Season 9, Episode 1 “The Magician’s Apprentice”
“If someone who knew the future… pointed out a child to you and told you that child would grow up totally evil, would be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives… could you then kill that child?”
“Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today!”
I have to say, I’m a bit confused.
Not by the episode – oh no, I thought it was a great way to kick off the season, grabbing at the audience in the same way that “The Impossible Astronaut” managed for Matt Smith’s second season – but by some of the reviews and comments I’ve seen about the episode.
“Not for the novice Who fan” has popped up a few times, along with “puts a new spin on old enemies”. “DEATH MEANS NOTHING ON THIS SHOW” is a complaint that pops up again, and again. “Too busy!” and “Not much actually happens” are others, and all I can think is, what show are you people watching?
And then I think a piece of the answer came to me.
Look, when Russel P. Davies brought back the show, he made a deliberate decision to cut the show off from the Original Series continuity, more or less, to bring in a new audience that wouldn’t have to have the decades of back story to understand the character of the Doctor. The Time War gave the New Series an almost blank slate and the audience stand-in of Rose meant that pieces of the actual continuity of the show – the history of the Doctor himself and the relationships he had with the recurring villains of the show – was able to be brought back in drips and drabs, updated in some cases sure, but mostly easing the audience into a show that had a history that goes back 50 YEARS.
And that’s fine, that’s good in fact! For all that I don’t like the character of Rose (love me some Billie Piper, though), she was effective as the stand-in for the new audience, and look what that new audience hath wrought! Doctor Who has never been more popular and its audience never so big.
But with that new audience – one who is much more familiar with the last 10 years of Who than the previous 40 – comes a seeming disconnect with the current showrunner and star, both of whom are fans of the show from when they were kids. Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi are both keen to link the Original Series to the New more and more, and make reference to the past in ways that serve as a bridge between the two series, and fans old and new.
But when I see “not for the novice Who fan”, I find myself wondering if the reviewer/commenter isn’t trusting the audience enough to follow along, and “a new spin on old enemies” makes me wonder if they’ve watched the Original Series at all, especially here. The complaint about death and its light touch on our characters, plays into this one too, and Moffat trolls those commenters and reviewers expertly – and does it in a context that echoes the Original Series as well – by making it clear that it doesn’t matter how Missy or Davros or Skaro is back on our screens, just that they are.
Anyway, rant-ish thing over. The Moffat-haters can hate. He’s as good and as bad as showrunners are.
Here, he’s fantastic.
Obviously set up as a fuller exploration of the moral dilemma of the classic Tom Baker episode “Genesis of the Daleks”, “The Magician’s Apprentice” is chock full of Original and New Series continuity that does trust the audience to follow along, and stare at the grey areas of both the Doctor and his friends and enemies. In “Genesis”, the 4th Doctor was sent by the Time Lords to stop the Daleks from being created in the first place, and asking the Who version of the question “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?”
There, the 4th Doctor decided that the greater good that the Universe would see by fighting against the Daleks outweighed the evil they brought, and merely delayed their development instead of destroying them. Since then, we’ve seen the Time War and the argument that the Doctor has made the Daleks stronger by fighting them, and that he has become more like them than he’s comfortable with, and that takes us to the tragic decision that sets this story in motion.
It’s hard to see the Doctor abandon a child, even if we know the monster he will become, and the sense of shame at his own actions is the reason the Doctor does everything here. Yes, the medieval party scene is fairly silly, and yes, we have another “The Doctor is Going to His Death” theme, but the latter fits into the character of the 12th Doctor perfectly – with his question of “goodness” from last season and his sense that he’s made mistakes that need to be addressed – and the larger character of the Doctor in any incarnation…
“Never cruel or cowardly.”
Of course he feels guilty, and that he’s betrayed himself and who he should be. He wouldn’t be the Doctor if he didn’t.
Peter Capaldi, of course, just lights the screen up here. Whether he’s rocking out on a tank or begging for Clara’s life, Capaldi is just great, but where he just owns it is in the character interactions. There’s an intimacy here between the Doctor and the other three principles that feels just astounding. Obviously the deep love and friendship between the Doctor and Clara has become something he’s more comfortable with showing since “Last Christmas”, even if the hug surprises Clara, but the return of the warped friendship between Roger Delgado’s original Master and Jon Pertwee’s 3rd Doctor in the form of Michelle Gomez’s Missy is something that this old fan was just thrilled to see.
We didn’t see that much in John Simm’s Master and David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, at least not on this level. Simm’s Master was crazed, and while Missy plays the crazy card quite a bit, it’s the quieter moments here that she shows that it’s more a role she’s chosen for herself than a deeper character trait. For newer fans, the “wanting her friend back” of “Death in Heaven” may have felt odd when looking at the Simms Master/Doctor relationship, but the clear callback to Delgado’s Master here makes it feel much more natural. Yes, they are enemies, and yes, they try to kill each other, but they are old friends, and that’s what makes it all work.
And then, of course, there’s Davros.
“Did you miss our conversations?”
There is something about the relationship between the Doctor and Davros that has always been incredibly powerful… between the man who stops the monsters and the man who creates them. “Genesis of the Daleks” and almost every appearance of Davros since has had the two diametrically opposed worldviews clashing, not only physically, but verbally in a way that few of the Doctor’s enemies can claim. Davros has a point of view, and he’s good at making his argument for it, even if it is a terrifying and warped one. He sees good when he looks at his creation, and if the Daleks see beauty in hatred, it’s obvious where that originated. And for all of the operatic excess of “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” there is a truth to Davros’ accusation of the Doctor creating weapons out of people in the same way that he has out of his Daleks. Kind of surprising that it took 7 years for Julian Bleach’s version of the character to return, but it’s great to have him back, even if this is (haha) the final days of Davros’ life.
Michelle Gomez is, as I said, just perfect as the latest incarnation of the Master, and her interplay with Capaldi is fun and tragic, but it’s the scenes with Jenna Coleman’s Clara where Missy is best this time around. Vicious and cruel, funny as all hell, the needling of Clara by Missy is some great character moments for both of them, but especially for Coleman. Her expression when Missy asks if Danny is still dead – actually, that whole scene – makes me feel that I’m really going to miss Clara when Coleman leaves at the end of this season. There was a sense of uncertainty to the character since the Impossible Girl arc ended, and some hit and miss stuff last season, but “Last Christmas” and this episode have been good Clara stories.
Of course one of the criticisms I’ve seen is that Clara has a little too much apparent pull with UNIT, but she’s the Doctor’s representative on Earth, isn’t she? It’s also interesting, and appropriate in a sense, that Jemma Redgrave’s Kate Stewart is more concerned with the people on the frozen planes than the potential threat they pose, and it’s always good to have her back, even if the UNIT scenes are brief. Calling out to the past in the form of the Maldovarium, Karn and the Shadow Proclamation, as well as appearances by Oods, Sycorax, Judoon and Hath are also nice touches.
The best callback though is the original Daleks. And they still look great.
Jami Reid-Quarrell’s Colony Sarff is an interesting new character: A group of serpents that form a gestalt entity that functions as a kind of democracy as well as Davros’ agent in the universe. Kinda hard to go unnoticed if he were to send the Daleks, so an agent makes sense. I’m curious to see what becomes of this clearly dedicated servant, especially if Davros appears to die for good at the end of “The Witch’s Familiar”. A loyal servant dedicated to revenge for his master’s death… hmmm.
And what of our ending? Is the Doctor truly about to murder a child to save/avenge Clara and Missy? Somehow I doubt it, but even if he destroys the handmines and saves Davros, the past has been changed, and Clara and Missy have both been killed by the Daleks. Of course we know that they will be saved somehow…
And after all, it’s the how that’s the fun part, isn’t it?