There’s a visual cue to Susan, the very first companion and ‘granddaughter’ of the Doctor, in the Season 10 debut of DOCTOR WHO. Indeed, there’s a number of parallels between “The Pilot” and the original 1963 pilot (“An Unearthly Child”). After a break of almost 16 months, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” Christmas special notwithstanding, the Doctor’s return comes with a similar sense of mystery-led plotting that has made this a fixture of our screens for 54 years.
The episode wastes no time in introducing new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie), by way of Nardole (Matt Lucas). Bill is working in the cafeteria of the university the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has been teaching at for an indeterminate period of time. After confronting Bill about sneaking into his lectures, the Doctor offers to be her personal tutor. Yet when Bill meets the mysterious Heather (Stephanie Hyam), she is pulled into a bigger world than she imagined, and learns the truth about time and relative dimension in space.
“The Pilot” is a cheeky name for this episode, being both a reference to a character in the story as well as traditional name for television debuts. For all intents and purposes, this episode serves as a welcome introduction to the world of DOCTOR WHO, setting up everything you need to know to hit the ground running. Which is exactly what the show does this week, barely pausing for breath as it bounces between the present, the distant future, familiar foes – and even Australia. Yet there’s also a plethora of nods to the past, ensuring that existing fans feel every inch of continuity etched into the police box doors.
Bill is an instantly likeable companion, making us forget about the impossible Clara, even though she is referenced at least once in Murray Gold’s score. Combining the street smarts of Rose with Ace’s fondness for jacket patches, Bill’s wit is set to keep the Doctor on his toes this year. Asking why the Doctor would use an acronym for TARDIS that only works in English is brilliant, and just the kind of bubble-bursting Capaldi’s Doctor plays off so well. Similarly, the return of Lucas as Nardole is not the disaster we had feared, with a tempered performance that we suspect will become a heavy-hitter in episodes to come.
Which is the other thing that “The Pilot” does really well, foreshadowing some dark times ahead. With photos of River Song and Susan on his professorial desk, we are reminded of the first and most recent companions to ‘leave’ the Doctor. We know that this is both Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat’s final season with DOCTOR WHO, and if this episode is any guide then we are set for a huge year ahead.
“The Pilot” is arguably the best debut to a season of the show in quite some time, combining every bit of the freewheeling adventure we’ve loved about the revived show while restoring a bit of the original’s mystery. All the pieces are now in place for the remaining 12 episodes of Moffat’s tenure, and while his run hasn’t been universally approved of, it’s hard to argue that this episode is anything less than exciting.