Since writing reviews and blog posts was how I first immersed myself in this whole Doctor Who thing, I’m the return of my favorite show, enhanced by the introduction of a fantastic new lead actress and the impending departure of its lead actor and head writer, will help pull me out of this post-thesis funk I’ve been struggling through. Much like the Doctor in this episode, we’ll start slowly and somewhat hesitantly and work our way back up to full, reckless enthusiasm. This is sometimes necessary after a long period of recovery.
Episode 1 of series 10 of the new series of Doctor Who was originally, for those of you who were paying attention, titled “A Star in Her Eye.” The reason becomes obvious once you’ve seen the episode, and certainly retains relevance to both the plot and the symbolism of eyes and looking and faces and all that (we’ll come back to that). At some point in the somewhat recent past the title was changed. “The Pilot” — pulled from a much smaller detail in the story — stands out as a particularly conspicuous title in a television series. After all, pilots are traditionally the first episode of a new series, not the first episode of a show already ten seasons into its run (even if you don’t count the twenty-six seasons before that). Like the pilot episode of one of my other favorite shows, Lost, the title carries a double-entendre, functioning not just as a description of the episode’s purpose in production terms but as reference to the events of the narrative itself. Unlike Lost, however, the significance of these is inverted. Lost’s “Pilot” was first and foremost a pilot episode, and only upon reflection does the viewer realize the refrigerator logic of naming the first episode of a show about a plane crash “The Pilot.” Conversely, Steven Moffat’s “The Pilot” isn’t actually a pilot episode but a season premier that happens to feature an alien consciousness in search of a “pilot” or host to carry it back to the stars. This linguistic detail is incidental and obviously intentional, however. We are clearly meant to think of this episode in terms of how pilot episodes work.
So how does “The Pilot” work as a pilot, and why? It’s more than a little odd for Moffat, whose era of Doctor Who has been defined by its extreme serialization, to start off his final season with a blank slate, or as they say a “soft reboot.” And as reboots go, “The Pilot” is definitely soft and squishy. In addition to the inescapable presence of Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, there is the (still unexplained) presence of Nardole, pictures of River Song and Susan, intrusion of Clara’s musical theme, and other little winks and nods for the long-term viewer. However, “The Pilot” works more like “Rose” and “The Eleventh Hour” than any other season premier so far in that these references are not so much continuing story arcs as they are references for the knowing fan, allowing these episodes to function as potential entry points into the story for new viewers. Most importantly, events are grounded exclusively in Bill’s point of view, apart from (arguably) the one moment towards the end in which the Doctor argues with himself and his pictures about whether to take Bill as a companion. In every other scene, Bill — like Rose and Amy Pond before her — is allowed to discover the Doctor gradually, on her own terms and in her own way. In the very first scene, when Bill is escorted into the Doctor’s university office for the first time, the camera stays with her, even going so far as to wait for her to wander over to look at the strange blue box in the corner before even showing the TARDIS itself. Even “Rose” had the blue box hidden in corners of buildings, building on the dramatic irony of the audience noticing it before Rose ever does. Heck, “The Eleventh Hour” — which is even more of a true reboot than “The Pilot” — doesn’t start with little Amy at all but with the Doctor’s crashing TARDIS post-regeneration. “The Pilot” aggressively tracks Bill’s development, refusing to get farther ahead of her.
So since “The Pilot” is all about introducing Bill let’s stick with her. There’s the matter of her name, which calls back to both true Doctor Who pilots – 1963’s “An Unearthly Child” and 2005’s “Rose.” William (Bill) Hartnell of course played the First Doctor (or just the Doctor then) and, as others have pointed out, he was married to a woman named Heather, the same name as Bill’s starry-eyed crush here. In addition, when I hear the name Bill Potts I can’t help but hear an alliterative echo of the new series’ first companion, Billie Piper. So Bill’s name points to the beginnings of both eras of the show, as well as synthesizes the disparate roles of Doctor and companion. And that’s not all she synthesizes, of course, being of mixed race (both actress Pearl Mackie and Bill, born of a black mother and raised by a white foster mother). She is Doctor Who‘s first openly gay regular companion and yet is styled or coded as feminine herself rather than the stereotypical “butch” lesbian. She works at a university (and becomes the Doctor’s pupil) and yet retains her “working class” job in the canteen. So Bill is a person of synthesis, one who combines and blends different identities and resolves them. Masculine and feminine. Black and white. Upper and lower class. Classic series and new. Doctor and companion. We could go all sorts of different directions with this. The union of opposites is one of the results of the alchemical process, which is one of Doctor Who‘s favorite symbolic systems. Watching as much Battlestar Galactica as I have recently also puts me in mind of Hegel’s dialectic in which opposing viewpoints are eventually resolved and unified. It remains to be seen if this role of synthesizer plays out in Bill’s character arc, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that this is a repeated motif for Bill.
“The Pilot,” then, eschews picking up the continuing narrative threads of the Capaldi/Moffat era and concentrates on fleshing out Bill’s character and narrative purpose, resulting in a story that starts fresh and functions as a sort of pilot episode to a new chapter of the story. I haven’t read a ton of reviews (preferring to write mine first as I am fairly easily distracted and influenced by others) but I would bet a fair amount that this decision went down well with the Moffat critics. Indeed, while his trademark “cleverness” is never totally absent, “The Pilot” has a remarkable energetic lightness and focus on character and emotion. I’ve never bought the line of thinking that Moffat can’t write emotional, character-driven drama but even I can see that he took the time to really concentrate on Bill’s character. Pearl Mackie was a brilliant piece of casting. The character note about how most people frown when they don’t understand things but she smiles is lovely, and even more so when Mackie picks up on this and, indeed, smiles immediately after getting shot at by her first Dalek. Clara was a hesitant companion at first, making the Doctor work to earn her trust. Bill, on the other hand, conveys irrepressible curiosity, asking all sorts of questions both practical and bizarre.
The focus on Bill’s smile (and don’t forget that “Smile” is the title of the next episode) also brings up the recurring reference to faces and eyes. There’s of course the fact that Bill has an eye for pretty faces. The reflected asymmetrical faces give the alien puddle away. Bill’s shirt has a conspicuously asymmetrical face on it, also blending aspects of black and white and masculine and feminine as she does. In fact, it’s this shirt featuring a screen print of Prince’s face. (Oddly, Prince died almost exactly one year ago coinciding with the debut clips of Mackie’s Bill and her costume). When Heather’s rises face-first from the puddle on the alien planet, her emerging reflection creates a “two faces or a vase” optical illusion right before she grabs Bill by the (you guessed it) face. There’s of course Heather’s dazzling star in her iris which she sees as a “defect” in need of fixing. Not to mention the Doctor’s face which changes so often (or he pays so little attention to) that he can barely recognize it as his own. Bill’s mother hated having her picture taken. Like Heather and her own mother, Bill isn’t particularly crazy about her own face:
“I never liked it. It’s always doing expressions when I’m trying to be enigmatic.”
And yet Bill seems more comfortable with her imperfections than the restless and insecure Heather. Bill has an honest face. She unconsciously smiles at what she doesn’t understand. It betrays her true feelings without her meaning to. Seeing as this is what draws the Doctor to her in a crowded lecture theater, it’s hard to call this a defect. And so in this age when “identity politics” are very much the thing, Bill crosses all of the boundaries, dismantling and recombining and synthesizing all of them into something uniquely her own. I loved Clara, but one of the reasons to cast a new companion or Doctor is to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction of the previous one, and Clara was in the end defined by her guardedness, control, and secretiveness. I’m not one who sees this as a problem — Clara’s slightly repressed psychology made for a fascinating companion and interaction with the Doctor. And yet…it’s “The Pilot.” It’s time for something new. More than anything else, Bill is connected with honesty and authenticity. As character introductions go, this is a very promising start.