There’s a marvellous composition right at the start of this week’s Doctor Who that speaks volumes. As “The Pilot” begins and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) is shown into The Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) study at Bristol University, she sits down at The Doctor’s desk. Not only is this opening shot a wonderful nod to the ideas and themes of symmetry that I’ll discuss a bit further into this review, but it also features, right in the middle of the screen, and hanging on the wall behind her, Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait with Two Circles” from around 1665.
Rembrandt was about 59 in this self portrait. The same age as Peter Capaldi. The circles in the background could offer a meditation on the ageing artist’s ability to retain geometric clarity. It was a Renaissance theory that the ability to draw a perfect circle freehand was the mark of a great artist. Perhaps The Doctor, disguised as a lecturer and guarding a mysterious vault on the campus, just liked the round things in the painting, found some empathy with an artist who’d lost his fortune but still understood the circle of life remained as openly, connectedly multi-dimensional as ever.
I digress, but the sense of time and space passing and changing pops up several times during “The Pilot”. On the desk are two other portraits — one of The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan and the other of his wife River Song — that underline the idea of circles of time overlapping and closing. Bill spots the TARDIS, sitting in the corner of the study (a nod to the University-based Time Lord-in-hiding themes of 1979’s “Shada”), with an ‘out of order’ sign hung on the door.
While The Doctor may have hung up his travelling boots, the sign’s a cheeky reference to the Hartnell era (and not the first), where the same sign was on display to deter would-be users of the police box during his visit to London to defeat “The War Machines” in 1966. It may also be a subtle admission that the series itself has been out of order. Well, only if you read and agreed with The Guardian’s recent accusation that Doctor Who’s become a bit smug and tired. There are many things you can accuse the series of being, but smug certainly isn’t one of them.
Let’s get back to the point of “The Pilot”. Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts just works. This is a very appealing combination of writing and performance where, thankfully, Bill hasn’t been lumbered with a backstory as an “impossible girl”, isn’t a twice-dead woman, and is not, as far as we know, another “girl who waited”. Bill serves chips, makes eyes at pretty students, and rewards them with an extra portion. We’re back in Rose Tyler territory with a companion whose aspirations are “beauty or chips” and going to The Doctor’s lectures. It feels a bit like “School Reunion” in that respect, and it didn’t go unnoticed that Bill’s daily routine starts with an alarm clock just as Rose’s did back in 2005.
Bill doesn’t miss a trick and wonders how on earth the police box was installed inside the study. It couldn’t fit through the door, so it must be a self-assembly kit. Watch with glee as Peter Capaldi describes a crane as The Doctor explains how the wall and window were removed and said crane lifted the TARDIS into the small room. It looks like he’s describing a long-legged bird and not a mechanical lifting apparatus and that’s one reason why he’s so very good as The Doctor. This is Capaldi and Mackie in simpatico almost immediately. Mackie offers an endearing awkwardness, imprinting herself physically onto the series just as Capaldi does.
As well as the callback to the retired Time Lord of “Shada”, we’ve also got a lovely Educating Rita (1983) vibe going on with The Doctor oh-so-curious about Bill’s presence at his lectures. He’s noticed her as the ordinary girl who wears a smile and not a frown when she tries to understand things. As he mentions this, he glances at the portrait of Susan on his desk. Was she another person whose ambitions he noticed and then encouraged?
According to The Doctor, poetry and physics are apparently “the same thing, same rhymes” and this suggests some Renaissance ideas about science and the soul in this episode; particularly if we look at the love story that develops at the heart of Moffat’s narrative. This interview between The Doctor and Bill is a confirmation that he’s willing to become her personal tutor and recognises the ability in her to understand these rhymes.
The rhymes are also constituted within The Doctor’s lecture on Time and Space. He describes time as a fabulous city where all the days of your life are spread out like streets before you, and all are happening at once. It’s a lovely description, very reminiscent of some of the ideas in Italo Calvino’s magical realist novel Invisible Cities, which echo Calvino’s cities of the imagination, where one’s “built so artfully that its every street follows a planet’s orbit, and the buildings and the places of community life repeat the order of the constellations and the position of the most luminous stars.” It can also be the best place for cutting your toenails, according to The Doctor.
An effective use of montage intersperses moments from Bill’s social life as The Doctor pontificates, indexing the rhythms of serving chips, writing essays, meeting a new girl. The city of the imagination “means life” and it’s also called the TARDIS. There’s an edge to this triumphant moment as if The Doctor is also trying to remind himself that without the travels in the TARDIS life really doesn’t have a purpose or meaning.
As Bill goes about her daily existence, time and relative dimension in space throws her several curve balls. For starters, she follows The Doctor and Nardole (Matt Lucas) into the bowels of a disused building on campus and overhears them discussing The Doctor’s decision to tutor her. Again, it’s all to do with rhymes and “links apple with alpha, synchronous and diverging…” while protecting something sealed away in the basement of the building. Then she meets Heather (Stephanie Hyam), a girl whose image appeared in montages of Bill’s social life, and is taken to a mysterious puddle in a University courtyard. Heather and Bill (a quiet little homage to the Hartnells) are outsiders seeking an invitation into those imaginary cities and, more importantly, Heather, a girl with a star in her eye, is another figure whose expectations are unfulfilled. “Everywhere I go, I just want to leave,” she says to Bill as they approach the odd looking puddle of water.
I love the idea of the sentient puddle of water, and it’s a key Moffat trope to turn the most ordinary, innocuous things into symbols of abject terror. He’s obsessed with ideas of looking and seeing the unseeable. Here, he combines it with notions of selfhood, where the sense of self and your view of others is formed directly from you looking at them and from them returning your gaze. We are constructions of how we see ourselves and how others see us. The uncanniness of reflections and seeing something unnatural in your own gaze reflected back at you denotes an ‘otherness’ within your own nature.
In the ‘romance’ between Heather and Bill, and Heather’s possession and assimilation by the water, Moffat’s script picks up on many aspects of the mythology of Echo and Narcissus. In the original Ovid story, Echo, a beautiful nymph, is punished for deliberately distracting Hera from Zeus’s love affairs and her voice is taken away. She can only repeat or echo another person’s words. Echo fell in love with Narcissus but after he cruelly rejected her, she faded away and left nothing but her echoing voice. The nymphs petitioned the gods to punish Narcissus and he was forced to forever fall in love with his own reflection in a pond.
“That’s me, that’s my face but it’s wrong,” notes Bill as she gazes into the liquid. The puddle is not reflecting her but showing an uncanny simulation of her: the ‘other’ Bill. What’s interesting is that Moffat allows this observation to percolate over a period of time. Christmas comes and goes and we learn that Bill’s mum died when she was only a baby. She keeps a memory of her alive in her head but doesn’t really know if she ever looked like her because only a few photographs survive.
In a way this loss of loved ones reflects The Doctor’s own state of mind. He looks to the images of River and Susan as this conversation ensues and clearly an idea forms in his head. The next thing we know is he’s slipped back in time, taken a load of photos of her mum, and strategically made them available at the back of a cupboard. Mackie plays this scene brilliantly as Bill pores over old snaps and reconnects with a mother she hardly knew. Moffat is keen again to stress the importance of memory and ties this in with his themes about reflections with, ironically, a blurred reflection of The Doctor in the background of one of the images.
Bill meets Heather again in the following term. This time Heather sounds and looks slightly different and Bill picks up on this. However, they make certain promises to each other and Bill’s last promise not to go anywhere without her is a key to the final act of the episode. The strange pool is still there and, in a scene that borrows from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), an unidentified, watery visitor terrorises Bill in her flat. This culminates in a very unsettling, surreal image of Heather’s starry iris staring up out at Bill from inside the shower’s plughole. This is a classic horror motif about the power of the victim looking at the monster and, in reverse, the monster’s gaze as a potential assault. However, the inclination here is to re-read the monster’s gaze as one of attraction and eventually, given what we discover, of invitation.
This realisation, of course, finally gets Bill into the TARDIS after The Doctor, running across campus “like a penguin with its arse on fire”, investigates the uncanny pool. Only by looking, through the gaze, can difference be identified. Bill’s face looks wrong because it looks right. We’re back to the theme of symmetry again, and The Doctor surmises “there’s something in the water pretending to be you” as the sentient puddle turns out to be the remnant of a shape-shifting alien liquid spaceship looking for a host to pilot it.
When Bill does enter the TARDIS, it’s beautifully done. It’s a combination of writing and performance and, most splendidly of all, a reverse tracking shot that swoops across the TARDIS interior as it flickers into life and leaves Bill admiring the ship as a modern kitchen inside a knock-through where The Doctor must have run out of money to install proper doors. It takes a while for the “it’s bigger on the inside” penny to drop but when it does it’s amusing and fresh.
The final 20 minutes of “The Pilot” become an extended chase scene as The Doctor attempts to outrun the watery, echoing Heather (a call back to the victims of “The Waters of Mars”, the possessed Sky Silvestry in “Midnight”, and perhaps a passing reference to the curse of 2014’s It Follows), by taking a trip to check the mysterious vault, to Australia, then to an alien planet 23 million years in the future, and, finally, to an encounter with the Daleks and the Movellans. Fortunately, most of that specially filmed Match of the Day scene that introduced Bill in April 2016 has been trimmed back, to leave us with something more relevant, urgent, and less awkward.
Heather’s fixation with Bill is characterised by the alien’s ability to become liquid; to surge forward not only across the campus and into the Doctor’s study, but also to pursue her through Space and Time. But she isn’t pursuing her for nefarious ends it seems. It isn’t a clear case of her being evil. As The Doctor observes, “Hardly anything’s evil. Most things are hungry. Hungry can look a lot like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery.” The symmetry is that the pilot needs a passenger as much as The Doctor needs a companion. “What, in the end, are any of us looking for? We’re looking for someone who’s looking for us,” just as easily summarises Bill’s arrival to make sense of The Doctor’s self-imposed ‘out of order’ existence as much as it does Heather’s fulfilment of a promise.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some nods back to the Renaissance, in the combined rhythms of poetry and science. John Donne, in particular, tried to capture the idea of love using scientific ideas and The Doctor’s notion of marrying quantum physics with poetry to describe the interconnectedness of the universe was certainly a leaf from his metaphysical poetry that decreed ‘no man is an island, entire of itself.’
The deadliest fire in the universe is no match for the unrequited desire of an alien shape-shifter to find its companion. “Never underestimate a crush,” notes The Doctor, and Bill must decline the invitation to fly across the universe with this particular alien. Mackie plays this scene with great aplomb, conveying Bill’s regret and sadness and underlining that here, it is love itself that has caused this particular problem for The Doctor and it will not, in this instance, become a cliche and triumph over all. As Nardole so cruelly comments, “that’s The Doctor for you… never notices the tears.” Director Lawrence Gough reinforces the idea of symmetry in the frame by having Bill and Heather facing each other in many of the two shots and long shots he uses.
Having returned to Earth, The Doctor sees his only recourse is to erase Bill’s memories of their encounter. This seems a rather drastic, atypical move, and suggests his ‘exile’ to the University and the protection of the vault is a promise he has to keep at any cost. Is this the mystery that’ll lead us to his downfall come the finale? It’s great that Bill turns the tables on him and asks him how he would like it. As Clara’s theme echoes on the soundtrack, he realises he’s been there in 2015’s “Hell Bent” and it really isn’t a pleasant thing to inflict on Bill.
It’s funny that just as Capaldi leaves and gains an appealing sidekick or two, the series perks up. Let’s hope the sprightly “The Pilot” is an indication of things to come, because Capaldi’s on the money, Pearl Mackie is great, and I don’t even mind Matt Lucas as comedy foil Nardole, whose real purpose will be revealed, I’m sure. The circles of time overlap and close again.