[Review] - Doctor Who, Series 9 Episode 1, "The Magician's Apprentice"

Courtesy of the BBC
Here was my worry: Steven Moffat isn't great at follow ups. His first series as showrunner, with Matt Smith, was Doctor who at it's best. firing on all cyclders, it was exploding with ideas and very manageable and enjoyable episodes in which to contain those ideas. The subsequent series was big on ideas, but had a less firm grasp on how to execute them. His final year with Smith (minus the 50th, which was exemplary) was a mess. But, the second wind hit when Smith departed, and Capaldi took the role. Last series was again a high grade exploration of the show's qualities. The episodes were weird, but they for the most part hung together, and it made for the best Who experience in years.

Which is why I was worried about Magician's Apprentice. Well, one of several reasons. First, it was a premiere, which aside from Eleventh Hour, have been a great weakness of Moffat's. Second, it was a Dalek episode, and Moffat's Dalek stories tend to be rubbish. Third, it was kicking off a sophomore season with a Doctor, and like I said, the last time that happened, things got progressively worse as time went on. Watching the episode didn't initially alleviate those concerns though, as the episode had all the hallmarks of Moffat letting things get the better of him. A bum's rush of ideas with little reason or follow through. A lot of gags in place of storytelling, and a hell of a lot of exposition. And it was the first of a two parter, which Moffat hasn't done a truly good pair since Russell T. Davis left the series.

Which is why it is delightful to report that the episode could have been much worse. Yes, it is a bit rushed to get to the cliffhanger, but that has been the case of pretty much every NuWho two parter. And yes, Moffat mind numbingly blasts his way through a lot of material to get to the actual story. And yes, when you think about it, there is no real reasons for Missy to get UNIT and Clara involved (and where is her TARDIS anyway?) other than to provide lots of exposition. But the episode was also a solid call back to the best era of the show, posed real, delicate questions, and was fun when it wasn't trying too hard to be.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that always bring a guitar to an ax fight.

So... an indeterminate amount of time later, and Clara is pretty much a UNIT commander. As well it seems she should be. She has proven as resourceful and clever as the Doctor himself on occasion, and has been instrumental in fending off both a Zygon and Cyber invasion of Earth. It'd be weird if UNIT hadn't given her a position. So, when planes freeze in midair all around the world and the TARDIS phone is off the hook... who you going' to call? Besides a school teacher in the East End? Another Time Lord perhaps? Because it's all the fuss of Missy, back from the dead with about as much explanation as Anthony Ainley ever got. She's summoned them because she need help finding the Doctor, who has sent her his Last Will and Testament because he's convinced that he's going to die. But despite that, he's still drawing all kinds of anachronistic attention to himself so that Clara and Missy can find him, and accompany him to his final day. And if you've read all that and thought to yourself, "well, that seems a lot of road for very little distance," then you win the prize of having more editorial foresight than Mr. Moffat.

I've said this many, many times: Moffat works best when he breathes deep, simplifies, and takes his bonkers ideas and plays them out simply. Flesh eating shadows = good. Angels that move when you aren't looking = good. Out of order time romance = good. Out of order time romance involving the child of your best friend driven mad by an insane death cult using immediately forgotten clerics and an initiative to destroy all of reality by manipulating the destruction of a TARDIS = I still really have no idea. the point is, the more Moffat thinks about things, the further he tends to get from the point. And the point of this episode is actually very straight forward: if you had the chance to kill Hitler when he was a baby, would you?

The episode owns the fact that this very question was posed in one of the best episodes of the original series, when the Fourth doctor (who appears here, along with Five, Six, Seven and Ten) was presented with the option of preventing the Dalek's creation. At that time, he reasoned that he could not, for that would make him as bad as they. Genocide is never a reasonable means to an end, even if causing an genocide prevents one. It still means that someone is going home a monster. Well, time and the Doctor have moved on since the opening salvo in the Time War, and the Doctor is much older and spent much more time thinking about himself since then. Last season, he was branded a "very good Dalek." He struggled and grasped with the notion of being a good man. Since the series returned, with Nine coming to terms with the notion that in order to save reality, he destroyed both his own people and the Daleks entirely. We now know that didn't happen, but the Doctor knows that he is at least a man capable of doing so if he must. In the thousand or more years since he and Sarah Jane first met Davros, he's been pushing into the corner too often, and if the Dozenth were kneeling there, with those wires in his hands, he'd be much more likely to twin them together than not.

Which is why it kind of bites that Moffat reduced all that to "he wants to get Clara back." It really does take the wind out of the moral sails. It narrows the Doctor's perspective incredibly, and while the argument could be made that Clara represents everyone that the Daleks have ever murdered, in this instance it really does seem more like he's acting out of passionate impulse to avenge her, rather than thinking things through. Now, someone might be tempted to point out that, laser levels at the head of a child, he says "to get my friend back" rather than Clara. And a lot of this episode spent time making crystal clear that The Master is his very best friend in the whole cosmos. The Joker to his Batman, they are kindred and one of a kind, while representing the very opposite of positions. Life vs. death, chaos vs. order, jam vs. marmalade. One cannot exist without the other, and in those periods when the Master is no where to be seen tends to be when the Doctor's worst qualities bubble to the surface. The difference between the Doctor and the Master (besides the name, both authorities while one signifying assistance, the other dominance) is self control. The Master acts, while the Doctor thinks. Which is why his leveling a laser at a child seems so much more an act than a thought.

What worked in this episode were tone and Missy. Gomez is owning the role, defining it as much as Ainley or Delgado ever did. And she explodes on screen, and distracts from everyone else. Last year, as impressive as Capaldi was, Clara clearly came into her own, both as a character and a performance by Jenna Coleman. But she's a lint brush when Gomez is being amazing against her. I'm sure Coleman is trying her best, but she simply cannot match the levels that Gomez is operating at. Even Capaldi is struggling to keep up. Moffat using them both as emotional hostages to push the Doctor into a darker frame of mind is cheap and unfair to the characters. Missy especially takes a very uncharacteristic position, having dealt (and been exterminated) by Daleks before. She should have known better, and really did. It was just blatant, obvious maneuvering to get to the cliffhanger moment, and it'll be undone within minutes of the next episode I'm sure. Still a shame though.

And then there is tone. The episode opened and occasionally returned to some perfect Doctor Who horror. A mine field of eyed hands emerging from mud, in the midst of a technologically stunted multi-generational war. That is exactly the sort of horror you'd least expect that we've come to expect from the show that introduced us to the Daleks. The combination of the unexpected, the simple (see!) and the unknown is what makes people truly frightened. It isn't giant space pumpkins eating memories, its a foggy mud field and an eerie silence. And kudos to Capaldi for selling us completely that, of all of that, the most frightening thing in that field was the man the boy would become. Davros has never been my favourite character, mostly because he was done a great disservice in the eighties. But episodes like this are excellent reminders that, when a character is reduced to their simplest elements (revenge, fear, trust), they can be far more effective than lumping them up with all manner of spangly edifices and motivations.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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