The Magician's Apprentice
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez
Regular airtime: Saturdays, 7.40pm/7pm
The last season of Doctor Who was a curious mix of triumphs and disappointments. The central conceits of the story arc—who is the mysterious Missy? What happened to Danny Pink during his ‘bad day’?—rested on solid dramatic foundations, and provided just enough cohesion to supply unity to a very disparate collection of tales. Strong performances from Peter Capaldi, who settled into the role of the Doctor with prodigious speed, as well as Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez in supporting roles also helped to ensure that the season’s strengths outweighed its weaknesses.
It was a close-run thing, though. Rarely in the history of television has a show veered so quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous. For every stand-out episode—‘Dark Water’ and ‘Listen’ spring to mind as fine examples of tight, suspenseful drama—viewers had to sit through some terrible misfires, such as ‘Robots of Sherwood’, 45 minutes of schlock from the pen of the normally dependable Mark Gatiss, or ‘Kill The Moon’, in which said celestial body was revealed to be an egg. Didn’t this used to be a science fiction show?
Perhaps it still is. For all the conceits to the fantastical in last night’s season opener ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, what we got was a story rooted, as ever in the Moffat era of the show, in the vagaries of time travel on the one hand and the Doctor’s personal narrative on the other.
One common criticism of last season’s ‘Listen’ was that it began to remove some of the mystery surrounding the Doctor by showing (albeit through a glass, darkly) a chink of his childhood. Those same critics are currently flaming Moffat supporters for last night’s cold opening. A battlefield sequence that referenced North By Northwest (oh look! A biplane strafing our hero from behind!), The Hunger Games (however did TV manage without bows and arrows?), Pan’s Labyrinth (staring eye-hands gonna stare…), Carrie (… and rise out of the ground), and Harry Potter (well, not really, but the boy in it looked an awful lot like Rupert Grint) in the space of a few seconds is probably taking intertextuality a bit too far, but it was all very gritty and atmospheric until we learned that the boy in question that the Doctor was trying to save was in fact Davros, the creator of the Daleks.
The disclosure didn’t so much puncture the mood as hack it to pieces with a blunt knife. As dramatic revelations go, it was a belter. You couldn’t see it coming, and the long, delightfully filmed reaction shot of Peter Capaldi, in which his expression fades from one of bright-eyed optimism to unbridled horror, confirms his as the most compelling Doctor to watch since—well, forever, really.
Was it sacrilege? I think not. Davros’ background is a tabula rasa, but there’s no compelling reason why writers should stay away from it. Moffat manages the revelation with the deftness appropriate to someone with his comprehensive grounding in the history of Doctor Who; only afterwards does the opening scene’s subtle referencing of Davros’ first serial, ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’ (1975)—which also features a melange of First World War and sci-fi imagery—become apparent. This isn’t any old planet: this is Skaro, in the throes of the war between the Thals and the Kaleds. Fans familiar with the pre-2005 series must have been wetting their knickers.
Before long, though, we find ourselves back on Earth, where Clara breaks off from telling her English Lit class how she once scored with Jane Austen just in time to spy an aeroplane halted, mid-flight, in the sky above Coal Hill School. Cue five minutes of largely pointless head-scratching as she and the bods from UNIT—who seem to be getting more and more inept by the day—try to work out What Is Going On. I knew What Was Going On: the depressingly familiar nonsensical plot point inserted for no other reason that it affords the producers the chance to put some visually arresting images on the screen was What Was Going On.
Is this gambit ever really justified? Is it ever right to sacrifice exposition on the altar of supposedly compelling and/or mystifying imagery? The answer, for those of you thinking of writing a Doctor Who episode in the future, is no, and certainly not in order for you to force your audience to sit through mocked-up news bulletins featuring stock pictures of planes hanging in mid-air. Doctor Who viewers have, remember, witnessed a Titanic-shaped starship falling out of the sky, a cherry red Routemaster double-decker bus flying over the London skyline, and flying saucers crashing into Big Ben. Pictures of planes doing nothing in particular are not exactly going to cut it.
In fact—and she’s popular, so whisper it quietly—halfway through I was wondering what the culprit, Missy, was doing in this episode. The stopped aeroplanes were, of course, down to her (we never discover why she bothers) and once she gets them moving again, she does nothing beyond throwing a few pop culture references in the Doctor’s direction and getting killed. Again. (I suppose we’ll see her next week.) It is a pity that her role was reduced to that of an appendage; Michelle Gomez is the finest Master since Peter Delgado introduced the villain in the ‘70s, and her mercurial characterisation deserves so much more than it gets here.
Fortunately, these constitute the only serious missteps, and the remainder of the episode is thrilling. If Moffat loses points for implying that the late 1130s, a time when the Anarchy is in full swing, is a period in English history where nothing much is going on, he regains them for the bizarre but surprisingly enjoyable spectacle of the Doctor entertaining a 12th-century crowd of Anglo-Normans with his guitar-playing skills. (While standing on a tank. Worth it, so it seems, for the joke.) It really shouldn’t work, guitar-noodling ranking alongside Missy’s quotations of early ‘80s MTV hits for hitting all the wrong character notes, but it does. I guess that if we can put Matt Smith in a hip-hop studio, Capaldi has every right to show off his licks.
The episode concludes with a breathless confrontation between Davros and the Doctor. This is where Moffat’s writing truly shines; more than any other writer for the show, his deep understanding of Doctor Who’s past allows him to discover resonances in earlier themes and plotlines, and turn what previously seemed to be small-scale conflicts and dramas into titanic struggles between moral and immoral forces that leave the viewer stunned. Some delightful archive footage of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors’ previous confrontations with Davros effected the transformation here. In a moment, vast perspectives opened up; we suddenly gained a feel for the sheer depth of enmity of Davros for the Doctor, and it was dizzying. The lengthy quote from Tom Baker’s famous speech in ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’ speculating on what one would do when confronted with the chance to kill someone who one knew would turn out to be evil was the icing on the cake, and set up the episode’s startling denouement.
Some might denigrate Steven Moffat’s regular invocation of the mythology of Doctor Who as nothing more than a plundering of past glories indicative of a failure of original ideas, an indulgent weakness of the uber-fan. On the contrary: it is a singular strength of his writing. It reminds the viewer that the show is like no other on television, possessing a past of extraordinary richness and variety, and in which the various versions of its lead character display a formidable unity of purpose that lends the series as a whole an unparalleled rhetorical force. By his actions, the Doctor describes the contours of what is moral, and always has, the odd Cyberman notwithstanding. ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ was not perfect, but its strengths outweighed its weaknesses, and in leaving us with the image of our non-violent, absolutely moral protagonist pointing a Dalek exterminator at a small child, it made for compelling television.