With the exception of the special episode released on Christmas Day, Doctor Who fans have been waiting for more than a year for the latest season of the show. The episode marks the start of the last season starring Peter Capaldi as the mysterious Doctor and introduced Pearl Mackie as the newest companion, Bill Potts. After the long wait for the new episode, tension is high. Given a somewhat mixed response to some of the recent seasons, many people are intrigued to see how Steven Moffatt will round off his career as Head Writer and Executive Producer on the series.
The episode opens in an office packed with curiosities that Doctor Who fans will find all kinds of familiar bits and bobs to get excited about, from the cup of screwdrivers on the desk to the TARDIS sitting not so subtly in the corner of the room.
From the beginning, it is clear that the episode is going to have a sense of humour. Matt Lucas appears as Nardole, a portly automaton in the Doctor’s service, clanking and clicking and attempting to hide his literal loose screws.
Throughout, the episode is peppered with meta jokes that do not end in the office.
It begins with the Doctor, now a professor in what must be a prestigious university based on the size of his office, summoning a canteen worker to ask why she has been sneaking into his lectures. This conversation offers a way of introducing the new character and explaining what the Doctor has been up to since we last saw him: There are rumours that he has been teaching at the university for fifty – perhaps seventy – years or more.
Bill makes an impression right away. She is enthusiastic and confident and it is quite clear why the Doctor noticed her in his lectures – and why he invites her to indulge her curiosity under his personal tuition.
The meeting into the office moves into a brief montage of the Doctor’s lectures and Bill thriving in her studies. Within six minutes of the episode, the scene is well set and the new character established rather well. She talks about a girl she has a crush on, you get a glimpse of her relationship with her caring but distant foster mother and you see her inquisitive nature rewarded with consistently high grades.
Early on, you get a good impression of the kind of companion she will be. As well as having an active interest in the world around her, Bill also acts as a reflection of the Doctor. Her story of losing her mother and her relationship with her foster mother is placed alongside the Doctor’s memento-strewn office, in particular the framed photographs of River Song and Susan.
This lends some feeling to the relationship he develops with his new companion – first drawing them together through intellectual passion, then establishing a sense of empathy between them through their shared sense of loss.
At times, she not only mirrors the Doctor, but also of the general audience. She gets excited about the sci-fi that appeals to so many nerds around the world and says what the critic in many viewers are thinking, even touching on some issues that have long gone unquestioned in the series (why is ‘TARDIS’ an English play on words if the Doctor is an alien?).
As both a character and a storytelling tool to develop themes, Bill is already shaping up to be very interesting.
Bill’s curiosity is not only a defining facet of her character but also a driving force of the plot. It drives her to follow the Doctor and Nardole to a mysterious vault beneath the university and to go with the girl she likes, Heather, to a mystery on university campus.
It is a nice touch that Heather serves a purpose in the plot, rather than being nothing more than a painfully common tool to out LGBT characters.
In fact, Heather is crucial to the episode. She draws Bill and, by extension, the Doctor into the mystery and she adds depth to Bill’s character, through their interactions as people outside of her sexuality.
The villain in the episode is an interstellar traveller trapped into a water-like liquid. The special effects are simple but effective, creating an unsettling eeriness through very relatable goings on. The odd sensation of staring at your own reflection, the noises of an empty home that doesn’t sound all that empty, the sense of being watched when you know you’re alone. Each experience is unnerving in a very familiar way, establishing a suitably creepy atmosphere without taking up precious space in the fifty minute episode for the new companion’s character development.
Bill’s introduction to the truth of the Doctor’s world has been handled very well. Every time a new companion is introduced, they need an explanation about what the hell they’ve stumbled into. For new viewers, this is very helpful. For people who have been watching for decades, it’s a waste of time.
With Bill, the explanation is succinct and clear. You get the impression that she has been given enough information to understand what is going on – her intelligence established early on in the episode helps here – without dumping a lot of exposition on the viewer that they may already know. She even manages to find original aspects to be amazed by in all the things she learns about the Doctor, which you’d be forgiven for thinking would be difficult if not impossible given how long the show has been on the air.
For all the story and characterisation and necessary new companion rituals that had to fit into this episode, the plot and resolution are oddly touching. The impression of Heather as a lonely young woman manipulated by the villain resonates with anyone who has felt isolated or adrift. The way the conflict unfolds has been carefully written so that every scene, every minor interaction, is relevant, even if you don’t notice it right away. The ending, though not exactly a happy one, is sweet.
The new episode has its flaws. You get the impression that it has definitely been some time since the writer stepped foot in a university – first year students never get grades that high and the majority lecturers certainly don’t have offices so spacious. For the most part, the special effects are simple, but at the more ambitious moments the CGI could be improved.
But the issues are minor and this is definitely a strong start to the new series.
The episode was well scripted, with a good balance between plot and exposition. The new companion is interesting, engaging and funny. The mystery was fittingly creepy without drowning out the other things the episode needed to do, even tying into the development of the new character and plot. It opened up new questions to explore throughout the season and gave us a team of relatable characters to guide us.