Saturday, April 22, 2017

10.1 The Pilot


The Pilot. The first proper episode in nearly 18 months. Partial reboot. New companion. Dalek

In some ways I liked it. I cheered a couple of times: the Movellans, the sonic screwdrivers, and (retrospectively) when it dawned on me what Bill’s girlfriend was called. I gurgled appreciatively at the Mary Celeste name plate; and at the two pictures on the desk; and at some of the banter, because, if there’s two things that Moffat can really do, one of them is banter; and at the Dalek. 

I went to the Doctor Who Experience a few years back with a couple of kids and we were beamed onto the bridge of a Dalek spaceship. When you went, you probably saw a very well constructed animatronic tableau but I promise you we were taken onto a real Dalek ship. I've wanted to go on a Dalek ship my whole life. So of course I loved the Dalek.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it. Daleks and sonic screwdrivers and supporting characters who appeared for one and a bit seasons half and century ago and jokes about the names of dead actors. All very frothy for us fans, but where's the, so to speak, beef?

Imagine if this were almost anything other than Doctor Who. The hero’s friend’s lover has become possessed by a shape shifting alien puddle and the hero pronounces that the only way to free her is with a special “remove alien puddle” ray, which one particular evil alien robot happens to have. So the hero and his new friend jump into the middle of a war and set up a situation where the alien robot zaps the alien puddle. And, so far as I can see, this doesn’t do any good whatsoever: the friend’s love isn’t freed, the puddle monster isn’t destroyed. It’s defeated a few minutes later by the power of love. 

No-one would write this kind of thing voluntarily; no-one would think that “deliberately getting caught in the cross fire of a war” was a sensible way of getting rid of an alien water demon; and (incidentally) no-one has ever remotely suggested that the Daleks gun is the hottest fire in the universe before. The scene is an exercise in shoehorning the Daleks into the wrong story; either so people like me can have a fangasm; or because nominal Whovians associate the show with Daleks and not much else, or (very probably) because if the BBC don’t use the Daleks every year they lose the rights to them. The Movellans were rubbish in 1979, part of a terrible script by a Terry Nation who had long since ceased to bother, But seeing them for 8 seconds forty years later is like, the coolest thing ever. 

This is dysfunctional television. Or else I am dysfunctional fan.

A very long time ago when the universe was black and white the Sonic Screwdriver was just a gadget. Then, in the 70s, it became the Doctor preeminent gadget. Then, in the reboot, it became the Doctor’s iconic gadget: as much a part of who he is as the TARDIS. Now, the fact that it’s the Doctor’s iconic accessory is the subject of a visual gag: it may be his magic wand, but he treats it like I treat my old biros. 

When Bill is introduced to the Doctor, she demands to know his True Name. "Doctor what?" This is funny because...well, for very obvious reasons. When she first goes inside the TARDIS she says everything apart from “It’s bigger on the inside than the outside” which is funny, because we know that is what companions normally say. When she finally does say it, the Doctor and Matt Lucas sort of high-five, because they know it, too. When the Doctor makes a weak joke and the Bill responds in kind, Matt Lucas points out that they are now bantering.

We’re not only laughing at the cliches but laughing at the fact that we’re laughing at them. 

I have completely forgotten who the Matt Lucas character is and what he is for. (Did he just pop up as a fait accompli, like Madam Vastra?) 

Every time there is a vacancy, I speculate about all the interesting things that a new Companion might be. Maybe a young boy, or a much older woman (as worked so well in the audio stories) or an alien or something historical — a Victorian governess, say, or an ancient Egyptian princess? The last six companions in the original series were, what — a delinquent biker chick with mother issues who liked exploding things; an annoying vegetarian dancer who thought she was in a panto; a shouty American; a naughty alien schoolboy who nearly betrayed the Doctor; a posh alien whose planet had been exploded by the Master; and a naughty maths nerd who can’t dance... But in the new series, it always turns out that the new companion is going to be a spunky twenty-something woman who the Doctor banters with. That’s the new definition: companions are spunky twenty-something women who the Doctor banters with. Granted, Bill is a Daily Mail baiting black lesbian spunky twenty-something woman and the first person to say “why didn’t they make her an amputee as well so they could have the set?” will be politely asked to leave the room.

If I were the sort of person who complained about this kind of thing, I would complain that race and sexuality are just being used as signifiers of difference, like a funny hat: the new companion is just like the old companion except with the twist, get this, that she fancies women. But other people complain about that kind of thing much better and at much greater length than I can. 

It would have been much more interesting if Bill’s sexuality hadn’t been trailed in advance as a selling point: look at us, we’re so clever, we’re introducing the first ever GAY companion, unless you count Captain Jack, who was probably not entirely straight, and Wonderful Clara who was strongly implied to swing both ways. It would have been much more interesting to introduce a spunky twenty something girl who dated other spunky twenty something girls and resolutely refused to mention it.

I liked the way her jacket was yellow and stripy like the chips she serves in the canteen, and that she uses “fat” as a verb. 

The Doctor has stopped traveling. Because of that bad thing which happened before. He has taken on a new role, which he quite likes, and hung about for what to us would be a life-time and sworn he would never take another companion. But then this spunky young thing with a tragic entanglement comes along, and he picks her out as special, but never intends to travel with her, but in the end he does. But then he has to part with her again, which leaves him sad, so he quits travelling again. But then...

That’s not the plot of this story or this season. That’s the plot of every story and every season.

There is nothing particularly wrong with formulas. A sonnet always has 14 lines and a haiku always as 17 syllables; Captain Kirk always falls in love with a pretty lady solves a moral dilemma which demonstrates why communism is wrong. But formula is the hook on which you hang the content. And what is now the content of Doctor Who? What are we watching for? Self-referential banter; references to old stories; and an endlessly recycled stream of autolacrymose sentiment?

What we have this week is one more possession-and-exorcism story, based around a Mills-and-Boon notion that you can be in LOVE with someone you don’t really know and have never really had a conversation with. Bill has a crush on Heather but Heather has a crush on a mysterious pool of water. Heather looks into the pool for too long, and the kelpie drags her inside. So from now on, whenever Bill looks into puddle of water, she will always see her lover’s reflection looking back at her from it.

No: that isn’t quite right. What actually happens is that Heather looks into the mysterious puddle of water for too long and the water somehow makes an exact copy of her. It, the puddle, can now follow Bill around, flowing under doors, through taps and shower fixtures, and then take on Heather’s form. A sort of wet, leaking Heather, a bit like the zombies in Waters of Mars. Liquid Heather is heavily coded as scary, although never does anything particularly frightening. 

But this isn’t quite right either. When the TARDIS travels instantaneously to Australia the puddle travels equally instantaneously after it, and when it travel instantaneously to a planet millions of years in the past, there seems to be a puddle waiting for it, and when it materializes in the middle of Destiny of the Daleks, there’s a Heather shaped pool of water waiting there as well. So all the flowing and dripping was just for show. It hardly flowed through a crack and along a pipe until it ended up on an alien planet eighty six million years in the past. It can just be wherever it wants to be. Which makes it far more powerful than the TARDIS. 

Clearly, we are engaged with what Freud would call primary and secondary dreamwork — an image, and an after-the-fact rationalizing of that image. Heather can spring up out of a pool on an alien planet because the primary idea is that Heather has been subsumed by a water elemental — wherever there is water, there she is too. The sciencey hand wave is that one little pool of water is somehow outrunning the TARDIS through time and space. 

Because the Puddle is actually a pool of super-intelligent oil from an alien space ship, and when Heather remarks that she would like to go run away, this somehow imprints on the Space Oil, so she gets whisked away through time and space, except that Bill told Heather “don’t ever leave me”, and that imprints on the space oil as well, so wherever Bill goes Heather goeth too. The Doctor’s first idea of getting Heather zapped with a Dalek death-ray doesn’t have any noticeable affect. Bill has to cast a spell of banishing: when Bill releases Heather, that is to say the replica Heather, from her promise, she goes away.

I get that the title, Pilot, is a double entendre, and I get that this episode is sort of kind of reintroducing Doctor Who after a long break, reselling the formula to people who may have forgotten what it is. So I get that it is in one way consciously revisiting Rose — note the alarm clock, the exaggerated rush through the day at work, and the fact that the new companion is called Billie. The episode coyly pretends that we might not have any more idea about who the Doctor is than Bill does, and has quite a fun time unravelling it. The best kinds of mysteries are the ones to which you already know the solution: they make you feel clever. Moffat makes us do some of the work ourselves. Bill says that she doesn’t have any pictures of her real Mum, and then finds a box of old photos in her wardrobe, and then notices that the Doctor’s reflection can be seen in one of them, and then realizes that the Police Box in the Doctor’s room has moved… But when we get to the big reveal — Capaldi standing in an exaggeratedly large TARDIS interior, looking positively regal, making his speech about “the gateway to everything which ever was or ever could be” Moffat feels the need to immediately under-cut it with some unfunny toilet humour. 

Pearl Mackie delivers the line about “You mean it can go anywhere…anywhere in the university?” as if she doesn’t quite get it. 

I also get that if you are reintroducing the Doctor, you might want to sell the idea of the show by having as much time and space travel as possible: from the university, to Australia, to the alien planet, to the Dalek war. (The only thing missing is a meeting with, say, Queen Elizabeth I or Christopher Columbus.) A surprisingly large chunk of the episode involves the Doctor explaining the concept of Time Travel, as if some people might not know what a time machine is, or might not think the idea was that exciting. This week, time is not a ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff so much as a city made up of all the different moments of your life; or possibly just a strip of movie film made up of thousands of still images. Moffat likes the idea of the simultaneity of time: one of his first contributions to Who, The Girl in the Fireplace, involved a spaceship which contained a number of “time windows” so Rienette’s life seemed to be laid out in a series of frames. Several times in Pilot, the camera appeared to pull back and show us Bill’s life as a grid of frozen moments, which is nothing is not audacious. And several times we get little flash back sequences showing Bill’s life and her relationship with heather in the little non-sequential moments.

In very, very old Who, we are asked to think of the TARDIS as being a bit like a television set; a little box that could potentially contain anything in the universe. Are we now being asked to think of the TARDIS as being a metaphor for memory? What we can all do in our heads — zoom backwards and forwards following interconnections and patterns to find the shape — the Doctor can do in the actual universe? Which is a not uninteresting idea.

The Doctor concludes his lecture about time being like a city by exclaiming “Time and relative dimension in space!” exactly like a vicar desperately hoping you’ll believe his sermon had something to do with his text when it patently didn't.

Look, we don’t know where we are going with this season yet. It might be that after the terminally impenetrable conclusion to Season 9, we have to sort of regress to the norm (Doctor, travelling, companion, banter, Daleks) before we can even consider telling any more stories. It might be that the pictures of Susan and River are just there so fans can stroke their beards and say “Ah, photos of Susan and River…” but it might also be that there is a plot brewing in which Susan turns out to River’s time-sister. There may be something really interesting locked in the vault, or at may turn out to be another monster which wants to destroy the universe for no adequately explored reason.

The idea that the Doctor has gone into semi-retirement and become an academic is really interesting (and not the worse for being a bit like Human Nature and a bit like School Reunion) but it isn’t clear if this is a recurrent sub-plot or a give away line in the first episode. Surely there is a whole season to be got out of the Doctor as a college lecturer? 

As so often, the best thing about the episode was the Doctor himself. How many terrible stories and seasons have we continued watching because Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy were so compelling? There are too many long speeches about how brilliant the universe is and what a wonderful idea time travel is; but Capaldi does a very good job despite the overwritten material. I like the little flashes of Tom Baker when he grins. I like the way he looks at Susan’s photo when he first talks to Bill. I like his macho pride in the TARDIS. The scripts keep telling us that he is magnetic and charismatic and fascinating; but Capaldi manages to make him magnetic and charismatic and fascinating even when there isn’t dramatic music playing in the background. 

2 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

"Surely there is a whole season to be got out of the Doctor as a college lecturer?"

That was my immediate response on watching The Pilot, too. I made me realise just how much leaping about there has been in recent series -- so little to hold on to. By contrast, the series 1 and 2 anchoring to the Powell Estate and Rose's mum gave us something to hold on to. I could really use something a bit like that, with the recurring university background.

Glad you are warming to Capaldi. I still can't help thinking "I wish you were Matt Smith" every time I look at him.

SK said...

I can't help thinking, 'I think Peter Calapdi could play Doctor Who really well, they should get him to do it sometime.'