Doctor Who Season 10 Premiere Review: Finding the Joy Again


Doctor Who kicks off season 10 by introducing a new companion and reminding us all why we love the story of this weird alien so much in the first place.

The start of Doctor Who season 10 feels exceptionally bittersweet. There’s happiness, of course. There always is, when the Doctor comes back. Especially when it’s been over a year since season 9 aired. But that same joy comes tinged with…something that’s not all that different from dread, because we know that this season is also the last for Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi.

Capaldi’s tenure has been an interesting one. He joined Doctor Who with a pre-established companion (Jenna Coleman’s Clara) and several outstanding cliffhangers to deal with (Gallifrey’s existence being a big one). His time on the TARDIS featured repeated fan complaints that the show’s stories became increasingly and unnecessarily complicated. (Thanks a lot, Steven Moffat!) But Capaldi, as an actor, is still almost everything you could possibly want the Doctor to be. He’s brilliant, thoughtful, empathetic and a little bit weird. Your mileage may vary on whether or not you think Doctor Who has done right by his ability as a performer. But we can all agree that all we most want from Season 10 is a farewell deserving of him.

And if “The Pilot” is any indication, it seems as though we just might get our wish.

Before the opening credits role on Doctor Who season 10 roll, you can tell. Something’s different. Okay, wait. Not really that different. It’s still a show about a Time Lord with a blue police box in the end. But the whole feeling of the show has changed from the end of Season 9 to right now. On multiple levels, “The Pilot” seems to have helped Doctor Who rediscover its own internal sense of magic. To remember why it tells these stories to begin with. And maybe, just maybe – to find its joy again.

"The Doctor: “The passage of time is an illusion and life is the magician, because life only lets you see one day at a time. You remember being alive yesterday, you hope you’re going to be alive tomorrow, so it feels like you are traveling one to the other but nobody’s moving anywhere! Movies don’t really move, they’re just pictures —  lots and lots of pictures, all of them still, none of them moving, just frozen moments. But if you experience those pictures one after the other, then everything comes alive.”"

Peter Capaldi’s Final Season Begins

It’s okay if you maybe don’t want to acknowledge the fact that Peter Capaldi will exit Doctor Who at the end of this season. I don’t. Probably no one does. Not really. Because on some level, it feels like he only just got here. There are still so many stories left we could tell with him. It seems impossible that we already have to prepare to say goodbye.

As for Twelve himself, the Doctor seems a bit changed here at the start of the new season. He appears nostalgic, in a way we haven’t really seen before. There are not only photos of River and his granddaughter Susan on his desk, but a mug full of an assortment of sonic screwdrivers. Is this a Doctor confronting his past? Remembering his legacy?

We find Twelve teaching at a Bristol university. Why? He’s the Doctor. He obviously likes to hear himself talk. It makes perfect sense. But, naturally, he has an ulterior motive. He and Nardole are guarding something hidden in the university vault. Whatever it is, it is so important that the Doctor has remained there for decades to keep an eye on it. (Welcome to the season’s big mystery, folks!) And of course this school is also how he meets Bill Potts.

Though we see at multiple points that the loss of Clara is something that still haunts Twelve, for the first time we also see him seek out a new companion on his own. And Bill interests the Doctor. Mostly because she, herself, is interesting. She loves science fiction and asking questions and clearly believes that the world is larger than her place in it has been thus far. She’s curious. She’s open to everything the Doctor is — the wonder and magic and the bigger on the inside of it all, in a way that he seems to need. The Doctor, as we probably already all know, loves an audience.

But — and this is what matters — Bill’s introduction reminds us that after everything, for all his occasionally flamboyant ways, the Doctor is still the man who zooms through time to gather up photos of the dead mother of the girl he just met. He, unlike possibly anyone else, understands the psychology of loss and memory, as well as the things that make them both bearable.

"The Doctor: “What in the end are any of us looking for? We’re looking for someone who’s looking for us.”"

Meet Bill Potts

A new companion represents a new beginning on Doctor Who. The introduction of a new person into the Doctor’s world allows us to see him through fresh eyes. Who companions are not only audience stand-ins, but audience friends — and we all have our favorites, just as we do Doctors. Clara Oswald is, unsurprisingly, something of a hard act to follow. Her history with the Doctor was messy and complicated. Luckily, Pearl Mackie’s role is simpler. She’s here not to remind us of the impossibility of the Doctor, but the wonder of him.

But what’s really a relief? That for all the things that make Bill interesting, as a character? She’s also relentlessly normal. Thus far, her character doesn’t seem to have a secret past hanging over her head, or latent magical powers or a direct line to a crack that exists throughout the universe or anything like that. She’s not a title. By which, she’s just Bill. Not “The Girl Who Waited” or “The Impossible Girl” or any of those other too-clever monikers that showrunner Steven Moffat loves to give his female leads.

In fact, as a character, Bill seems like a real throwback to the Russell T. Davies era. Davies, as a writer, embraced the idea of companions as regular people. A hallmark of his Who companions was that they were, usually, just everyday, regular people. They were ordinary, but it was, through knowing the Doctor, that they discovered that they were capable of doing extraordinary things. And not because of outside forces, just because of what was already inside themselves. It’s refreshing, actually, that Bill doesn’t come complete with any of those external character trappings. She is, simply, herself. She’s a breath of fresh air, and exactly what Twelve needs after Clara’s last few episodes.

"Bill Potts: “Are you from space?”The Doctor: “No, of course not. Nobody’s from space. I’m from a planet like everyone else.”"

A New Adventure Begins

As per usual for anyone who comes into contact with the Doctor, adventure soon follows. This week’s story involves Bill’s girlcrush Heather getting absorbed into a weird puddle that turns out to be some sentient space oil, which chases her and the Doctor across the galaxy. (Duh. Of cousre it does.) The sentient liquid has a distinctly “The Waters of Mars” feel, so it creates a relatively terrifying situation anytime any of our heroes comes near to any sort of body of water. There are ultimately Daleks involved, as well as the classic Movellans, the silver-dreadlocked creatures who look like nothing so much as extras from a particularly rough night shooting Saturday Night Fever. But mostly, it’s about the puddle, and the creature it contains.

In the end, it turns out that Heather is now both dead and the titular “Pilot” of this puddle creature. And she/it has been driven to chase Bill through time and space not because she is a monster, but because she is lonely. There’s an undercurrent of something painful here. Because what is Doctor Who, at the end of the day, but the story of a lonely space monster seeking companions? After that, when Twelve finally asks Bill to join him in the TARDIS at the end of the episode, you kind of have to wonder what took him so long.

“Time and relative dimensions and space. It means: ‘What the hell?” he says, almost flippantly, when he finally opens the TARDIS doors to Bill. The moment weirdly recalls the scene so long ago when the Doctor first stood in Rose Tyler’s alleyway. And maybe it’s just because Twelve reminds me so much of Nine. Or just because it’s the Doctor, generally. But the only thing you can say, to any of it, is yes.

Because at the end of the day, Doctor Who is about wonder. And for the first time in a long while, it feels like magic again.

Next: Peter Capaldi on Regeneration and Why Doctor Who Matters

“The Pilot” had to do a lot of work. The episode needed to kick off a new season, introduce a new companion and set-up a new mystery for us to puzzle over. (What is the Doctor guarding, anyway?) For a season opener, it acquitted itself rather admirably. It’s a solid, enjoyable adventure, though it likely won’t rocket up anyone’s favorite episodes of all-time list anytime soon.

But the best part is — where do we go from here? Join us next week and we’ll see.