This was a well-titled episode. Not just because it neatly summed up the premise of the episode (and reminded us of the Doctor’s previous admonitions to breathe and not blink), but because it actually did make us smile for a couple of reasons. We’ll start with the second, least important one: We smiled in recognition of a Doctor Who story so typical, that its convoluted logic, possible plot holes and flip-flopping motivations felt like a comfortable shoe rather than an annoyance. If you spent more than a few minutes thinking about either the setup to the problems encountered in this episode or the solution to those problems, it really doesn’t make all that much sense on the face of it. Sure, we were given rudimentary explanations as to why people would wear mood sensors on their back or why nano-robots wound up as some sort of mood police. We were told why the people of earth would have to make peace and co-exist with the swarms of killer nano-robots in their midst. But really, none of it made any sense whatsoever. And the Doctor did his usual Doctor thing of stating a problem as an incontrovertible fact and then never-minding it away with a rapid-fire explanation. He unplugged it and plugged it back in again. Because of course he did.
The management would like it noted, however, that its good feelings regarding this sort of narrative handwaving and – let’s be honest here – sloppiness will almost certainly evaporate by the third or fourth instance of it in the coming season. If that. We smile at this sort of thing because it’s just so very Doctor Who and we’ve had to wait a long time for him to come back. Killer emoji-bots and some whistling past the conclusion? It feels like home.
But the first reason for smiling is the more important one and that’s Pearl Mackie as Bill, the Doctor’s latest companion. All too often in Who fandom (and let’s face it, all other fandoms, for the most part) a discussion of a new companion will almost certainly draw comparisons to the previous one. While we hate to predictable, we can’t help but think after this episode that Clara wore out her welcome a lot earlier than we’d like to have admitted. Nothing against Jenna Coleman, who did everything she could with a problematically written character, but we didn’t realize until Pearl showed up as Bill just how much the show had been suffering from a lack of new energy. Clara should have left with 11 – or not long after 12 got on his own two feet. Sorry to say it, but there it is. The energy between Mackie and Capaldi is entirely different with this new dynamic and it’s managing to make a fairly basic episode like this one more entertaining than it had a right to be.
Think about the scene where Bill finds out the Doctor has two hearts. It’s the kind of thing the show has depicted countless times before and yet it had such a fun and, more importantly, grounded vibe to it that it just felt more real somehow. Or when she found out he stole the TARDIS. Rather than looking shocked, she showed a new level of respect for him. Or when she stopped him in the middle of some rapid-fire explanation of the latest narrative twist to tell him with real fondness, “You’re a great tutor.” After the nervous Lost Girls of Amy, River and Clara, it’s surprisingly good fun to have a companion with such a roll-with-it attitude. We wouldn’t have guess it, but it’s exactly the kind of energy Capaldi needed all along. What a pity that it came at a time when his own energy seems to be lagging a bit.
It’s possible Capaldi’s half-lidded performance is merely a way of signifying the Doctor’s advanced age (which is increasingly referenced this season) and/or the tiredness he might be feeling having been rooted to one spot for mysterious reasons for the past half-century of his life. If so, then well done on his part and shut our mouths, why don’t you. But right now, it comes across like an actor who’s got his eye on the exit sign. For the moment, it tends to play really well off Mackie’s nonchalance and open sincerity, so this isn’t a complaint. But there are times when we’re struck by just how different the tone of the show is now that the very last vestiges of River and Clara have been cleared from it. Put it this way: for the first time in a long time, we don’t have to have closed captioning turned on in order to catch every word of rapid-fire dialogue. Capaldi and Mackie talk like two relatively normal and likeable people getting to slowly know each other. The dynamic is so fresh that even “You have two hearts?” comes off charming and fun after all this time. If Capaldi absolutely must leave at the end of this season (and he sure looks like he does), then we’re starting to lean heavily on the idea that Pearl Mackie should stay. We’d love to see Bill see the Doctor through a regeneration. We have a feeling she’d have a perspective on the matter wholly unlike any we’ve seen so far.
In other words: More, please.