Step into the TARDIS and meet its latest passenger: Bill Potts.
It’s fitting that the first episode of the season is titled “The Pilot,” because creatively and companion-ably it feels like a fresh start — not only for the show, but for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in particular. After all, the last two seasons of his tenure have been critiqued for being too dark, and his Doctor not as fun. But as we see in Saturday’s season starter, Time (and a new season) can really help “regenerate” the show’s general tone.
A lot of this has to do with our latest companion: Bill Potts. When we first meet her she’s been summoned to the Doctor’s office, because he’s put the silent Ph.D. in Doctor and become a university professor at St. Luke’s in Bristol for the 50 years, lecturing on quantum physics and poetry — or as he notes to Bill when he finally does put his guitar down and talks to her, are the same thing.
Turns out he’s asked her here because he doesn’t know why she attends his classes since she works in the university cafeteria serving chips (a.k.a. “fries”). In response, Bill ends up asking why he called her. She’s not the only one to unofficially audit his classes. Everyone loves his lectures. He answers that she smiles instead of frowns when she doesn’t understand something. The long and short of this is that he wants to be her personal tutor. And he’ll see her every weekday evening for classes. Doctor “What” also warns her that he’s “very particular about time.” LOL.
When Bill is not in class she’s at work, dealing with her foster mom, or at a bar flirting with another girl in the Doctor’s class, Heather. In fact, Bill runs into the star-eyed girl (she literally has a defect in her iris that causes a star-shape) after a brief escapade tailing the Doctor (and Nardole) as they fiddle with a hidden Gallifreyan vault — but more on that later. Heather seems upset about something. After Bill inquires what, she says she wants to leave Bristol and go anywhere else. She also wants to show Bill… a puddle? This might not be the most romantic excursion in the world, but Bill goes along anyway because the things we do for our crushes. Sigh.
Once at the puddle, Heather asks Bill to tell her if she notices anything about it. Bill senses something but can’t quite put her finger on it. But she doesn’t give it much thought — though she really should, given the creepy voice we hear emanating from it — until the next time she sees Heather gazing at it. (Honestly though. Girl. Needs. Hobbies.) She asks Heather not to go anywhere and goes around to join her, only when she does so, Heather’s vanished. Though a closer inspection of the puddle would have revealed Heather floating in it because it too is bigger on the inside. As the Doctor would probably note in his lecture, “Time and Relative Dimension in Space!”
Having experienced something seriously weird, Bill does the most common sense thing she can in this situation: She goes to the Doctor. She tells him about Heather and the puddle and before she knows it, he’s running straight toward it “like a penguin with its arse on fire,” with her giving chase.
Once at the puddle, the Doctor gazes into it, and they have this fun exchange:
Doctor: “That’s my face, yeah?”
Bill: “So you’re a bit flexible on the subject?”
Doctor: “You have no idea.”
It gets better when Bill asks him he knows any sci-fi. Her theory is Heather has been possessed by a lizard creature. Her references? Netflix. When she says this I immediately wonder: Does the Doctor have Netflix? What does he binge?! Is it unlikely animal friendships? I hope it’s unlikely animal friendships.
But my fanciful daydreaming aside, the Doctor has figured out the problem: The reflection is too symmetrical. Things aren’t reversed like a mirror. To this, Bill brings up a very good point: If this isn’t a reflection… why does it move like one? And just like that, Doctor Who serves up yet another thing we should be weary of apart from forgetting why you stepped into a room, our shadows, and of course, blinking.
In any case, the Doctor takes a sample of the puddle and notes it’s not water. Looking around, he notices that there are scorch marks in a circle… He dismisses Bill and sends her home. Only that isn’t safe. She hears the shower, but quickly learns that it’s not her mother in there. So Bill investigates only to see a shape behind the shower curtain. But pulling it away we see that it’s empty, except for some water near the drain — and an iris with a star-shape gazing up at her.
So for the second time that day Bill bolts it to the Doctor, and on the way sees a dead, but completely drenched Heather who starts mimicking her words. Alarmed, she bursts into the Doctor’s office and tries to block the door. But when Heather pulls an Alex Mack and liquefies under the door and becomes solid again, the Doctor takes Bill into the TARDIS, reassuring her that nothing will get through that door. Despite her argument that it’s made of wood, and there are windows. She’s just about to refer to the Doctor’s lack of sci-fi cred, she turns around is greeted by the TARDIS controls in all its timey-wimey glory. The proud Doctor announces that she’s safe in here and always will be. With the score playing and the triumphant tone of his voice, it’s hard not to believe him.
As Nardole joins them, the Doctor begins their hasty getaway from Heather. The first location he chooses is the vault, to check on it. But Bill is convinced Heather isn’t after it. She’s right. So the Doctor takes them to Australia. Only Bill’s reaction isn’t wonderment or confusion that they just traveled to another country or that the Doctor is technically an alien. No her primary concern is that the TARDIS has been named in English because those initials don’t exist in any other language. She also calls out the TARDIS’ decision to “disguise” itself as a box that has “Pull to Enter” on the front. Between this and her observation that the Doctor hid his secret vault in a university, Bill is bringing up some good questions. And doing some A+ Whovian stand-up.
But this oddly sweet moment is ruined by Heather’s arrival. So they blast off to the edge of the universe three million years in the future. No dice. Heather shows up again. Though not before Bill, the Doctor, and Nardole have a nice interaction where she wonders about what makes up the sky and he jokes “Lemon drops.” Much to Nardole’s amusement. They also figure out that the puddle was a “super-intelligent oil” leak. It’s just acting on Heather’s wanderlust.
But while Heather is slowly luring Bill to her, Nardole brings up a great question: Why is Heather after Bill? The Doctor doesn’t know. There isn’t much time to think about this as they escape Heather’s clutches once again and head towards the deadliest fire in the universe as a way to sterilize Heather’s recurring appearances. Turns out the location of this is in the middle of a Dalek war zone.
While Nardole runs around securing the Doctor’s “old friends,” he and Bill trick a Dalek into firing on them, which they side step so Heather gets hit by “the deadliest fire in the universe.” It doesn’t seem to have much effect as she starts mimicking the Dalek. They run off again, but with a Dalek in pursuit. Only it’s not one. It’s Heather’s having taken it over. She transforms into her “human” shape and Bill realizes she’s following her because she’d promise Bill she’d not go anywhere. The Doctor says it best: “Never underestimate a crush.”
So it turns out that Heather is inviting her to travel with her. Bill reaches for her outstretched hand — despite the Doctor and Nardole’s warnings — but as she experiences the wonder of the universe as seen through Heather’s memories, she bids her goodbye and lets go. Just like that, Heather washes away.
The Doctor checks up on Bill, but she says she thinks she’s fine. Nardole also checks up on her, to which the Doctor gets annoyed. But having vowed to take care of the Doctor emotionally, Nardole lets her know that the Doctor doesn’t always notice tears.
Later in his office, Bill tells the Doctor that she’d been too scared to take Heather up on her offer. But he tells her that fear is a good thing to have. He then says he’s going to “fix” something, but pop culture savvy Bill knows what’s up and says no to the memory wipe, arguing that he should imagine what it’s like. To this, he lets her go and tells her to run. I suspect it’s a reaction not only to Clara’s own daredevil recklessness towards the end of her time in the TARDIS, but also the fact that the Doctor was made to forget her—though that might have been him pretending to do so, as seen by his reaction here.
Though it would seem that something else is haunting him as yet again he talks to the pictures of wife River Song and his granddaughter Susan on his desk (which, BTW, awww), as well as some other voices he’s hearing. Has all the time and space traveling finally caught up with our favorite Time Lord? After 12 regenerations and a bevy of companions, many of whom he’s lost to death, memory wipes, or time itself, it’s not a surprise that he could be having a tough time coping with everything. Though the fact that he was he’s here undercover (presumably for 50 years) guarding (or investigating?) the vault and that he’s promised not to do “that” anymore is a bit concerning. What’s going with the Doctor? Does Nardole know?
However, we don’t get to dwell on that for too long because as Bill steps out of the university she’s greeted by the Doctor and the TARDIS — under that same tree no less — and he lets her know that “Time” has changed his mind… and that there could be hope of finding and saving Heather. With that, he snaps his finger, the door flies open. Bill takes his and steps into the TARDIS, officially kicking off the season and their adventures together.
Pearl Mackie is absolutely refreshing as a companion and her chemistry with Capaldi’s Doctor is a perfect blend of being impressed by him, but also having enough pop culture sci-fi know-how to see through his tactics. If the companion is meant to be a surrogate for the audience, Bill is perfect at this juncture in the show’s life because not only have viewers become more sophisticated of different science fiction conventions, but we’re more aware of the Doctor’s history — especially with the show’s recent run, which has been making a lot of references to classic Who. (Like a pen holder full of the Doctor’s previous sonic screwdrivers on his fancy new desk?)
There’s also a basis of a slowly developing bond, which I really like. In fact, this might just be my reading of it, but I’d like to think that Bill reminds the Doctor of Susan and River in terms of being smart enough to think of things other people might not. This is best illustrated in her first reaction to the TARDIS being that it reminds her of a kitchen (all that metal). And that it takes her a short while to utter the infamous line (“It’s bigger on the inside”) because she thinks she’s guessed what’s going on. But we also see it in the Doctor’s treatment of her. When he first met Clara he was absolutely rude. But here not only does he get Bill a box of photos of her dead mother for Christmas, but he genuinely keeps checking in on her at various points. (Though a small part of me is worried that this might mean Bill is somehow “special” for science-fiction-y reasons other than the fact that she’s an awesome person.)
Nardole’s inclusion this season is also a continued delight. Not only does he bring a dose of comedy (Like his crushes. Who has been the source of Nardole’s affections?!) But he’s also someone who can genuinely hold the Doctor in check, or at least accountable, but isn’t scared of him — as we saw in the Christmas Special late last year. Meanwhile, the Doctor gets a more permanent friend and someone who actually take care of him in a way. Seeing as the Twelve is having a bit of a hard time emotionally, he’ll need this in the coming weeks. In any case, this is a fun and exciting start to the season and I can’t wait to see what’s next.