In a dusty hallway of an English university is a room, and inside the room is a professor. The professor is a man who’s had a colorful, exciting, long life and is now having a quiet one, giving lectures and puttering about with his hobbies and his books. He’s a man from another world, on the run from his own people, a hero or a criminal depending on who you ask and when, with two hearts, a long life expectancy, and some remarkable psychic abilities. But it’s his room that contains perhaps his most remarkable ability: the power to travel anywhere in space and time, and perhaps even out of both entirely. One of his students, who has no idea about any of this, is about to step into that room and into a more exciting life than anyone would believe was possible.
The man’s name is Professor Chronotis, the student is one Chris Parsons. This is Douglas Adams’ lost Doctor Who story, “Shada.”
Okay, sorry, it’s not. But you can see how “The Pilot” might have the tiniest flavor of that never-completed story from 38 years ago, and it’s a lovely way to begin series 10. It’s also mysterious: why HAS the Doctor been teaching university for the past 50 years? To whom did he promise to stop adventuring, and is the promise related to the high-tech sealed vault in an abandoned basement on campus? How has his Penfoldesque companion Nardole kept his creamy complexion over 50 years, and is Nardole’s longevity related to the whirring sound he makes and the bolt that drops when he lifts his arm in a quiet room? If these mysteries are the series arc this time out, I applaud their subtlety.
This is, in fact, one of the most dignified series openers and companion introductions we’ve seen in recent memory. The comparison that comes to mind is “The Bells of St. John,” which this superficially resembles, except that this replaces the monastery with a university, and a motorcycle ride up the side of a skyscraper with a thankfully restrained pair of guitar riffs. The show continues to look better and better visually, and the direction is largely excellent; even the incidental music this time out is worthy of praise, setting an agreeably playful tone for the new season.
The story itself is well-conceived and mostly works, with a couple of caveats. Moffat seems to have mined elements from many of the better stories over the years, not just “Shada” from the classic series but also “Midnight,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Lodger,” and his own stories “The Doctor Dances,” “The Pandorica Opens,” and “The Eleventh Hour.” It never feels too derivative, though it also doesn’t quite cohere. For a thing that’s not evil, just hungry, the main threat seems awfully sinister and dysfunctional. And since the emotional weight of the story turns on the new companion’s relationship with the scary puddle’s first victim, it would probably have helped to give the two of them some chemistry.
A friend said that this felt like a two-parter squeezed down to one, and if so, the short shrift given to this relationship is the worst casualty. We never see Bill and Heather have a conversation that feels authentic and warm; after their eyes-meet-in-a-club moment, Heather always seems troubled and haunted, giving the impression that she’s already in the puddle’s thrall and is reluctantly seeking victims for it. She doesn’t appear to like anything very much, even Bill, and I had to watch a second time to see that her first vanishing act wasn’t an attempt to sacrifice Bill to the puddle. Bill’s crush seems superficial and unreciprocated as a result, though perhaps this is intentional; starting her time with the Doctor by losing the love of her life would have been a pretty heavy debut. It’s probably better for the bond to be easy come, easy go, even if this makes it less moving and more confusing.
We know Bill’s prone to crushes (as, charmingly, is Nardole) because of the story she tells the Doctor at the beginning of the episode about “perving” on the girl she serves chips to in the canteen. The story is bothersome for three reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, it adds to the confusion about her relationship with Heather. We get only the briefest of glimpses of the chip girl, and it’s not entirely clear they haven’t ended up being a thing, so when Bill starts to notice Heather, it’s easy to wonder: is this the same girl? have they broken up? The second reason is that Bill’s answer to why she comes to the Doctor’s lectures would probably have been more interesting than the story she actually tells, which feels like an outtake from Coupling. And the third reason is that Bill doesn’t seem to get that you can have beauty AND chips, and that you don’t have to stop liking a pretty girl just because she’s gained weight.
Luckily, Bill is so effortlessly appealing that she’s perhaps the only modern companion who could say something like that and get away with it. She’s wonderful from the get-go, making Bill entirely real, lots of fun, optimistic despite what looks like an uninspiring upbringing, and a breath of fresh air. After Me, the Impossible Girl, and the tangled web of Amy, Rory, and River’s intertwined timelines, it’s lovely to have a Possible Girl on board the TARDIS again. Pearl Mackie is great, turning on a dime from a minor freak-out over instantaneous international travel to pointing out that the Doctor’s granddaughter named the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.
This season’s second companion, Nardole, is obviously the comic relief, and he’s so broadly drawn that he’s a bit less successful at it than he ought to be. It’s a tall order for any actor to juggle three thankless tasks: running around in fear whimpering “oo ‘eck!” at anything scary, laughtracking other people’s comedy (“banter! It’s good, this”), or — worst of all — underscoring obvious character moments of the Doctor’s (“quite silly,” “never notices the tears”). He’ll get a great line like “Human alert. Would you like me to repel her?” and have to follow it up with tired potty humor (“I’d give it a minute if I were you”). Matt Lucas is as appealing as anyone could be under these circumstances, but hopefully other writers will give him some better material.
Finally there’s Capaldi himself, whose performance as the Doctor continues to frustrate me. For every line he nails, there are three that seem like missed opportunities. It could be the script; for example, “I can see I’m going to have to raise my game” isn’t the wittiest line Moffat’s ever written, and yet I can’t help feeling Matt Smith would have made it into something perfect. I respect Capaldi’s credentials as an actor and he’s brought real magic and gravity to the role over the last few years, but he’s a much drier Doctor than either of his predecessors and it doesn’t always serve him well. I get the sense that behind the scenes he’s probably brought a steadying influence to a show that had started to get a bit over-the-top, but I’m ready to swing the balance back to a lead who can deliver a line about the sky being made of lemon drops without needing Nardole to rimshot it.
On balance, though, a small cast works well together to tell a simple monster story, reintroduce us to the TARDIS, provide a good jumping-on point for any new viewers out there, and give the longtime fans some Easter eggs right before the holiday. Everyone knows River Song, of course, but it’ll take a classic fan to recognize Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, in the other photo. And it’ll take a real classic fan to recognize the Daleks’ longtime enemies the Movellans (from “Destiny of the Daleks” in 1979) being cut to pieces by “the deadliest fire in the universe.” There’s something here for all of us, and it’s been worth the wait.