Now, I won’t ballyhoo any arguments regarding the show’s quality as of late. As a critic, my mindset has always been “it is what it is." instead, I try to react positively or negatively to stories and performances as presented instead of offering up my essentially useless commentary on “nine ways to make Doctor Who watchable” again.
To all the haters in cyberspace: "Hey, I’m all for offering suggestions. I simply try to do them in the spirit of being constructive and respectful."
Succinctly, I suspect it’s these lukewarm tales which have contributed in no small part to Capaldi’s strained reception as the Doctor by fandom, but I’ve enjoyed his portrayal quite a bit. Sure, he’s been occasionally a bit too snippy, but I’d argue that the actor has imbued the lead with a much more ‘mature curiosity’ than did David Tennant or Matt Smith. Theirs was always a wide-eyed optimism – a sentiment I prefer from the less schooled companions, honestly, as I think wisdom tends to make the adult mind function with greater realism when confronted with 'The End Of Life As We Know It' scenarios.
(Again, that’s not a reflection on “quality,” just a general observation. I’ve written before that Capaldi seems a bit closer to, say, Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton though I’ll admit I haven’t seen as much of the second Doctor’s material as I would like).
“The Pilot” did kinda/sorta serve to creatively reset Who in so much as it made it easier than most series premieres to encourage new viewers that now was a great time to board the property: ignoring the decades of history, the simple story established this Doctor as little more than a renowned university professor … with a secret. (Don’t they all have secrets?) Not-quite-a-student Bill Potts (played by Pearl Mackie) notices things are afoot within the school, and she begins her own investigation of the mysterious stranger. As so often happens when one layer is pulled back to reveal yet another, Bill serves as an inquisitive centerpiece around which the vast world of Who can now be explored as if nothing has yet been discovered about the traveler, his TARDIS, or his allies and enemies.
No disrespect intended, but I’d honestly hated the character as she’s been portrayed solely in advertisements leading up to the tenth season launch; she was constantly shown as an almost bug-eyed tween handy with a quip rather than an intelligent refrain, perhaps going in for quick, cheap laughs as opposed to legitimate character exploration. Instead, her first forty-nine minutes in the Who universe ably positioned her as not so much an entirely original creation but instead one more meticulously-crafted youthful observer in the growing fraternity of companions. Who knows? She probably polls well with BBC executives. But because she was handled so well, I’ll happily watch her development.
Also, a huge improvement in “The Pilot” was the handling of Nardole as played by the infinitely reliable Matt Lucas. His previous visits to Who painted him as an occasionally screechy victim – think ‘the damsel in distress’ but in the body of a timid, chunky, bald male – and I felt his talents were being wasted on so thin an invention. But the premiere dialed back the lunacy in favor of making Nardole a willing participant in these affairs, a departure from what had come before. In fact, Lucas cleverly deadpanned most of the hour’s funniest moments; and Who can always benefit from a few more laughs.
As a one-off ‘Villain Of The Week’ the sinister watery alien didn’t thrill this watcher. (FYI: we’ve seen watery creations in the universe consistently in the past few seasons, and that may’ve struck the wrong chord with me.) The fact that this adversary turned out to be largely misunderstood certainly improved my reception of it in the last reel; but I was still left wondering about what species set these events in motion and whether or not they serve some other hidden agenda in the Doctor’s fate.
Also, the adventure seemed to revel in the fact that it was dropping breadcrumbs a bit too often. What the Doctor is doing simply hiding out at university wasn't discussed at any length, though it very well might have something to do with a vault kept within one building's poorly lit basement. In particular, Moffat (as a screenwriter) seems smitten with this kind of protracted storytelling device -- planting a seed that'll blossom into something grand later -- so perhaps I've grown used to not having all of my concerns addressed in a single hour. Dare I say that it isn't the most effective use of screen time in Science Fiction in particular where viewers like to have clear questions and answers in a single sitting?
“The Pilot” ended with just the right amount of charm, positioning this new team as ready for what might lie ahead. Granted, longtime watchers are probably aware of Capaldi’s impending departure from the show and that reality might force us to pay closer attention over the coming weeks … but I’m liking the vibe and hoping Moffat might be able to pull one more rabbit out of his hat before regeneration rears its ugly head.