After an absence so long it almost qualifies for the sobriquet the Fourth Great Doctor Who Hiatus (especially if one understandably overlooks the forgettable “Return of Doctor Mysterio”), proper “Doctor Who” is back on telly for a tenth [thirty-sixth] season. So what does mischievous showrunner Steven Moffat call this overdue return? “The Pilot”, obviously.
The Doctor is working undercover as a University professor, all the while guarding a mysterious doorway in the basement of the faculty buildings. When a regular attendee at his lectures catches his eye, it draws him into an adventure of starry-eyed romance and a peculiarly puzzling puddle.
There’s a trademark Moffat sly cleverness to the episode title, as it figuratively and literally relaunches the programme after a prolonged absence and works perfectly as a jumping-on point for viewers who’ve never watched “Doctor Who” before – if such people still exist.
However, for people who have seen “Doctor Who” before, there are – appropriately – Easter Eggs aplenty, from the word go. As well as a pen pot full of sonic screwdrivers from days of yore, there are also a couple of sentimental photos on the Doctor’s professorial desk, including what will surely turn out to be a Chekhov’s Picture of his granddaughter Susan, last seen spraining her ankle in the Death Zone on Gallifrey in 1983’s “The Five Doctors”.
For a (re)launching point, it certainly embraces the rich history of the series so far, albeit in a subtle way and its most consistent homage is to the late, great Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor. The entire set-up of the curiously long-serving university professor will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the unfinished Tom Baker story “Shada” or read Adams’ “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and the cameo appearance from the silver dreadlocked Movellans from “Destiny Of The Daleks” cements the Adams-esque feel.
Thankfully, against this reverential and self-referential backdrop of teases, portents and promises, there’s a nifty little monster-of-the-week plot and a sparky introduction to our new companion, Bill. The monster – unnamed – is a classic Whovian creation of taking something ordinary and every day – a puddle – and giving it a sinister twist. For a while, I was wondering if we’d get a link back to “The Waters Of Mars” but ultimately, despite its phenomenal powers to pursue and track the TARDIS across millions of years and billions of miles it’s dismissed as a sentient oil leak from a passing alien shuttlecraft.
Bill is instantly charming, offering the same wide-eyed exuberance as Billie Piper did in “Rose”, combined with an inquisitive and irreverent attitude. There’s an instant chemistry with Capaldi’s Doctor, a portrayal which continues to grow and develop in a way that makes it bittersweet that now he’s back, this is to be his last series. I’m still undecided about Nardole – who apparently is partly robotic now – although he’s better here than he was in the Christmas special, probably due to the lack of attempts to retcon his presence after “The Husbands Of River Song”.
The whole episode is a treat and while there are some plot threads left dangling – some deliberately and a few in a typically Moffat way – it’s a giddy mix of adventure, fun and some genuinely creepy moments which riff on classic horror tropes. While he may be a divisive figure to a vocal set of fans, it’s hard to deny that when Moffat gets Who right, he really gets it right. “The Pilot” is among his best work, aware and affectionate of the series’ rich history and traditions but acutely aware of the need for it to remain vibrant, alive and relevant to the wider, non-Whovian audience. It’s a bold and energetic beginning for a series entering its 54th year. I can’t wait to see what the Doctor and Bill get up to next.