After an absence which seems to have lasted an eternity, Doctor Who is back! And so, dear reader, are my reviews. Regular readers may have noticed that the Christmas episode, “The Return of Mysteriously Tiresome” did not get a review. Frankly, I couldn't be bothered. It was turgid rubbish, not worth of wasting time on! So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.
With Clara now departed for good (we hope!), a new season brings a new companion, in the form of Bill Potts, as portrayed by relative newcomer Pearl Mackie, who wastes little time in establishing her character.
In scenes strongly reminiscent of Shada, the sadly broadcast Tom Baker story, Bill is attending the lectures of a mysterious lecturer at Bristol University. He has occupied a room for many years, replete with Police Box in the corner, lecturing on any subject he so desires. He is, of course, the titular Timelord. He is The Doctor!
Taking a shine to Bill, the Doctor takes her under his wing, offering her private tuition, however it isn’t long until the duo are up to their necks in trouble.
From the outset, Bill is firmly established as a lesbian; the first openly gay companion to travel with the Doctor in his on screen adventures. There have, of course, been gay companions, both in print and in Big Finish audios, and established regular gay characters on screen. However as a travelling companion, this is a first for Doctor Who. And the subject is handled remarkably well. Whilst making it abundantly clear that Bill is gay, it isn't forced, nor is it crass. Moffat has a poor track record of writing LGBT content into his stories (Susan the transgendered horse, anyone?), so Bill’s sexuality is handled with refreshing honesty and realism.
Whilst the first 25 minutes of the story essentially sets up Bill as the new companion, it is a slow and, at times, rather boring start to the season. Beyond her sexuality and curiosity, we learn surprisingly little about Miss Potts, and even less about the plot of the story. Nevertheless, it seems to work, as Mackie captivates the audience with her debut performance. Her interaction with the Doctor is natural, and their own screen chemistry is evident. Capaldi is, as always, on fine form, and presents a softer, more seasoned Doctor, seemingly more empathetic, less abrasive, and more at ease with human beings. Perhaps the seventy years he has spent lecturing at the University have served him well.
It is a shame that we are starting to see such character development in the Twelfth Doctor now, in his final season. It feels as though his character has much more to offer, and certainly, this viewer will miss Capaldi enormously. He has been an extraordinary Doctor, and beyond the screen, a magnificent ambassador for the show.
Back to the episode. The story centres around a mysterious puddle, which, it transpires has a degree of sentience, and seeks a pilot, which it finds in the delightfully named Heather (Heather, of course being the name of Bill Hartnell’s wife). There is clearly more than a frisson of romance between Bill and Heather, however, again, it is handled carefully and respectfully, without resorting to tokenism or crass innuendo. Unfortunately, the plot is the major let down of the episode. Whilst introducing a new companion is important, doing so at the expense of a storyline is never a good idea. The concept of sentient water (or spaceship “oil”) is a reasonable idea, unlike sentient “eye snot”.
Bill’s reaction to the Tardis is beautifully achieved, with the usual blend of comedic reaction and disbelief, however, flitting around the place, and ultimately, the universe, to escape a puddle is a wasted opportunity. It takes what could have been a reasonable episode, and turns it into self indulgent fanwank. Throwing the Tardis into the Dalek-Movellan war is utterly pointless, and wastes the opportunity to explore that period in history.
There are numerous nods to the past, most, thankfully, much more subtle, such as the photos of Susan and River on the Doctor’s desk, the older sonic screwdrivers, and the explanation for the dimensions of the Tardis, which could have been neatly lifted from Robots of Death. And, just in case you thought you were finally rid of Clara, there’s a nod to her, as the Doctor contemplating removing Bill’s memories of their adventure.
Ultimately, the episode thrives on said fanwank, however, due to stellar performances by Capaldi and Mackie, it manages to remain entertaining and largely enjoyable. It isn’t the strongest season opener, by any standard, neither is it the strongest debut for a new companion, yet it works well enough to leave one wanting to see more of the new pairing. The episode also sets out a season arc, with a mysterious panel, seemingly leading to a door, concealed in the basement of the university. The Doctor is keen to protect it, and to ensure that the newly discovered puddle is focussed on them, rather than gaining access to what lurks inside. It’s a pleasingly subtle introduction to the season arc, and unlike the “Impossible Girl” backstory, invites mystery and intrigue rather than tedium and fatigue.
As far as we know, thus far, Bill is an ordinary earth girl, with no remarkable backstory. She is credible, feisty (God, I hate that word, but in her case, it is apt). She is clearly intelligent, curious, compassionate, and above all, believable. Having endured an increasingly tedious relationship with Miss Oswald, I am looking forward to spending time with Bill, and despite the somewhat tepid plot, I believe this has the potential to be a very good season.
Overall, ranking the episode is difficult. Were it not for Mackie and Capaldi’s performances, it would probably garner 3/10. However, their presence elevates it to a sold 7.5/10. It’s an entertaining, if unfulfilling watch.
Oh. And it has Nardole in it. Hmmm…. I’ll close the review by allowing his expression to surmise my thoughts on that!