TV

Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 1: 'The Magician's Apprentice'

Craig Owen Jones

Series 9's opener sees the Doctor come face to face with an old enemy -- in the most unexpected way.


Doctor Who

Airtime: Saturdays, 7.40pm/7pm
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez
Subtitle: The Magician's Apprentice
Network: BBC/BBC America
Airdate: 2015-09-19
Amazon

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.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image