Oh, Doctor! How are you going to get out of this one? (The Magician’s Apprentice)

Somehow I’d managed to avoid all spoilers. Which is great, because The Magician’s Apprentice took me by surprise, repeatedly. The moment when the boy in the field of hand-mines told the Doctor his name raised the hairs on my arms. I was genuinely creeped out.

Warning: spoilers follow the break.

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What to make of The Magician’s Apprentice, then? For a start, it’s hard to know what the title alludes to. It’s not clear who the eponymous magician is; and if it’s the Doctor, as seems likely, I can’t imagine who we’re supposed to think is the apprentice. I wonder whether this is a terribly clever title which we’ll all understand after part 2; or whether Moffat was merely lumbered with the title due to the “The Doctor Will Return In …” caption at the end of the Series 8.

But, yes, part 2. Because this was the first half of a two-parter, something I didn’t realise until near the end. (The price you pay for avoiding spoilers is that you also avoid knowing basic stuff like this.) I’ve repeatedly written about the need for more two-parters — especially in the Series 7 part of my book, which I can’t conveniently link to as those are the only chapters that don’t exist online. But, hey, you could always buy a copy. It’s much better than this review, which keeps digressing. See, I’m doing it right now!

Where was I? Oh yes, the multi-partness. I’ve repeatedly lamented that the structure of Series 7 — split across two years — left it trying to get through too many stories in a short time, and that as a result each of the stories was a single-parter. My feeling is that New Who has usually been at its best in two-part stories (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, Human Nature/Family of Blood, Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone). Even when two-parters don’t really work, they tend to fail in interesting ways, or at least while raising interesting issues (The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People). And I loved the 50th anniversary special, Day of the Doctor, which was presented as a single episode but had a two-parter-like running time of 76 minutes.

And the reason multi-part stories work better is that it’s simply not possible to set up an interesting and complex situation, and resolve it, and show us something about the characters, all in 45 minutes. There are plenty of episodes that make a very good stab at it, but I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that either the running time should be upped to a full hour, or there should be a lot more two-parters. (Remember that back in the old days, most stories were four or even six episodes long. Even given that episodes were only 25 minutes long back then, that still gives us total running times of 100 to 150 minutes.)

So The Magician’s Apprentice benefits not only from having time to breathe — to fully explore, for example, the scene where Clara meets Missy in the plaza — but also from leaving us in the lurch: not so much with a cliffhanger as a situation in which the cliff has already been hung, and we’re left wondering how it can be unhung. Having surprised me with the minefield child’s identity, the episode then surprised me even more when the Master was exterminated; then upped the ante again when Clara followed. So that’s a powerful way to end an episode and leaves a lot of questions open …

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… except that unfortunately the acting doesn’t really sell it. I think that during that golden period when we had Matt Smith’s Doctor, Karen Gillan’s Amy and Arthur Darvill’s Rory, we got too used to pretty much every moment being pitch-perfect. Now that we have a manifestly inferior cast, it’s being shown up by comparison. Peter Capaldi is good, but he’s no Matt Smith, lacking the younger man’s subtlety. Jenna-Lousie Coleman’s Clara has never really convinced outside of her debuts in Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen. I started to seriously lose patience with her in The Rings of Akhaten, and I’m afraid that nothing she’s done since has changed my mind. Tonight, once more, she seemed like a cipher. In the plaza meeting with Missy, it was impossible to tell what she was feeling: fear, outrage, boredom. It was impossible to tell whether she was planning anything. Worse still, when threatened by the Daleks just before her extermination, I couldn’t even read basic fear on her face. The contrast with Gillan’s painfully naked terror in Flesh and Stone is frankly embarrassing.

And as for Missy … She was fine when she was a mysterious character, glimpsed here and there in little cameos. But now that she’s moved to centre stage, the character is revealed as a shallow complex of random tics that has no depth or substance to it. It disappoints me deeply that no sooner is River Bleeding Song finally and unequivocally dead (please tell me she is finally and unequivocally dead!) we get another character playing essentially the same role with essentially the same mannerisms — all arch flirtation, references to a shared past, and mysterious utterances that are supposed to indicate depth or wisdom that the character painfully lacks.

So what we’re left with is a plot that is aiming for a richness and heft that the cast are simply not capable of conveying. Although I welcomed Capaldi’s appointment as the new Doctor, feeling that an older man would lend a different kind of gravity, I am sad to say that when he’s called upon to convey a powerful emotion — as when pleading with Davros not to have Clara killed — he doesn’t quite make it fly. I’m not saying he’s a bad actor. But in Matt Smith, he has a very tough act to follow, and he’s just not quite up to it.

Also: do we really want to be invoking Davros, the Master, the Sisterhood of Karn, the Shadow Proclamation and the Daleks all in the first episode? Where does it leave us to go?

And do we really want to be rewriting the origin myth of the Daleks? What this does, intriguing though the idea may be, is to leave us with episodes that once more are about the Doctor himself, rather than about the worlds he visits, the monsters he defeats, the conflicts he defuses. I have a much higher tolerance of this kind of thing than some other reviewers. But there comes a point where even I start to want to see an episode every now and then where the Doctor is merely a wanderer who gets caught up in events, rather than the axis around which all the events spin.

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So where does all this leave us? It leaves us with an episode that had some truly chilling moments and arresting images (the hand-mines emerging from the ground, Davros in his TARDIS-like hospital ward), and some intriguing ideas. But it leaves a lot of work to be done in The Witch’s Familiar if we’re going to get to the end of this story feeling satisfied.

And then I hope for something much smaller scale — an Ark In Space, or a Midnight, or a Robot. Something where the story has no option but to carry itself on its own merit, and can’t use the crutch of going “Oh, look, the Master!” and “Oh, look, Davros!” every five minutes.

Hmm. I seem to have finished this review in a grumpy mood. Grumpier than when I started writing it. I think Clara may be the biggest reason for this. She just doesn’t appear like a real human being to me. And that is fatal in the companion, who famously is supposed to be our viewpoint character. She is, in fact, Amy Lite, just as Martha was Rose Lite. What this series needs, and I never thought I’d say this, is a Donna.

11 responses to “Oh, Doctor! How are you going to get out of this one? (The Magician’s Apprentice)

  1. Good to see Doctor Who reviews back!!

    I haven’t seen this episode yet, but I have to say the vibe of your review really rings true for me.

    At the end of the last season, my daughter (the one real whovian of my children) and I were just kind of ready to be done with Doctor Who for a while. Now that its back I’m sure we’ll give it another chance, but to put it bluntly we felt burned by last season. I think you capture part of it in that the acting, actually the emotional response enticed from the acting, is quite lacking. But the actors couldn’t help how truly bad, not in a drama sense, but in a story sense that last episode was. The only things ever happening were bad things. We watched “Death in Heaven” worried and scared for the main characters, and they we watched them pretty much lose the whole damn thing. I know, I know, the world was saved, but Danny Pink died, and did not come back, Gallifrey stayed lost, and well to put it frankly, at that point we’d had enough.

    We had a chance to get Danny back of course, but that was snatched from the fans because he let the kid come back. But because of this Danny didn’t come back, and we know the real reason he couldn’t come back is because the show set up rules that forbid him from coming back.

    Watching this we felt betrayed. They’d shown us, SHOWN US DAMMIT, Danny and Clara’s future descendant. We were sure they’d be ok and end up together. But NO can’t have that, Doctor Who has to have drama now, and happy endings are so blasé.

    Thats when I realized, with Clara I think they’ve upped the ante on how much it sucks to be the doctor’s companion. Because if you look at it Rose left the show to a forced existence in an alternate universe. Although she got her Dad back, which was cool. Still her leaving was bittersweet (at least that’s all it was). Later Davies fixed this up by giving her a duplicate Doctor in her universe making that existence a bit better (through a really sketchy story point).

    Next up you could argue that Martha wasn’t impacted much better or worse by the time with the Doctor, and Mickey didn’t suffer too bad for his time either. So maybe traveling with the Doctor isn’t something to ruin a companions life. But looking at Donna, that goes completely out the window. Donna’s life got HOSED by traveling with the doctor. That utter worthless (forgive the swearing) bullshit about her not remembering her time with the doctor. This is especially frustrating coming after the episode “Turn Left”, because from Donna’s perspective she more or less did turn left, but she’s the only one who knows (doesn’t know?) it.

    So with respect to your final thought, its time to bring Donna back and let her remember the Doctor!! That whole wedding thing with her was a horrible punt.

    To continue on my companion misery theme, Rory and Amy were so good as companions and while there were victories and losses for them at least they ended up together in the end. I am fine with them never seeing the Doctor again because the explanation of their time together after they vanish at least gives them a happy ending together. I can’t help but feel that more adventures with the Doctor would have eventually completely ruined their life. But still, companions, get bittersweet (Rory, Amy, Rose), horrendous (Donna), or level endings to their time with the Doctor (Mikey, Martha), no one in this new incarnation really comes out for the better. As great a character as I think River Song is (sorry, disagree with you a bit there — yes she’s overacted, but it doesn’t bother me too much), she gets hosed too, dying but being saved?? to live?? in a hologram (again bittersweet). Sure travelling with the Doctor is dangerous, but NO ONE is leaving their time with him to the better.

    On the introduction of Clara, we see her as a tragic figure from the start. We learn she dies over and over to save the Doctor. Tragic, but not so crushing as we get that from first meeting (same think kinda applies to River — reusing plots points here?? – yep) . But the point is that when we got to Season 8, Clara became the full time companion and she stopped dying all the time and we were led two believe that with Danny Pink, she could have a life. Again, they showed us one of their descendants for goodness sake!!! In the end though, nope, Danny is dead and gone, even worse, we’re teased with the return of Gallifrey for the umpteenth time, to have it yanked away again (that’s getting a bit like Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football there). Watching that last episode, my daughter and I at the end were done, at least done with that season. But we weren’t really excited for the next, we were just exhausted.

    I don’t know what we’ll do about this season, but right now I’m really hungry for a story where “everybody lives!!!” at the end. Or hell even a Rose fixes everything and the doctor saves her. Hey speaking of that, how could he save the all powerful Rose and let her retain her memories, but not do the same with Donna?

    They have spent some years wondering if the Doctor was really good or bad, while all the time the fans knew for sure that he was good. But they kept up with it so much and have had the Doctor dwelling so long in shadow and darkness that now I am beginning to wonder, should human companions really choose to travel with the Doctor? Are there any benefits to it? If thats the case, then, since the companion is our point of view character, then how much do I want to keep watching? And dang that really sucks to type.

    Its well passed time that “everybody lives” again at least sometimes. Perhaps since it sounds like a lot of characters need to be raised from the dead in the second part of this (we know Clara has more episodes left) that will actually happen this time.

    Its been shown that Capaldi can handle dark, mysterious, and dangerous, we really need to see him handle happy, exuberant, joyful, and kind sometime soon here. Matt Smith did all those so very well, we’re missing it right now.

  2. Well, that is a very interesting comment. It hadn’t occurred to me that the Doctor doesn’t actually leave many of his companions better off for having travelled with him. (Although try persuading Sarah-Jane about that! She wouldn’t have it for a moment.)

    I do disagree on Donna, though. I thought her exit was very poignant, precisely because it left her exactly back where she was before — unchanged by everything that had happened. (This is just one of the reasons why I deplore The End of Time, which among its other failures made that ending null and void.)

    In saying that “What this series needs … is a Donna” I didn’t for a moment mean that they should bring actual Donna back — completed things are best left completed. I meant that we need a companion who stands in the same relation to Amy and Clara as Donna did to Rose and Martha — that is, not an inferior retread, but something completely different.

  3. “It disappoints me deeply that no sooner is River Bleeding Song finally and unequivocally dead (please tell me she is finally and unequivocally dead!)”

    Sorry…I’ve *not* managed to avoid spoilers, and… sorry…

  4. To be specific, my comment was directly about the new series companions. I don’t think it is true at all of the older series. Which is kind of my point.

    What really got me at the end of the last series was the pure hopelessness of the ending, and the sense that that’s just all we’re going to get.

    Also, frankly, if its not coming back, I mean really coming back, I don’t want to hear one more damned thing about Gallifrey.

    I also agree on your dislike of The End of Time “solution” for Donna, but for different reasons, it posits that the memories of time with the Doctor are replaceable by other things in life, not that they would be truly unique mind blowing (heh, I suppose thats the problem with Donna ;-) experiences that are truly priceless.

    I guess I’m saying the Doctor should be wonderful and zany and exciting and dangerous. Right now I think we’re getting a heavy mix of dangerous and dark. Moffat wrote the script where “everybody lives”, that was a thrilling ending, one of the best of the series, so we know he _can_ do that. I think “Day of the Doctor” (truly amazing) really marked a chance to have the Doctor lay down his guilt and move on, but they seem convinced to have Capaldi keep hanging on to that. I’m beginning to wonder if they think he can’t handle portraying the Doctor as zany and happy….

  5. Well… I guess I’m just a mega-softie, when it comes to the actors in general.

    I don’t have nearly so strong a feeling of the actors not being very good, nor even necessarily of Jenna Coleman not being a good actor.

    And I like Alex Kingston’s River a lot so :-P But everyone gets to have opinions, so it’s all good.

    However, having said that– I’m way past done with the Clara Oswald character. I was done with her after The Impossible Girl.

    And I think the sheer *lack* of photoshopped images of past Doctors (photoshopped to put Clara in the background somewhere) indicates that the rest of the fandom isn’t really buying the whole general premise of: Clara is now a part of all of the Doctor’s timeline.

    To me–and maybe I’m quoting someone else–I forget: With Clara, it feels like she’s just a placeholder for a companion. (Also whenever Clara is at a point of having to make decisions, it seems like she tries to be Matt Smith. Always.)

    And I also am not super-thrilled to see Davros’s life story told (again). And I also am not super interested to watch Yet Another timeline get Re-written.

    And anyway, this isn’t even the first time the Doctor has threatened to kill Davros. Although, I suppose, this is the first time the Doctor has put that moral dilemma question “could you kill a child who you knew would grow up to be an arch-villain” to the ultimate test.

    The thing is though, this is kind of a /siiiigh/ for me.

    It’s an old question. And I’ve already played out the multiple answers multiple times. Your decision could go one of two ways and the way you feel about that decision could go one of two ways. So there’s a four-point possible outcome tree and we’re done:

    Kill child? Y/N Are you ok with what you did or did not do? Y/N

    You kill the child and feel terrible about it forever. — or — You kill the child and you’re not really all that bothered by it — or — You don’t kill the child and feel terrible about it forever. — or — You don’t kill the child and you’re not really bothered by it.

    That’s it. The outcome will always be one of those, except that the morality section should be viewed as two extremes of a spectrum– you might be ok with what you did or didn’t do sometimes, then be haunted other times.

    Etc.

    What choice for the Doctor? Probably he isn’t actually going to shoot Davros. If he does shoot Davros, then I guess the Doctor certainly isn’t good. But we already knew of that possibility.

    More likely is: he doesn’t shoot Davros. That means the Doctor gets to keep his Hero badge, but that the cliffhanger was a little bit lame (btw you did notice that both Clara and Missy disappeared, right? Yeah the easy money says they were teleported away a moment before organ scrambling. Dalek guns, with the exception of the Special Weapons dalek, do *not* disintegrate the target.)

    But, re killing Davros: I remember how, when the 5th Doctor said that, it felt dramatic for half a second. And then it all devolved down into the standard tedious plot stuff of: the situation got all out of hand and the Doctor pretended that he knew that the Movellan virus would do for Davros.

    Davros never dies, or hadn’t anyone noticed? He’s always got a clone or yet another restore function in his life support thing.

    On more than one occasion it has been handwave-explained that what keeps Davros going is hate itself.

    Still, I liked MIssy. It’s fun to watch her sauntering around being incredibly evil and figuring out bits of plot. A part of me balks and says this is totally un-Master-like behavior. But another part of me tells that first part to shush, both because A) Time Lords do sometimes change their personality some when they regenerate and B) it’s TV, and I should just relax.

    But the never-carry-weapons Doctor pointing guns at people? That’s been done. Man, that has been done *so* many times now.

    For all that, I’m still looking forward to part two. And I’m happy I have a full season (minus one just aired) of Doctor Who to watch :-)


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  6. You kill the child and feel terrible about it forever. — or — You kill the child and you’re not really all that bothered by it — or — You don’t kill the child and feel terrible about it forever. — or — You don’t kill the child and you’re not really bothered by it.

    I agree with much of what you say. But I can’t help hoping, and maybe even suspecting, that the Doctor will come up with a fifth and cleverer alternative. We’ll see (and soon!)

  7. Well this is Moffat Who– so The Doctor *may* turn out to be Davros’s dad or something. heh

  8. wyrdwyrd, great image there ;-)

    Regarding Clara, I think you’re on to something. She was fine as the impossible girl, but all that impossible stuff has been pushed aside (note, they didn’t really resolve it, or explain how, its just not there anymore) and she’s now a regular companion. But while she was interesting (somewhat) as the impossible girl, I think you’re right she’s frankly not interesting as a regular companion.

    And that gets back to the original point. Yep, I have to agree that a Donna like companion is what may be needed, and again I also have to say why one companion. An interesting dynamic would be for the Doctor to travel with an older woman (Donna like) and also that woman’s child. Interestingly enough companion’s parents have been on the show, but never get to travel much with the Doctor as true companions. (Note I’m speaking purely from a new-who context here)

  9. I’m all for multiple companions. Amy and Rory obviously worked superbly. Also: I agree that part of what made Donna work well was her being a bit older than Rose and Martha, but I suspect we will never get a TARDIS inhabited entirely by middle-aged people. So if we do get an older woman next time, it almost certainly will be as part of a larger group.

  10. “So where does all this leave us? It leaves us with an episode that had some truly chilling moments and arresting images (the hand-mines emerging from the ground, Davros in his TARDIS-like hospital ward), and some intriguing ideas.”
     
    Was it ever thus. The opening scene is pretty effective, I’ll admit. It does such a good job of setting up an environment, with weird creepy details like the hand-mines, that you imagine the child’s just tossed in to up the peril quotient. He’s there purely to give the Doctor a significant task in that world. You’re not expecting him to be of any significance till he comes out with it.
     
    (And in fact they should have just focused on that. Rather than have some I’m-sinister-me character doing yet another round-robin tour of the Whoniverse, just because we can do that sort of thing now so we are. Still, even that was better than the Doctor-plays-guitar-hero sequence, the most charitable thing of which you could say would be that it ended. Eventually.)
     
    But all of this is a restatement of Baker’s “have I got that right” moment, is it not? To the point where that even gets reprised. A moment which wasn’t a plot point in ‘Genesis’. You could cut that scene out fairly easily and everything else would function smoothly. It was there as sauce not pudding, relish not burger. Because of course there is no satisfactory answer to that ethical question. That’s why we keep on asking it. Whichever option you choose, you feel like it’s the wrong one. So of course you can’t centre a storyline around asking an unanswerable question. Well not without finding you need to cheat your way out of it all over again.
     
    Moffat’s forever painting himself into a narrative corner like that. Then going “ah, but this is a science fiction show, right? So I can just say it was an anti-gravity pot of paint, or everyone just fell into another dimension which made it alright again”. Or sometimes just “but look over there”. I fear something similar. That what we’re being set up for is nothing at all.

  11. Well, Gavin, I do share your ely that we might be headed for a non-satisfactory solution, or indeed a non-solution. But I’m withholding judgement till we find out whether it’s warranted.

    As for the tank-and-guitar scene: I loved the first ten seconds of it, put up with the ten next seconds, then waited for it to end. And waited. And waited.

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