In the first episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor goes into hiding, but meets someone who convinces him otherwise. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
I’m just gonna be real upfront about this: This was, without a doubt, one of the very best episodes of Doctor Who. I honestly am trying to come up with a single critical thing to offer of “The Pilot,” but I fucking cannot. This hit on every possible mark (ha!) I might have ever wanted of this show? It works as a beautiful introduction to the show in general (OH MY GOD, THAT MAKES THIS EPISODE TITLE A MILLION TIMES MORE CLEVER THAN I HAD REALIZED); it’s written with care and love, and WE HAVE A BLACK LESBIAN AS THE COMPANION FOR THE DOCTOR. And she is written so brilliantly, with such vibrancy and life, and HER IDENTITY MATTERS TO HER STORY AND I AM GOING TO EXPLODE.
I have to start with Bill, as she is the most important piece of this story. It’s not just wonderful that this character is openly queer, that her love for women is mentioned on screen, or that she’s non-white. These things are important on some level, but it also matters how they’re treated within the narrative itself. That’s something I’ll be paying attention to over the course of Bill’s run on Doctor Who. But in this episode, I’m in love. There are so many little details here that showed that she was going to be given an in-depth character, one who had a full life outside of the Doctor.
In many ways, she is a classic companion. Her life isn’t actively terrible in any way, but the appearance of the Doctor revitalizes them. It shows them that there’s more to the world. And Bill, who works in the university’s canteen, who serves chips day-to-day, flirts with the idea of attending the university for real. I’m guessing that she can’t for financial reasons, that she’s not a middle-class character like a lot of companions we’ve seen on the show. But she’s got a drive to her, a sense that she won’t let these things stop her from learning more about the world about her. Thus, she is so perfect to be a companion. She asks questions. Many of her initial run-ins with the Doctor involve her asking questions: How can this be possible? What is this thing? Who are you? And when the answers are strange or inexplicable or frustrating, she smiles. She asks another question. I love that whole recurring bit about science-fiction, since it primes her as someone who would completely understand the wacky weirdness of the Doctor! Plus, y’all know I live for people discovering the TARDIS and its abilities. It never gets old, and this is handled beautifully here in “The Pilot.”
These things matter because we have to understand why the Doctor would suddenly re-think his stance on not taking a companion beyond Nardole. Nardole is a bit more fleshed out here than he was in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” and I got a real sense of why he belonged here. He works so seamlessly with the Doctor in a way we haven’t really experienced, at least not in a long time. He’s more like an assistant who is already in tune with the Doctor than a companion. In terms of the dynamic, I found this vital. It distinguishes between Nardole and Bill, since they hold very different roles compared to one another.
So what does Bill offer? I think the episode does a fine job showing us why the Doctor was drawn to her in the first place. He’s always been quick to recognize who is ready to question their place in the universe, and that certainly describes Bill. But is it enough that the Doctor is lonely? Maybe! Maybe this is why the TARDIS speaks up to egg the Doctor on to pursue Bill at the end of the episode! His cautious attitude is understandable after everything he’s been through, after the people he’s hurt, after he’s lost River Song for good.
Everything ends. But some times, it begins, and those are times of happiness, aren’t they?
One thing that’s changed in my life in relation to Doctor Who is relevant to my discussion of the antagonist in “The Pilot.” I’m a big fan of the line where the Doctor explains that most things in the universe aren’t evil; many are just hungry. And admittedly a lot of my favorite episodes of Star Trek eschewed the normal narrative about villains. Some organisms are just trying to survive, but from our perspective, their behavior seems malicious. The unnamed species/spaceship that landed on Earth and eventually killed Heather did not do so for evil reasons. It mimics other life forms, and it offers what they seem to want most. Its assimilation of Heather is, from its perspective, a good thing. She just wanted to leave! And it misinterpreted that desire by making it part of the ship itself, taking her life in the process. Even the pursuit of Bill in this episode has a touching and heartbreaking reason: Heather’s last conscious thought was that she had promised Bill not to leave her behind. Thus, the being chased Bill not to destroy her, but to invite her to travel with her. (That sequence was also gorgeous. Seriously, the camera work and editing here was just stunning.)
From a storytelling perspective, I found this refreshing because Bill’s identity mattered so much to the episode itself. If Bill had not been a lesbian, then she would not have had such an intense connection with Heather to begin with. So, the story is grounded in her queerness without necessarily being about it. Bill gets a story we’ve seen so many times for straight characters, but in this instance, it felt electrifying to me. UGH, I AM JUST SO HAPPY ABOUT THIS.
So, couple of questions: Why are the Doctor and Nardole in hiding? Why that university? What the hell is in that vault, and why are they protecting it? Why is the Doctor so insistent that no one find out who he is? Will we see Heather again??? UGH I can’t believe I have so many gay feelings for Doctor Who, THIS IS NOT WHAT I WAS EXPECTING!!!! I loved this for so very many different reasons, and I can’t wait to watch more.
The video for “The Pilot” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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