Sunday 27 September 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-1 & 9-2: The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar

Now that was quite something. Intriguing, exciting, emotionally powerful, but also densely packed and demanding close attention. Two episodes that cut to the very heart of the Doctor's character.

This was a bold choice to start the season with, a story which is so steeped in the series' history as to risk putting off more casual viewers. Judging by the reactions of friends who are less steeped in the series' history, this had gone well, but there were confusing elements. I'm not talking about cute little references to past stories put in for uber-geeks like me; for most people, there's no difference between a kiss to the past and any other bit of world-building. The story as a whole is quite unforgiving to new viewers. Aside from being a sequel to a forty-year-old serial, it more-or-less carries on from where the previous season left off. Someone who hadn't seen any of Capaldi's episodes before, let alone any Doctor Who before, would find it a challenge to take in everything presented in the opening episode – UNIT, Missy, Karn, all chucked in with little in the way of explanation. That said, the dialogue does a lot of the work. You don't need to know that Missy is the latest version of the Master, she confidently explains that she's the Doctor's closest friend and Clara's reaction to this sets out that she's a villain, and in case there was any confusion on that last point, she casually murders a few people for larks. Still, even in a story that's slower paced than many, there's little room early on for scene setting or easing in new viewers.

Clara's role as all things to all storytellers might also make her difficult to get a handle on. She's introduced as a schoolteacher, before suddenly walking into a military installation as if she's a secret agent/interplanetary warfare specialist. Although she's been more consistently and clearly written over the last series, here she's once again taking on whatever traits she needs for any particular moment in the narrative. Jenna Coleman makes it work, charismatically papering over the cracks, but there's not always a clear line from the remarkable woman who acts as deputy Doctor and the panicking young girl who's repeatedly duped by Missy. Nonetheless, the interplay between the two women provides some of the best moments I the story. I wasn't quite sold on Missy in series eight, but here, the writing improves a notch and meets Michelle Gomez's captivating performance. Weird, funny, sexy and frightening, she's everything an evil Time Lord – sorry, Time Lady – should be. Her best moments, though, are where she is essentially playing the part of the Doctor, Clara acting as her assistant in the wilds of Skaro, making clear the similarities between the two Gallifreyans. Brilliant though she is as the Master, I'd have loved to see Gomez as the Doctor.

All this said, the story belongs to Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach, the latter of whom, particularly, is astonishingly good. Of all the past elements brought back for this story, Davros is perhaps the safest. Excepting the Daleks, as a consistent and everpresent part of the series, Davros is probably the most iconic villain in the programme's long history, and the most recognisable. While I wonder how much of the set-up was otherwise picked up, Davros is easy. Even people who barely know about Doctor Who have heard of Davros, such is the notoriety of the character. Missy may jealously sneer when the Doctor refers to the creator of the Daleks as his archenemy, but he's right. For all that the Master and the Doctor go back further, and have fought more frequently, it's Davros that has caught the public imagination. A truly repellent villain, physically unpleasant, emotionally damaged, as capable of cold evil and ferocious mania. And so it's a tremendously brave move to bring him back, seven years after his last appearance, in a story that skilfully makes him a sympathetic character.

Precisely how much one is affected by the scenes between the Doctor and Davros will depend on how much they believe his spiel. The entire encounter is signposted as a trap, by the Doctor's dialogue, Davros's interaction with his henchman, Sarff, and by the whole set-up and direction of that final scene between them. Nonetheless, it's impossible not to feel some sympathy for the scientist, and so much of this is due to Bleach's performance. His previous turn at the role was dominated by the screaming, maniacal side of Davros's character, but here he has the opportunity to be more subtle, creating a weakened, desperate Davros. Although the villain is manipulating the Doctor throughout, there's truth to his claims. He is dying, and so much of what he says has the ring of truth. A final gambit, yes, but also, if that failed, a chance to make peace with someone who, as much as they may not wish to admit it, shares many similarities. Davros's seemingly genuine delight at the news of the Doctor's rescue of his people makes sense, because it's truly in character for him, albeit showing an emotional side we've not seen before. His statement that a man needs a people, or a nation, someone to hold allegiance to, is exactly the sort of rhetoric that Davros would ascribe to, even as someone who murdered his own people further his aims. He wiped out his race to create them anew, in his own twisted image.

Imagery here is everything. For all the power of the quiet moments, there's some real spectacle here, from the slow revelation of Skaro as it fades into view to the bombastic entrance by the Doctor, brandishing his guitar for the “axe fight.” Skaro, in particular, looks incredible, a wonderful recreation of the metal city of the original Dalek serial from 1963-4. Also a treat is the squadron of Daleks from various points in the series' history; as a fan, the appearance of an original '64 Dalek made me cheer. No sign of the more recent, chunky Daleks of the New Paradigm, who have seemingly been quietly retired. Either that, or they couldn't fit through the doors on Skaro.

There are also many elements that send a shiver down the spine. The hand mines on ancient Skaro are horrifying, not something I'd ever have imagined for the Thousand Year War, but acceptable, really, given the later use of biologically-engineered weaponry. The concept of Daleks' still-living remains, left to rot in the sewers beneath the Dalek city, is utterly repellent, as is the revolting climax in which the Daleks are, for all intents, choked to death in their own shit. Other elements that work well in the horror stakes include Colony Sarff, a colony organism as his name suggests, sure to horrify ophidophobes everywhere. The image that will stick with me the most, though, is Davros, helpless and desperate on the floor, his spinal column twitching in open air. Quite horrible.

Thankfully, though, there's plenty of humour to offset the serious elements and the horror. Not everyone was impressed with the Doctor's partyboy moment, but I feel it worked. As Clara said, this isn't like him, at least in this incarnation. This is the twelfth Doctor in extremis; it's when he's cornered and frightened that he makes a noise. It's when he's quiet and contemplative that he's more himself. And anyway, everyone needs a bit of fun now and then, and if Matt Smith can bring his footballing skills to the character of the Doctor, then a former member of the Bastards From Hell can pick up a guitar and switch on the cool. If only they'd had Craig Ferguson there to back him up. There are other moments that lighten the mood when it threatens to become too grim. The Doctor pinching Davros's chair is both amusing and threatening, but it's the line that follows - “The only other chair on Skaro” - that made it. That one was a tea-spitter.

There are other issues, mostly just niggles. Sometimes the logic of the story went a little awry. Colony Sarff tracks the Doctor across time and space, all the way to Karn, becoming perhaps the only person to land a spaceship there without crashing, and is fooled by the Doctor hiding behind a rock. He finally finds him in 12th century Essex by following Missy and Clara, but the Daleks have had an agent there for three weeks. The cliffhanger was never meant to be anything more than “I wonder how they got out of that?” moment, but still, the monochrome flashback to the Doctor's teleporter antics wasted time. Beautifully filmed and great fun, but utterly inessential. The other cliffhanger, the Doctor holding a gun to young Davros, was also a bit of a cheat, but overall, the revelation of the true nature of the scene worked within the context of the story.

So, coming back to the core of the story. Young Davros, skillfully portrayed by Joey Price, is just the right combination of childlike uncertainty and fear, and confident perseverance. He demands the Doctor rescue him, as he promised. Yep, you can see this kid growing up to be the Davros we know. I've seen it argued that this is a false dilemma, as is the moment the Doctor potentially has the chance to kill all the Daleks from the safety of Davros's infirmary, because we know he can never go through with it. The Doctor will never irrevocably wipe out the Daleks, nor will he kill their creator to prevent their existence, because that would deprive the series of its main monster and invalidate the Doctor's character. That's irrelevant, though. All dilemmas in the series are false, constructed to further an adventure. However, they're true for the characters, within the fiction, and that's what counts. We could as easily point out that the Doctor just stumbled upon another kid called Davros, but that's not how the narrative works.

I had wondered how it would play out. Presumably the Doctor knew kid Davros would survive, since he'd met him in later life, but he didn't want to be the one who saved him. I wondered if maybe leaving him to the hand mines was what led to his being so horribly injured. I wondered if in the future, Davros was actually going to regenerate, becoming healthy again, rather than just saved from death (a good thing he didn't, since this would have rather ruined the appeal of the character). There were, potentially, other ways for it to go, without ever destroying the Doctor's character. I, for one, was really hoping, at the very end, that Davros would be taken off in the TARDIS and shown a better life by the Doctor. An interesting “What if?” for the series, perhaps.

Going forward, we're sure to see more of the Doctor's past, his mysterious confession coming to the fore, even though it may not actually be revealed, just like his name wasn't in 2013. Missy will be back, of course, as will Davros, eventually. I'm not sure I'm keen on this “hybrid” idea, but we'll see where it goes, and nor am I clear on just what was supposed to be different about the Daleks after their regeneration. Given that the Doctor gave up a big chunk of his regeneration energy, and may some day miss an arm or a leg, or “just be really litte,” I'm hoping that they use that as reasoning to maybe cast a disabled actor in the role. Or get Peter Dinklage as the thirteenth Doctor. As Clara... well, we know now that Coleman is leaving by the time the season is out. Her time as a Dalek in this episode – heartbreakingly unable to articulate herself from within the shell – strongly echoes her first appearance as Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks. I wonder if she'll make it out of the season alive.

Extra bits after the break

Maketh the Man: The Doctor still wears his hero coat, but has gone casual for his time in Essex, with a T-shirt and a tatty hoodie. He also wears checkered trousers which are a deliberate homage to William Hartnell's, although to be truly accurate, they should come up to roughly nipple level.

The Prologue... There are two extra mini-episodes for this story, Prologue, which features the Doctor and Ohila on Karn, and the rather longer and less interesting The Doctor's Meditation, which involves the Doctor and Bors, both of which take place during the early events of The Magician's Apprentice.

Title Tattle: Perhaps the most opaque titles in the series' history. The Magician's Apprentice most obviously refers to Bors, but his importance in the episode isn't high (although the Doctor doesn't even discover his friend is a Dalek puppet, which is an oversight). The Witch's Familiar obviously refers to Clara. Seemingly it's meant to refer to Ms. Oswald's shift from being the Doctor's companion to Missy's “pet.” Suggestion for an overall title: Regeneration of the Daleks.

Pedant's Corner: “Maximum extermination” makes no sense. You either exterminate something or you don't. In fact, you can't really exterminate an individual, but the Daleks have been squawking that word for too long to worry about that.

Surprise Revelation: Davros still has eyes?

Continuity Corner: This may take a while...

  • The Doctor's initial meeting with Davros in the infirmary features audio and video clips of his fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and tenth selves, taken from Genesis of the Daleks, Resurrection of the Daleks, Revelation of the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks and The Stolen Earth respectively. This story is essentially a sequel to Genesis, so the much admired “Do I have the right?” scene from that story gets the most prominence, but kudos for getting the “unlimited rice pudding” line in as well. It does, however, have the effect of making it seem that Davros has been making home movies of all his encounters with the Doctor.
  • The Doctor has visited Skaro before, in The Daleks, The Evil of the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks and Destiny of the Daleks, the build-up to the TV Movie, and the opening scenes of Asylum of the Daleks. It's also the setting of much of the Adventure Game City of the Daleks and the acanonical movie Dr Who and the Daleks. The fate of Skaro has been questioned a lot over the last few years, but the version we visit here has explicitly been re-created in the image of the original.
  • Missy looks absolutely terrified when she realises she's on Skaro. That's fair enough, last time she was there, she was executed.
  • Other alien locales visited include Karn, seen in The Brain of Morbius and The Night of the Doctor; the Shadow Proclamation asteroid, visited in The Stolen Earth; and the Maldovarium, visited several times by both the eleventh Doctor and River Song. Various aliens cameo in the Maldovarium scene, including Sycorax, Hath and Ood, and I think I spotted a Skullion from The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Proclamation also features a brief appearance of a Judoon, first seen in series opener Smith and Jones.
  • The HADS was first used in the 1969 story The Krotons, before making a reappearance in 2013 in the episode Cold War. The 'D' used to stand for 'Displacement,' but that was more of a nuisance than anything, so the Doctor's obviously tweaked the system so that it now stands for 'Dispersal.'
  • Apparently the Daleks have a “genetic weakness” that makes them respect and pity their creator. They still tried to exterminate him at the end of Genesis of the Daleks.
  • The Dalek of the original design can be recognised by its lack of power slats. Evidently it's had some kind of upgrade, since it's capable of travelling outside the Dalek city, whereas in The Daleks, it was reliant on static electricity drawn up through the city floors.
  • Moffat continues to draw on his own script for The Curse of Fatal Death, the skit he wrote for Comic Relief 1999. That story featured both the Master and the Daleks, and had the Master trudge through sewers as well. That time, it took him a lot longer to climb out. Moffat also reuses a line from the sketch in the prequel episode: “Look after the universe for me. I've put a lot of work into it.”
  • Although, for once, Missy explains her escape in the previous season's finale, no explanation is given for Davros's survival of the climactic events of the fourth season.
  • The red Dalek Supreme first appeared in that story, The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. It still looks rubbish.
  • Cheeky references to previous stories include UNIT's rundown of Doctor hotspots: Troy, San Martino, and several times in New York. These call back to the first Doctor stories The Mythmakers and The Chase, the fourth Doctor story The Masque of Mandragora, the tenth Doctor story Evolution of the Daleks and the eleventh Doctor episode The Angels Take Manhattan. The best joke, though, is the “three possible versions of Atlantis” line, referring to the series' notoriously inconsistent explanations for that legend.
  • Clara and the Doctor spoke about Jane Austen in last year's The Caretaker; since then he's taken Clara back to meet her. Sounds like they got on very well.
  • Missy offers the Daleks the secrets of the TARDIS to save her own life. The Doctor tried this very ploy back in The Daleks, but that may have been a bluff.
  • For the first time, we see people of colour playing Kaleds on Skaro. Previously, the Thals had been white-skinned with blond hair, the Kaleds white with dark hair. Given the Kaleds' desire for purity in the, chronologically later, story Genesis of the Daleks, this has very uncomfortable implications.
  • The Master once had a daughter. The Doctor fought in the Cloister Wars, and used to be a little girl... although that last one is probably a lie...

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