TV "She was fat. I'd fatted her."
Last night I watched the Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates. Most of Sandler's oeuvre is awful but every now then even he manages to turn out an averagely decent piece of work, and at the centre of 50 First Dates is the very sweet story of a guy who falls in love with a girl played with Goldfield's Syndrome, played by Drew Barrymore, who wakes up every morning having forgotten everything which happened the day before going backwards to the day of an accident. As with The Wedding Singer, there's real chemistry between the two leads which shows that with the right material Sandler can be a likeable lead. Unfortunately the whole rest of the film is a non-PC shitshow with cruel jokes about people with mental illness and an extremely racist performance from California born Rob Schneider as a Polynesian. So all the while you're grinning through as Adam and Drew make googly eyes at each other, you're also aware of just how awful much of the surrounding tissue is.
That's how I probably felt about Doctor Who's The Pilot because tossing that fat joke into Bill's opening scene did little to warm me to her and so undercut whatever the rest of the episode was trying to do. I've had the structure of the line circulating backwards and forwards trying to decide who the joke is supposed to be on, and it keeps returning me to Bill's misfortune at having accidentally made a girl she fancies fat, no longer beautiful and so therefore undateable, with a side order of cheap humour about the intelligence of models which is precisely the kind of garbage the likes of Chrissy Teigen have to deal with. Admittedly Donna could be cruel on occasion, but as the Doctor has said somewhere in the past, first impressions count and this threw me. If the idea was to make her a human being who says stupid things, fine, But the ad campaign talks about this being a show about heroes, and its simply not right for someone who's supposed to be a children's hero to make fat jokes especially if it's a child who is currently being bullied at school for being overweight themselves.
Good evening, welcome back and sorry that I can't be as effusive as everyone else. There was a much derided column from The Guardian the other day about how Doctor Who's become stale and although I took issue with the writer Abigail Chandler about Robots of Sherwood, which was my favourite episode of an otherwise often unwatcheable Season Eight, there wasn't a lot in there I could disagree with. After the patchy season nine, an only decent Christmas special and a rubbish Christmas special, Steven Moffat feels like a creatively spent force who's lost focus on exactly what the show he's writing is supposed to be (sideways glance at Sherlock). Perhaps because of this, I was the least excited I've ever been about a season opener and despite going through the motions, including wearing my Eighth Doctor t-shirt to work this afternoon (not that anyone cared enough to mention it). But my heart just hasn't been in it.
Does The Pilot help? Well, yes, it's fine. Although it does at least subtly change the format again from the lengthy scene thing Moffat's been experimenting with these past few years to something more akin to earlier years, it's not the massive game changer we were promised. Perhaps the show is just too old and has too many different iterations for that to happen. But there are enough sparkly moments in here to suggest that the writer/producer appreciates some of the weaknesses, especially in the Doctor's characterisation, which we've had to endure recently. The fact that I'm writing this review shows that it was interesting enough for me to care, something which wasn't certain. Then again, every season I wonder if I'll bother writing these things and yet here I am again on a Saturday night developing laptop hunch and creating lines on my arms were they're resting on the edge of the table. I know I could buy one of those rubber rest things, but they bring me out in a rash.
The structure of the episode is quite different to usual. The first half develops across what must be six months as the Doctor casts himself as Frank in his own version of Educating Rita. This is the stronger passage as its implied that this soft reboot will see an Earth bound Doctor working out of a university fighting aliens with Nardole as his butler and Bill as the new Jo (even if the bit with the festive mat implies he's taken at least one trip in the TARDIS). Then halfway through and unlike any of the opening episodes since the show came back, the Doctor whisks his new friend through space and time. This gives everything some scale whilst simultaneously (and not unlike the first episode of Quantum Leap) explains the premise of the show for potential newbies so that the second instalment can be largely free of the usual explanations. No "Is this a different world?". We've done that. No "Who are the Daleks?" We've done that too.
Yet for all that I'm not satisfied. The idea of companions ignoring rote reactions to the TARDIS and the Doctor showing off have become so cliche itself now that it would probably have been more surprising if she'd gone through the motions. Throughout there's a constant sense of trying to undercut the magic. Big lighting reveal of the interior, joke about it looking like a knock through and a kitchen. Contrast that to the Ian and Barbara's faces in Doctor Who's actual pilot (depending on which moutning of the second half you're watching) and there's no contest. Admittedly I cheered along with the Doctor and Nardole when Bill finally said that it was bigger on the inside, but it does work against one of the series best moments. Sometimes the cleverest thing is to not to try to be too clever.
That goes too for whatever lies behind JJ Abrams' box or as is the case here, vault. I've never particularly been particularly keen on those stories in which the Doctor himself is a mystery, or rather there's a mystery about something he's doing rather than who he is. Whilst it's true that like Eccleston we're wondering what's been happening to the Doctor since last we saw him and how he's ended up in this predicament, it's always tricky pointing towards a viewpoint character and then deliberately omitting narrative information about them as Moffat is trying to do here, especially when Bill never quite feels like the protagonist and can't be. Whatever the Doctor's mission here is a mystery simply because you haven't shown us the initiating scene. Perhaps if Bill had indicated any great curiosity about what's in the box, sorry, vault, herself it would have provided a useful counterweight, but Moffat doesn't want us to care too much about it yet, so she doesn't either.
Nardole's presence still doesn't make any sense either. As we're reminded through Bill of the healthful characterisation that recent companions have enjoyed, not to mention proper introductions, he's an anomalous blank. Kind of amusing but for the most part stripping the Doctor of some of his eccentricities and whimsy. Having the Second Doctor as companion to the Third sounds fine in theory, and didn't we all enjoy The Three Doctors, but for the most part he seems to exist because Matt Lucas said he'd like to be in Doctor Who again and everyone supposedly likes him. He's Handles with limbs. He's Kamelion unfettered by Anthony Ainley's availability. I'll keep the faith for now, Lucas's chemistry with Capaldi is obvious and it's possible the next eleven episode will include something which'll make me love him, but at the moment, yeah, ok, shrug emoji.
Like Rose, The Pilot contains a pretty low key antagonist of the week, the stuff of annual prose stories and Class, perhaps from the same genome as the the waters of Mars. The CG isn't quite a seamless as perhaps you'd like to be, but the shots of actress Stephanie Hyam underwater and breaking the surface are creepy, especially from side on. Taking her to the middle of a Dalek war was a logical way of working in the Friend from the Future footage, which then, curiously, mostly doesn't appear. Which somewhat makes sense, the episode would literally have had to stop to accommodate pre-shot material everyone has been, but it is distracting to be sat waiting for them to turn a corner and straight into it, especially since Bill is wearing her accidental tribute to Prince t-shirt. Where does that leave Friend from the Future? A dream? A side step within this scene perhaps occurring during a Nardole cutaway?
The episode is at its best during the kisses to the past. The photos of Susan and River on the desk, the sonic screwdriver collection in the pen pot, the Movellans (more thrown away than the pre-season trailer perhaps had us believe). Unless its an anniversary year, Moffat's is reticent about these kinds of references in the past, almost embarrassed, but every franchise is enriched by its mythological tapestry and should be happy to embrace it. After watching tons of Star Trek lately, I'm pretty much convinced taking the time to create back story and baggage are why shows like this have the greatest longevity. Here the Doctor's talking to photos of his Granddaughter and late wife (ish) and at no point are we told who they are which is as it should be. Like I said, mysteries about who a person is are always more interesting than about what they're doing and why they're doing it.
Recent Capaldi continues to be character he clearly wanted to be from the start but was boxed in, a patrician at times, with elements of the Henry Higgens and Lear's fool. A good man, in other words, someone who simply wouldn't react in the same way if he was to be faced with The Caretaker or Kill The Moon now, wouldn't insult Danny Moon with such ferocity. Is this as a result of his loss of memory? Does it matter? Initially having Clara's theme under his decision not to mind wipe Bill feels like a misstep, his treatment of Donna surely being the clearer reference, but Journey's End was nearly nine years ago and sometimes television has to assume Netflix or blu-rays don't exist. The guitar and shades business is still a pain in the arse, but Moffat seems to have tossed that in here as a joke rather than something being pursued going forward.
Having said all of this, it's just possible I'll watch it again and have another reaction entirely, as anyone who read my positive review of Class's first episode will know. However much the production team want to downplay the fact, having a gay companion is huge and despite some of the line's she's been given, Pearl Mackie's offbeat performance is a refreshing contrast to what's gone before. Even with that opening scene, this is me singing her praises. I just wish Steven didn't have such a cloth ear for the implications some of his dialogue can have. Plus, looking forward, with Michelle Gomez having redefined the Doctor's Time Lord nemesis, having her stuffed into the trailer and then having the John Simm version as some big reveal feels a bit shoddy. And Frank Cottrell-Boyce is back next week. Shudder. Happy Easter!