The Pilot reviewed by John Connors
Modern Doctor Who is now an old series. 12 years on screen and counting. The newness has worn off, the freshly painted exterior needs a fresh coat. Under such circumstances- and having admitted publicly this is the series too far, the one he initially had to be persuaded to make - it would be easy to expect Steven Moffat to brew something dark, bitter and even uncommitted. However `The Pilot` from its cheeky title in is so fresh and totally committed you wonder whether secretly a new showrunner has already arrived and he’s still called Steven Moffat! This episode is such a leap from last series’ darker hues that it feels like the whole team has overdosed on jelly babies!
The Doctor has a macaroon dispenser! `The Pilot` is the most satisfying and entertaining companion intro since `Rose` with which it shares a joyful optimism about adventure, knowledge as well as a sense of fun. Just like that 2005 episode it distils the essence of Doctor Who into its running time though it is a more sophisticated take. There’s a definite Educating Rita vibe about the university setting and the meeting of someone ordinary with someone exceptional. Bill Potts works in the kitchens but attends the Doctor’s lectures because she finds them fascinating which is a great way to introduce a new companion as it says something about the potential for anyone to educate themselves or to be educated.
The character seems to have inspired Steven Moffat to pen some of the best scenes of his tenure in charge of the show. Every line of the Doctor and Bill’s conversations dances off the screen mixing Bill’s incredulity at what she’s seeing plus her frank explanations with the Doctor’s reactions and interest in her because she seems to remind him of Susan. This link is further underlined by the fact that the girl with the star in her eye is called Heather. A modern day Bill and Heather.
The on screen rapport between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie is instant and perfect- I could actually just watch the two of them bantering away for the whole episode! Pearl’s experience shows here as she makes Bill a warm, curious and interesting person. Unlike either Clara or Amy she seems like someone you or I might conceivably meet. Bill’s reactions to the Tardis are priceless. “Is it a knock through?” she first asks before declaring that it looks like an expensive kitchen! Before long she wants to use the toilet! There are some funny observations too, notably Bill’s description of the Doctor running “like a penguin with its arse on fire.” All told a flawless debut with even that scene shown a year back to introduce her re-edited (or re-shot?) to take out the more annoying questions and focus more on the sheer overwhelming feelings Bill is having.
After a promising debut as a regular in the Xmas special, Nardole is even funnier here, but in a good way. Matt Lucas manages to make a change of expression provide a commentary on the Doctor’s behaviour and it’s portioned out just enough to be amusing.
As for Peter Capaldi he is just getting better and better. If in his first series he was a little too Malcolm Tucker without the swearing and last time he spent seemingly behaving like Matt Smith, the balance struck with the Xmas Special has been further tweaked. In this episode he is excellent, alien yet approachable, dismissive then fascinated in a second. The script also has less of a manic tone allowing him the space to put more nuance into his performance. There are some lovely notes for the character in this episode especially his travelling back to take photos of Bill’s mum which is a big contrast to his behaviour in his initial series. Compare Capaldi’s entrance this series with that overblown `stadium rock` nonsense last time. Here, the guitar is heard then put away; the contrast could not be more telling. Such a shame Peter Capaldi’s leaving just when he’s nailed it.
The plot itself is slight but enough to fulfil the need for some scares – the eye in the plughole in particular is a jump off the seat moment- and some action. The chase sequence adds in briefly glimpsed Movellans and a Dalek but even better is a planet in the far future that really shows Bill how far she’s travelled. The narrative works in Bill’s sexuality without making a big thing of it even though it is the mutual feelings of Bill and Heather that drive the later plot. The space oil is reminiscent of the Flood from `Waters of Mars` and it even sounds like the same noise they use when she screams but the resolution is different enough.
Visually the series remains as sumptuous as ever but the darker tones increasingly evident in recent years have given way to a lighter palette- it even looks summery sometimes. Having a menacing puddle in daylight proves you can do atmospheric scares without always going somewhere with no lights! Director Lawrence Gough is not averse to the odd trick- loved the photo montages that pop up- and essays the story’s increasing momentum very well. The scene where Bill faces Heather on the mist shrouded lawn outside the university building is especially atmospheric.
The hints of a bigger arc plot work well; clearly we’ll be revisiting that vault in the basement and Bill’s phone seems to have that `rhythm of three` ring that we associate with a certain villain. Also to whom was the Doctor’s promise made? The camera lingers several times on the photos of River Song and Susan. Could it be that we will see one- or even both – of them before the series end? The episode finishes with a lovely sequence suggesting that the Doctor’s promise may have been to stop his travelling (“I never go anywhere” he says earlier) but now he’s been tempted to break that promise for Bill. Again it reminds me of the sheer optimism for adventure and “what the hell” that featured at the end of `Rose`. Indeed there is more of an echo of Russell T Davies’ period in this episode than we’ve seen in a long time. It does prove really that the absolute best of modern Doctor Who works when you take both show runners’ approaches and mix them together.
It is peculiar for someone leaving the programme to deliver such a fresh, vibrant recalibration that is more like a new show runner’s debut but perhaps the realisation that he is going has freed Steven Moffat to tear up some of his now well worn tropes and have a bit more fun. For me the best episode since `Flatline`. What a great start!!
Smile reviewed by Estelle Hargraves
Episode 2 continues the “jumping-on point” to Who that Steven Moffatt provided in The Pilot last week. That was all about setting the scene, introducing the basics of the characters and solving a present-day mystery which, in classic-Moffatt fashion, was all about making an everyday object (in this case, a puddle) mysterious and sinister. As the series continues, there appears to be the beginnings of a whistle stop tour of the classic elements of Doctor Who – in Smile, the Doctor gives not-quite-official-companion-yet Bill Potts the option of an adventure in the past or future and Bill shows just how eager she is to explore the unknown by immediately choosing the future, “to see if it’s happy.”
The pair are still very much in teacher and pupil mode. As established last week, the Doctor has been lecturing at Duke’s University in Bristol for as long as anyone can remember, and Bill, a canteen worker with a hunger for more than the chips she serves up, is a mock student, sneaking into the Doctor’s lectures until he bestows official student status on her. She describes him as an awesome tutor, and I’m constantly expecting her to start calling him “The Professor”, Ace-style. The Doctor, meanwhile, is half-heartedly trying to protect her from harm, but in a manner which suggests that the way Bill reacts is all part of her final exam to gain official entry into the Tardis. Nardole, or “mum” as the Doctor calls him, is not so sure, reminding the Doctor that his first priority is a mysterious promise to guard a vault, which means no off-earth travelling.
Ignoring this, the Doctor honours Bill’s request to visit the future, taking them to Gliese 581 D, a colony world 20 light years away from earth. The planet is bright and clean and full of thriving plant life, having been terraformed by tiny flying robots called Vardies, getting the place ready as the new outpost for the human race. Bill and the Doctor are greeted by the Vardies robot interfaces, looking as new and shiny as if they were i-robots just out of an Apple box, and who communicate by emoji, picking up the emotions of any people in their vicinity via a mood-communicator. We’ve already seen that these cute looking robots are more sinister than they look, acting as the thought police for the already-destroyed first batch of human “shepherds” – once you have gone to “two-tear” sadness you apparently can’t survive them, and the tiny Vardies will promptly turn you into plant food. Perhaps writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce has also been struck by how sinister-sounding “Blood and Bone” fertiliser really is.
In Doctor Who Magazine, Cottrell-Boyce explained his thinking for this episode, “It’s about Utopia. I’m really, really bored of Dystopia. I was already bored of it, and I think we’re living in Dystopia now, so it’s really, really time to start thinking about Utopia….We seem to have stopped thinking about what a good society would look like.” And it’s an interesting point. Of course, a happy society which works well for its inhabitants might be an interesting essay but it’s terribly dull from a dramatic point of view. So, with exceptions, future or extra-terrestrial societies tends to be depicted as either dystopian, or strange, or funny. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is one of the most imaginative and certainly the funniest portrayal of other societies that I know of, and so it makes sense to me that I feel like I’m constantly seeing echoes of it in Cottrell-Boyce’s work. His latest book “Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth” feels like it’s filling in the gaps to the Hitchhiker’s description of the Earth as “mostly harmless”, and in Smile, the emoji robots are in once sense the anti-Marvins, with their deadly insistence on happiness at all times, yet they look incredibly similar to the Marvin of the Hitchhiker’s film. The communications upgrade into the Doctor and Bill’s ears also had a touch of the babel fish about it.
But the key to this episode is, for me, seen in the name of the spaceship which brought the human settlers to this world – Erehwon - and the Puritan-like names of these far-distant humans. These are apparently some of the last remnants of the human race, although not all – the doctor says he’s bumped into a few other ships on similar missions. Presumably this includes Spaceship UK of “The Beast Below”, Amy Pond’s introduction to the future. Actually, post-Brexit, Spaceship UK sounds all the more plausible, especially given that Scotland chose to go its own way on a different ship.
The people of “Smile” are called “Goodpeople”, and make their intentions clear by their names, like the Pilgrim Fathers setting out into the hopeful unknown. They all have positive and virtuous monikers – Steadfast, Praiseworthy, Hopeful and Sunshine. Their apparent escape of a nuclear catastrophe on earth has made them focus on optimism and ensure their new world has an emphasis on staying happy. The Vardies are supposed to provide this – keeping the settlers in good physical condition and in a permanently contented state. Perhaps in the midst of all the riots and bombs, however, someone forgot to programme the Vardies with Asimov’s Laws of Robotics to stop them slaughtering their human masters by a misunderstanding, or with enough data allow humans to feel sadness when appropriate. Maybe. But surely the person responsible for programming the lethal death face on the robots should have had second thoughts at least?
This leads into “Erehwon”, an echo of Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” – a satirical depiction of Utopia in a novel from from 1872. Erewhon backwards is both “nowhere” and “now here”, perhaps reflected in the little boy, Praiseworthy, asking “Are we there yet?” in true kid fashion. In Butler’s “Erewhon”, ill people are treated as criminals, as are unhappy people here. And there are no machines in Erewhon, as the people believe them to be dangerous as they could also be subject to Darwin’s theory of evolution. This was seen as a joke in 1872, and a satire on Darwinian theory. But Butler was deadly serious, and it’s astoundingly prescient of him to essentially predict the point at which artificial intelligence in machines turns into real intelligence, real consciousness, and a new life form. This is what the Doctor recognises has happened to the Vardies, just after realising that the rest of the human race is actually in cryogenic suspension on board the spaceship, not on a separate craft headed for the planet, and so blowing up the settlement wouldn’t be a good idea after all. Instead, he presses the reset button, using his tale of “The Magic Haddock” as inspiration. The “slave race” of the Vardies is now the master race of the planet and the human settlers will need to negotiate to share the world between them.
I like Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s writing of this episode - the developing of the Doctor and Bill’s relationship is nicely done, and Pearl Mackie as Bill continues to shine with a bright personality and even more distinctive silhouette than the Doctor. The threat posed by the Vardies is a little uneven though – with the settlers, death by flying robot is instantaneous and inescapable, but the Doctor and Bill escape with what seems like not too much difficulty. The fact that we only see a tiny number of settlers at the start and end of the programme also feels like we don’t know enough about them, and find it harder to develop an emotional attachment to their survival, apart from generally wanting the human race to continue. However, I thought this was a nice introduction to the future for Bill, and a welcome addition to thought-experiments of Utopias, what they might look like and what pitfalls we may face.
With regard to the series arc, we now know that the Doctor is (supposed to be) confined to Earth by a self-imposed oath, in order to guard some kind of vault. And if for some reason the vault is unguarded, the results could be horrendous. I’m going to stake my claim here that the reason the Doctor was given two portions of food is connected to this. The Doctor’s throwaway explanation that it’s probably because the robot sensed his two hearts is a useful way to communicate his alien-ness to Bill, but something smells fishy to me, and it’s not just the blue algae cube. Bill, as a canteen worker, also has a professional indignation that she’s been served less than the Doctor seeing as she’s happily doled out extra portions of chips to the girl she fancies at university. And talking of fish, I’m seeing references to it everywhere – algae that smells of fish, chips, magic haddocks and babel fish. I wonder if it means anything?