A new season. A new companion. The same TARDIS desktop (which Peter Capaldi apparently regrets, coveting the fact that Matt Smith got to pilot three different versions of his TARDIS) and a new journey through time and space, via the hallowed halls of St. Luke's University Bristol, where the Doctor has been teaching for almost a century.
Doctor Who returns with its tenth series (counting from New Who's return) taking inspiration from Jon Pertwee's time as the Third Doctor and from the Douglas Adams's unfinished episode "Shada*", which would have starred Tom Baker (as the Fourth Doctor) if it hadn't been felled by strike action at the BBC in 1979. In the Classic Series the third Doctor was stranded on Earth, working for U.N.I.T, punished and planet-locked by the Time Lords. In "Shada" The Fourth Doctor visits the cloistered world of Cambridge University at the invitation of one Professor Chronotis (once of Gallifrey) who has been living as a Cambridge Don for nearly three hundred years. Sound familiar?
Series Ten opens with the Doctor parked on the slow road, lecturing. The TARDIS stands in a corner of his office, an 'Out of Order' sign hung on her double doors. And, we learn, he's guarding something locked in a mysterious vault, hidden beneath the University.
Keeping him company over the decades? Nardole.
Comedic, robotically augmented, part T.A. part batman (to use the term in the WWI sense of solider-servant) Nardole is the last 'living' connection the Doctor has to his late wife, River. Last seen in the Doctor Who Christmas Special "The Return of Doctor Mysterio" (and introduced in the Christmas Special before that) it's Nardole who shows Bill (and the audience) into the Doctor's office, ushering in the new series. When we first see him his arm is malfunctioning, a power cell (or other vital component) clattering to the floor, reminding us that Nardole is a companion in the spirit of K.9. - though with better communication skills!
Nardole is also, unmistakably, the comedic element in this new series personifying the series’s move away from the darker, dramatic - dare I say tragic? - bent of the Series Nine.
This first episode, neatly entitled "The Pilot", introduces us to the brilliant Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie. Crafted with a hint of a nod to "Good Will Hunting" - no janitor cracking math problems at Harvard, but a girl serving up chips in the canteen - Bill is adventurous, curious, sarcastic and more than a tad brave.
Basically, Bill is brilliant.
Orphaned, she grew up without a mother (like both Clara and Amy before her) ignored, or simply unappreciated, by her less than wonderful foster mum. Bill has no photographs of her late mother. No soufflé recipes. Any wisdom imparted, Bill has made up and attributed to an imaginary mother. It's likely Bill's serving chips in the University's canteen because she wasn't encouraged to try for A or AS levels and, probably, just scrapped together enough GCSE's to leave school. So, Bill is auditing lectures - listening to the Doctor talk on physics, poetry, life, the universe and everything - whilst working in a dead end job. Hers is a compelling backstory, grounded in the here and now, reminiscent of both Rose Tyler and Donna Noble - companions of the Ninth and Tenth doctors - respectively. Yet, what makes Bill instantly likeable is undoubtedly Pearl Mackie's portrayal. Mackie comes to the Whoniverse by way of theatre work and The Bristol old Vic Theatre School; art imitating life - the character almost treading in the actress's own footsteps.
A little over twenty years ago (in the U.K.) university tuition was free. You didn't need to rack up a loan to study, and students qualified for a grant. A university degree in the hand was a passport to fantastic opportunities - next stop everywhere. University was a conduit to someone changing their life. It's that spirit (and recollection no doubt) which Steven Moffat is tapping into here, as Bill goes from auditing lectures to joining a madcap, personalised, tutoring scheme and then finding herself travelling the stars.
But Bill's introduction to the Doctor (discovering there's more to life than the mundane world she believed she was living in) also stands as brilliant subtext for Freshers week. Start university, meet lots of interesting, mad, daft, brilliant people. Go to pubs and clubs. Possibly hook up. Catch the eye of that one person, that one someone who could be the one. Bill sees Heather across a crowded bar, and the world stands still. Heather (who has more than a twinkle in her eye - she has a whole star system in her eye!) is desperate to get out of small town Bristol - before meeting Bill.
Whilst the life-altering meeting in Bill's life is with the Doctor; in Heather's it’s Bill. When they first meet, despite their mutual attraction, Heather is obviously uncomfortable. The conversation she has with Bill (when she talks of wanting to get what she sees as a defect in her eye surgically removed) is primarily subtextual, Doctor Who being children's programming, or so-called, family viewing. Bill is out, at least to herself (and I assume to friends) even if not to her foster mum. Heather? She doesn't see her own beauty and seems not to accept herself, so I'd say not. She's skittish. Heather meets Bill fleetingly, for all that she's as drawn to her as she is to the mysterious puddle which doesn't mirror her own reflection correctly. Then, in an instant, love turns from dream to nightmare. And, as often in Doctor Who, beginnings and endings prove interchangeable.
Heather looked down into a puddle and an alien life form looked back up at her. It read her intense desire to leave Bristol and that desire, mirroring its own, lead to Heather being possessed - becoming a conduit for a life form/ship. For all that Heather's fate works as Alien life 101 (or introduction to the Whoniverse for Bill and new, or casual, viewers) thematically the plot borrows from both ghost story and paranormal romance tropes. Leaving was Heather's primary preoccupation, prior to meeting and falling for Bill when her preoccupation understandably changes. Her two predominant desires imprint upon the alien life form becoming its own, its pursuit of Bill a longing to have the other girl share Heather's fate. Amusingly, the offer from Heather!Pilot (who holds out her liquid hand towards Bill in invitation) is a dark version of the offer the Doctor himself will make to her, by the end of the episode.
Lawrence Gough directs this and the next episode. He comes to Doctor Who following his work on Channel 4's "The Aliens" though, to my mind, this episode is most influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock and many a derivative thriller which followed the master. Bill returns home to what she knows is an empty flat, yet hears someone in the shower. Creeping along the hallway, brandishing an umbrella, she bursts into the bathroom and pulls back the shower curtain revealing Gough's homage to Hitchcocks's masterpiece "Psycho". A non-corporeal alien flows down the plug hole, Heather's life - if not her life blood - circling and flowing down that drain.
Peter Capaldi plays a Doctor who hasn't been so unhinged since the last time he regenerated, developed aphasia, and wandered around Victorian London wondering who frowned him his face. And, he plays him wonderfully.
One of the things I love about Steven Moffat's writing of Doctor Who is that his Doctor looks back. His Doctor is scarred by his past, increasingly so.
On his desk there's a photograph of his granddaughter Susan and one of his wife, River Song. There's a cup full of sonic screwdrivers, which may or may not work. The out of order sign hanging on the TARDIS double door harks back to one which first hung there in 1963. Moffat's Doctor is a man made up of his experiences - those he can recall and those he can not. At the start of Series Ten the Doctor may have been rusticating in Bristol for nearly a century, but he's still a broken man. Broken from his time in the Confession Dial. Broken from saving, then losing, Clara - losing her twice as his memories of her are also lost to him. Capaldi's Doctor is a man (well, Time Lord) at the end of his tether and, regrettably, (acting-wise) nearly at the end of his journey. Bill Potts, on the other hand, is a girl who hasn't had much to value in life, following the loss of her mother.
BILL: "This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in my life. The only exciting thing!"
DOCTOR: "I'm sorry."
BILL: "Okay, let me remember just for a week. Just a week. Okay, well, just for tonight. Just one night. Come on, let me have some good dreams for once. Okay. Do what you've got to do. But imagine, just imagine how it would feel if someone did this to you.”
That line of dialogue (as the Doctor's fingers reach for Bill’s temples in a move reminiscent of Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spocks's mind-meld) against the backdrop of a snatch of soundtrack music - link this series back to the last. A wisp of Clara's theme plays poignantly, reminding us of what - of who - the Doctor cannot himself recall. And the Doctor? His loss is palpable, and it’s that self-realisation which stays his hand.
All of time and space. All that ever was, or will be. Mind expansion on an ultimate trip. It's what the Doctor has always offered his companions. It's what he'll offers Bill Potts. But, whilst grounded and masquerading as a Professor, he writes his theories on a blackboard and in so doing also spells them out for new, or younger, viewers.
TARDIS : Time And Relative Dimension In Space.
Or, where you are. When you are. The choices you make - these things are what life is composed of. Older students, in the lecture hall, know that well. His younger students, or younger viewers beyond the fourth wall (watching at home on telly or iPad) may only just be finding that out. And the Doctor? With a new companion, he may just be starting to remember.
As a Season opener "The Pilot" is successful, but not in the same league as "Rose" or "The Eleventh Hour"; the first of which re-launched Doctor Who in this its new incarnation, the second launching Steven Moffat as writer and Executive Producer. Pearl Mackie's introduction of Bill, if judged against Donna Noble's introduction (in that Catherine Tate played the Tenth Doctor's third full-time companion, whilst the show was written and produced by Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner) isn't as successful. But, I much prefer her to Clara Oswald's introduction, once she wasn't an echo of herself.
Mackie and Capaldi have chemistry, and a nice vibe, acting-wise. It'll be interesting to see if Matt Lucas as Nardole becomes one of the team, or continues to feel like a third wheel. And, if the rumours are true and Mackie was contracted purely for this one series (don't believe anything you read - Moffat always lies, or changes his mind) it will be interesting to see her play a companion with a finite journey arc across twelve episodes.
Just like Donna Noble and Martha Jones before her.
[*'Shada' was finally completed as an audio drama starring Paul McGann as the Doctor in 2003.
** All film stills are copyright of the BBC.]