First, a quick note: Due to various factors, I've been away for quite some time. But I'm back now! Hooray! The extended absence, however, has meant that I have never finished reviewing Series 8 of Doctor Who. I do intend to finish those reviews, although I don't have a schedule for that at this time. However, I also wanted to respond right away to current episodes, so I'm not going to delay Series 9 reviews while waiting to finish the remaining Series 8 ones. Thus, I'm starting my return straight off with a review of “The Magician's Apprentice”!
I will be doing similarly with Pathfinder and other reviews. More details to come soon.
I've been quite excited for the return of Doctor Who this year. I was very happy with Series 8 overall (something that was probably already apparent from the reviews that I did complete and which I will expand more on when I complete the remaining ones), and I've been hoping to be similarly pleased, or even more pleased, with Series 9. With “The Magician's Apprentice”, I'm not disappointed, though perhaps a little concerned. It's a great first part of a series finale! Except it's not the finale. It's the series opener.
One might wonder what difference that makes. If it's great, it's great. How does its position in the series order affect that? The problem comes from its accessibility to casual and new viewers. The episode throws a lot of things at the viewer very fast and expects the viewer to simply know what they are. Long-time fans of Doctor Who, those who are familiar with its entire long history, will have little problem in this regard—they'll likely even be pleased and excited by many of the references. However, newer viewers are likely to find it confusing. If this were the finale, there would have been a whole season to (hopefully) introduce viewers to the concepts in this episode. As a series opener, on the other hand, it needs to provide a starting-off point for new viewers, and “The Magician's Apprentice” really doesn't do that. Instead, I worry that it will turn potential new viewers away, and that's not really a good thing.
Eighties Doctor Who has often been criticised for being too self-referential—too caught up in its own history and mythology. Season 22 opened with the story, “Attack of the Cybermen”, which in many ways is a sequel to “The Tenth Planet”, a story which aired nearly twenty years earlier. “Attack of the Cybermen” was highly criticised at the time as being inaccessible to current viewers, the majority of whom would have never seen “The Tenth Planet”, and thus have no idea what much of “Attack” was referring to. “The Magician's Apprentice” suffers from very much the same problem, only magnified (although in other ways, “The Magician's Apprentice” is a much better story than “Attack of the Cybermen”).
"The Magician's Apprentice”, in many ways, is a sequel to the Tom Baker story, “Genesis of the Daleks”, a story that first aired not just twenty years ago, but forty. Now, in today's day and age, with the availability of stories on DVD, iTunes, and other media, there is a higher chance of younger viewers having seen “Genesis”. Nevertheless, there is still likely to be a significant number of people watching this episode who haven't. They'll be unfamiliar with the Doctor's original encounter with Davros, which “Apprentice” builds on (although Davros does provide a convenient recording of the most important moment in that encounter—when the Doctor asks him if he could kill a child he knew would grow up to be evil). This might not be too insurmountable if it weren't for the fact that “Apprentice” also throws in numerous references to other stories throughout Doctor Who's history. In the early moments of the episode, we are shown a succession of characters the episode expects us to know—yet people like the Sisterhood of Karn haven't even appeared since the seventies (with the exception of the Paul McGann mini web episode “Night of the Doctor” and the Prologue to this very story, but those are extras that many people will also not have seen). Steven Moffat seems somewhat fond of having a succession of past characters make cameos; however, these usually occur in finales—lending further to the feeling that this is more of a finale than a première.
I do think that if both the Prologue and Prequel to “The Magician's Apprentice” (the first released online a week ago and the second in much more limited release the day before the episode aired) were actually part of the episode, the story would be much more accessible—especially seeing as both appear to take place during the episode, not before it (making both “Prologue” and “Prequel” misnomers of a sort). The Prologue in particular provides a better understanding of the Sisterhood of Karn, which the episode could benefit greatly from. The early sequences where Colony Sarff goes to various locations across the universe in search of the Doctor—which don't serve much purpose—could be cut down to allow the inclusion of these two bits.
All that said, there is a lot to enjoy in “The Magician's Apprentice”, especially for viewers who are familiar with all fifty-two years of Doctor Who. There are many references to older stories that are not intrusive and don't interfere with the ability to follow the story, such as the presence of various older Dalek designs on Skaro (including the special weapons Dalek!) or the well-executed chase sequence in the opening moments that allowed me to guess we were on Skaro well before the episode reveals it with Davros's name. But there's more than just references to old things. There are lots of little new things to entertain as well. I particularly love the hand mines—easily making the (very large) list of creepiest Doctor Who concepts. Their originality and newness also made me briefly question whether the episode was actually on Skaro after all. (Basically, my responses in the early parts of the episode went from, “Hey! Is this Skaro?” to “Oh, maybe not Skaro,” to “Okay, yeah, it's definitely Skaro.” Good stuff!)
"The Magician's Apprentice” sees the return of two of the Doctor's arch-enemies (well, the Doctor only refers to one of them as his “arch-enemy”, to the annoyance of the other). First off, Michelle Gomez is back as Missy and in fine form. I was unsure of Missy in her early, brief appearances in Series 8, but I absolutely loved her in “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven” (something I'll expand on in my eventual review of those episodes). I dare say she's even better here. She's had time to settle into the role and truly make it her own. Her ability to go from calm and serious to manic and deadly in an instant, to change her accent when mocking others, and much more, all combine to make her one of the best incarnations of the Master there have been. There are moments when the script gets excessive (such as the killing of random guards just to prove she's “bad”—I'd prefer a bit more subtlety in that regard), but even there, Gomez handles them in such a way as to make Missy both terrifying and entertaining.
Also back is Davros, played for the second time by Julian Bleach (who portrayed Davros the last time we saw him, way back in “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey's End”. This is a much more reserved and quiet Davros than last time—indeed than pretty much any previous appearance—and Bleach plays it beautifully.
I'm a bit torn over the whole retreading once more on the effects the Doctor has on the people around him. On the one hand, it builds quite naturally on Davros's previous appearance where he forces the Doctor to face his own hypocrisies. Here, he goes all the way back their original encounter, confronting the Doctor with his words then and comparing them to his actions upon meeting Davros as a child. This plays out well, and indeed, the scenes between the Doctor and Davros are powerful, with two brilliant actors making you believe and care about what's happening.
On the other hand, this kind of plotline gets used a lot in Doctor Who these days. Confronting the Doctor with how he turns people into soldiers was the central point of the Series 8 finale—just two episodes ago. Steven Moffat's Who has become obsessed with the Doctor, to the point that all the characters are obsessed with the Doctor, too (to be fair, this started with Russell T Davies, but Moffat has taken it even further). Every character's motivations are tied up in the Doctor. Nobody does anything for reasons that don't have anything to do with him. (Charlie Jane Anders of IO9 has suggested that perhaps Doctor Who needs its own version of the Bechdel Test: Is there a scene where two people who aren't the Doctor talk about something other than the Doctor? I think she's on to something.) The worst part of all this is that it never seems to have a lasting effect on the Doctor, so he gets to be reconfronted with it over and over again. Sometimes, it can make for captivating drama, like in this episode, but there can also be too much of a good thing. I think it's time to step away from this idea for a little while, and do something different. The Doctor needs to face some villains who aren't specifically hunting him down.
Talking of the Doctor, though, his entrance in mediaeval (or Renaissance? the episode uses the word Renaissance several times, but the setting looks much more mediaeval) Europe is quite spectacular in several different ways. One is simply for the grandness of it all—the Doctor playing electric guitar on a tank! But there's also the fact that the Doctor is behaving rather oddly. Missy tells Clara that, to find the Doctor, they need to look for anachronisms, but I doubt even she expected anachronisms of the size the Doctor presents—the Doctor playing electric guitar on a tank! While the Doctor might flash his sonic screwdriver around in time periods where it's quite out of place (including modern day Earth), he doesn't generally hold up big signs that essentially broadcast to anyone watching, “Look at the anachronisms!” It's a very anti-Doctor action. It's almost like he wants someone to notice and find him. It gives a very clear idea of just how much his shame over abandoning child Davros has gotten to him—which is very Doctorish. It's not at all subtle of Moffat to use this method of showing us the Doctor's psyche, but it works.
Although most of the major characters (the Doctor, Missy, Davros) are handled really well in this episode, Clara is the exception. Over her time on Doctor Who, Clara has gone from an inconsistent, motivationless plot device in Series 7 to a very well-developed, consistent character in Series 8, and now in this episode to...well...just kind of background—the “puppy” as Missy calls her. (As a complete and total nitpicky aside, where did that couple and their dog come from? The square that Clara, Missy, and the UNIT soldiers are in appears completely deserted, which I took to mean that UNIT had cleared the area of civilians, something that makes sense for them to do. Yet along come a couple and their dog, who just walk straight through. Nobody bats an eye, neither the couple nor the UNIT personnel. It's a great line from Missy, but the circumstances don't really make sense.) Clara has some good moments in her initial confrontation with Missy—particularly the way she stands up to Missy's threats to kill people by telling Missy to start with her—but for most of the episode, she just sort of follows along and asks questions. Her initial scenes in the school are rather inexplicable as she rather bizarrely talks about things like UNIT in front of everyone. (UNIT's role in this episode is pretty throw-away, too.) I hope her role in the next episode and the remainder of the series is stronger. I grew to like Clara over Series 8 after really disliking her in Series 7. I don't want to go back to my view of her in Series 7.
Oh right. She gets exterminated in this episode. Except she obviously doesn't. As a cliff-hanger-ish moment, I think this one doesn't work very well, as her and Missy's “deaths” are clearly not deaths. Dalek weapons don't normally completely disintegrate their targets (except for the Special Weapons Dalek). Earlier, the episode establishes that both Missy and Clara are wearing vortext manipulators and that Clara's is attuned to Missy's (meaning Clara goes wherever Missy does). It seems likely to me that Missy simply cleverly activated the manipulators just as the Daleks fired on each of them. (Although at the time of writing this review, the second episode has already aired, I haven't actually watched it yet and won't until after this review is finished.)
That said, I love Davros's psycho-analysis of the Daleks as they prepare to exterminate Clara. Throughout Doctor Who's history, the Daleks have had a tendency to screech “Exterminate!” a lot, but wait a rather long time before actually firing their weapons—usually giving their targets ample opportunity to escape. It's nice to see this not only acknowledged, but done so in a way that makes sense. The Daleks are monsters. They don't just want to kill; they want to cause maximum fear before they do so.
Of course, the real cliff-hanger is the Doctor suddenly returning to child Davros and threatening to exterminate him. We've seen the Doctor try to kill Davros in cold blood before (notably in the fifth Doctor story, “Resurrection of the Daleks”). Somehow, I doubt he'll manage it this time either (and I'd be rather disappointed if he did), but I am eager to see where this all leads! Bring on “The Witch's Familiar”!