Sunday, April 16, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x1)

Let's get down to the basics of what Doctor Who, as a TV show, is. At its heart, it's a campy, pulpy, highly stylized fairy tale, with a rich half-century mythology, mixed with a science fiction beat that likes to examine the relationship between the divine and the human throughout the cosmos. Nothing reminds us of this more than when a new companion enters the scene and meets the Doctor for the first time. It's always an eye opening experience, whether it's running from Autons, ridding the Judoon of the Moon, fighting fat aliens, or saving London from giant eyeball monsters. The companion serves as the everyman who is called off on an adventure by the grand old wizard (our blessed Doctor, he plays so many archetypes) to slay dragons and stop malevolent villains. In the season ten opener, "The Pilot" (clever title for a show trying to get back to basics) we meet Bill, the newest wide-eyed human to stumble into her own fairy tale and be offered the chance of a lifetime. This episode's purpose is twofold: to introduce new viewers to this crazy and zany show and to begin the not-so-long goodbye to two old friends. Grab your sonic and let's got!

Do you remember your first episode of Doctor Who? I do. I was a freshman in college, bored and avoiding homework (probably German given my loathing of it); the TV was on and I was mindlessly flipping through it. I hit the SyFy channel--which might have still been called the Sci-Fi channel at that point--and saw some strange man in a black jacket running through a child orphanage with a blonde woman. Suddenly there were kids in gas masks and the scene had an obvious sense of drama and tension. I had no idea what was going on, but there I sat, brows furrowed, remote control frozen in hand unable to change the channel. I had just caught the end of "The Empty Child" from the first season of a newly rebooted fifty year old show. I knew none of the Doctor Who mythology or its legendary status in England; my science fiction experience was firmly American based with Star Treks and Stargates. So imagine my surprise when, just a few episodes later, there was a totally different man running around with the same blonde woman also claiming to be some sort of medical professional. It was at this point that I set the remote down, curiosity long since peaked, and picked up my laptop. I typed "Doctor Who" into the search engine (probably Internet Explorer, heavens forbid) and...well, the rest is history. Any time the show was on--marathon form or singular episode--I made a point to watch until I had managed to see most of the Ninth Doctor's one season run and the beginnings of the Tenth. Why am I telling you all this, readers? Because I am one hundred percent positive that someone out there in the wide world just watched their very first episode of Doctor Who. This idea is the main thrust of the season ten premiere. The villain of the week is not all that compelling nor interesting but everything here serves to enchant a new viewer into watching more. For all the bombastic tendencies of show runner Steven Moffat, his swansong season opens as a sort of love letter to the most bare bones version of Doctor Who, the kind that probably fascinated him as a child when all that mattered was a madman, a blue box, some sort of horribly costumed monster, and a companion who stood side by side with a mythic hero on a grand adventure.

None of this is to say that this is a perfect episode; far from it. As I mentioned the villain is fairly mundane and forgettable. The Daleks make only a cursory appearance; they serve as a way to introduce a new viewer to the most famous of the Doctor's enemies as opposed to being a real threat or to set up a long storyline. Also, I'm also still not sure what purpose Nardole serves as a secondary companion apart from keeping the Doctor from being alone in between Clara and Bill. Nardole's companionship is sweet and endearing and he does the most magical thing all companions need to do, namely not get in the way of letting the Doctor carry the weight of the story. This was something Amy and Clara never quite learned, both former companions being set up as having a magical destiny or being somehow more important than just normal humans swept off on an adventure through time and space. It's hard to relate to a character with a pre-ordained destiny like "The Impossible Girl;" Rose may have become the Bad Wolf but that was by her choice after her experiences with the Ninth Doctor not because she was always supposed to become godlike. To bring this back to Nardole, his presence grounds the Doctor; he's obviously unimpressed by the flying magician and has a unique ability to telegraph what the Doctor needs to hear (like being kind or not being alone) without it being preachy. Still, the more characters you have in a show, the more development and importance I expect them to play. Nardole needs to not get in the way, but I don't need him to be a vessel making subtext into text. The Doctor's problems with loneliness are well document and having a spouting head literally calling him out on it--as he did at Christmas--would be, frankly, tedious. Speaking of, the Doctor is in fine form, here. When you're introducing the Doctor to an audience for the first time, there are some sweet spots one must hit. He almost always comes across as slightly insane--seriously, think about the the first time all the companions met their Doctor. He's most likely talking gibberish but with an air of incredible intelligence, Einstein on an acid trip, so to say.  The Doctor must also radiate a certain kind of power, an otherworldly quality that sets him apart from the humans caught up in the frenzy. Peter Capaldi has never failed in either of these endeavors and in meeting Bill, he is full of spunk and charm coupled with an edge that suggests he is not a being to be messed with. So, if we have a back-to-basics set up and a rudimentary Doctor, where does the episode really shine? It shines in Bill Potts.

The past two companions have not been my cup of tea. Amy Pond was too abrasive and Clara's school girl crush on the Eleventh Doctor as well as her "Impossible Girl" shtick, making her out to be the most important companion of all time, was hard to stomach. But in Bill I think we may have finally come back down to Earth; a normal, everyday, average, mundane human being. An extraordinary person because of their ordinaryness. It's where Doctor Who began, either with a schoolteacher or a shop worker, and it's fitting that in this stripped down season opener, Bill makes her first appearance as a relatable companion swept off into the divine without any hint that she is "more" than what she appears. Along with being a fresh take from past companions, making Bill an ordinary girl is a smart move on the part of the show because there is something that makes Bill--not different--but a change from the past ladies (and gents) who have flown in the TARDIS. Bill is gay; she is the first openly gay modern human companion (Captain Jack being more of a pansexual and not modern and not a full time companion) on the show. Now, I want to pause here before I discuss if the show was successful in depicting Bill's homosexuality because it's important to note that while I think Bill is a positive example of the homosexual community, it's also not really for me to say because I do not belong to that community. I identity as heterosexual and therefore any attempt to read a homosexual character as "right" or "wrong" in terms of depiction rather misses the point altogether. It's up to the community to tell me if they think Bill is a positive creation. However, I shall muddle through this as best I can. What I like best about Bill's homosexuality is how understated it is; this is not an episode where Bill needs to come out, be reassured by some heterosexual that she is "okay" and have the hour turn into a Very Special Episode. Instead, Bill casually mentions, within the first 10 minutes, how she fancied a girl she met while working in the University cantina and then a big part of the episode is spent chasing Bill's crush from a night in the bar. At no point does the Doctor--or the show--make Bill's homosexuality a big deal. It's simply part of her, as is her quick wit, her cheeky comebacks and her sadness over the loss of her mother. Too often in TV, a homosexual character has to justify their sexual orientation, explain to the audience that this is who they are and then patiently describe, to those not in the know, wanting to be treated as normal. Doctor Who carefully and cleverly eschews this treatment of Bill and simply lets her be. And what she is, is fun! There are bits of other companions in Bill; she's got a hefty bit of Rose with her family loss and her working girl attitude; she's got Donna's banter ability and if the constant shots of Susan's photograph are any indication, she's got a small bit of the Doctor's granddaughter in her as well. I found myself smiling at Bill's first time out in the TARDIS and her slow realization that the blue box really was quite magical and not just a single room. I think she'll be a worthy companion, someone who can match barbs with the Doctor but never lose sight of the wonder of it all, just like all of us be we old or new companions setting out to see the universe anew.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Pilot 

--"I am very particular about time."

--Has the Doctor already met Bill's mother or is this one of Steven Moffat's famous wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey plot lines?

--"That's my face, yeah?" Bit flexible about that are you?" "You have no idea."

--Why is the Doctor in disguise and why can't anyone know he's hanging out in Bristol as a professor? Also, what election is he speaking of?

--Any guesses what is behind Checkov's Vault?

--I'm not sure how I feel about the Doctor only having Susan and River's photos on his desk. I get that those two are "family" in the tradition sense (granddaughter and wife) but all the Doctor's companions are family to him, after a fashion.

--The one revelation missing from Bill's encounter with the Doctor is that he's called a Time Lord, he has two hearts, and he regenerates into a new person when his death is at hand. But given that this is Peter Capaldi's final run as the Doctor, I guess she'll find that out soon enough.

--"I can't just call you the Doctor. Doctor What?" Yeah, Bill's gonna be just fine.

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