The following review contains plot details for the first episode of Doctor Who Series 10. Please don’t continue if you don’t want to read mild spoilers.
When Bill Potts finds herself in hot water with the Doctor for turning up at his university lectures unauthorised, she’s soon in need of his help. Her attraction to a girl with a defect in her eye leads her into waters of another kind – choppy ones that begin to stalk her. As she’s thrown together with the Doctor and his kooky sidekick Nardole, she’s catapulted into an adventure that takes her across the universe.
Fear the Water
“Run!” commands the Doctor, as he’s wont to do, before fleeing with Nardole and new companion Bill Potts to the other end of the universe. The trio are fleeing a puddle monster. Now, that may not sound all that scary but trust us when we tell you it ruddy well is. For a family show, at any rate.
The mysterious being takes the form of a Samara from The Ring-like figure at times, an awkward-looking spooky girl drenched from head to toe, complete with whitened face, and dark eyes and lips. At others, it’s creeping water – if water can be said to creep – and on one occasion, it shifts shape to a familiar-looking foe.
But let’s rewind. What’s particularly striking about this episode is our introduction to the new companion and the slow, measured way it builds the story.
There’s Something About Bill Potts
“The Pilot” ultimately ends up flinging everything at us – and the characters – but initially Bill Potts is just a girl with a job in a canteen. She’s working at the university the Doctor has been lecturing at and has been sneaking into his lectures. She’s also just a girl with a crush on another girl who comes to the canteen every day. She feeds her extra chips. She “fatted” her, Bill laments.
The Doctor has called her to his office and really wants to know why she’s been sitting in on his lectures. Turns out, she just really likes his style – like a lot of other non-authorised attendees it seems. Only, there’s clearly something about Bill that the Doctor has picked up on that draws him to her too.
Soon enough, strange things start to occur – she meets an aloof yet alluring girl, Heather, who encourages her to look into a puddle. From that moment on, the chips are down and Bill – in true horror movie style – is pursued by an unknown force. This throws her into the hands of the Doctor. Bursting into his office looking for sanctuary, they wind up seeking refuge in the Tardis, which occupies a space in the corner of the room.
Inside, Bill quickly brushes off her encounter. She’s pretty fearless, but then she’s already faced her greatest fear – losing her mother at an early age.
With Matt Lucas’s Nardole in tow, the threesome attempt to outrun the entity by heading out into the universe – but they find it’s mounted a pretty determined chase. But what does this water-based creature want? Finding out is the key to releasing Bill of its attachment to her.
Laughing and Screaming
The creeping horror in “The Pilot” is one of its greatest strengths.
But that doesn’t mean it jettisons laughs. In fact, there are plenty of laughs to be found. And not just from Matt Lucas – who’s on great form.
As for Bill, her constant questions, enthusiasm and pathos prove she’s got depth and is more than a match for the Doctor. With newcomer Pearl Mackie on board and untested, it’s going to be interesting seeing their relationship play out on screen as the series progresses.
Peter Capaldi, meanwhile, reminds us of his brilliance – make sure you relish every last performance he gives for the duration of the series. He bows out at the end of the year to make way for a new Doctor.
As the episode moves into its final act, the pace and zaniness shifts up several gears and it all feels a bit like you’ve been thrust into a vortex – to its detriment. Feeling a little muddled and like an episode of two halves, it could totally have got away with focusing simply on Bill’s backstory and introduction to the Doctor and Nardole, nestling this alongside a quieter tale of unearthly phenomena if needs be. But hey, this is Doctor Who and that’s not how it works.
The episode begins cinematically – and borrows stylistically from showrunner Steven Moffat’s other show, Sherlock, with special camera effects employed to add flare and showiness. It’s certainly a change of pace, and feel, from opening episodes Moffat has given us before. Remember his first as show boss, and that crazy introduction to Matt Smith’s Doctor?
With such lofty ambitions for the first episode, which clocks in at around 48 minutes, it’s perhaps inevitable that something has to give and we’re left with an unsatisfying ending that offers little by way of explanation for what we’ve just seen. But since episodes of Doctor Who are frequently connected, perhaps there’s more yet to come.
Is “The Pilot” Good?
The compelling, creepy and emotive first half of “The Pilot”, which introduces Bill Potts, brings her together with the Doctor then weaves into a slow-burning mystery horror plot, is let down by a frenetic second half. As the episode stuffs all it can into its final act, we feel battered and confused – not only about what’s going on but also about our impressions of this unbalanced opener.