If you haven’t seen it yet, you can currently watch this episode for free on BBC America’s website. This review will contain spoilers.
We’re back. Finally. Other than last year’s Christmas special, we haven’t had a new episode of Doctor Who since the end of 2015. This episode is penned by showrunner, Steven Moffat. It’s fitting that this episode is called The Pilot. It serves as both a reference to the plot and a signal that this is a good jumping on point, at least in my opinion. This episode isn’t quite what I’ve come to expect from Moffat. It’s emotional but not mired in darkness, and contains a refreshing lack of complex mystery. No strange cracks in the wall, impossible girls, or women who know more about your future than you do here. Instead, we have the Doctor working as a lecturer at St. Luke’s University in Bristol seemingly for the past 50 years. It’s almost as if the weight of sorrow and anger that has has been lifted from him. There’s less yelling and more smiling.
The episode begins with Bill Potts walking into the Doctor’s office. We see the office through her eyes – a glimpse of the Tardis in the corner, pictures of River Song and Susan Foreman (wife and granddaughter, respectively) on his desk along with a cup filled with all of his sonic screwdrivers. The Doctor summoned her to find out why she attends his lectures. Bill answers with a meandering story about serving extra chips to a beautiful girl that has nothing to do with the question but does give us insight into her. She’s observant and her reason for attending is simple curiosity and a desire to learn.
Bill questions why the Doctor cares about her specifically being there. “Well, most people, when they don’t understand something, they frown – you…smile,” he answers. He sees something in her, something that prompts him to become her tutor. What follows is a montage of scenes from Bill’s life: serving chips in the school cafeteria, meeting a beautiful woman with a ‘star in her eye’ at a bar, talking with her foster mother, meeting with the Doctor almost every day for tutoring. Her life is completely normal in comparison to the past few companions. Over months, she gets to know the Doctor as a strange but ultimately human professor. Not as a time traveling alien who’s been alive for hundreds of years and all over the universe. It puts an interesting spin on their relationship.
The girl with the star in her eye reappears after Bill begins to notice her professor isn’t quite what he seems. Her name is Heather. She’s a student at the university and not a very happy one but she does return Bill’s interest. Heather takes Bill to see a strange puddle of water. On the way, Heather tells her “Everywhere I go, I just want to leave.” Bill replies, “Can I come, too?” Hello foreshadowing. Since this is Doctor Who, the strange puddle isn’t just a puddle, it’s some kind of sentient oil from a spaceship. Heather gets her wish to leave, albeit not in the way she wanted when it later possesses her. Alien Heather is just as drawn to Bill as Human Heather was except now with the ability to randomly show up in the drain of Bill’s shower. This is an entirely new level of stalking. Bill freaks out and runs to the Doctor. Interestingly, it seems like she does it more because he’s the only one who knows about Heather and the puddle and less for protection. In fact, she’s worried that the situation is too ‘sci-fi’ for him to believe.
Peter Capaldi said at New York Comic-Con that Bill doesn’t react in the way the Doctor expects. That is immediately evident when he leads her into the Tardis. Gone is the exclamation that it’s bigger on the inside or the awe over being in a spaceship. Instead, Bill compares it to a kitchen, a nice one except for the cheap wooden doors. The Doctor tries to impart the majesty of the Tardis – “Time and Relative Dimension is Space. The Tardis for short” he says proudly. Bill asks for the bathroom and later points out that the Tardis acronym only works in English. Why would an alien do that?
Alien Heather isn’t going to let space, time, or even Daleks get between her and her girl as she follows them to Australia and an alien planet 23 million years in the future. Most things are hungry, the Doctor tells Bill and Nardole, and hunger can look a lot like evil. The alien oil was hungry for a way off the Earth, hungry enough to eat a girl who was in turn, hungry for her own escape. After the Doctor’s last resort to stop Alien Heather fails, he realizes that she had the chance to kill them and didn’t. Bill realizes that it’s the promise Heather made to not to leave without Bill that is driving the alien version of her. To be free, Heather has to let that promise go. Bill touches her hand. Through that touch, Alien Heather shows her the knowledge of the universe while the Doctor desperately calls her back. Finally, they say their tearful goodbye and Alien Heather fades away or as much as her liquid self can fade away. The Doctor and crew return home.
Back in the Doctor’s office, Bill tells him that she thought of going with Heather but it was fear that ultimately stopped her. The Doctor realizes that he can’t leave Bill with the knowledge of who he really is. He’s protecting something in the vault beneath the university and has to stay in hiding to ensure whatever it is isn’t found. Bill calls him on trying to mind-wipe her and begs him to let her keep the memories if only for a night. The Doctor refuses. Just before he does it, she asks him to think about how it would feel if someone did this to him. Clara’s theme plays reminding us that this has happened to him and part of him remembers that, if not the specific circumstances. It’s a beautifully sad moment and Capaldi is so good at communicating that without a word. He lets Bill go, memories intact.
In a way, the oil alien is similar to the Doctor. Both aliens on Earth with the ability to travel anywhere they want but held back by their need to not be alone. They both seek passengers to share the experience, offering the knowledge of the universe in return. The Doctor encourages Alien Heather to let go of her attachment to Bill and move on, the way he seemingly has let go of his attachment to human companions. The Doctor also tries to let Bill go but that proves unsuccessful and the episode ends with the promise of Bill being his new companion.
Miscellaneous and favorite moments:
“Men aren’t where I keep my eye on, actually,” Bill tells her foster mother. Bill’s sexuality is never explicitly stated but shown through her actions and off-hand remarks like this. It’s not an issue to be dealt with, feared, and/or hidden. It’s not her character arc. It just is in the same way you would say she has brown hair. Bill likes girls. That’s it.
During their small Christmas celebration, Bill reveals to the Doctor that her mother died when she was a baby and she doesn’t have any pictures of her. Shortly after, she discovers a box filled with pictures of her mother. In one, she can make out the Doctor’s reflection in the mirror holding the camera. We don’t always get to see his kind nature and this was a beautiful example of it.