Sunday, 20 September 2015

DOCTOR WHO, 9.1 – 'The Magician's Apprentice'

Sunday, 20 September 2015


Series 9 of Doctor Who begins with a barnstorming opening hour, perhaps the best since Series 5's "The Eleventh Hour". While the show's revival has waxed and waned in subjective quality (often dictated by how much you enjoy the current Doctor/companion, or tolerate its haphazard plotting), there's simply no other TV show this infectiously crackers and light-footed at its best. While impenetrable to newcomers, "The Magician's Apprentice" was an irresistible mix of villainy and nonsense, grounded by the serious matter of The Doctor's (Peter Capaldi) impending death and an unexpected collusion of his arch-nemeses...

Since we last saw him, The Doctor has seemingly vanished—to fight a Viking using an electric guitar, standing atop a tank, as it transpired. Clara (Jenna Coleman) has returned to teaching after the death of her boyfriend, but is pulled back into action by UNIT when thousands of passenger planes become mysteriously frozen in the sky. These localised time-freezes are the work of Missy (Michelle Gomez), who's the unexpected beneficiary of The Doctor's Last Will & Testament, and whisks Clara back in time to chase The Doctor for answers. Trouble is, all three are entangled in a devious trap set by creator of the Daleks, Davros (Julian Bleach), who's dying and demanding to see The Doctor to deliver some cruel parting shots.

A strength and weakness of Doctor Who under Steven Moffat's stewardship is that it's undoubtedly imaginative, giddily paced, and crammed with witticisms, but when you take a moment to consider events a lot of it doesn't make a lick of sense. One might argue this is because Doctor Who's appeal for today's children is that it demonstrates the same kind of frenzied improv a typical seven-year-old uses for playtime, and only killjoy adults bother to criticise something so 'in the moment' fun.

However, it was great that something deeper and more serious underpinned this premiere, which the grown ups to enjoy—particularly those who remember the Tom Baker era's classic "Genesis of the Daleks", where the Fourth Doctor had the chance to erase the Daleks from existence by simply touching two wires together. "The Magician's Apprentice" returned the same ethical dilemma, but with The Doctor accidentally embroiled in a situation where he's poised to save the life of a young boy on a war-torn planet, before realising the stricken lad is a young Davros...

Should The Doctor perform an act of heartlessness for the greater good of the galaxy? Or should a timeline of pain and destruction be maintained through an act of compassion for an innocent child unaware of his own bleak future?

It was interesting to note a few post-Series 8 adjustments to the show this hour, too. Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor was criticised by some last year for being too cantankerous and unlikeable for his own good, but in this hour he was a little cooler and much less crabby. Gomez's Missy was also more fun than catty, helped by the added screen time and becoming a loose ally against the Daleks. The way Missy's accent would often slip into broader Scottish (and occasionally even American) was also very amusing. I also enjoyed how Missy insists her relationship with The Doctor as that of his best-friend, because don't all friends fight? A position upheld by comments The Doctor made, too. Clara's relationship to them was almost that of a frazzled step-daughter, coming between two bickering parents. The trio's dynamic was certainly one of the best elements of this story.

Like so many of Moffat's two-parters, this hour ended with a blitzkrieg of shocking moments that felt like he'd intentionally written himself into the tightest corner possible—with the apparent deaths of Missy and Clara, plus the destruction of his beloved TARDIS by the Daleks. This being a time-travel show, it has an obvious get-out clause woven into the storytelling, but I'm interested to see exactly how things conclude. Will The Doctor's status as the ultimate creator of the Dalek be upheld? Maybe not saving him is what turns Davros evil...?


  • Complain all you like about Steven Moffat's manic writing style, haters, but time and again he comes up with brilliantly visual and exciting imagery. I particularly loved Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell) being a cloaked figure whose 'sliced face' was actually a row of curled snakes; one of hundreds that comprise his hidden body. Genius. Or how about the simple weirdness of those hands with eyeballs embedded in their palms, protruding from the ground looking for ankles to grab. Spooky.
  • Moffat also loves to lace his dialogue with throwaway comments he knows fans will latch onto, and excitedly discuss. Here, there was Clara's mention to her class that Jane Austen's a great kisser (um, did she..?) and Missy suggesting that The Doctor was once a little girl, but qualifying that may be a lie.
  • This was the first time we've seen The Shadow Proclamation and Davros since 2008's "The Stolen Earth" when David Tennant was incumbent. I was pleased they got Julian Bleach back to reprise Davros, too.
  • Daleks can destroy the TARDIS by simply shooting it from multiple angles, simultaneously? They could have done that many, many times before now.
  • The Missy and Clara scenes at the outdoor café was filmed in Tenerife, Spain, while the country's Parque Nacional de las Cañadas del Teide stood in for Skaro.
  • This two-part premiere is being directed by Hettie MacDonald, who's somehow only just been asked back since directing 2007's masterful "Blink". Yep, arguably one of the best Who episodes ever made and they never thought to call her for eight years? Crazy.
  • Nice touch to involve a vintage blue Dalek on the planet Skaro. Did you also realise that The Maldovarium market was the black market where River Song stole a vortex manipulator in "The Pandorica Opens"?
  • This week, Jenna Coleman officially confirmed she's leaving the show after Series 9, before the Christmas special. She will become the longest-serving nu-Who companion, and personally my favourite. Knowledge of her exit gave a me a frisson of excitement when she was evaporated by a Dalek ray gun, until I remembered the trailer shows Clara involved in other adventures to come. How ballsy would it have been if they'd kill a companion in such a casual, callous, unexpected way in episode 1?
  • The overnight ratings for this premiere was 4.6 million (which will undoubtedly increase once you factor in the week's repeat airings and BBC iPlayer viewings), but it's still a bit low considering the marketing behind this return. Maybe it's just more evidence that people are happier to catchup with TV when it suits them nowadays, and aren't so desperate to watch things live... even with the threat of being spoiled.
Next time...