Doctor Who: The Pilot
(1 episode, s10e01, 2017)
A new companion gets an education.
An empty university office soon welcomes Nardole and a woman we will come to know as Bill. The TARDIS stands darkly in the corner of the office, apparently out of order, and photos of River Song and Susan decorate the desk alongside a small jar of sonic screwdrivers. The Doctor makes his entrance with an electric guitar before questioning Bill as to why she’d attend his lectures if she wasn’t a student. Bill tells a story about a girl and fries before asking about the TARDIS.
The Doctor deflects and redirects Bill to the question at hand. He notes that she tends to smile when she doesn’t understand something. She wonders what he actually lectures about. The Doctor offers to tutor her so long as she performs well.
The Doctor lectures about time as Bill works her job in the canteen, and she arrives at his tutoring sessions on time while scoring top marks. Bill’s foster mother Moira wonders about her relationship with the Doctor, but Bill replies under her breath that she’s not interested in men. To wit, she sparks a relationship with a woman in a bar who has a star pattern in her eyes.
One day, Bill follows the Doctor and Nardole to a secret underground chamber. She overhears the pair talking as they work on a large door, but after she knocks over some debris on the floor, she rushes back outside. She soon runs into Heather, the woman from the bar. Heather explains that the star is a defect in her iris but offers to show Bill something that’s bothering her. They sneak into a construction area where Heather shows Bill a puddle that hasn’t evaporated since the rain last week. When Bill looks into it, she notes that the reflection is somehow wrong. Heather walks away without much explanation as a voice inside the puddle proclaims that the pilot has been located.
Christmas eventually rolls around and the Doctor and Bill celebrate with a small gathering. She talks about her mother and wonders about photographs helping ease the pain of loss. Later on, she returns home and looks at some photographs of her mother. She spots the Doctor in one of them and is intrigued.
She sees some other strange things when the new term starts, including evidence that the TARDIS has moved. She finds Heather staring into the puddle but the woman disappears when Bill approaches. Sadly, Heather is trapped in the puddle and identified as the pilot.
Bill tells the Doctor about Heather and he rushes off like a “penguin with his ass on fire” to investigate it. The Doctor soon understands that the problem with their reflections is that they’re being shown the wrong way. Whatever is in the water is mimicking the observer. The Doctor also takes note of the scorch marks around the puddle and then sends Bill home. The puddle pursues, claiming to have found its passenger.
When Bill returns home, she assumes that Moira is in the shower, but a phone call proves that assumption wrong. When Bill investigates the running shower, she finds Heather’s starry eye staring back at her from the drain. Bill rushes back to the university to find the Doctor, but is confronted in the darkness by a sopping wet Heather. Heather is a bit freaky and Bill rushes to the Doctor’s office where he is analyzing a sample of the puddle. The puddle pursues and takes Heather’s shape once again.
The pair takes shelter in the TARDIS where the Doctor is pleased to show off his time capsule. Bill is astounded as most companions are, but she does proclaim that it resembles a kitchen. Nardole appears as the puddle attacks, forcing the Doctor to relocate the TARDIS to the underground vault. As the Doctor and Nardole analyze the vault for any breaches, Bill finally has her “bigger on the inside” moment.
The puddle eventually catches up to them so the trio takes flight to Sydney, Australia. The gravity of what’s happening finally catches up to Bill, and she starts asking the Doctor questions about his life and history. They’re interrupted when Heather catches up to them, so the Doctor takes the TARDIS off the planet and twenty-three million years into the future.
Bill is amazed as Nardole and the Doctor muse about the puddle. They presume that the puddle is a remnant from an alien craft that can take the shape of what it needs. It found Heather, someone who wanted to leave the world around her, and took her on board to leave the planet. The puddle catches up to them and nearly abducts Bill, and the Doctor takes his team to the most dangerous place in time and space. When they arrive, the Doctor tosses a classic sonic screwdriver to Nardole before rushing into a war zone in the past. Nardole tries to distract the Daleks, who are fighting the Movellans, as the Doctor and Bill try to escape the puddle.
Taking a slight detour to the Friend from the Future promo teaser, the Doctor and Bill run from the Daleks. Taking refuge behind a wall, Bill repeatedly questions the Doctor about the Daleks.
The Doctor finds a Dalek and has it scan his sonic screwdriver. It fires on the Doctor, but he dodges so the blast hits Heather. As the travelers run, Heather morphs into a Dalek but the Doctor is not tricked. He does wonder, however, why she didn’t shoot when she had a gun.
Bill realizes that Heather’s last conscious thought was to not leave without her. The pilot has been trying to fulfill that promise since Heather was killed. Bill releases Heather from the promise after briefly bonding with the pilot. The puddle retreats and the traveling trio returns to the TARDIS, though Bill notes that she is now partially connected with Heather.
Back in the university office, Bill regrets leaving Heather and the Doctor decides to wipe her memory in order to protect his undercover disguise while he guards the vault. Bill asks him to imagine what it would feel like if someone did the same to him and the memory of Clara forces him to send Bill away. The TARDIS and the pictures of River and Susan chide him, and he decides to meet Bill downstairs with the time capsule.
It’s a big universe, but maybe one day they’ll find Heather again. Until then it’s time for an adventure in time and space.
This episode’s title does double duty. The obvious meaning is in reference to Heather’s fate, but the other one is this story’s status as a perfect entry point for newcomers. The story tells the viewer everything they need to know about Doctor Who while easing them into the universe and a season-long story arc. Steven Moffat has compared this story (in that regard) to both An Unearthly Child and Rose. To a lesser degree, I’d also include The Eleventh Hour, Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, and Remembrance of the Daleks.
Bill debuts here as a not-the-usual companion. Most companions are enraptured by the magic and fantasy of everything Time Lord, but Bill’s worldview pushes all of that to the backseat as she parses the new world around her. It’s quite refreshing.
We also get the mystery of the vault beneath the university. The Doctor and Nardole have apparently been guarding it for approximately 50 years. Since St. Luke’s University is in Bristol, the Doctor runs the risk of crossing his own timeline since Flatline also took place in Bristol. It’s also across the Bristol Channel – about an hour’s drive or so – from Cardiff, which means possible interactions with the Ninth Doctor, the Tenth Doctor, and Torchwood Three. I mean, none of those things will occur, but I’m honestly surprised that more inadvertent timeline interactions don’t happen given how much time the Doctor spends on the British Isles.
This episode marks the return of the Movellans to Doctor Who, which results in a neat timeline check with the Daleks. They don’t know that the Twelfth Doctor is their nemesis until they scan the sonic screwdriver because they only know about the current incarnation (the Fourth Doctor) who was involved in the Dalek-Movellan war shown in Destiny of the Daleks.
Overall, The Pilot fulfills its mission of serving both newbies and veterans with plenty of explanation and nods to the past interwoven with an engaging story and enjoyable actors. It serves well as a welcome back to the Twelfth Doctor after the complicated drama dance with Clara.
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Smile
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.