor dodge, and now it’s a Dalek versus the water monster. When our heroes poke their heads out again, there’s only the Dalek left, but it’s dripping. Heather destroyed it and took its form. She reconstitutes and the Doctor realizes she could have killed them in Dalek form but she didn’t. He tells her just to leave, but she won’t and it’s because Bill asked her “promise you won’t go”. That was Heather’s last conscious thought and it’s what drives her now. Bill tells her she can go and Heather takes her hand. And then Heather sees the universe as the Doctor warns her that she can never come back unless she lets go. The Doctor manages to pull her away and Heather dissolves.
Back home, Bill sort of regrets giving up her chance to see the universe. Unless the Doctor and his magic box…. nope. He moves to wipe her memory and she pulls back. He says he’s in disguise and he has promises to keep and nobody can know. Bill asks to remember for just a week, but it doesn’t fly. She asks him to imagine how it would feel if somebody did that to him and Clara’s theme starts to play on the score and I’m crying. He changes his mind but tells her to leave. She leaves and the Doctor tells the pictures and the ghosts that he can’t do that anymore – he promised. But, as Bill leaves campus, the Doctor and the TARDIS are waiting for her. He offers to show her the universe and it is on!
–Holy cats, that was a really great premiere. I liked the mostly small scope of it – new companions tend to be introduced with Earthbound episodes (other than Martha, who was abducted by space rhinos) and it’s nice to have a companion who’s just a regular person who encounters the Doctor after all that time with Clara the Impossible Girl.
The most important continuity bit, aside from the pictures, the old sonics and Clara’s theme, is the bit with the Daleks. Those people fighting them are the Movellans, a race of androids who went to war with the Daleks during the Tom Baker years. It’s like Moffat wants to get in every last alien on his way out.
So, how about that picture of Susan? I don’t think the Doctor’s granddaughter has every been directly referenced in the modern series, because she seems wildly inconsistent with what the show became. But if they’re bringing her up now, it’s not going to end with a photo. Are we going to see Susan? Is she half human? Will we see the Doctor’s child(ren)? And doesn’t the idea of him having children seem weird? Things are going to get nuts this season!
So, according to Bill, the Doctor has been at St. Luke’s for fifty years. And the guy we see in this episode seems to have given up on traveling – I think he’s actually been holed up there for fifty years real time, living as a professor. (As established, he can exist twice at the same time as long as he doesn’t encounter himself. And if they’re not sticking with that bit of continuity, maybe he skips forward a couple centuries whenever there’s a chance of crossing his own timeline. It’s easy enough to make that explanation work. But it’s weird. And on first viewing, I thought maybe it was losing River right after losing Clara (who he can’t remember but he knows he lost somebody) that took away his taste for adventure. In Clara’s last episode they even talk about how the two of them push one another, and maybe this is who he his without Clara.
But now, it’s clear that his extended stay has something to do with whatever he’s keeping in the vault. He’s guarding something and also keeping a promise. Now, I don’t think he’d trap a threat on Earth. I think he’s protecting the thing that’s in the vault. And if it’s been in there for fifty years, it must be something with a very long lifespan or maybe that doesn’t age at all. Just kicking around some ideas, maybe it’s Susan and he’s keeping her safe. Maybe it’s Jack Harkness, who’s been rumored to make an appearance this year. Or maybe, it’s another incarnation of either the Doctor or the Master. They’re already announced that John Simm’s Master is returning this year, as is Missy. And since we never saw a regeneration, we don’t know which of them comes first or even if they’re consecutive. So maybe it’s one of the Masters, maybe frozen at the moment of their final regeneration? Or maybe it’s a past incarnation of the Doctor who has to be protected. I’m convinced that Christopher Eccleston is going to make an appearance at some point (he’s spoken a lot more warmly of Who lately and has even pinned his issues with the show on a single director who hasn’t worked for the series since then). Or maybe it’s the Hybrid. Yes, it was implied in last year’s finale that Me was the Hybrid or maybe that Clara and the Doctor were a two-person hybrid, but none of that was definitive.
Worth noting – Capaldi says he’s already shot his regeneration. As far as I know, the next Doctor hasn’t been officially cast and they haven’t shot Moffat’s final episode, which would be this year’s Christmas special. The trailer for the season shows Capaldi starting to regenerate and the season finale is titled “The Doctor Falls”. So if he dies and regenerates in the finale, what happens on Christmas? There’s no way that Moffat is going to get to do the next Doctor’s first episode, so Christmas is going to be weird. I think it’s going to either be a multi-Doctor episode or something that really just draws a line under the Moffat era. Remember, when all of the Doctors saved Gallifrey in Day of the Doctor, there were thirteen Doctors there from Hartnell to Capaldi. And obviously it wouldn’t be possible to incorporate people not yet cast, it feels like that’s going to be significant. There’s going to be an in-show reason why Doctors Thirteen and up weren’t there. I wonder if the next Doctor is going to have a completely clean slate and that’s what Christmas is about. I’m not sure any of that made sense, but I’m still kicking it around.
Hey – what if the thing in the vault is the Valeyard? I only sort of understand this Sixth Doctor concept, but it sounds like the kind of thing Moffat would want to play with. And the idea of the Valeyard is that it’s a dark reflection of the Doctor created sometime after his 12th incarnation. What if that’s what Capaldi regenerates into in the finale and then Christmas is about saving the idea of the Doctor from this thing? I will have to go watch the Valeyard episodes and see if I can learn anything.
Oh, I still can’t make out the bit where the Doctor indicates that he left a message on what appears to be the psychic paper – I assume that it’s a way he can get in touch with other versions of himself and maybe he was asking one of the other guys to keep an eye on things for a bit. I’m not quite sure, though.
One last note – it appears Nardole is a robot or, more likely, Nardole’s human head on a robot body. That was bugging me and now I have an answer.
Well, that was a bang-up start to the season and I’m looking forward to more adventures in the weeks to come, including old-timey Cybermen with cloth faces. They’re Capaldi’s favorite and I can’t wait to see how they justify them. Until then…. run!