Doctor Who: Series 10 Episodes 1 and 2 – Reviewed

"Hey Doctor, check out my Hans Gruber impression!"

After what feels like an eternity of waiting, Doctor Who's extended hiatus is over, and the beloved time-travel saga is back – for the last season of its current iteration. Series ten will be the final one for both 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi and six-season showrunner Steven Moffat, with Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall taking over showrunning duties with the as-yet-unannounced 13th Doctor next year. Feeling the stresses of five consecutive seasons of the show, Moffat took an extra year off between the excellent series nine and this one, to have more prep time to make it as good as everyone wants it to be. And while it has been painful having to go a year and a half with only one new episode at Christmas, I feel it is worth the wait: Moffat can be a pretty uneven showrunner, and I would much rather have the delayed gratification of another season as great as five and nine than a released-on-time one as muddled and overextended as series six. This past Christmas special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, was excellent: a spot-on parody of Marvel-universe blockbuster tropes that felt like a refreshingly different comedy angle for the show. That would seem to hint at great things ahead for series ten. The second episode of the season aired last night, so let's take a look at what we know so far about Capaldi and Moffat's final trip in the TARDIS.

Series 10, Episode 1: The Pilot

"Yes, I know the show's been on for a
decade - here's the Wikipedia synopses
so you can catch up!"
As the title implies, The Pilot felt very much like the series premiere of this latest iteration of Doctor Who. As with Rose, Smith and Jones, and The Eleventh Hour, The Pilot serves as a soft-reboot re-introduction to the series, as seen through the eyes of the new companion – in this case, an intellectually curious, eccentric college cafeteria employee named Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). Episodes like this are always interesting as they make us step back from the perspective we're used to – the perspective of The Doctor and his friends – and look at it all from the outside. It's an opporunity for us to see with fresh eyes what a strange, eccentric world the beloved show has created, and see the current Doctor in a new context. In this regard, the episode excels. We meet The Doctor as he is living on Earth, as a very strange professor (of physics and poetry, no less) working at the university where Bill is a fry cook (a situation reminiscent of Doctor Chronotis from the Tom Baker story arc Shada, for original series fans). The way in which he brings her into his world re-introduces him as a charming (if acerbic) fantastical mad genius, quite a bit softer than his highly abrasive characterization in series eight. He seems like the ultimate version of the cool, eccentric, favorite professor we all had in college, who is just as memorable for his hilarious banter as for his actual lessons (hi, Bob Thompson). This new perspective is exactly what the show needs to help us overcome whatever lingering sadness we still have about the end of the last season, and get us excited about jumping into the TARDIS again.

Seeing everything from Bill's perspective is also the perfect way to introduce us to her, and get us used to the idea of her as our new main character. This is probably where the episode most excels. Steven Moffat is known for not always being the best at introducing new characters in well-rounded ways. His supporting players tend to begin their time on the show has half-drawn archetypes who only become full-fledged humans as he and the actors develop the character over the course of the season; case and point, how Clara joined season seven with frustratingly little characterization, before Jenna Coleman helped turn her into a beautifully deep hero in her own right. The time away may have helped Moffat to really think about who this new companion should be, because she jumps right into this episode with a wonderfully fleshed-out, complex, and non-stereotypical personality. In just the first conversation with her, we see her intellectual curiosity and her find-a-way-to-make-it-happen ambition in how she clearly wants to go to school and study science, but since she can't afford to enroll, she's working in the cafeteria on campus and sneaking into lectures in her free time. We see her sense of humor: far from the collected, cool-under-pressure attitude of Clara and Amy, she is decidedly scattered and goofy, almost as though Jeff Goldblum could be her dad. And we also see her unapologetic – and not at all stereotypical or sensationalized – sexuality: she is a lesbian, and the show is as refreshingly matter-of-fact about it as she is. New-series Doctor Who has always been a very LGBT-friendly show, but this is the first time since Captain Jack Harkness that we've actually had an LGBT-identifying companion in the TARDIS, and that is a pretty cool thing. Plus, bonus points to the show for introducing us to this side of her with a bar scene set to Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division; Doctor Who could use a bit more post-punk. She enters the show already as the sort of fully-formed person that Amy was, but that Clara and Rory took some time to develop into. And she is a lot of fun – I can definitely get used to the idea of spending at least the next few months with her in the TARDIS. I'm not sure I can say the same for Matt Lucas's Nardole, who is still hanging around as a semi-companion, and who I still haven't warmed up to; his goofiness seems a little too out of synch with Capaldi's dry, stinging wit. But I am tentatively very happy with this TARDIS lineup.

"The Whoniverse doesn't always use great
post-punk/alternative singles on its soundtrack...
but when it does, it's for scenes where a
same-sex couple is walking towards each other
dramatically in a bar.*"
*See also: Song 2 by Blur in the
Torchwood series two premiere
Also like Rose, Smith and Jones, and The Eleventh Hour, the threat in The Pilot is largely a macguffin to bring the characters together, although it is the least fully-developed threat of those four episodes. The story is perfectly fine, and the concepts are interesting, but it is ultimately a bit underdeveloped, since it really only serves as an excuse to bring The Doctor and Bill together as a team. This makes me think that it would probably be a better idea in the future for the show to always introduce companions during two-part stories, so the narrative half of things doesn't get so shortchanged. But while it doesn't work the best as a monster-of-the-week story, it does do its job of introducing this new season very effectively. It got me very exited to see where things go from here, and helped me to immediately get over the new-companion blues that long-time fans usually feel after a cast change.


Series 10, Episode 2: Smile

And now things really get down to business: we've gotten to know Bill, we've been re-introduced to Capaldi's 12th Doctor in a new context, and we're ready to travel the stars with them. But in a surprising move, the first outing for this new team isn't a whimsical trip through time, but a surprisingly really dark dystopian tale. Smile plays out like a hybrid of the 7th Doctor-era cult favorite The Happiness Patrol and the very grim and disturbing 2011 sci-fi/horror short film BlinkyTM. It is the tale of a future colony where the robot servants have grossly misinterpreted their directive to keep the population happy by whatever means they can... and have decided that the best way to do this to kill anyone who shows signs of unhappiness. This naturally puts the coloinists – and The Doctor and Bill – in a tricky situation: fighting through a horrifying life-and-death struggle while hiding your emotions and keeping up a facade of good cheer. The concept is really creepy, but what makes it all even more disturbing is how the setting is perfectly clean, beautiful, cheery, and idyllic: it looks like a bright and shiny version of a future utopia, but with something horribly wrong. This dissonance between the mood of the aesthetic and the mood of the content reminded me quite a bit of Miranda sequence from Serenity, and it works just as well.

"I think Marvin's psychological issues
have really gotten out of hand..."
The story isn't quite as well-executed as the overall concept and mood: narratively it has some bumps along the way, and the script doesn't quite fulfill the excellence of the concept as well as it might. But all this means is that it is merely a very good episode instead of a classic. It still makes for a strong first adventure for the new TARDIS team, and the grimness of the situation really lets us see the more serious side of Bill, who was more in her slightly-Jeff-Goldblum-y eccentric mode in The Pilot. She seems to have quite a bit of versatility, and an ability to carry darker scenes with emotional weight. She and Capaldi are also already developing good chemistry as a double act, and it is a very different chemistry than what 12 and Clara had. While Clara was both the sensible and emotionally-attuned part of the team to Capaldi's jaded grump (as he said back in series eight, she cares so he doesn't have to), Bill is the wide-eyed eccentric student to Capaldi's sly professor. They make a good team. Though this time, I'm pretty happy that they left Nardole at home.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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