Season 10 of Doctor Who was off to a relatively promising start in its premiere episode “The Pilot,” which utilized a fresh back-to-basics approach in introducing the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts, and in (re-)defining the Doctor’s character and identity. Unfortunately, the main plot of the episode was marred by weak characterization that reduced the impact of its resolution. The unimpressive follow-up episode “Smile” did contain some interesting themes, but they went nowhere, due to a simplistic, unsatisfactory resolution that did not engage very well with any of them.
The following contains spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of Doctor Who season 10.
The Doctor’s identity has been defined in a variety of ways in past seasons: Wanderer. Traveler. Warrior. Healer. Avenger. Peter Capaldi, as an older and more “wizened” 12th Doctor, re-emphasized a different aspect of his identity as a thinker and intellectual. He has been drawn more closely to his portrayal in the show’s original series as the quintessential “eccentric-professor” figure. “The Pilot” refreshingly takes the Doctor back to those roots by literally making him a university professor–which means that he has a real position deserving of the title “Doctor” for once!
The Doctor settles into his role of brilliant professor with weird and fascinating ideas quite well. He gives a wonderful lecture on the nature of time, which he says is made up of snapshots that are put together to create the illusion of movement; one’s entire life is formed by these little moments. Capaldi’s delivery here is as strong as ever.
An advantage of the Doctor being a university instructor is that it normalizes him by placing him into a regular, everyday situation. Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor sometimes became too much of a strange alien whose behavior made him unfit for basic human interaction. Seeing the 12th Doctor becoming Bill’s tutor and then developing a real connection with her under relatively ordinary circumstances was actually a nice change.
In recent years, the Doctor’s companions–Amy and Clara–were defined as mysteries that needed to be solved. They came pre-packaged with an extraordinary importance, some significant link to the fate of the universe itself: part of a trend of Doctor Who becoming too grandiose and clever for its own good.
“The Pilot” takes things back to basics with the introduction of Bill, who perfectly encapsulates the idea that the companion in Doctor Who is meant to be an ordinary person encountering the extraordinary, to be our audience surrogate. Having this sense of normalcy surrounding Bill–she’s just a young kitchen worker with a love of learning–makes her so much more relatable for us, even in just the first episode.
Bill and her developing friendship with the Doctor is the high point of the episode, but the basic monster-of-the-week narrative is not as effective. The alien threat takes the form of Heather–the pretty college student whom Bill develops a crush on–who is devoured by a super-intelligent living puddle and turned into a water monster before we have any time to grow attached to her. We don’t see get to see any real relationship develop between her and Bill, yet the entire resolution of the plot depends on the emotional pay-off of this essentially non-existent relationship.
We learn that the oil-spaceship consumes Heather because it needs a pilot to fly it away, and she was characterized vaguely as wanting to “leave.” Towards the end of the episode, we realize that Heather only became a threat to Bill because she had promised “not to leave without her.”
To neutralize the threat, Bill has to “let go” of Heather, release her from the promise, and allow her to leave on her own. All this is supposed to add up to a very emotional conclusion, except that we never got to see a connection develop between the two, beyond a single glance at the bar and a few conversations of little depth. So, in terms of emotional impact, the resolution falls flat due to inadequate characterization of Bill and Heather’s friendship.
The ending does tie in thematically with other episodes of Doctor Who, like “Mummy on the Orient Express,” in which a dangerous alien being, bound by the programming of an oath, has to be released from its promise, or its military duty in the case of the mummy.
The true resolution of this episode is when the Doctor nearly wipes away Bill’s memory, in a moment tragically reminiscent of the 10th Doctor doing the same to Donna or, more poignantly, Clara doing it to the 12th Doctor. The Doctor, a puzzled and emotional look on his face, almost seems to realize that the same had happened to him. He stops because he cannot deprive Bill of the wonders of the universe, which the Doctor himself could never imagine giving up.
The Doctor is bound by his duties–staying on Earth to guard the vault, protecting Bill, etc.–but what is ultimately more important to him is allowing Bill (and himself, as he returns to his “traveler” identity once more) to experience the thrills of adventuring through space and time on the TARDIS. This emotional conflict in the Doctor and the amazing performances by Capaldi manage to turn around the premiere episode of season 10.
In the second episode, “Smile,” the Doctor and Bill arrive at a colony run by a race of robotic beings (who speak in emoji–an unneeded reference, I think) called the Vardy. Programmed to maintain the happiness of the colony’s human inhabitants, the Vardy end up trying to eliminate unhappiness by killing the humans displaying negative emotions and turning them into fertilizer. We learn that after the first of the colonists died, the others went into grief, which the Vardy could not figure out how to remove except by killing the colonists altogether.
The central plot here had the potential to bring up some intriguing themes. Of course, we have the standard sci-fi trope involving the fear of technology and automation in general. More specifically, a powerful artificial intelligence reaches the conclusion that humans must be wiped out for their own good.
The episode could have delved into the stigmatization of grief and mental health or dealt with the idea that grief, far from being something to wipe out or destroy, is a natural part of the human experience that science and technology cannot fully control or quantify. Also, given the emoji references, some kind of comment regarding our overreliance on technology and social media to keep us happy would have been great.
The problem is that not much really happened in this episode. Bill and the Doctor spend a lot of time exploring and walking around the empty colony, and when it finally came time to resolve the episode’s overall plot, not much of interest thematically actually occurred.
When the rest of the colonists who were in cryogenic sleep begin to wake up, the Doctor explains to them what has happened, and they immediately arm themselves to fight the Vardy. At the height of the shoot-out, the Doctor opens up one of the robots and uses his sonic screwdriver to turn the Vardy “on and then off again” (look, an unnecessary computer troubleshooting joke!), removing their memories in the process. Not only is this a ridiculous deus ex machina, but it doesn’t even deal with the underlying cause of the problem: the Vardy’s inability to understand grief and suffering.
Then, when the humans act angrily against the Vardy for killing their friends and family, the Doctor suddenly seems to make it their fault for not granting these sentient robots their right to autonomy and demands that the two sides come to an agreement. This is a theme we’ve seen before–aggressive humans display hatred against alien races–but it has no place in this episode, where emotions and improperly-programmed technology are the main issues.
I thought the Doctor would cleverly find some way to correct the Vardy’s programming and show them the importance of grief to the health of the humans: a mixture of technological and emotional aspects into the resolution of the plot, like in the brilliant 9th Doctor story, “The Doctor Dances.” I suppose it was too much to expect from this episode. What we received instead was a sloppily-written ending and unsatisfactory conclusion, practically (what’s to stop the Vardy from wiping out the humans again?) or thematically (what happened had no relevance to the major issues raised in the episode).
Without much going on until the very end, the episode had to rely strongly on the developing rapport between the Doctor and Bill, whose interactions were entertaining. In this regard, things worked out reasonably well, but other than that, “Smile” was a boring, sub-par episode with a weak resolution.
Based on these two first episodes, the strength of season 10 of Doctor Who is going to be the pairing of the Doctor with Bill: in that area, the writing and characterization, boosted by excellent performances from Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, are well-done. However, in terms of their individual episodic narratives, both “The Pilot” and “Smile” suffered from weak writing and unimpactful resolutions, which does not bode well for the rest of the season.