Thoughts on: The Pilot

I think I owe Steven Moffat an apology. This time last year I was grouching over his choice of new companion. Another young modern female companion cast from the Amy/Clara mould who, let’s face it, at this point wasn’t going to out-Amy Amy or out-Clara Clara — as I complained. To be fair, Bill’s first appearance in that shoddily-written teaser involving her and the Doctor hiding from a Dalek hardly endeared her to me. Bill’s treating the Dalek as a joke (“Fat, though!”) and the whole situation as whimsy made me despair for the series ahead afflicted by this annoying, gobby, glib, woman-child with her extraordinary hair and clothes.

It looked like minimal thought had gone into creating Bill, as though Moffat had just rearranged his favourite companion tropes — outgoing, perky, feisty, witty, flirty — into a slightly different configuration and went ahead and found a new actress to play to that tired script. And, to be honest, that is in a way what Moffat has done with Bill. Bill embodies many of the same character attributes as Amy and Clara (and River), and she can be seen as yet another new iteration of the same character formula Moffat has trotted out three times before this.

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But I underestimated Moffat. Sure, Bill is similar in many significant ways to the two (or three, if River counts as a companion) companions who’ve come before her. But I was struck in this, her introductory episode, by how much better she was written than her predecessors. Far from minimal thought having gone into Bill, it feels like a lot more thought and care has gone into creating and writing Bill than ever went into Amy or Clara before their first jaunts in the Tardis. This is palpable from how much more relatable Bill immediately felt than arguably Amy or Clara ever felt. Amy was a fairytale and Clara was an engima. Before they were characters they were concepts. Don’t get me wrong, I adored both Amy and Clara, but I don’t think either felt completely like real people.

Bill, on the other hand, just from this introductory episode feels more real than Amy or Clara ever felt. We’ve been given a tour through her life: her foster home, her job at the university canteen and what she does for fun (attend lectures on quantum physics apparently). We’ve seen how her experiences have affected her and shaped who she is. And the intimacy with which Bill’s character is written adds a level of nuance and detail to her character that I think was lacking in Amy and Clara. By the time Amy and Clara exited the show respectively there was still a degree to which they remained enigmas to the audience — like celebrity royalty, there was an extent to which they were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to us. There’s none of that with Bill, with whom the contrast is striking. We feel we’ve got to know Bill intimately right away. We feel familiar with Bill, like there’s little more we feel we need to know about her.

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And we like her. She’s a likable and endearing character. I wasn’t right in thinking I’d be bored or irritated by Bill, even if she is a reiteration of the Amy/Clara/River model. That’s substantially due to the writing, because I imagine I would be bored by Bill if she weren’t written as well as she is. Bill is distinguished from Amy and Clara in one respect worth noting though (other than her sexuality), and that’s that she’s probably the first genuinely normal companion in Doctor Who since Donna — that is, since Russell T Davies’ era. Unless I’m tragically premature in making this observation about Bill, she does appear to be the first of Moffat’s companions who isn’t at the eye of an elaborate narrative arc. No Girl Who Waited, no Impossible Girl. And frankly, that’s bloody refreshing. Unlike, it seems, most fans, I found the Impossible Girl arc intriguing and interesting, but it’s nice to return to a companion who’s just normal. Just Bill. Even her name is refreshingly simple and unfrilly.

I’ve just spent five paragraphs talking about the new companion and haven’t even spared a word for anything else in this episode yet. That’s because, by far and away, the new companion was the most important thing in this episode. The plot, let’s face it, was pretty lacklustre. For a writer who usually insists on making everything far more complicated than it needs to be, Moffat has turned in a fairly threadbare and unremarkable story. As a story concept, strange women emerging from mobile ponds sounds like something that belongs in Class or Torchwood’s early series, or maybe Doctor Who’s sillier early days under RTD, than as the opener to Moffat’s swansong series. But that’s not really the point of this story. This story has one objective and one objective only: introducing Bill and setting her up as the Doctor’s new companion. The star-eyed girl in her locomotive puddle was a pantomime threat deployed as the impetus for bringing the Doctor and Bill together. As an aspect of the story, it wasn’t important. It played a secondary role.

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And it served its purpose. As far as companion introductions go, Bill probably received a better character debut than any companion since Rose. Maybe even better. As an introductory episode, I think I’d give it a more middling ranking — The Eleventh Hour is still the superior introductory episode in my book. Because I do think a case can be made that, while The Pilot‘s plot served its purpose in the story, it still could have been, well, less predictable and pedestrian. Less Series 1 Sarah Jane Adventures. The visual realisation of Heather as the phantasmic eponymous “pilot” was appropriately freaky, but the revelation of what the creature was and the way its threat was resolved was something of a lazy anticlimax. Still, it all provided for some very fun whizzing around in the Tardis as the Doctor attempted to outrun the creature (and I’m delighted that Australia got a look in).

On that note, just as the whirlwind whiz around time and space in the Tardis was supposed to be Bill’s first exciting voyage with the Doctor, the impetus for her boarding the Tardis as the Doctor’s companion, this episode was obviously supposed to be scripted as a soft reboot to the show. That was certainly how it was being touted by the likes of Moffat and Capaldi, a new “jumping-on point” for new viewers of the show à la The Eleventh Hour. Certainly, everything old was made new again in this episode. Old fans will have smirked knowing smirks as familiar tropes of the show were hashed out again for new viewers, albeit with subtle variation for the old fans: the “bigger on the inside” scene, “Doctor Who What?” and the companion’s traditional vomit of questions about the Doctor and the Tardis (“Why are the initials in English?”). Even as a veteran fan, though, the moment Bill turned around and saw the inside of the Tardis, wide-eyed and stunned, and the Doctor said those words, “Time and Relative Dimension in Space — TARDIS for short”, I got chills. This show never stops being magical.

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As effective and accessible this episode was as a reboot to the franchise and a jumping-on point for new viewers though, it was also deft in setting up what looks like it’s going to be the arc of this series. There’s a big, menacing-looking vault in a cellar under Bill’s university, and the Doctor doesn’t want anybody to know about it. He’s apparently set himself up as a professor at the university and has been there for as many as 70 years keeping watch over that vault. It’s a credit to Moffat’s writing that the most curious aspect of this episode — why the Doctor has been earthbound, lecturing at a university for upwards of 70 years — almost passed unnoticed. Attention wasn’t drawn to it. It was written as though it didn’t even need explanation, and as a result the audience just accepted it without asking for an explanation. It was understated and clever and not overt and heavy-handed like last series’ Hybrid arc setup (as intriguing as I found that, too). The subtle and inconspicuous way the arc was set up allows narrative space and time for the Doctor to go gallivanting around the universe with Bill at his leisure before he inevitably needs to return to the vault, and in that respect it was well deployed.

Apart from the introduction of Bill, what I really liked about this episode is that it represents such an optimistic and exciting beginning to this series of Doctor Who. Everything is fresh, everything is new, and we have a bushy-tailed new companion chewing at the bit to get into the Tardis and see the universe, and a Doctor apparently excited by the prospect of taking her to see it with him. I think I’d like to have seen some more caution and trepidation on the Doctor’s part of drafting Bill into the Tardis, more acknowledgement by him that the last time he did this he got his companion killed (technically) — the episode rather skirted over that — but I suppose when you’re trying to reboot the show anew again for a new audience, that audience might find it confusing if the show referenced too significantly events of previous series. But the result, the conclusion to this episode was always going to be the right one: Bill breathlessly hops aboard the Tardis and she and the Doctor take off into the universe, a whole series of exciting adventures ahead of them. This episode made me excited for the series ahead, and for that reason it was successful.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Deep Breath

So here we are. Doctor number twelve. Peter Capaldi. He totters uncertainly out of the Tardis, disorientated and confused. He manages to insult several people before promptly collapsing on the banks of the Thames without another word, a brief taste of what is to come. As far as introducing the new Doctor goes, this episode played a very audacious, very risky game. The Twelfth Doctor’s first scenes aren’t the most flattering. The viewer can’t help being taken aback, and just a bit repelled, as the Doctor is given the part of the senile, confused old man in his post-regeneration trauma. Gone is the familiar face and voice of Matt Smith, in their place a total alien, something entirely different. We’re unsure of him. Some of us might be daring to entertain the thought, “Is this guy really the Doctor?”, and the characters onscreen helpfully vocalise our uncertainties and insecurities.

But surely that was the point. It’s made clear throughout the episode that the Doctor isn’t even sure of himself; even after he recovers, he isn’t sure who he is. If the Doctor doesn’t know who he is, we certainly can’t expect to. And that’s what makes it interesting. This episode isn’t trying to do what previous new Doctor introduction stories did in showcasing the new Doctor, making us fall in love with him and forget all about the previous Doctor. It’s deliberately wrong-footing us and making us unsure. By the end of the episode we’re not supposed to be completely taken and convinced by Capaldi. The episode establishes that the new Doctor is something completely different to what we’ve seen before, but tries to reassure us (that phone call), and says “Just trust us. Bear with us. We know you’re unsure, but trust us. It’s going to be a whopper.” It’s a risky game the show is playing; it could have gone the safe route, à la The Eleventh Hour, but what it’s doing here has great narrative potential. The only consequence are the viewers whom the change alienated too much, like a good friend of mine who, at the time, was probably a bigger fan than I was, and who has since given up on Doctor Who.

Nothing but praise should be given to Peter Capaldi himself, though, who held himself in his first stint in the role superlatively. He’s easily, by a good length, the best actor ever to inhabit the role (apart from John Hurt). That’s not to diminish the contributions and the talents of any of the previous incumbents at all, but, even from this episode alone, it’s clear that Capaldi’s acting is noticeably on another level to any of his predecessors. That’s why, despite my own initial uncertainties about Capaldi, I was really excited to see what he would do with the role in the series to come and into the future. He’s too good an actor not to prove to be an amazing Doctor. It’s one of the reasons I’m positively gnawing at the bit to see what Series 9 brings us. I mean, just watch the scene in the alley where the Doctor contemplates his new face (and ends up nearly assaulting a tramp). Capaldi is a positively hypnotic presence there. As in the scene he faces off with the Half Face Man in the balloon. He’s captivating throughout the entire episode.

There’s another sense in which Deep Breath is very different from The Eleventh Hour. The latter was focussed predominantly on the introduction of the new Doctor and companion, and with the wholesale revamping of the show that it represented. Plot was a subordinate consideration, as it rather used the hi-jinks of Prisoner Zero as a narrative device to carry the character introductions, which were its overriding purpose. Here the plot is fully fleshed out, and could even stand as a brilliant story in itself, shorn of the burden of introducing the new Doctor at the same time. The freaky clockwork droids from The Girl in the Fireplace return almost unrecognisable, and they’ve opened up the diner from hell. They even serve as an intelligent allegory for the Doctor’s own constant change and reinvention. “There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.” There was some wonderful scary fun to be had with these dreadful droids, like the Half Face Man’s interrogation of Clara, which was genuinely suspenseful, gripping, edge-of-seat stuff. And the Doctor’s rescue of Clara was one of those amazing, fist-pumping “Doctor” moments on par with Matt Smith’s confrontation with the Atraxi in The Eleventh Hour, or Eccleston’s “Everybody lives!” moment in The Doctor Dances. I did think, though, that the episode took too long to get to the substance of the story; it meandered a bit in the first half as it followed the Paternosters around. Although, I have to admit, I am actually warming to the Paternosters; they’re actually quite enjoyable to watch here (especially Strax).

The only major thing I’d be critical of in this episode was the way Clara was portrayed. She’s written fairly disagreeably for most of this episode, judgmental and put out about the Doctor’s change of appearance. What annoys me about this is that Clara, of all people, should be understanding about the Doctor’s regeneration. She’s seen all his faces, she understands the nature of regeneration, she knows he’s not really the handsome young man she knew. She’s met him as an old man before in the War Doctor, and arguably in the First Doctor (depending on whether she actually remembers her other lives), and literally, only moments before, saw “her” Doctor as a decrepit, wizened old man on Trenzalore. I know that Clara’s insecurities over the Doctor’s change are supposed to be an analogue for the feelings of the audience, but from an in-story perspective it really makes no sense at all. Colour me baffled. This is no reflection on Jenna Coleman herself, though, who carried her part superbly, especially in Clara’s interrogation by the Half Face Man. Jenna did the best she could with what she was given, and it at least says something about her performance that she managed to evoke the reaction she did in me to her character.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Snowmen

Boy makes snowman. Snowman talks to boy. Snow grows stronger and attempts to attack London with frozen corpse. Put like that it seems simple enough, but I struggled to wrap my head around what was going on in this story. Perhaps I was too distracted by the stunning Jenna(-Louise) Coleman. But it’s probably because it was actually all quite hard to follow. I divined something about a disembodied “intelligence” possessing snow. And then there was something about the snow being a mirror for Richard E. Grant. And an old woman’s frozen corpse entered into it somehow. Although not unenjoyable to watch, it was a somewhat convoluted plot, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who would have failed to explain the plot after viewing. It didn’t help that the “snow monster(s)” was the show’s annual lame, laboured concession to seasonal themes; it was obvious the story would have worked much better if the threat wasn’t a bunch of poorly-realised CGI snowmen. Viewers familiar with the Great Intelligence might have had an easier time following it all, but that’s a pretty small constituency, especially for a Christmas episode.

Okay, gripe over. I hate to start with negativity, but I just wanted to get it out of the way. I have plenty of good things to say about this episode. This episode sees the Doctor coping, as we all were, with the pain and heartbreak of losing Amy. The first time we see the Doctor again after the unhappy events of Manhattan and he’s a gruff, Scrooge-like miser moping around Victorian London, resolved to have nothing to do with the world and its problems any more. He meets Clara, who seems set to tempt him out of his self-imposed solitude with her beckoning smile and her mysterious snowmen, but he shan’t be moved. “Those were the days…” he sighs sadly, wistfully, as he turns and walks away. Matt Smith portrays the Doctor’s jaded, weary, moody demeanour compellingly, and the Doctor in his miserable reclusion is written well. It was a powerful portrayal of how much the Doctor was missing Amy and Rory, and an effective tribute on the part of the show to how much Amy in particular meant to Matt Smith’s Doctor, and how much losing her means to him.

Perhaps it says something about Clara that the Doctor begins to thaw over her. He’s determined to remain in his sulky seclusion, contemning the world, but he can’t help himself when he meets Clara. And who can blame him? Clara is a wonderful character. She has “companion” written all over her, and the Doctor knows it. She’s inquisitive, perky, spirited, clever and brave, and not afraid to speak her mind to the Doctor. That said, she’s a bit of a standard Moffat major-female-character trope, her pertness, cheekiness and flirtatiousness strongly reminiscent of other Moffat female characters like Amy and River Song. Moffat doesn’t exactly differentiate his female characters to a great extent, but it’s early days here. And I’m not criticising necessarily, Jenna genuinely endeared herself to an audience still grieving over Amy. The portrayal of Clara’s collision with the Doctor over the course of this episode was wonderful, though. Unlike Amy, the girl who waited, Clara doesn’t wait around to become involved with the Doctor, even after he effectively tells her to naff off. The scene where Clara follows the Doctor back to the Tardis, and climbs her way up the Jack-in-the-Beanstalk-like ladder into the clouds was simply magical. As was watching the Doctor quickly finding himself irresistibly enchanted by Clara (dat kiss tho). “I never know why. I only know who.” He finds himself saying this with disbelief.

Some final thoughts. I’ve never cared much for the Paternoster Gang, here no more than anywhere else. I find them tedious. And I’m afraid I don’t find their comic relief very funny. They’re obviously there for the kiddies, but there’s a fine line between catering for the pre-adolescents in the audience and patronising everyone over the age of 12. Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. I know there are plenty of mature fans who enjoy the Paternosters, and I’ll concede they’re sometimes good for a laugh, but in general I just find them a bit of a bore. The new Tardis interior is attractive; it has a dark, moody glamour about it, reflecting the Doctor’s emotional state, and the maturity he’s reached at this stage of his regeneration, but I’m obliged to say I find it a bit cold and soulless. I preferred Matt Smith’s original warm, fantastical, space-baroque Tardis interior. Finally, I rather liked the Doctor’s Victorian get-up. It suits him really well and, although the new costume the Doctor wore in Series 7b was also good, I wouldn’t have minded if he’d kept the Victorian garb (with the glasses, obviously).

Rating: 8/10.