Doctor Who is finally back, 16 months after the climactic Series 9 finale! Steven Moffat has stripped this episode back to its basic formula, so that newcomers can easily jump on and not be left trying to figure out what the heck is happening (which is an otherwise common feeling with Moffat’s writing). There is also a new addition to the cast now – Pearl Mackie, playing the curious, sci-fi savvy companion Bill Potts. She is introduced to us as a university canteen worker, equipped with her own theme music that we can certainly look forward to hearing throughout the rest of the series.
Bill has been attending lectures at St Luke’s University in her spare time. However, her lecturer tends to go off on random tangents about physics and poetry, and has incredibly strange mannerisms. Sound familiar? As it turns out, the Doctor has been working at this university for 50 years, for some mysterious reason. Matt Lucas’ faithful, bumbling Nardole is back as well, along with his small, humorous interjections. Lucas hasn’t got all that much to do as of yet, but we can be certain that his role as the Doctor’s Butler is going to end up being much more crucial a little later on.
But it is Pearl Mackie as Bill who is the true star of the episode, and she successfully solidifies Bill as a real, complex character. Her backstory as an orphan living with an oblivious foster mum slides in smoothly with the rest of the story, and it’s likely we will revisit this at some point later on. She is quick-witted and asks the questions no one has asked before:
TARDIS! If you’re from another planet, why would you name the box in English? Those initials wouldn’t work in any other language!
For once, the Doctor is caught off guard and doesn’t know how to react to her onslaught of questions.
Her sexuality, just like her family life, effortlessly slots in with the plot too. Her instant romantic attraction with the introverted Heather fuels the narrative and pushes it forward through to its bittersweet end. Heather is insecure, anxious, and wants nothing more than to escape her life. So of course, because Bill is the happiest she has been in a while, the ‘Monster of the Week’ is going to turn up.
This week, it’s some sort of space engine oil that leaked out of a passing spaceship, formed a puddle on the ground, and must now choose a living being to possess as a means of transport. Unfortunately for Heather, she is selected to be its host, and her life is sadly cut short just as she promises Bill she won’t leave her.
After a ghostly encounter with the now-possessed Heather, Bill runs straight to the Doctor with whom she has now developed a close student-teacher type relationship. He lets her into his TARDIS to protect her, but it takes her a little longer than usual to realise that it isn’t just a funky room extension to the Doctor’s university office, or a lift. This is a fun scene, leading the audience on to wait for the exact moment she speaks those immortal words:
It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside!
The Doctor heads straight for the university basement with Bill, anxious that this creature is prying into something it shouldn’t—and here is where the series’ story arc is revealed.
For the past 50 years, the Doctor and Nardole have been guarding a large, mysterious vault. Not much is revealed here, but we are sure to find out more about this later on. The focus shifts away from the vault as the Doctor realises that the possessed Heather is following them wherever they travel, so he decides to test exactly how far it will go. And that is how the Doctor FINALLY ends up in Australia, after all these years! Watching this in a cinema was worth it, if not for anything else then at least for the cheers that went around the room when the Sydney Opera House was revealed onscreen.
As it turns out, space-engine-oil-Heather is a pretty persistent monster, even following them to the other end of the universe. The Doctor rationalises that the only way to destroy her is to lead her directly into “the deadliest fire in the universe” – which is, as it turns out, a raging Dalek in the middle of a war zone.
There is a great Classic Who throwback here as we very briefly see the android race of the Movellans again for the first time since 1979. More importantly, possessed Heather appears to be immune to the Daleks’ ray gun and just as well because at this moment Bill figures it all out.
Heather’s last living words were a promise to Bill that she wouldn’t leave her, and so now Bill needs to give her permission to go her own way and move on. It is a suitably bittersweet ending as both Bill and Heather let go of each other and move on with their own journeys.
After all this adventuring, the Doctor concludes that Bill’s memory must be wiped. But Bill isn’t that easily fooled and catches on pretty quickly what the Doctor is trying to do. She’s seen sci-fi movies, and she isn’t letting the Doctor think for one second that he’s the only smart one in the room. In fact, she turns it back on him:
Just imagine how it would feel if someone did this to you.
Cue a subtle, beautiful interlude of Clara’s theme, and the Doctor almost remembering that his own mind was wiped in a similar way not too long ago. Small references like these make this show worth watching, and it’s always exciting when it happens.
In the end, the Doctor quite literally just says “what the hell” and officially invites Bill aboard the TARDIS. And right there, we have the beginning of a beautiful Doctor-Companion relationship that is original, smart, and full of potential.
In this series premiere, Moffat strikes an awesome balance of new ideas and familiar references to past stories. It is by no means a perfect episode, but it has left plenty of room for the rest of Series 10 to develop and flourish in its own right, and that is something I can get behind.
Coming Up In This Series | Mondasian Cybermen, Missy returns, the Doctor regenerates, an Ice Warrior, zombies… and John Simm back as the Master in all his glory, but this time with a goatee.