Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 1
“The Magician’s Apprentice”
Here we go again, my self imposed exile from writing about TV is over I’m starting with Doctor Who. Many long term readers of this website will know that I was less than impressed with the last season but I forge on because I want to like this show so am I left regretting my life choices at the start of this season?
The short answer is no, this was a very well put together episode and a nice surprise all round. That’s not to say that I thought everything was great but Doctor Who is definitely on the right track with this outing.
Right from the opening seconds the tone for the episode is set. We see a war torn misty planet with a laser shooting biplane attacking people with a bow and arrow. It’s an opening that would only really work in Doctor Who and it works well here. I found myself feeling more than a little curious as to what was going on. Seeing a man sucked into the ground and a collection of hands sticking out only made the whole thing more tantalising.
The Doctor appears out of nowhere to come to the aid of a young boy stranded in the middle of this field of hands. He seems much more positive than he was in the last season as he offers this doomed young child hope when he needs it the most. It’s something that evokes the days of David Tennant or Matt Smith which isn’t a bad thing. I said last year that I wanted Capaldi’s Doctor to be different but there should still be traits that carry through all incarnations to make him identifiable as the main character. A sense of optimism and the desire to bring hope to those who have none is something that is definitive for this character as far as I’m concerned.
His latest rescue attempt reveals itself to be atypical when the young boy identifies himself as Davros (the creator of the Daleks) and the credits roll. A question is dropped over what the Doctor does once he finds out this information and the mystery endures over much of the rest of the episode. This revelation reminded me of two things, the first was the underdeveloped theme of last season where the Doctor questioned whether or not he was a good man. The second reminder comes from long ago in the history of this show. Specifically the fan favourite and critically acclaimed Tom Baker story “Genesis of the Daleks”. In that story the Doctor is faced by a difficult choice when he has the opportunity to destroy the Daleks shortly after their creation. The specific situation here is referenced in that episode with the Doctor asking the rhetorical question of having the opportunity to kill a child who grows up to be historically awful. The question is no longer rhetorical and the Doctor is struggling with the ramifications of that.
We learn that he’s went into something of a self imposed exile after this event. It seems to be deemed significant due to the fact that he left behind his sonic screwdriver. The revived series definitely has associated the sonic screwdriver with the Doctor’s adventurous nature so to have him be without it actually says a lot about his character and where he is emotionally at that point. Having this episode be something of a sequel to “Genesis of the Daleks” is a nice touch as it adds to the overall scope of the series with the Doctor being a figure who has had massive influence throughout all of time and space.
The episode also revisits the notion of the Doctor’s mortality which is something that had me scratching my head a bit as this is ground that has been pretty well covered before now. Having the Doctor’s death be inevitable was previously brought up in David Tennant’s final episodes as well as the season 6 opener “The Impossible Astronaut” before developing the idea throughout that season. We also had it again in “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor” but the angle of approach here was slightly different.
Like in “The Impossible Astronaut” The Doctor is aware of his impending death so decides that he’s going to enjoy himself by partying in 12th century Essex with an electric guitar and a tank. As introductions go it’s wonderfully insane and Capaldi is clearly revelling in the notion of standing atop a tank brandishing an electric guitar. This whole sequence felt very Bill and Ted but in a good way. I like when the show takes the time travel premise and has some fun with it.
From here the Doctor is taken to Skaro (the homeworld of the Daleks) and confronts a dying Davros who wanted to see his enemy one last time. Julian Bleach returns to this role after playing him previously in “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” and it’s a welcome return. He doesn’t miss a beat and comes back as enigmatically sinister as ever. Even in his weak and frail state he looks like a confident force to be reckoned with. He has knowledge of the Doctor that nobody else really does and enjoys rubbing that in his face one last time. Bleach gets to deliver poetic dialogue like “Hunter and prey held in the ecstasy of crisis, is this not life at its purest?”. He really brings a sense of gravitas to Davros that is very much required.
It is eventually revealed that upon realising who he was about to save the Doctor turned tail and ran off, leaving the young boy to apparently die. Of course he doesn’t and becomes one of the Doctor’s most fearsome enemies. It’s an interesting angle that Davros might remember his first meeting with the Doctor and have that cause the hatred he feels for him while the Doctor has to catch up with that. Since he travels through time he often experiences events in the wrong order. In this case Davros might recognise the Doctor when he first meets him in “Genesis of the Daleks” but chose to keep that secret until he wore the face that left him to die. It brings a new layer to the antagonistic relationship and a really exciting one at that. The active question of “who made Davros?” burns through the episode and becomes something of a cornerstone of his relationship with the Doctor.
This is also an interesting new shade to the Doctor’s personality as he knowingly left someone to die in the hope that it might prevent the problems caused in the future. Of course he survives and the Doctor gets to regret the choice but I found it fascinating that the Doctor would make that choice since it’s not something I would expect him to do. It makes perfect sense for him to do that but I wonder if David Tennant or Matt Smith’s Doctor would do the same thing. This is more of what I wanted to see from the “different” Doctor last season. Maybe Moffat has listened to the criticisms and taken steps to fix it. Either way, long may this continue.
Capaldi seems much more confident in his portrayal in general. There’s more of a sense of consistency to the character even in this one episode. I get the feeling that as an actor he has managed to settle into this role and there will soon be a sense of identity to it. It shouldn’t have taken an entire season to get to this point but I’m glad that it’s starting to happen.
This wouldn’t be Doctor Who without his faithful companion. Clara is back and as Mary Sue like as ever. Her part in this story begins when she notices a plane has paused in the sky which is of course out of the ordinary. It turns out to be a global problem and she is drafted by UNIT to help deal with the crisis. Her experience following the Doctor around apparently proves to be vital in situations like this.
On paper this works but in practice all she does is stand around asking a bunch of painfully obvious questions. I’m sure trained military types could come to these same conclusions. The dialogue was written as if she was coming up with clever out of the box suggestions but none of it was especially clever. As is common in Doctor Who, a good concept is marred by poor execution.
I have nothing against Jenna Coleman’s portrayal of Clara as she does a fantastic job as usual but having her written as someone who everyone looks to for sage advice and as someone who always seems to have the answers is very grating. I get that she has learned a lot through travelling with the Doctor but some weaknesses for the character wouldn’t really go amiss here.
One thing I was glad of is that her contribution to the episode is fairly passive. Her only purpose is to find the Doctor and hang around with Missy (more on her later) while trying to puzzle through the situation. I’m glad that the plot doesn’t entirely hinge on her involvement and she does go into something of the companion role.
I also liked that the pausing plane plot was something of a misdirect to the audience. It is definitely something that could easily fill an entire episode and it did seem as if that was what would happen but having it be a means to an end was a clever touch.
The whole thing was engineered by Missy to get the attention of Clara. Michelle Gomez returns to the gender swapped Master and she’s no less palatable this time around. She is of course playing the part perfectly but the character as written drives me insane. Gomez is having fun swapping accents, trading quips and generally being enigmatic but the character is too exaggerated for me and I find it difficult to take her seriously as a credible threat.
On a conceptual level the exploration of her relationship with the Doctor works really well. Her discussion with Clara where Missy looks down her nose at her and the whole human race for being so primitive was great. I like the idea of the Doctor’s relationship with the Master being more complex than humanity’s limited grasp of emotion can fully understand. Normally I can’t stand the explanation that I wouldn’t understand when told but when it comes to Timelords it somehow seems to fit. The randomness of the persistent rivalry between these two characters with the affection underneath it at all times helps to compliment the unknowable nature of the true extent of this relationship that has lasted longer than human civilisation.
Missy is around because she has the last confession of the Doctor that acts as his last will and testament. He gave it to his best friend -apparently Missy- and it is to be opened when he dies. Missy wants to find him because she doesn’t want to see him die and needs Clara’s help in finding him. Her stopping of the planes is just a big stunt to get attention. Naturally this last will and testament will come back later in the season so hopefully the reveal will live up to the potential.
Despite my misgivings about the character she did slot effectively into a companion role for this episode. She is motivated by selfish desire but does have the necessary knowledge to help out when the need arises. Of course she only does this to save her own skin and satisfy her own curiosity but it’s interesting to see. If the character was better written I might enjoy her presence a little more but her interactions with Clara are occasionally interesting.
Of course she is waiting for the opportunity to betray the Doctor and betray him she does. When the Daleks are keen to destroy the TARDIS she tries to get them to accept her offer of help in exchange for teaching them how to use it and therefore become invincible. They decline and disintegrate her as well as Clara leaving the Doctor distraught at seeing his friends murdered before his very eyes just before his lifelong companion and ship is destroyed.
Of course this won’t stick as we can’t have the Doctor without his transportation or companions from now on so the moment is robbed of a certain amount of tension but I can forgive the episode for ending on an interesting note with the Doctor pointing a gun in a small child’s face. Again, I doubt he’ll actually do it but seeing him driven to the limits of desperation like that is fantastic viewing.
This is a great start but it remains to be seen if the second part can stick the landing. Opening the season on a 2 part story was a great move as there’s it gave the episode room to breathe and introduce everything properly. None of it ever felt slow or forced either so I can definitely applaud Moffat’s script on its sense of pace. I actually find myself excited to see it next week. Long may this high quality continue. There is very little here that won’t have new viewers scratching their head. I imagine that the constant references to Doctor Who lore would be very confusing to people just deciding to give the show a chance for the first time. It isn’t a criticism at all as the show doesn’t necessarily need to constantly explain the whole thing to people who have never seen it before. This is definitely one for those who like the show and it plays out as such.
A really strong opening to the season that sets the stage wonderfully for what I hope will be a fascinating conclusion to this 2 part story.
The callbacks to the classic Doctor Who story “Genesis of the Daleks” prove to be a great idea and really punctuate the moral dilemma the Doctor is faced with in this episode as well as add to the scope of how influential the character really is.
Bringing Davros back to show the consequences of the choice the Doctor made to leave him for dead upon realising who the young boy is worked brilliantly. The Doctor is forced to look one of his greatest enemies in the eye after realising that he helped with his creation.
Peter Capaldi seems more settled in the role of the Doctor and the writing seems more confident in what sort of man he needs to be. There’s a hint of darkness about him and the suggestions that his morality is a bit looser than previous incarnations is a welcome touch. Long may this continue.
Jenna Coleman is still excellent as Clara but the writing can’t shake this Mary Sue aspect of her. She is brought in by UNIT to deal with a crisis but doesn’t bring anything to the table that isn’t obvious. She does take something of a back seat when the Doctor is reintroduced so it’s refreshing to see her act as the companion again.
The return of Missy is pretty infuriating for me. You either like this character or you don’t and I really don’t. Michelle Gomez is great at portraying her as written but she really irritates me. Her presence felt necessary in this episode at least and she did have some good moments.
There are lots of teases and references to things that will become important as the season continues. When this is coupled with a great moral dilemma for the Doctor as well as questions of morality then it makes for a really exciting viewing experience. Time will tell if the show can stick the landing but so far I’m full of praise for this season so far.