Wow! I can’t believe it’s already time to be back blogging to schedule! I promise to review Last Christmas in the near future, but in the mean time it is so glorious to have new episodes of Doctor Who back and at Series 9 and counting too! Read on and expect spoilers!
The Magician’s Apprentice was glorious: unexpected, thought provoking and sparkling with fun, energy and great dialogue tempering the darkness which has characterized Capaldi’s Doctor. I felt that Capaldi worked for me as The Doctor from midway through Series 8 on, though the whole series last year felt more grown-up somehow, with the show unafraid to explore characters, allowing for moments of quite intense darkness and tackling some serious moral questions. For a show that’s now nine series in (and that’s just the new stuff), Doctor Who is certainly an example of a show that constantly re-invents. Some of this is the nature of the show itself (a show that has a time machine that can go anywhere in time and space offers a lot of scope to explore), but I also firmly believe that the current international success of the show is down to the work of Moffat. Say what you like about his ability to execute his big ideas, it is irrefutable that the ideas are there. Without his commitment to re-inventing the show, pushing viewers in unexpected ways and going against expectation as well as his audacious daring in messing with long-standing classic Who canon, I don’t think this opener would have happened at all.
Moffat rug-pulling isn’t new and the last time we saw it was with the Missy reveal at the end of the excellent Dark Water. Moffat doesn’t waste time in pulling the rug out from under the viewer in the opening five minutes of The Magician’s Apprentice. There is a return of the war and soldier motif with a soldier trying to help a small boy surrounded by hand mines to escape an unnamed war zone. The soldier is exited. The audience pities the poor boy, feels his terror and prays The Doctor will come and avert the boy’s imminent death. The Doctor obliges.
The Doctor: Your chances of survival are one in a thousand… so here’s what you do… concentrate on the one… survival is just a choice.
So far, so good. The Doctor as a bringer of hope and of survival continues to go to form when he asks:
The Doctor: What’s your name? Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.
The boy’s answer is a ‘jaw hit the ground’ moment, chilling and compelling.
Not since The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon has an introduction episode felt so much like a finale.
One of the things RTD did well was making his series tie into each other so that the world felt connected and real. Moffat has done less of this, focusing more on concept story-telling and links to classic era Who, rather than emphasizing links to New Who. The Magician’s Apprentice feels richer for moving forward by looking back with a number of familiar places and people returning (The Maldovarium bar from Series 5 and 6), The Ood from Series 2, 4 and the Ten Christmas specials, The Shadow Proclamation and Davros from Series 4 and going back further, the sisterhood of Karn and the Dalek planet, Skaro, from classic Who). I, for one, would love to hear more from Karn and The Shadow Proclamation.
I have never been keen on Clara. Governess Clara and Dalek Clara were just so much more interesting than modern day Clara. However, I did enjoy the show’s push in Series 8 to show a slow morph of Clara’s role in the show from mere companion to surrogate Doctor, culminating in her ability to perform The Doctor part in Death in Heaven pre-credits. However, in The Magician’s Apprentice I felt like Clara has finally come full circle as a companion and no longer has any place left to grow or go.
This series she is still teaching, this time Jane Austen, with a throw-away line about Austen being a great kisser (What adventure was this? Someone write the fan fic) and a command to the class to use the hashtag #planeshavestopped on Twitter. Clara is a confident and hip teacher, the cool English teacher we’ve all had at one point who nonetheless never made a lick of sense. Not only that, she’s the person UNIT calls when something’s gone wrong. She makes logical deductions rather than calling on The Doctor to make them for her (texting definitely isn’t The Doctor’s MO, planes frozen in time doesn’t equal an invasion, so logically it’s a call for attention). Alas, after she pairs with UNIT and Missy, her role becomes redundant.
The Twelfth Doctor
The Doctor is more fun this episode. Capaldi’s Twelve is still full of sadness and darkness, but there is a sense of Eleven underneath it all, made explicit when Twelve plays guitar on a tank Mad Max: Fury Road style and plays his audience with Missy like some kind of rock star. That doesn’t mean this Doctor doesn’t have gravitas. He’s just loosened up a bit since Series 8. He teaches Medieval England the word ‘dude’ a few centuries early for heaven’s sake!
Best of Frenemies?
Oh, how glad I am to see an earlier than expected return of Missy. Michelle Gomez is an enormous asset to the series, able to play comedy, deranged mad woman, little girl lost and cold Time Lord within seconds of each other. Her pathetic explanation of how she survived Death in Heaven was suitable Delgado (“cutting to the chase… back again, big surprise), her tea session with UNIT and Clara awful yet entertaining (“NO, OF COURSE I’VE NAE TURNED GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD” followed by disintegration of some of UNIT’S lackeys), her deranged singing and dancing whilst held captive odd, but fun and her barbed comments entertainingly Master. There are too many great moments to recap, but the below was pretty great:
Missy: How’s your boyfriend? Still tremendously dead, I expect?
Clara: Still dead, yep. How come you’re still alive?
Missy: Death is for other people, dear.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Master as The Doctor’s distorted mirror has been the element of loving to hate each other, especially in New Who with both seeing themselves as the last of their kind. Though I enjoyed Simm’s Master initially, it felt like there was more to explore. Enter Missy and Moffat. Clara thinks The Doctor has sent his will to her and is mockingly rebuked by Missy (an echo of Madame Vastra in The Name of the Doctor. “The Doctor does not share his secrets with anyone. What makes you an exception?”) I loved Missy’s explanation of the long-standing friendship:
Missy: See that couple over there? You’re the puppy.
Clara: Since when do you care about the Doctor?
Missy: Since always. Since the Cloister Wars. Since the night he stole the moon and the President’s wife. Since he was a little girl. One of those was a lie, can you guess which one?
Missy: Try, nano-brain, to rise above the reproductive frenzy of your noisy little food chain and contemplate friendship. A friendship older than your civilization, and infinitely more complex.
When The Doctor plays to his Medieval audience, including Missy in his ‘performance,’ the two are performing parts that Clara has no part in, regardless of her deep knowledge of The Doctor and his history. Still, the script reminds us why The Doctor needs his human companions when Davros’ messenger tells The Doctor that Davros knows and remembers. Missy asks what the look on The Doctor’s face means. Clara already knows.
Clara: Shame. Doctor, what have you done?
The difference between Missy as The Doctor’s friend and a human companion is that whilst The Master can match The Doctor for intellect, shared history and culture and sheer bloody mindedness and audaciousness, humanity reminds The Doctor about the importance of emotions and why having heart matters. When The Doctor forgets his hearts, he is capable of horrendous things.
The Doctor’s Moral Choice
The Doctor: Davros made The Daleks, but who made Davros?
Who indeed? The heart of the darkness in this episode sits with Davros and his relationship with The Doctor. Davros is a real threat this time, less cartoonish as he was in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, scarier, more grounded and graver.
Davros: I approve of your new face Doctor… so much more like mine.
Like Missy, Davros becomes a mirror reflecting the possible inhumanity of The Doctor (we’re not so different, you and I. The Doctor goes to be with his human children to die, Davros to Skaro with his Daleks). What a conceit it was on Moffat’s part to riff off an old classic like Genesis of the Daleks, but it is a conceit that pays off. The lines, “If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?” are infused with a new horror. Could The Doctor, the hero of our show, really have created a monster, and knowing that he had, would he go back and change his past, murder a child, to prevent a more horrific future, and if he did this terrible thing, would he still be The Doctor?
Watching Clara get played with by Davros’ children is equally chilling.
Davros: See how they play with her. See how they toy. They want her to run. They need her to run. Do you feel their need, Doctor? Their blood is screaming kill, kill, kill! Hunter and prey, held in the ecstasy of crisis. Is this not life at its purest?
It is that moment that pushes The Doctor to the brink.
The Doctor: Why have I ever let you live?
Davros: Compassion, Doctor. It has always been your greatest indulgence. Let this be my final victory. Let me hear you say it, just once. Compassion is wrong.
Davros doesn’t hear The Doctor say it, but in this cliffhanger, actions speak louder than words with The Doctor going back along his time line to kill the boy who grew up to create The Daleks and cause The Time War. Will The Doctor follow through, and if he does next week, will he still be The Doctor as we know him? I don’t know. But I’ll be glued to the screen next week to find out.
The Magician’s Apprentice: 10/10 inky stars