Fifty-four years on from the series’ birth, the BBC’s Doctor Who is in a rut. A sort of mid-life crisis, as it were. as the Peter Capaldi era has seen him struggle with poor scripts that pitted him as a lovestruck man, woefully in love with a vastly younger woman, who made him feel fresh and alive. Not the sort of subject matter that especially resonates with kids who (and some newer fans may baulk at this) still make up the bulk of the audience for what is still a kids-orientated programme. The first episode of Capaldi’s final series (not to mention head writer, Stephen Moffat) goes some way to reset the programme and undo some of the needlessly complex plotting Moffat would throw in.
“The Pilot” has a double meaning. On the surface it means the alien organism/substance that’s the menace in this week’s episode, but it also refers to the fact this does feel like a ‘pilot’ episode; a mainly American expression for a programme which is the try-out for a series, or in this case a soft reboot. In here, the Doctor is a mysterious figure teaching at a university in Bristol (except it’s Cardiff but shhh, nobody outwith the UK will notice) while at the same time protecting a mysterious vault which happens to be in the grounds of the university. Here the Doctor meets Bill (Pearl Mackie), a girl who works in the cafeteria but who attends the Doctor’s lectures. The pair develop a Pygmalion-eseque relationship while being chased down by the possessed body of Bill’s student friend. It’s all very Doctor Who with lots of running down corridors, Daleks, explosions, and adventure.
In many ways it feels fresh. Bill’s sexuality is brought up, so we don’t get the doe-eyed companion worshipping the Doctor that’s been a things since the programme returned in 2005, plus the plot made sense without having to have watched the last 54 years of the programme. There were Easter Eggs for fans (I especially liked the brief return of the Movellans) but the one major issue here is Matt Lucas, playing what seems to be the Doctor’s butler, Nardole. He doesn’t add to the programme, neither does he especially subtract from it. He’s just there to occasionally say something before exiting stage right to leave the Doctor and Bill to interact themselves. He’s simply there. There’s nothing Lucas does that influences the plot (which is little to say the least) that couldn’t have been left to the Doctor to do.
Overall, though, this feels fresher. It also feels like one last push before the end and we have a new head, in the shape of Chris Chibnall, and whoever the new Doctor may well be. Capaldi deserves to have one full series with a good level of quality, as opposed to patches here and there, as his Doctor has been excellent. Mackie helps provide a brightness, too, to a programme that has quite literally been everything over the 54 years of its life. It now remains to be seen where it goes from here.