After watching Saturday’s “The Pilot,” the first new Doctor Who episode since the 2016 Christmas special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” many longtime fans of the series will likely have the same thought: “Bill Potts is just like Rose Tyler.” Sure enough, Pearl Mackie, who plays the new traveling companion of the titular Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, shares many of the same qualities as Billie Piper’s fan-favorite character. Both are young, working class women with presumably little education, a not-so-exciting home life with a single mother, and a chance to see the stars with an endearing oddball.
Former companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) also came from somewhat disadvantaged backgrounds, although theirs had more to do with story than circumstance. (Amy’s parents were swallowed up by a temporal crack, which the Doctor fixed. Clara’s literally broken background, on the other hand, resulted from her entering the Doctor’s time stream.) So in an effort to put some distance between her predecessors and her, perhaps, Mackie’s Bill will be Doctor Who‘s first openly gay companion — thereby rendering the character unique in the show’s long history.
Yet what truly makes Bill and her Doctor Who debut special isn’t her sexuality, or her shared traits with companions past. What helps her and her debut episode stand out is how writer and showrunner Steven Moffat, and director Lawrence Gough chose to frame the story. Like 2005’s “Rose” and 2010’s “The Eleventh Hour” before it, “The Pilot” serves as a reboot of sorts — albeit one that keeps occasional viewers or the completely uninitiated in mind. As with these two previous program re-entries, Saturday’s 10th season premiere delves just deep enough into the Doctor Who mythos to keep diehard fans interested, though not at the expense of anyone who has no idea what a Dalek is.
Hence why Moffat and Gough begin and end the episode with shots of Bill. In the first, she enters the Doctor’s office at the fictional St. Luke’s University in Bristol, where the Time Lord has been posing as a professor of just about everything for quite some time. Almost an hour later, “The Pilot” closes with a reconciliation of sorts between the two (following their initial adventure together), after which they board the Doctor’s T.A.R.D.I.S. to embark on a whole season’s worth of brand new adventures. And in between the beginning and end points, the focus almost never veers too far away from Bill’s perspective. The audience sees everything she sees, and misses everything she doesn’t.
It’s a narrative gambit that Doctor Who has attempted twice before, and like both times, it works well enough here. Whether viewers have seen a handful of episodes out of order, every single one dating back to William Hartnell’s First Doctor in 1963, or none at all, “The Pilot” pads Bill’s first adventure with just enough mythology for general appreciation. A few references made by the Doctor and his assistant, Nardole (Matt Lucas), and frequent visual cues scattered about the former’s university office or in the T.A.R.D.I.S. itself, offer plenty for longtime fans to go on. As for the first-time watchers, these bits may prove more rewarding as the new season progresses.
Mackie’s performance stands out above the rest, suggesting that Capaldi’s final year as the Doctor will feature stellar work from the newcomer. And though the esteemed Scottish actor’s version of the time-traveling alien has repeatedly proven to be one of the series’ best, the chemistry between him and Mackie is quite good. So good, in fact, that Capaldi’s impending departure could stat to feel premature — if only because audiences will miss his excellent banter with the “girl who serves chips.” Consider their exchange following a brisk run:
BILL: Why’d you run like that?
THE DOCTOR: Like what?
BILL: Like a penguin with its ass on fire?
THE DOCTOR: Ergonomics.
As great as dialogue like this is, “The Pilot” retains many of the same problems that have plagued the show since Moffat took over. A writer during the Russell T. Davies era, Moffat gifted Doctor Who with some of its best one-off and two-part episodes (“The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” in 2005, “Blink” in 2007). As showrunner, however, his production has often emphasized the use of monstrous villains and minutely detailed story arcs at the expense of coherent, accessible plots. As a result, side stories like Bill’s budding relationship with Heather (Stephanie Hyam) are pushed further to the outskirts due to logical gaps or leaps.
With Moffat’s departure set to coincide with Capaldi’s, and Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall slated to take over as showrunner, perhaps Doctor Who will finally overcome these long-repeated problems. Of course, critics and fans won’t know for sure until after the 2017 Christmas special, though with upcoming episodes written by screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce, frequent series writer Toby Whithouse, and newcomer Rona Munro, perhaps the program will achieve its desired reboot before Moffat and Capaldi throw in their sonic screwdrivers.
Doctor Who premieres Saturday, April 15th at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.