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Monday, 17 April 2017

Doctor Who S36E1: The Pilot

Doctor Who
Series 36, Episode 1
The Pilot.

As seems to be more often the case than not lately, this series kind of snuck up on me. Until about two weeks ago, I'd been operating under the assumption that the next series of Doctor Who wouldn't be starting until August. Having reviewed the last two series as ongoings, I feel pretty much compelled to do this one also, especially since it's Moffat's very last series as showrunner. Oh, frabjous day, callooh, callay, and so on, and so forth.

His replacement, Chris Chibnall, has written for Doctor Who before (albeit primarily fluff episodes like Dinosaurs In Space) but is best known for Broadchurch, a show that will be concluding its final series in about three hours as of this review being posted. Broadchurch is probably best known for being the show that captured the imaginations of the British viewing public to such an extent that the first series quickly become prime event watching, with television publications fearful of even hinting at spoilers in case the nation collectively tore them apart. Broadchurch's first series achieved a popularity basically on-par with The Great British Bake-off.

Anyway, onto this week's episode.

Possibly picking up after last year's Christmas Special (I didn't watch it so I wouldn't know), this series starts with the Doctor as an eclectic lecturer at a university which isn't explicitly identified as Oxford but is, basically, Oxford by any other name. After one of the university's catering staff, Bill, catches his attention, he agrees to become her personal tutor, teaching her, in his words, 'everything.' But the Doctor and Bill soon find themselves dragged into the usual alien plot when Heather, a girl Bill is interested in, guides Bill to a mysterious puddle. Before long, the puddle has absorbed Heather and is coming after Bill, leading her, the Doctor, and Nardole (former companion of River Song) on a chase across time and space to escape it.

Bill, the new companion.

Okay, first thing's first: Matt Lucas as a regular? Really? I don't hate Matt Lucas, but he is firmly in the 'extremely comedic at all times' school of acting, and his style of comedic acting never varies between roles, so he wouldn't be my first pick to be a regular in anything bar maybe a sitcom.

Anyway, the main thing in this episode, as in any episode that introduces a new companion, is -- well, introducing the new companion. Our focus is squarely on Bill throughout the episode: Her life, a monster that's specifically after her, her perspective on the Doctor, her drive and motivations. It's a formula that works if the companion is interesting, and falls flat if they're not.

Luckily, Bill is pretty interesting. Sort of. To be entirely honest, she's not all that different from Clara, it's just that while Clara was squarely upper class, Bill is firmly working class -- which is unusual for Moffat, who usually writes characters that occupy prestige positions, either in society (such as Clara and River) or in the story (such as Amy and -- well, River again, actually). I'm actually given to wonder if Bill isn't Chris Chibnall's creation more than Moffat's, and the rumours swirling that the series handover will happen part way through this series instead of at the end lend some credence to that idea. 

Is it just me, or is Capaldi's hair getting longer?

The other way that Bill differs from Clara is that her relationship to the Doctor is immediately more interesting -- while Moffat never seemed to really know what to do with Clara and the Doctor, we are immediately informed that Bill is the Doctor's student, and their relationship grows out of that.

As far as the episodic plot goes, it's fine. It has a decent amount of emotional weight involved in its latter half, and its first half actually does a pretty good job of setting up a mystery, and having a slow, creepy build up to a pay-off that isn't amazing, but isn't terrible.

What is impressive about this episode is how much is done with practical effects: We get some CGI later on for the monster materialising, but for the majority of the episode, everything is done with very simple practical effects and editing, and lately I've found myself really appreciating that in television.

Although, that said, the series has used 'a person except they're wet' as a monster four times or so now.

All in all, this was a competent but not striking episode. I like Bill so far -- and Moffat has managed to avoid 80% of his usual creepy fetish behaviour with her so far, but let's not hold out hope for that remain true -- and the plot set-up of something hidden in the Doctor's vault is an interesting one, at least.

Next week, it looks like your standard stock-issue robots are attacking plotline, but the trailer for the whole series -- which shows the Doctor seeming to regenerate, Missy returning, and the John Simm Master returning as well -- actually looks pretty varied and interesting, although I only count about four distinct episodes in it, which makes it likely that it's a trailer exclusively for episodes three through six.

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