13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
Want us to let you know when we post a new review? Click here to join our mailing list.
Well, then. Here we go with the season that's both Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat's swansong. And despite that, they're hitting the reboot button so hard they're cheekily calling this The Pilot.
It's different, all right. Is different bad? We'd say difference is the strength of Doctor Who and where it gets its ability to renew itself and stay fresh over the decades. Less loftily, we've seen a lot of stuff in the past few seasons we're hardly queuing up to torture ourselves with again. Anything different from that is a big thumbs up in our book. Of course, that doesn't mean they got everything right. When do they ever? In short: lots wrong with it, but we've also seen a lot worse.
Where The Pilot scores highest in our book is with the TARDIS crew. Let's start with the Doctor. We know Capaldi regularly has roses rained down upon him for his portrayal: roll your eyes at will, but we've never been completely convinced. Don't get us wrong, Capaldi's a diamond of an actor, but the Doctor's one of the trickiest parts there is and sometimes the writing for him has been woefully wrong. We whimpered, we winced, we peered between our fingers, and that's even more of a crime when with the right writing Capaldi can hit it not just out of the park but all the way to Mars. In The Pilot, though, we like Capaldi as the Doctor more than we have in any episode except Heaven Sent. That gave him scope to show off his ferocious intensity: that's nice enough and all, but even better as far as we're concerned, in The Pilot he's finally able to be funny. Properly funny, that is, in a way that's completely appropriate both for the character and the actor. Yes! Fist bumps all round.
In fact, the script in general's got some really sharp comedy writing, and not just for the Doctor. Let's face it, plotwise you could snip Nardole out, dump him on the cutting room floor and never notice the difference, but why would you want to? He's completely hilarious. We're awed by Matt Lucas's timing: the writing plays beautifully to his talents and lets him spin what on the page isn't particularly hysterical into solid gold. There's also some great comedy between Bill and the other two over the whole bigger on the inside rigmarole: this set piece has been dragged out so often it's worn grooves in the floor, but the rework this time is wry, snarky and utterly charming. Yum.
And Bill? Yeah, we like her. Obnoxiousness was a potential threat hovering all the way through the episode, but to our relief Pearl Mackie deftly sidesteps it. The whole what's this, what's that thing might become wearing if they overdo it, but so far they've made it work, and naming no names, it makes a refreshing change from Moffat's overly complicated, clever-clever and oh-so-portentous companions. (We mean River and Clara.) If they're dead set on a reboot, Bill's definitely the girl to do it.
So aside from the character development, what else do we like? That would mostly be the whole tone-y feeling-y thing. It's classy, is what it is, and the direction is positively splendid.
On the other hand, some may feel that all those lengthy pans and intense close-ups are just a little too lackadaisical. Fair enough. Why is this, then? Shooting for a BAFTA? Well, that's one theory. We have another one. Let's creep up on it.
You may not have picked this up, as it's so subtly, glancingly alluded to, but Bill is gay. (See what we did there?) Now you may be forgiven for thinking that in the 21st century this is not a giant heap of deal. Gay. Awesome. Got it. This, however, is not how The Pilot treats this topic. Bill mentions it a few times right at the top of the show. In case we haven't got the point of her anecdotes about sneaking extra chips to the student she fancies, they film it. With winks. Yes, we said winks. Then she spends the rest of the episode conducting a starry-eyed (oh, we're really on a roll now) courtship with a crush turned alien across time and space. It's tender. It's heart-tugging. It's very, very moist. So why do they thump this particular tub so very hard? Do they really think it's so shocking we need repeated exposure for it to sink in?
Well, that's one theory. We have another one. Okay, that's enough suspense. We think the leisurely shots and the hammering home of Bill's sexual orientation are because Steven Moffat couldn't be arsed coming up with an actual plot.
Let's face it, it's all about as thin as a sheet of nanoparticles. Someone Bill's seen twice and has exchanged about six words with falls into a puddle. Bill goes somewhere. The puddle follows. Lather, rinse, repeat. At first, this looks like it's going to be some pretty if unoriginal horror, but it runs out of steam with remarkable rapidity. Bizarrely random Daleks thrown in to pad things out a bit further can't disguise the fact that one thing is happening over and over again. And when the dramatic denouement arrives (we know it's dramatic, because Murray Gold has been telling us what to feel all the way through and this bit is no exception) it's a bit wet. (Sorry.) She made a promise not to go away. Is that it?
While this is clearly a My First Doctor episode designed to drag in new viewers who might previously have been utterly baffled by Moffat's labyrinthine arcs, there are also buckets of sops thrown to longtime fans. The pen holder filled with sonic screwdrivers. The photos. The titles of Bill's essays. The Movellans. Fine. We're pretty meh about that kind of thing, but lots of people like it. But homage can be stretched too far. The alien's repeaty thing is far too like the one in Midnight. What's more, there's already one The Chase and we're not in the market for another one.
So as well as being transparent, silly and repetitive, the plot's also unoriginal. Granted, not a good look. But we're cutting them some slack. A bit of styliness, some decent characterisation and, most of all, proper comedy goes a very long way.
HIGHWAY TO HELL
There's one exception to our contention that this time they got the Doctor exactly right, and that's that bloody guitar. Dad trying to be cool, and one massive cringe.
OUT OF THE ARC
We all know Moffat loves himself an arc. But sometimes when you get yourself tangled up in your arciness you can end up shooting yourself in the foot. Remember the bit where Bill gets all droopy about her dead mum, then a box of photos is found of said mum with the Doctor in them taking the photos? When we look at this logically, we think it's meant to indicate that the Doctor felt sorry for Bill and nipped back in time to grab her a few souvenirs. However, so conditioned are we by Moffat's dark hints and foreboding allusions that we instead assumed that the Doctor was somehow mixed up in Bill's mother's death and has as a result deliberately sought Bill out. For, er, something (usually the most obvious thing possible if itís Moffat). Whoops. Even more scarily, we're still not 100% convinced that isn't the case. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we make up big hinty arcs that poison the minds of our viewers and end up a massive disappointment.