Sunday, 16 April 2017
Doctor Who: The Pilot (Episode Review)
So, here we are, back again with the time travelling (mostly) immortal alien. With Capaldi's long announced departure having taken up a lot of attention recently, along with some odd attempts to draw figures by pointing out the companion is openly gay (though, i'd personally argue Jack Harkness beat her by several years) there have been mixed thoughts over this start. Some people think it'll be a mess of different ideas and conflicting influences, others are hopeful that the lessons of past series have been learned at long last. Well, it's too early to tell which is right, but if The Pilot is any indication, we're up for a series of good, solid entertainment.
The story here is set some time after the prior two episodes, with the Doctor having hidden himself away in England. Sitting about a university and staying as a lecturer, he seems at first to be effectively on holiday, almost taking a break from past threats, but it's clear something more is at work. The only one who truly seems to pick up on this is Bill Potts, a cafeteria staff member with a knack for picking up on certain odd details. Yet, even as she and the Doctor enter an odd mentor and student relationship, other alien forces are at work on the local campus. Ones which have a specific target in mind, and will stop at nothing to claim who and what they need to return to the stars.
The best thing about this whole story is simply this - It's basic. Now, that can certainly sound odd or even insulting, but after so many ambitious efforts to be complex for complexity's sake, often resulting in failure, this is a welcome return. We have a companion succinctly introduced, a new status quo established, a few questions set up for the series, and a definite resolution. It's probably the most straight forwards story we've had in the past two years, and because of this it's effectively told. It's something which leaves room to develop characters, play with a scary idea or two, and to close it out with a definitive end.
The first, and most obvious, point the story plays with is the introduction of Bill, our new companion. This is someone who had alarm bells ringing in fans ears from her initial announcement, for reasons outlined above, but surprisingly it's actually proven to be a strong initial outing. While the Rose Tyler influence is certainly obvious in many places, Bill nevertheless stands out well as the every person while still brimming with energy and personality. There's a quirky edge to her dialogue at all times and the episode manages to strike a careful balance between ingenuity and missing the obvious. While certainly fairly heavy handed (a point we'll get to a bit later on) it's nice to see a companion with a talent for outdoing the Doctor in certain areas without taking over the show or overshadowing him.
The chemistry between Capaldi and Pearl Mackie (Bill's actress) proves to be the highlight of the episode time and time again. While each is certainly quite eccentric, the fact they're coming from opposite ends of the insanity or energy spectrum means that they nicely counterpoint one another. This is especially clear during the later office scenes with the Doctor, and each of them are quite capable of shifting back and forth between humour and possible threat as needed. Surprisingly though, Matt Lucas manages to avoid being the third wheel in this trio. For a character briefly introduced as a small part of a very minor episode, his presence seemed almost tacked on, but there's a nice element of humour he injects into each scene while handling some of the more techno-babble related heavy lifting. While it's unclear just how long he'll be here for, the unconventional angle between these three nicely contrasts the more typical trios usually found in Classic and modern Who alike. Plus it should go without saying by this point that Capaldi is on point as ever, because he's frigging Capaldi.
Of course, every story needs a villain and this one proves to be no exception here. With a remarkably slow build-up and gradual introduction, there's no obvious threat at first, but the story uses this lull as an opportunity to establish the setting first. It avoids the old sin of front-loading everything at once, and by introducing events in stages, it allows the story to have more impact. We see the normality of this work at first, the hints of something odd thanks to the Doctor's presence, we get to know a few basic elements of the characters, and by the time the monster shows up there's more room for it to leave a dramatic impact. The creature in question, while problematic in terms of its origins, also proves to be a creatively creepy one. Water based in nature and seeking to claim others, it's by no means original but the presentation surrounding it proves to be outstanding. How it initially establishes a possible threat, how it develops into this unstoppable force and the abilities it displays give it an almost Terminator-esque level of unstoppability which definitely helps it stand out.
However, above all else, what has to be praised are the choices of editing and cinematography. While certainly unconventional and veering into the overly stylised elements of television, they nevertheless manage to hit a very exact balance between knowing when to let a scene play out, and editing around objects. You'll notice this very quickly, as both the first office scene and the Doctor's opening talk with certain students. One allows the actors to get away with anything they need with minimal editing, using a choice of camera angle which opposes what you might expect but works in favour of the setting. The other is heavily edited and reworked, but it's used to help build upon the Doctor's monologue about time and reflect upon the subject he is discussing, giving a literal visual image to his words. Plus, given Capaldi's ability to make any monologue engaging, it's a chance for the episode to work in something which has always proven to be a strong point in the past, even in bad outings.
While The Pilot also worked in a number of shout-outs easter eggs and fun moments rather well, these were hit and miss. Welcome as they were, the presentation of them sometimes worked and sometimes fell short of what was needed thanks to certain editing choices. A point we'll get onto in the next section.
The bad here stems from a few unexpected angles. Without getting into a few of the more negative comments, many thought that the show was openly advertising Bill as a lesbian and black was a push to be overly PC. Thankfully, as mentioned above, she's a well rounded character backed with an actress who knows how to handle such eccentricities. That said, The Pilot does spend too much time focusing upon her at the expense of everything else. It's a very Doctor-lite experience, which could work, but despite this many points seemed to be stretched thin.
The details about her life don't develop via a montage or even a typical more visual display, but exposition a lot of the time and despite the excellent editing it comes across as rushed. This isn't helped by how, to compensate for a few of the more grandiose speeches and establishing scenes, certain points are blitzed through as well. The events surrounding Bill's mother, both biological and her step-mother, lack any real impact. Both seem to be set up as important figures, but because there's no room for it to breathe or the actors to really show their stuff, much of it lacks the impact it needs.
Another definite issue which stems from the structure is simply how predictable certain twists are. Now, if this was building up to a jump-scare or two this would be fine and, in fact, the one time the more predictable moments are used to establish a jump scare does work in its favour. It's used as any good one should, to build up dread and a creeping sense of fear. However, at other stages you're just left scratching your head at certain turns or leaps in logic. Even ignoring some of the more awkward dialogue here and there, and there are some rather dumb bits, the decisions made are difficult to truly follow. For example, we know the monster is after Bill. It has followed her first and foremost from start to finish, but the story diverts itself to help set up a future plot arc surrounding something underneath the university. They think it's might be trying to raid it, when there's little established to truly confirm this fact.
A further, and very notable, problem also stems from the sheer lack of subtlety within many scenes. Now, on the one hand, the unconventional style and presentation helps to excuse this. It's stylized and interesting enough to really keep you hooked, while also being very big and bold throughout the tale. However, when the script hinges on a clever twist and many of the shout-outs to past events are being actively shoved in your face, it can seem a little insulting to your intelligence. This is especially bad when it comes to the initial scene which, in an otherwise wonderful format which is excellently presented, feels the need to pause an then perform close-ups on each meaningful easter egg is infuriating. As are more than a few points where it really keeps repeatedly highlighting anything remotely relevant to the plot, until the audience is left with little to nothing to figure out for themselves.
However, perhaps the most irksome part is the sheer lack of answers we get when it comes to the villain. Okay, there's a few basic hints and suggestions here and there, but besides that we don't get much at all. What spacecraft did this come from? How does it work? Where does it originate from? Why was it even there? None of these are ever answered, and for a force so powerful as this one, that's not enigmatic that's just infuriating. If there had just been a few more answers, something to help add a name to the face and to build upon the concepts established that would have greatly offset this. Instead, we're left with a scary and effective villain for the episode, but one which lacks any real depth or purpose beyond plot requirements.
This one will likely split fans on just what they favour the most, and how well they think many of its ideas were executed. Personally though, while it's certainly a bit less ambitious than some previous efforts, there seems to be a concerted effort to just get things right. This isn't so much reaching for the stars and repeatedly failing so much as asking "So, what did we get right last time, how can we improve on that, and what can we experiment with?" Overall, this definitely works in its favour so far as I am concerned, as while the story itself is relatively simple and the character drama is mostly straight forwards, but it's executed well enough that you can understandably forgive that.
If you do find a few of the more obvious twists mentioned to be irksome or the push to be overly quirky for its own sake, then I will understand entirely why you'd dislike this. Given Doctor Who's often unconventional nature and the fact this is the series finding its footing again though, it's enjoyable enough for an outing setting up the new status quo.