“Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It means life.”
2017 is in full swing, spring has well and truly sprung, and Doctor Who is back with a strong set of opening episodes: The Pilot, Smile and Thin Ice. This series carries a clear message – it is a “jumping on” point for anyone who wants to start watching Who without having to indulge in its 54 year history. Since its height of modern popularity under David Tennant (and, to some extent, Matt Smith), people had begun to question whether the show had lost its appeal. From these three episodes, the answer is; far from it.
The Pilot by Steven Moffat
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is now a lecturer at St. Luke’s University and he questions Bill Potts (newcomer Pearl Mackie) on why she keeps coming to his lectures even though she isn’t a student. The Doctor takes an interest in Bill and becomes her private tutor before she introduces him to a spooky puddle which her sort-of-girlfriend Heather keeps taking her too. The puddle evolves into a water creature which begins to pursue them, throwing Bill into The Doctor’s world.
The Pilot feels like a much-needed fresh start for Who, and that’s all down to the introduction of Bill Potts. This is her story and Pearl Mackie is mesmerising from the very first scene. She makes a great Doctor Who companion with vintage Prince t-shirts and a cracking afro and she has the heart to make the character all that more likeable. She and Capaldi have an understated yet brilliant chemistry in their first episode, with Capaldi playing a much more likeable and natural doctor than he began with in 2014.
This is an episode focused solely on introducing the Doctor’s new friend. The plot is a basic one yet Moffat’s one liners and rapid pace are kept intact (Bill’s line that The Doctor runs “like a penguin with its arse on fire” is a highlight) and there’s even time for some suspenseful scenes and jump scares.
As openers go, this one holds the most promise I’ve seen in years.
Smile, by Frank-Cottrell Boyce
Following straight on from The Pilot, Bill goes for her first journey in the TARDIS and chooses the future as her first stop. Unfortunately they land in a deserted Utopia swarmed by emoji robots who kill humans and turn them into fertiliser.The Doctor and Bill maintain the student-mentor relationship in Smile that was established in The Pilot and it’s one of the more enjoyable doctor-companion chemistries to watch. They bounce off each other, with The Doctor teaching and proud to be sharing his knowledge, Bill learning from him and constantly in awe of how mad her life has become. The moment that truly sold me on their pairing is when she turns and says “Thanks for bringing me” with a huge smile. Within two episodes they’re a solid doctor-companion TARDIS team which is an impressive feat.
Most of the episode was filmed in Valencia which adds to the Utopian futuristic feel, and is all the better for it. Director Lawrence Gough (who also directed The Pilot) makes the most of his sunny surroundings in making the planet look gorgeous and sterile. The robots, who communicate by having emojis appear on their computerised faces, aren’t as tacky as they sound but don’t get enough screen time. They are cute, but it would be nice to see them do more.
Smile’s main problem is a dragged out build-up combined with a rushed ending, as if Cottrell-Boyce was writing an hour-long script before finding out three pages from the end that it’s a 45 minute show. It’s the weakest of the three opening stories but not in any way a bad slice of Who.
Thin Ice, by Sarah Dollard
Bill walks out of the TARDIS at the end of Smile to see an elephant walking across the frozen Thames. Now that The Doctor has taken her to the future, he treats her to a run-around in the past. Landing in Victorian London during the Frost Fairs, they get dressed in period costume and go and have a laugh. This lasts all of two minutes before The Doctor and Bill watch a child get pulled under the ice. Investigating further they find a giant sea-snake monster imprisoned under the Thames.
Capaldi looks marvellous in this episode as he dons Victorian attire, easily culminating in one of his best and most enjoyable performances as The Doctor. He transitions between mischievous, heroic and dark seemingly effortlessly with Bill continually adding the fun and wonder that has been severely lacking in previous years.
The highlight of this episode and probably the series so far is when evil businessman Sutcliffe first sees The TARDIS duo and is immediately racist toward Bill, which The Doctor responds to by punching him to the ground – there are some things even The Doctor won’t stay a pacifist for.
The sets again look amazing here. Whether on the ice, underwater or in central London, you believe what you’re seeing truly is the past. The pacing of Thin Ice is marvellous; you feel like you’re getting the most out of each scene without outstaying your welcome. A few CGI shots of the sea-creature do look a little shoddy, but it isn’t enough to ruin a story as solid as this one. My favourite of the three.
The aim of this series so far is to establish Bill Potts in the mad universe of Who and it does an exemplary job in its opening episodes. She brings the excitement and wonder to these stories that makes Doctor Who simply enjoyable. This series, more so than others, is a fantastic starting point for any new viewer – it’s “Who back to basics”.
We are only a quarter of the way through this current series, yet I am confident that with Capaldi and Mackie at the helm of the TARDIS it’s going to be a belter. Saturdays just got a hell of a lot more exciting.