Doctor Who The Magician's Apprentice

Doctor Who The Magician’s Apprentice
BBC One, Saturday 19th September 2015

Review by Sean Alexander

Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, Jemma Redgrave, Jami Reid-Quarrell
Written by Steven Moffat, Directed by Hettie MacDonald
“Where is the Doctor…?”

Spoilers – dontcha hate ‘em?  In this saturated multimedia world we are now enforced to live in, avoiding anything from sports results, soap storylines or what’s happening in the next series of Doctor Who is only achievable with hermit levels of reclusiveness.  Even if you try your best they’re there on the front of TV guides, in Twitter feeds or on the sides of double-decker buses.  The price of living in a multichannel landscape that has hundreds of channels demanding your attention is that a certain amount of ‘spoilering’ is now deemed necessary rather than optional.  Soaps plaster their storylines all over the tabloid press and TV Quick, while those notorious ‘moles’ that seemingly get wind of even the most covert of TV secrets are so invidious you can only assume they’re also on the programmes’ payroll.  Russell T Davies, himself far from being a stranger to ‘sexing up’ his own products once called them ‘ruiners’, and that’s exactly what they do nine times out ten.  Past the visceral thrill of discovering (blank) is the new (blank) in the first episode of (blank), these ruiners just leave us marking time while watching the final programme until our suspicions are confirmed, rendering their impact hollow and empty.  It’s a tightrope that Doctor Who has trodden with mixed success since 2005, with notable wins (Jenna as Oswin the Dalek, Capaldi’s eyebrows) and losses (Yana is the Master, 11th’s final phone call to the future Clara) that are as much down to carefully guarded choices as the very real presence of the show’s filming on the streets of London and Cardiff.  But tonight felt like another of those defeats, in more ways than one.
Warning- Spoilers past this point

Okay, we pretty much knew that the scared and lonely child about to die on that bleak battlefield was gonna be Davros, but at least we had the thrill of Julian Bleach’s wheelchaired return without any of the suspicion of 2008.  But the fact that this season’s arc has already been rolled out in the space of 50 minutes does make the fact that certain departments of the British press think we need to know everything that’s to come months and months before it actually does.   What a thrill it would have been to have that opening scene of the Doctor faced with rescuing the progenitor of his deadliest enemies without the nagging sense that we already knew how this was gonna play out.  Instead, I turned to my fellow fan (and uncle) and said ‘that was in the papers back in February’m while shaking my head with genuine regret as the opening titles rolled.

Right, enough of ‘what ifs’ and more of ‘what weres’.  ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ proves once and for all that Doctor Who has become the cinema blockbuster in microcosm, available in twelve weekly morsels on flat screen TVs in the comfort of your living rooms.  It looks fantastic, hugely expensive and (given the tentative Eccleston series where the furthest we got off-Terra was orbiting space stations) on a cosmic scale that Star Wars first used as a template for modern space opera.  In the space of ten minutes we’ve been from Skaro to the Maldovarium to Karn, back to Skaro, to modern day Earth and medieval England.  The revived series would have taken most of RTD’s tenure to rack up those figures.  But then this is a series now ten years old (if only nine series in, but then time has always been inconstant with this series) and those tuning in (both casual and committed) now expect to see popcorn spectacle on a weekly basis.  And in this element ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ barely draws breath, using the notion of planes as a global threat as merely a plot device to bring Clara and Missy together.  On which note, are we now at the stage where a couple of UNIT agents get casually slaughtered and yet the organisation’s commanding officer doesn’t even have her disarmed?  Or at least put in handcuffs?  Michelle Gomez picks up last season’s debut baton and proves to be a sublime piece of panto villainy, her Master reboot a broad mix of Cruella de Ville and Blake’s 7’s Servalan.  But should we really be seeing a couple of redshirts get turned to vapour and then minutes later another nameless stooge handing their murderess a laptop?  The Master has always been a moral vacuum, but Doctor Who certainly isn’t and this left the hollow feeling that a showboating villain/villainess can do anything she likes with impunity so long as it’s witty and engaging.  And after all, it was her who needed UNIT’s help to find the Doctor, not the other way round.  Perhaps Steven Moffat is just a little too in love with one of his creations, and not for the first time either.

The rest is a rollercoaster of fan pleasing moments and the kind of shameless button pressing that hasn’t been seen since the 50th.  You want retro Daleks and modern Daleks together onscreen?  Well, after ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ fudged attempt you finally have them.  Skaro inside and out is a love letter to ‘The Dead Planet’, and even for the relatively virginal fan there are brief returns to such recent fare as ‘The Stolen Earth’, ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and ‘The Night of the Doctor’.  Which raises another point as to where exactly these ‘minisodes’ that Moffat has made such a trademark fit in with the actually broadcast material?  Yes, it’s largely throwaway stuff that embellishes things for the attentive without handicapping the mildly diverted, but the use of such cross-media ways to simultaneously hype/deepen what is seen on a Saturday night have become almost a separate continuity in themselves.  For the TV audience only, Ohila and the Sisterhood of Karn’s brief cameo this evening would have lacked any resonance to those who had missed either or both of her online appearances, so what are they for?  Mini-snacks of Who goodness to keep the fans salivating, while helping build the hypometer’s needle to already dangerous levels?  Or just further fanboy indulgence from a chief writer and executive producer who consistently seems to be pandering to his own ten year-old self when sitting down to plot a new season’s canon?

When the episode does pause for breath it’s with regret that there’s a return to the Matt Smith mugging days of playing to the audience.  Okay, Peter Capaldi channelling Brian May while stood on a tank is pretty cool in anyone’s book, but still had me screaming “But what’s it for?” in true ‘Pirate Planet’ incredulity.  A couple of Christmas cracker jokes and some Glastonbury style crowd interaction, which does little but remind us that this is still a showrunner who cut his teeth on postmodern, pop-cultural sitcoms.  Fortunately we’re in an episode too packed with stuff to linger for long on its misfires, and soon we’re off to Skaro and a date with a dying scientist.  If it does indeed pan out that the Doctor is responsible for allowing the creation of not only his oldest enemies but also their creator, then series nine may end up being the most morally ambiguous of Doctor Who’s decade back on TV.  Notwithstanding that cliff-hanger, surely the Doctor’s real shame should be that he goes back and saves the life of his arch enemy, knowing this allows him to become both who he is and what he will go to create.  Seeing as ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ surely started as a scribbled note containing ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ keynote speech about ‘having the right’ to kill the child you know will become a monster, if the Doctor is seen to have abandoned Davros rather than save him and create a universe that could be ‘better with the Daleks’, then doesn’t this contradict the central ethos of the show?  That regardless of your capacity for evil and destruction, the Doctor still offers a hand of retribution irrespective of his deep-rooted abhorrence of cruelty and cowardliness.  “I’m the Doctor and I save people”, says Capaldi in the first series trailer, and as mission statements go it’s served Doctor Who pretty well for over fifty years.  The question is, does Steven Moffat have the right to change that…?

Sean's reviews of this season will continue each week on the Time Lines blog 

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