In the lead up to this new season of Doctor Who it did all feel a little… pointless. Those who follow the show knew that head writer Steven Moffat was supposed to have gone after the last series two years ago (two years ago), and that the new companion Bill, who was being fronted as the fresh start of the show is probably only lasting for this series also, since future head writer Chris Chibnall has also used the words ‘fresh start.’ That will be doubly so since, as newspapers have reported, star Peter Capaldi will also be leaving this Christmas, to be replaced by… who knows. Probably someone less old. Maybe someone less male. As happens pretty much every three years, the show will be pulling off the same trick that’s helped it last fifty, and given its main character a face lift. Usually that will be accompanied by a general change in tone for the show in general, as happened after David Tennant left, Doctor Who going from a character driven light hearted fantasy, to a much bigger, more arc driven high concept sci-fi. And yet, in the first half of this new season, the show does already seem to have achieved that same effect with Capaldi as the Doctor still.
The past 6 episodes have felt like an incredible breath of fresh air, and very much to back to basics for the show. This could largely be simply because the show has been off air (aside from a Christmas special) since 2015, inevitably making the new ones seem somewhat apart from what’s come before. There has also been an improvement in how Capaldi’s Doctor is portrayed, the roles of lecturer/grandfather figure suiting him far more than the continually moody sod he was at first, or the ‘cool’ Doctor he supposedly was later on. Most of all though, this breath of fresh air has largely come from new character Bill, who, in just the 40 minutes of the aptly named ‘The Pilot’ already gets far more character development than previous companion Clara ever did in her four years aboard the TARDIS. ‘The Pilot’ does a great job reintroducing the show, and would truly work as a serviceable ‘pilot episode’ for any newcomers to the show. We spend most of the first half of the episode just getting to know this new character, seeing her love life, her personal history, her interests and sense of humour. All fairly basic stuff that, in all honesty, should already be a given, and yet it seems like a long time since this show has actually done such simple but solid character work. There is still some of the winking knowing element to her in-jokes that we had with previous companions, as in when she asks why TARDIS is spelt in English, but all in all she comes off as far more genuine and believable than many of her predecessors. As the episode moves off her, and towards the more sci-fi elements of the story, it does so gradually, and, as in Bill’s first encounter with the monster of the week, genuine chills and suspense. From there, the episode quickly goes through all the stuff the show can do; Bill being shown, in one episode, the other side of the world, another planet, and some old pepper pot lookalikes. It does all this quickly, effectively, and most importantly, is also fun.
The whole of this season has seemed not only fresher, but much more accessible than what we’ve had recently. With the exception of ‘Extremis,’ a moody philosophical think piece that scarily and effectively questions the nature of the reality we’re being shown, none of the episodes so far have really done anything amazing or ground-breaking for the show. We’ve had the traditional trips to the future, to the past, to old horror clichés and the like. But rather than feeling repetitive it comes off more just as back to basics, and the show doing what it does best. It often feels like it’s gone back to the more simple nature of the Tennant years. There’s a machine that can travel in time and space, it can take you anywhere, let’s go. Certainly, Capaldi’s Doctor has never, until now, seemed quite so fun, and quite so Doctor-ish.
All in all, it seems like it’s been a while since the show has been quite so consistent in quality and style. Here’s hoping, at just halfway through, this lasts.