A companion’s first full adventure in the TARDIS is an important step. Like learning to drive, it can all be a bit much at first, but once you get the hang of it, it can be a thrill. Bill, of course saw a glimpse of the universe last week, but this week she got to live the life of a companion of the Doctor, as she began to work out just who he is.
In the modern era, companions’ second episodes have been all about the Doctor showing off what he’s capable of and showing his new friends the wonders of the universe. We’ve seen the end of the world and the rings of Akhaten, met William Shakespeare and watched Mount Vesuvius erupt. It gives the Doctor and the new companion a chance to have fun and explore. We see the Doctor and his new companion acts as tourists, rather than helpers and heroes. Well, that’s how the Doctor hopes it looks, although it never really turns out like that. But there is a certain amount of leeway you can give to the overall plot of these episodes. Similarly to season openers, the plot and monsters perhaps aren’t the most important aspects of the stories.
The Doctor and Bill carried on straight from where we left them at the end of The Pilot. There’s something magical about TARDIS scenes, and the pre-title exchange between the pair about the time machine’s logistics was a lovely moment. Throughout the episode, the pair’s chemistry continued to impress. They seem like a natural fit. It’s hard to think about how a Doctor and companion relationship could be improved. It’s clear the huge amount of respect Bill has for the Doctor, while the Doctor certainly cares for Bill and appreciates her enthusiasm, though is less inclined to show these feelings off. It’s rare for the Doctor and any companion to be the only characters for such a long time. But there was a half hour chunk of just the Doctor and Bill examining their new surroundings, and although they ended up in quite a bit of danger, enjoying themselves. It’s testament to the pair that they are capable of carrying an episode by themselves, so early into their run together. It would have been easy to allow Pearl Mackie to settle into the role with a less prominent part to play in her opening two episodes, but for the second week in a row she’s excelled in taking centre stage. The performance of Peter Capaldi rarely wavers and his Doctor has been refreshed by the addition of Bill. The twelfth Doctor is well on his way to a strong final season.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Bill began to work the Doctor out in this episode. You could tell as the episode went on that she was beginning to understand the role the Doctor played in the universe, and there were some lovely lines throughout the episode that showed this. “I get that someone has to do something, but why is it you?”, Bill asked the Doctor. Well, that could’ve been asked by anyone who’s met the Doctor, but the Time Lord probably hasn’t even given it a second thought. That’s the mark of what a great man he is. He could have easily just left the planet and the colony to be massacred, as he might have done in countless situations in the past, but he stayed and helped, and saved everyone. “Don’t sentimentalize me”, the Doctor told Bill later on in the episode. The two lines I mention really sum up the charm of the show. The companion tags along, admiring the Doctor’s bravery, but questioning it at the same time, while the Doctor just wants to help whoever he can, and never thinks of himself as a hero. There really were some lovely moments in this script.
Writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce deserves credit for throwing Capaldi and Mackie into the deep end and allowing the viewers to get used to the new duo. And this episode was certainly a better effort than his only other for Doctor Who (In the Forest of the Night). However the script was pretty messy in places. There was nothing wrong with the concept of the Vardies. Trying to contain negative feelings like grief was a perfectly adequate motive, if you could call it a motive. Maybe it was more like a duty, but it worked well as the cycle of grief to being killed by the robots was such a rapidly vicious one. Their design maybe could’ve been better. A darker colour, or maybe making the emojibots all black rather than all white would’ve made them more sinister.
Back to the script though, and there were definitely some corners cut, along with some cringeworthy clichés for good measure. Humans departing Earth for sanctuary elsewhere seems like such a recycled plot now. New Earth and The Beast Below have tackled the subject, I’m sure there have been plenty of others too. To avoid it feeling so tiresome, there needed to be more of a back story. What made the humans leave Earth? Why had they chosen where they were going? How far into the future were we exactly? There were enough moments in the episode, for example when Bill was looking at the digital history of Earth, where some of this could’ve been explained. The Doctor also told Bill that if he didn’t intervene, it’d be “The end of the human race”. Really? I understand there needs to be some level of risk and threat, but extinction of humanity should be reserved for episodes on a grander scale. It never really felt like there was a colossal amount of danger. The more you exaggerate the level of danger, the less threatening everything will feel. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. Putting humanity or the universe on the line every week, will spoil the grandeur of the finale, or other episodes, where the stakes really are so high.
Resetting the emojibots was a gentle and simple way to resolve the plot. Again, I didn’t have a problem with that, but I didn’t quite grasp why they had to be “self aware” after everything we’d seen them do. There would have been no issues with the concept of them being programmed to put an end to anything other than happy emotions continuing. There were some light and quirky moments scattered through the episode too. It was fun to watch the Doctor and Bill get fixed up with the emoji patches. I also enjoyed that we got to see how they were feeling in parts through the form of emojis. Some of the shots of the backs of the Doctor and Bill, so we could only see their patches, were cleverly shot, so credit must go to director, Laurence Gough for that. Thinking only about this episode purely as a first full adventure for Bill, then I thought it was excellent. As a Doctor Who story though, there wasn’t much to shout about. Robots and human colonies finding a new home have been done, almost to death in Doctor Who. If we don’t see Frank Cottrell-Boyce write for Doctor Who again, I won’t be too disappointed. It’s been a super start to life in the TARDIS for Pearl Mackie though, and I’m already hoping she’s here to stay for more than one season.
Episode Rating: 6/10