After an endless wait that felt like being trapped in a time loop, Doctor Who finally returned last night. But while the Season 10 premiere featured plenty of the usual time-traveling madness, it paid fealty to another major sci-fi influence—one that Who fans might already be familiar with, but establishes a surprising direction for the new season. A hint: He’s just this guy, you know?
Douglas Adams is best known for writing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but the author is also a major figure in the history of Doctor Who. He wrote or co-wrote three classic stories, including the beloved “City of Death,” and he also oversaw the show’s scripts for a year. The relationship makes sense: His tongue-in-cheek approach is perfect for a TV show about an alien with a time machine and no social skills. And given that this season of Doctor Who seems to be going for a lighter touch after some intense darkness, it’s fitting that the season opener is a bit of an Adams tribute.
When “The Pilot” begins, The Doctor is living and teaching at a fictional university in Bristol. He’s been there for the past 50 years—yet, nobody seems to notice that one of the professors has outlasted even the most determined of tenured faculty. Who fans may recognize this from “Shada,” a never-completed story that Adams wrote for the 1979-1980 season: that planned arc featured another Time Lord who had spent decades teaching at Cambridge University (in the fictional St. Cedd’s College), with nobody noticing his agelessness.
Just like Professor Chronotis, the renegade Time Lord in Adams’ story, the current Doctor is hiding some incredibly valuable Time Lord artifact on campus—though at least he’s gotten himself a fancy vault for it. Plenty of other Adams fill the episode as well. “Bristol” is the nickname the Doctor gives to Chris Parsons, one of his friends in “Shada,” and at one point during a lecture the Doctor says “time is an illusion,” which is the beginning of a Hitchhiker’s quote (one which ends “…lunchtime doubly so.”).
Even the Dalek battle owes something to Adamas. When the Doctor takes off across the universe with his new companions Bill and Nardole, he visits a battle between the Daleks and a strangely familiar army of disco robots. These are the Movellans, who appeared in the 1979 story “Destiny of the Daleks”—a script that may have been written by Terry Nation, but was very much a product of Adams’ wholesale rewrite.
References aside, last night’s episode is suffused with a distinctly Adams-esque sense of fun. To wit: the introduction of Bill (Pearl Mackie), as the Doctor’s new companion. A young lesbian who works in the cafeteria serving “chips” (fries to Americans), Bill crashes the Doctor’s lectures, and he notices her curious mind. So he plucks her out of the crowd and becomes her private tutor, leading to some lovely, giddy moments—like the two of them sitting and wearing paper crowns, or Bill’s attempts to teach the Doctor about science fiction.
Meanwhile, the plot is somewhat forgettable: it revolves around Bill’s crush on a girl named Heather (Stephanie Hyam), who discovers a puddle that gives a strange reflection. (It’s one of writer Steven Moffat’s trademark “optical effect” monsters.) After Heather takes a dip in the puddle, she comes back as a watery zombie—not unlike the watery zombies in the 2009 Who special “Waters of Mars”—who then chases Bill and the Doctor all over the universe.
The real heart of the episode, though, lies in the spiky student-teacher relationship between the Doctor and Bill. With the Doctor an actual teacher (instead of simply lecturing on an amateur basis), his sparring with Bill is more vital and urgent than it has been with other recent Companions. And after years of the scarily competent Clara, it’s refreshing to see the Doctor paired up with a human who’s just figuring out the ropes—and whose quirky observations help to deflate the Doctor’s pomposity.
Mackie’s mixture of wide-eyed wonder and perfect British sarcasm gives Peter Capaldi a comedic partner to play off, and he takes full advantage. Given that dynamic, Bill feels like the Twelfth Doctor’s answer to Donna, the snarky maniac who had great comic chemistry, but no sexual or romantic chemistry, with the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant). That said, the humor doesn’t always work: the episode could have done without the fat joke, or Bill taking twice as long as every other companion to grasp that the TARDIS is bigger inside than outside.
And yet, this Doctor Who episode fully earns its Douglas Adams references; its blend of silliness and spiky wit reminds fans that the show is often at its best when it’s not taking itself seriously—and knows where its towel is.
Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.