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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice

Season 9 of Doctor Who is upon us, and this weekend saw the first episode hit the air, “The Magician’s Apprentice.” It wasn’t a bad episode, I thought, although it relied heavily on the viewer’s knowledge of Who history, both the new and classic series. It’s also the first of a two-parter, so it’s hard to judge the story overall, but generally I enjoyed it.


I imagine anyone who hasn’t seen the classic 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Genesis of the Daleks,” or hasn’t seen the 2008 Tenth Doctor episode “Journey’s End,” would have a hard time understanding just why it’s so important that the little boy on the battlefield is named Davros. (Let’s leave aside for the moment that for all the Doctor knows, Davros could be quite a common name on Skaro and this boy doesn’t necessarily have to be the Davros.) This is probably why I enjoyed the episode more than Alexa did, because there were lots of Easter eggs for classic-era fans like myself that might have left others feeling left out. There are quite a few callbacks to “Genesis of the Daleks,” including video clips of the Fourth Doctor in action, as well as some audio clips of Davros’s interactions with the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Doctors. I quite enjoyed seeing a new take on the thousand-year war between the Kaleds and the Thals on Skaro. (Nice to see cameos by the Sisterhood of Karn, the Shadow Proclamation, and the Judoon again, too!) It’s always exciting for longtime fans like me when Davros shows up. We have a lot of history with him. Aside from the Master, Davros is the closest thing Doctor Who has ever had to a supervillain.

Interestingly, the Doctor’s abandonment of Davros on the battlefield goes against the whole point of “Genesis of the Daleks”, in which the Doctor realizes he doesn’t have the right to make these kinds of decisions. When he asks the rhetorical question about killing a child destined to grow up to be a ruthless dictator, the implied answer is no, that wouldn’t be the right thing to do. To have the Doctor make a different choice now and leave Davros to presumably die in the hopes of changing history is a strange change in his character — although it fits in with Steven Moffat’s interest in showing the Doctor as flawed and fallible instead of just straight-up heroic.

Speaking of the Master, Missy shows up again, and I liked her in this episode more than I did in the entire last season. Some of that is because I thought her plot last season was overly complicated nonsense, punctuated by increasingly intrusive scenes tacked onto the end of several episodes, but here she could just be herself, and as a result actress Michelle Gomez really gets to shine. Her scenes with Clara were, for me, the highlight of the episode.

I also enjoyed seeing the old school Daleks on Skaro, including the silver and blue models used in the very first Dalek serial back in 1963. Skaro itself has had kind of a tricky history on the program. It was blown up by the Hand of Omega in the 1988 Seventh Doctor serial “Remembrance of the Daleks,” an act which is commonly thought to have started the Last Great Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. Except Skaro existed again, apparently, in the 1996 TV movie, in which the Daleks, weirdly, execute the Master on Skaro and ask for the Doctor, even more weirdly, to come pick up his remains. Skaro made another appearance at the start of the 2012 Eleventh Doctor episode “Asylum of the Daleks,” in which the Doctor is summoned to the planet for a trap. The TV series has never explained how Skaro is back from destruction (although I’m told the novels do, with the explanation being that the Hand of Omega actually destroyed a fake duplicate of Skaro after the Daleks discovered records of Skaro’s destruction during their 22nd century invasion of Earth and took action to prevent it — but convoluted shit like this is why I don’t read the novels). But anyway, Skaro is back, looking more like the Skaro we originally saw in 1963’s “The Daleks,” and being kept invisible and secret for some reason, although I’m prepared for this reason, in true Moffat fashion, to never be explained.

Yes, I’m going to harp on Steven Moffat a little bit here (surprise, surprise) because this episode is filled with what I’ve come to call Moffatisms. Once again, he shows his fascination with origin stories where none are really needed, as well as stories that are about the Doctor rather than simply adventures the Doctor partakes in. We once again meet an important character as a child, something Moffat has now done with Amy, River, Clara, and even the Doctor himself in last season’s “Listen.” Once more he handwaves away important questions like how Missy survived the end of last season, or how Davros survived the events of “Journey’s End.” Once again the most interesting and creepy part of the episode, the “hand mines,” turns out to have not much to do with anything else going on, reminiscent of the scary but ultimately unimportant Smilers in “The Beast Below.” And once more he recycles his own plots by giving us a story where the Doctor is convinced his time is up and decides to postpone the inevitable by acting out and partying before getting on with doing what he has to do, like in “The Wedding of River Song” and “The Time of the Doctor.” Granted, Russell T. Davies did it in “The End of Time,” too, but he did it first and only once. Moffat has now done it three times!

So, running this episode past the Doctor Who bingo card, we can check off “Glib Companion Banter,” except this time it’s between Clara and Missy, a dynamic I very much enjoyed, “Season Long Story Arc Explained in Throw Away Comment,” which I’m going to apply to Missy’s handwaving return, “Previously Killed Off Character Returns” for both Missy and Davros, “Fanbase Trolling Dialogue” for Missy referring to the Doctor in his youth as a little girl instead of little boy, and “Continuity? What Continuity?” for the return of Skaro. The “It’s Magic! I Ain’t Gotta Explain Shit!” square pretty much covers a lot of this, too.

Still, despite my annoyance at all the Moffatisms, I’m looking forward to the next episode to see what happens. (If you think Missy and Clara are really dead, you’ve never seen this show before!)

10 responses to “Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice”

  1. Paul McNamee says:

    Yes, a decent core idea but dragged down by Moffatisms. I would add to Moffatisms – a strong desire to create grand, bizarre visuals and then making the story service them, often at cost to the story. As you noted, “hand mines” and “invisible Skaro.” Additionally; “Doctor on a tank” and “snake alien.”

    Even the core idea I’m nervous about. Please don’t tell me this is going to devolve into Michael Keaton-Batman/Jack Nicholson-Joker “You made me!” “You made me first!” between the Doctor and Davros. I don’t want all the classic the enemies of the Doctor suddenly having been his own creations.

    I’m not sure if the Doctor left Davros to die to change history or if the Doctor left because he was too scared he’d already altered history too much.

    As for the Missy “I’m alive” handwave, I let that one go because I’m not certain if it might be satire of the Master’s appearance way back in “The Mark of the Rani” – where he should have been dead, but simply stated, “The whole Universe knows I’m indestructible” as way of an ‘explanation.’

    I loved the retro Daleks, the mixing of Daleks (though, ‘new paradigm’ Daleks were oddly missing) and the Dalek city, though.

    I hope part two delivers on the strengths and overcomes the weaknesses.

    • Nick says:

      I could go all nerdy and explain all the reasons why Davros would never trust a mission this important to anyone but one of his loyal Daleks, never mind someone from another race! But I won’t. Ahem. And yeah, there’s been a lot of style-over-substance moments during the Moffat years. (You’ll find quite a bit of it in SHERLOCK, too.)

      The way I interpreted it was that the Doctor didn’t rescue Davros and now feels guilty about it and is willing to take his lumps. But I suppose we’ll see. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a twist, although I think it works just fine this way, too.

      There’s a long history of the Doctor running into the Master and saying, “So, you escaped from [the last time]” and it’s always been very handwavey. I suppose I just expect better from the show now than I did then. When will I learn?

      I’m fine with the Mighty Morphin Power Daleks not having been there. The less mention made of the events of “Victory of the Daleks,” the better. 😉

  2. Hildy says:

    Excellent analysis, particularly the “Moffatisms”. I suspect that we still haven’t seen the completion of the flashback to the Doctor’s first meeting with little Davros. I think we’re going to see in Part 2 that he materialized the TARDIS around Davros and rescued him — a method he’s used before to save people in desperate straights. I think that’s the regret and guilt Davros refers to in this episode — that the Doctor’s compassion was ultimately the undoing of his entire race (or sort of, thanks to the less-fatal destiny of Gallifrey put forth in the 50th anniversary). But we shall see next week!

  3. Matt Kressel says:

    Quoting you here:

    “When he asks the rhetorical question about killing a child destined to grow up to be a ruthless dictator, the implied answer is no, that wouldn’t be the right thing to do. To have the Doctor make a different choice now and leave Davros to presumably die in the hopes of changing history is a strange change in his character — although it fits in with Steven Moffat’s interest in showing the Doctor as flawed and fallible instead of just straight-up heroic.”

    This is my main issue with the show. It purports to maintain continuity with previous seasons/Doctors, and yet there is often no rhyme or reason why events happen as they do. Why is Missy still alive? No mention or explanation. Presumably, the Doctor goes to see Davros because he feels guilty/ashamed. If so, why fight at all? Why make a big sign in the timeline to announce his presence? So that Clara and Missy could find him, or that Davros could? UNIT says he’s been quiet, so presumably he’s been hiding. Then he shows up in a tank playing the guitar? What was the point of hiding then?

    And Clara didn’t serve a purpose in this episode other than to play victim, pawn, and plaything for Missy. I agree that Missy was the highlight, but even her actions didn’t make sense. Why does she need to stop ALL THE AIRPLANES IN THE WORLD to get UNIT’s attention, only to basically ignore UNIT for the rest of the episode? If Clara was all she wanted, couldn’t she have just snatched her from school? It’s not as if she’s hiding.

    All these things make good spectacle, but they make no sense plotwise. Anyway, I have had a lot of fun with the newer Whos, but this season and last have really put the nail in the coffin for me. What once was clever, poignant writing has just become spectacle.

    • Nick says:

      As I mentioned upstream, there’s a lot of style over substance to Moffat-era DOCTOR WHO. There was to the Davies era, too, but not this much. It’s one of the biggest problems of the show now, all flash and no logic.

  4. R. Francis Smith says:

    I largely agree, although apparently I’m the only person who’s theorizing that (despite what they appeared to be showing us) the Doctor did in fact not abandon boy Davros to his fate, and that the great secret held over him is in fact that he allowed Davros to live knowing that he would unleash the Daleks on all of forever and everywhere.

    Of course, this is dumb, if I’m right, because the Doctor already has that responsibility, if you will, from the very episode they delighted me by clipping, from Genesis of the Daleks. But really, when has that stopped Moffat when there’s an operatic twist to be had?

    As for some questions from your post and the comments, my thoughts:

    Missy handwaving her return from the apparent dead is 100% in character and typical for the character of the Master. And Moffat has mentioned that in public, so no shock there at all, and I thought she at least pulled it off entertainingly. Really, End of Time is the one that’s out of step by showing the Master being resurrected instead of him just turning up again going “…what?”

    Missy’s over the top approach to getting Clara to come talk: here again, I’m able to shrug and say “The Master has always been a bit like this”, by which I mean utterly ridiculous and baroque approaches to accomplishing simple results. Logopolis is a favorite go-to (I’m going to one by one kill off the mathematicians keeping the universe running because… reasons!) but is immediately trumped by Castrovalva in which his plan is so bizarre, convolunted, and time-consuming as to be utterly incomprehensible, especially when you consider that at the start of the story he tries to send the TARDIS into the Big Bang, which if it had worked would have had him standing around looking at his carefully constructed Escher World wondering what it’s all for. Point being, becoming Missy hasn’t made her plans any better. (Also, she can’t just come threaten Clara, because it is an article of faith nowadays that not only the Doctor but also the companions are utterly beyond threats to their person, which is over the top but oh well.)

    Davros’s survival of Journey’s End is more perplexing; historically we’ve always seen Davros make a getaway at the end and that’s how he turns up again (the exception being his first appearance in Genesis, but even then his next appearance in Destiny of the Daleks is justified by, well, digging him up and dusting him off.) I hold out vague hope they might actually give us something on this yet, but… probably not, I guess. Ah well.

    All that aside, I had a lot of fun, I didn’t mind the guitar playing and tank riding as much as I expected to (even if, yes, it’s another “Doctor goes goofy before his Final! Day! Ever! bit — I theorize Ten had so much fun doing it he just can’t stop himself now), I actually did quite enjoy Missy too, and look forward to her occasional (hopefully) appearances even if I wrestle with her accent, and of course, in the end, I was bought off by all the nods to the old series culminating in one of my favorite Tom Baker moments. Lovely, and my family was all smiles at it.

    One out and out gripe leaps to mind (other than Kate Stewart being sadly underused, but I know she’ll be back shortly): the stupid person-with-Dalek-eyestalk thing from Asylum of the Daleks. I’d hoped we could pretend that never happened.

    • Nick says:

      I, too, intensely dislike those Dalek agent people with eyestalks. We saw them in “Asylum” and again in “Time of the Doctor,” and like you, I was hoping that would be the end of it. It doesn’t make any sense. The Daleks’ eyestalks are mechanical, like the rest of their shell, not some weird organic virus that can hide inside a person’s forehead.

      I have some issues with how over the top Missy’s plan to get Clara’s attention is, and while I certainly agree with everything you say, I think my issues stem from how throwaway it is. Her plan is not the plot of the story, as the others you mentioned were. It’s a plot beat, used and then discarded. It could just as easily have been Missy coming to Clara’s school — and I’d wager that would be an amazing scene — but Moffat, as always, seems to want something splashier.

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