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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice (Review)

“The TARDIS will not be entered. The TARDIS will be destroyed.

“Good luck with that. She’s indestructible.”

“Did the Doctor tell you that? Because you should never believe a man about a vehicle.”

 – The Daleks, Clara and Missy share some truths

The ninth season is certainly ambitious.

The idea of building an entire season around a series of interconnected two-parters is a departure from the show’s traditional format. It certainly makes it a lot harder to review the show on a week-by-week basis, if only because it means that reviewers are talking about each episode having only seen around half the story. That is not the way that people typically consume Doctor Who. Even modern DVD releases of the classic series package whole series together so it is not so much a four- (or six-) part episode as a single story.



Since it returned to television in 2005, Doctor Who has adopted an approach to narrative driven by the single episode as the default narrative unit. Sure, there were multi-part stories; but they were the exception rather than the rule. Sure, there were season long arcs; but they were largely driven by arc words and core themes as much as plot. This was, after all, the big controversy over Moffat’s “Impossible Girl” arc, which was presented as a plot mystery only to be revealed as a clever thematic point.

During the Davies era, the two-parters were typically allocated for big “event” episodes. There were roughly three in a season, and they allowed the show to adopt a bigger sense of scale and spectacle. The first two-parter was typically lighter and little bit toyetic (the “toy monster” two-parter) and the second was a lot darker and ominous (the “highlight of the season” two-parter). Davies would then use a two-parter to provide a suitably bombastic conclusion to the season, offering “blockbuster” family entertainment at the height of summer.

An axe to grind...

An axe to grind…

In contrast, Steven Moffat has largely shied away from two-parters. His first season as showrunner stuck quite closely to the model established by Davies, although he shrewdly swapped the “toy monster” and the “highlight of the season” two-parters. However, since then, the Moffat era has largely eschewed the two-parter. The sixth season opened with a two-parter and closed with a single episode. The seventh season did not feature a single two-parter. The eighth season built to a massive two-parter, where the first part played as a parody of Doctor Who cliffhangers.

Dark Water offered a pretty effective criticism of the two-part model, making a compelling argument in favour of Moffat’s decision to break away from the format. As Dark Water so skilfully pointed out, the biggest moment in a two-parter will generally be the cliffhanger; it is the moment that has to serve as the climax of the first episode and hold the audience’s attention over an entire week. So the entire forty-five minutes of the first episode can frequently feel like padding, an attempt to stall the episode to the point where the story can actually begin.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

Bad Wolf builds to the revelation of the Daleks; Army of Ghosts builds to the revelation of the Daleks and Cybermen; Utopia builds to the reveal of the Master; The Sound of Drums builds to the Master conquering the universe; The Stolen Earth builds to the reunion of the Tenth Doctor and Rose, spoiled by an angry Dalek. The beauty of Dark Water is that the entire episode was built around an obvious subversion of that format. “You know it’s Cybermen and the Master, but we can’t actually tell you it’s Cybermen and the Master until the cliffhanger.”

This structure worked reasonably well when Doctor Who was produced in half-hour chunks and where waiting until the first cliffhanger to reveal the basic premise of the next episode meant only losing a quarter (or even a sixth) of the story. It becomes a lot harder to manage when putting the big reveal at the first cliffhanger means that the audience has waited for forty-five minutes and the script is half over before you get to the meat of the plot. This is what makes the ninth season such a fascinating departure from what came before.

“You Missy-take me, ma’am.”

The decision to build the ninth season around a series of interlocking two-parters does not (as some might argue) mark a return to a structure more closely resembling the form of the original television show. After all, there are fundamental (and irreconcilable) differences between a forty-five minute chunk of blockbuster television in 2015 and a half-hour slice of quirky fringe entertainment in 1989. Despite the abundance of continuity references, The Magician’s Apprentice is not a slice of classic Doctor Who nostalgia; it is something new and unique.

The Magician’s Apprentice is caught between trying to be a season premiere and trying to set up The Witch’s Familiar. Moffat’s season premieres work better when they have a clear momentum or objective. The Eleventh Hour works because it has to introduce a new lead, a new companion, and reboot the show; all in fifty minutes. The Impossible Astronaut is powered by the mystery of the Doctor’s death. Asylum of the Daleks falters a bit, but at least has its own story and the introduction of Jenna Louise Coleman. Deep Breath gives the audience Peter Capaldi.

Better the Davros you know...

Better the Davros you know…

The Magician’s Apprentice has little new to offer. The players are familiar; none have been absent long enough for the audience to miss them. The episode takes its time getting to the headline draws. The threat is abstract; the audience is told that the Doctor thinks he is going to die, but the script detours into scenes of Colony Sarff threatening the cosmos and an extended medieval reintroduction scene. Missy gets lots of scenery to chew, but feels like a passenger. The Daleks only appear in the final act. Even Davros seems more sedate than usual. (He is dying, to be fair.)

There are good ideas here, but The Magician’s Apprentice is more about establishing them than bringing them into focus. The Magician’s Apprentice is fifteen minutes of set-up, extended out to fifty minutes of television. The problem isn’t that this padding is bad or boring; it just feels like a conscious effort to prevent The Magician’s Apprentice from getting to the actual point of the story. Moffat’s scripts frequently run on stream of consciousness whimsy, the problem is that a high-stakes cliffhanger serves to make all that charm feel like an attempt to stall.

Not her (hanker)chief concern...

Not her (handker)chief concern…

This is an episode which brings the Doctor into conflict with Davros, and which is built as an exploration of that iconic speech from Genesis of the Daleks. Indeed, as Davros’ perfectly-selected clip of the Fourth Doctor demonstrates, The Magician’s Apprentice takes a very literal interpretation of that classic speech as its starting point. “Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?”

There is just one slight problem with all of this. The Magician’s Apprentice is a bluff, but it is a rather transparent bluff. Steven Moffat has no interest in the old “time travel and Hitler” moral dilemmas that science-fiction fans (and presidential candidates) take oh-so-seriously. The entire point of Let’s Kill Hitler was that Doctor Who was not a show particularly engaged with using a time machine to deal with abstract moral quandaries that have no applicable basis in fact. Despite the cliffhanger, it is quite clear that Moffat would never have the Doctor murder child!Davros.

Making space...

Making space…

Even beyond his already established lack of interest in the whole “let’s kill Hitler!” debate, Steven Moffat is the writer who effectively erased the Doctor’s destruction of Gallifrey because he could not imagine the character killing children. It goes almost without saying that the Twelfth Doctor will not actually murder child!Davros. After all, any number of alternate possibilities present themselves. Why not simply take Davros away in the TARDIS and deposit him elsewhere? Send him to Coal Hill, perhaps?

Still, the idea of literalising that distinctive Tom Baker monologue is quite interesting of itself. It provides a clear reflection of Clara’s encounter with baby!Doctor in Listen. In that episode, Clara encountered a younger version of the Doctor and helped to instill in him a sense of compassion. The Witch’s Familiar plays with this idea, suggesting an encounter with the Doctor instilled in a Davros a sense of mercy. The suggestion in The Magician’s Apprentice that it is responsible for Davros’ bitterness and resentment is a nice bit of wrong-footing.


A “good” Dalek…

(There is, of course, an element of contrivance to the set-up. It feels more than a little convenient to tie the Doctor into the origin of his “arch enemy” in a manner that is even more direct than Genesis of the Daleks. Travelling with Missy and Clara, the Doctor muses, “Davros made the Daleks, but who made Davros?” It recalls that old eighties and nineties comic book movie trope where the origins of heroes and villains had to be consciously tied into one another for the sake of narrative convenience. Tim Burton’s Batman is one such example.)

However interesting the set-up might be, the problem is that The Magician’s Apprentice has to actually get there. The episode has to build towards that cliffhanger, to the revelation that Davros and the Doctor are tied together and that the Daleks have recolonised Skaro. As a result, it feels like a lot of the first half of the episode is spent running around in very clever circles to prevent the script from having to actually pick up on the events of the teaser. It is very much a “ball and cup” game, where the show prolongs the mystery by simply keeping the cups moving.

A rocky road to redemption...

A rocky road to redemption…

At the same time, The Magician’s Apprentice is populated with lots of little touches that could not necessarily sustain an entire episode, but which are useful for stalling the build to that climax. As with a lot of Moffat’s work, it seems like The Magician’s Apprentice takes great pleasure in literalising witty wordplay. The teaser introduces the terrifying concept of “handmines”, while Missy stages a terrorist attack when everybody notices that “the planes are stopped.” The entire two parter builds to a play on the phrase “your sewers are revolting.”

It is fun to imagine that this is simply how Moffat scripts for the show, starting with a witty one-liner or pun and working backwards in order to generate a story. After all, the central conflict of Peter Harness’ The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion is rooted in the question of whether any of the characters are willing to “let Zygons be Zygons.” It might seem like a joke, and it is easy to overstate, but Moffat’s fundamental love of words – of playing with them and twisting them – is at the very heart of his Doctor Who work.

Best of frenemies...

Best of frenemies…

Indeed, the script to The Magician’s Apprentice consciously draws attention to the writer’s fondness for goofy puns. When the Doctor arrives in medieval England riding a tank and playing an electric guitar – one suspects that Moffat really liked Mad Max: Fury Road – it is a set up from all manner of banter and wordplay. “You said you wanted an axe fight,” the Doctor remarks to his opponent. (“It’s a slow burner,” he promises.) He also jokes that he ordered the tank on the internet. “It’s for my fish.”

Similarly, The Magician’s Apprentice does a lot of heavy thematic lifting for the season ahead, setting up recurring motifs that ripple and echo across the remainder of the season. When the Daleks vaporise Clara at the end of The Magician’s Apprentice, it represents the first of the season’s false deaths. These are all dress rehearsals leading up to Clara’s inevitable departure, to her death in Face the Raven. Clara “dies” in The Magician’s Apprentice, the Doctor’s “ghost” appears in Under the Lake, Ashildr is the eponymous character in The Girl Who Died.

A screwdriver loose...

A screwdriver loose…

(Even Missy’s supposed resurrection and Davros’ near death in The Magician’s Apprentice tease the theme of false deaths running across the rest of the year. Moffat is staking out a very clear piece of thematic ground. Clara correctly points out that the Doctor actually expected Missy to survive. When Clara confronts her on the topic, Missy responds by stating, “Death is for other people, dear.” The central characters of Doctor Who, the core figures in its mythology, exist beyond death. A big theme of the season is the idea that Clara is ascending to such a status.)

The Magician’s Apprentice hints at the season’s broader arc in other ways. The season is bookended by the return of both Skaro and Gallifrey, the two twin powers of the Last Great Time War. Resurrecting Skaro is a way of setting up the restoration of Gallifrey in Heaven Sent, marking a clear return to the show’s classic status quo. Indeed, the Doctor himself is shocked to see should old continuity reasserting itself. “Why would anybody hide a whole planet?” Clara wonders. “That would rather depend on the planet, dear,” Missy responds.

Way of the warrior...

Way of the warrior…

Missy responds to the return of Skaro with awe and horror. “They’ve built it again,” she reflects. “They’ve brought it back. No, no. No!” There is a sense that Moffat is mirroring the return of Gallifrey at the end of the year. Skaro is hidden inside a gigantic cloaking field, a planet rendered invisible. Gallifrey is hiding at the end of time. Both are sleeping giants. The Doctor even hits upon the fear that thematically connects the two. “How scared must you be to seal every one of your own kind inside a tank?” he wonders. How scared must you be to hide at the end of history?

Appropriately enough, Moffat makes suggests that memory is the connective tissue here, rather than anything rooted in technobabble. Skaro and Gallifrey endure because they are remembered; because they cannot be exorcised from the canon as long as fandom remembers them. This is a familiar Moffat theme; the sense that continuity is a malleable construct that is linked to memory. The bulk of The Magician’s Apprentice is built around the idea that Davros suddenly wants to talk with the Doctor about their encounter during his childhood.

Sitting on the bold step...

Sitting on the bold step…

Although this encounter only recently happened for the Doctor, how come Davros never brought it up before? The answer, of course, is that it hadn’t happened yet. It did not happen until Davros remembered that it happened. “Davros knows,” Colony Sarff repeats throughout the episode. “Davros remembers.” Continuity does not exist in Doctor Who until somebody (whether the characters or the audience) remembers it. This was the end of The Big Bang; Amy willing her “Raggedy Man” back into existence simply by remembering him.

Appropriately, The Magician’s Apprentice is practically saturated with continuity spanning the entire history of the show. The design of Skaro recalls that employed during The Daleks, most obviously in the sliding doors. Colony Sarff wades through the show’s history for the Doctor; he visits the Moldovium from the Moffat era, the Shadow Proclamation from the Davies era, and even Karn from the Hinchcliffe era. Technicians record sightings of the Doctor in “three possible versions of Atlantis.”

The Skaros of battle...

The Skaros of battle…

Indeed, The Magician’s Apprentice finds the Daleks weaponising continuity against the Doctor. Davros is able to lord it over the Doctor by playing clips from the classic series in order to prove his point. Davros attempts to win a moral argument by whipping out his DVD collection and pointing to the relevant clip. One of the show’s recurring motifs has been the idea that the Daleks exist as the darker impulses within Doctor Who, that they are the show’s destructive side. The Magician’s Apprentice ties them to strict continuity.

(After all, the cliffhanger has the Daleks effectively “breaking” the show at the end of the first episode of the ninth season. They get to blow up the TARDIS, murder the Master and vapourise the companion. The Daleks are not simply trying to destroy the Doctor, they are trying to destroy Doctor Who. After all, as Missy points out in her conversation with Clara, the Doctor can just regenerate. Instead, the Daleks destroy the show around the Doctor as Davros tries to smother him with continuity.)

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

The Magician’s Apprentice marks another conscious attempt to retool the Daleks. In many ways, the Davies era was about the careful and meticulous reintroduction of classic concepts to a new audience. In its first four seasons, the show consciously built up to the return of concepts like the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master and the Sontarans. With the exception of the Cybermen, there was a relatively conservative approach to these core elements, with the team trying to make them iconic and definitive. (Even the Cybermen were adapted from a beloved audio play.)

The Moffat era has been more willing to rework and reinvent core concepts, acknowledging that creations like the Daleks and the Cybermen actually evolved into their iconic forms through a long and organic process. The Moffat era has never been afraid of trying new approaches to these classic monsters. In fact, it could be argued that Dark Water and Death in Heaven rank among the very best Cyberman stories ever produced. Unfortunately, the Moffat era has not been quite as lucky when it comes to the reinvention of the Daleks.

Time for reflection...

Time for reflection…

The Moffat era has tried a number of approaches the Daleks, but has yet to produce a definitive or defining Dalek story. The “new paradigm” Daleks of Victory of the Daleks represented the revival’s first big attempt to reinvent the Dalek, only for those models to end up pushed into the background of group shots. Even years later, nobody has any idea what an “Eternal Dalek” is supposed to be. Asylum of the Daleks and Into the Dalek were stronger episodes, but not quite contenders for “best Dalek story ever.”

In fact, it seems like Moffat’s most successful innovation when it comes to the Daleks was the idea the “nanocloud” from Ayslum of the Dalek. Not in any literal sense, but in the idea that Daleks are able to hollow out seemingly normal people and nest inside them. It is no wonder that those Dalek puppets have actually managed to reappear a couple of times, with one such Dalek puppet hijacking the TARDIS in The Magician’s Apprentice. Still, it feels like the Moffat era is waiting for its definitive Dalek tale. (Perhaps The Time of the Doctor comes closest.)

The band plays on...

The band plays on…

The Magician’s Apprentice reintroduces Julian Bleach as Davros, and gives the character a decidedly mystical aesthetic. As the title implies, there is a sense of fantasy and magic to the story. Moffat rather consciously draws on the iconography of Voldemort in characterising Davros. He is given a new servant who is revealed to be a gigantic colony of snakes. Davros seems to have bestowed upon himself the title of “Dark Lord of Skaro.” It is an approach that is perhaps more interesting than successful.

It does cement the ties between Davros and the Devil, which feels entirely appropriate given the cartoonish excesses associated with the character’s earlier appearances. If Davros is truly to be the Doctor’s “arch enemy”, then there are worse parallels to draw. (There are, of course, less obvious ones.) The association also lends Davros a distinctive visual identity removed from that of the Dalek. The decision to make the coils and tubing around Davros resemble snakes is quite clever.

Give the boy a hand...

Give the boy a hand…

The portrayal of Skaro is much more effective, although it is also much more faithful to The Daleks and Genesis of the Daleks. One of the interesting aspects of the eighth season was the recurring anti-war motif running through it. The decision to broadcast Death in Heaven on Remembrance Weekend during the centenary of the First World War was a provocative choice, even if the subtext was hidden behind science-fiction concepts like zombies and Cybermen. Death in Heaven was, after all, a story about the exploitation of the dead as an army recruitment tool.

The eighth season was decidedly critical of military foreign policy at a point when the rest of the BBC was celebrating the First World War. The decision to open the ninth season with a teaser that consciously harks back to the nightmarish reality of the First World War feels like a nice way to continue that debate. After all, the centenary will be running for a few more years. With gas masks and mud, Skaro looks not too dissimilar to Flanders’ Field. The “handmines” perhaps represent the hungry earth eagerly awaiting the blood of young soldiers.

Shadow play...

Shadow play…

Once again, the show’s pacifism comes out. Skaro is a planet trapped in a state of war so perpetual that the war does not have a distinctive or unique identity. It is “just the war.” The Doctor is horrified by this, but his resolution is not to wage his own war or to engage in regime change or anything like that. Advising baby!Davros that he has a one-in-a-thousand chance of survival, the Doctor urges, “You forget the thousand, and concentrate on the one.” That is a succinct summary of the show’s moral philosophy. And a rebuttal to any moral dilemma concerning Davros.

Still, the episode is burdened by the dual requirements of having to set up the season and lead to a cliffhanger. As a result, the episode falls back on the increasingly familiar refrain of having the Doctor celebrate his impending death. When the Doctor cheats his seemingly inevitable death at the end of The Witch’s Familiar, it is only be the third time that the Doctor has done so in the past four seasons. (Although the Twelfth Doctor still has less experience than his direct predecessor.)

Davros has great taste in episodes.

Davros has great taste in episodes.

There is a lot of fat here. It is clever fat which moves quickly, but it is still fat. It feels like stalling, like the episode is running around in circles to avoid pushing ahead. One of the defining (and polarising) features of the Moffat era has been a sense of incredible forward momentum; occasionally at the cost of character development or set-up or world-building. The Magician’s Apprentice naturally covers less ground, but without substituting back in any of the finer details that the Davies era used to take for granted.

It is too harsh to say that it goes nowhere fast; but it doesn’t go far.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s second season of Doctor Who:

9 Responses

  1. Nailed it as usual, dude.

  2. Another creative writing class from Moffat…. sometimes I wish he would just shut up and entertain us.

    • Truth be told, I was entertained, mostly.

      I actually just wish there were more meat on it. (After all, the Doctor threatening to kill a child feels like a pretty lame cliffhanger; no way that the show will follow through on it in any permanent sense. And the show has already done “Daleks exterminate the companion” and “baddies blow up the TARDIS!” fakeouts before. I just fear we’re past the point where “the Daleks are serious business!” and “the Doctor is forced to do something which appears unconscionable!” are credible cliffhangers.)

  3. Very interesting review.

    I think I do have to disagree with the anti-war message of the previous series being ‘provocative’ – if anything it, and Danny Pink in particular, felt very safe, a case of playing to the gallery. The ‘lions led donkeys’ meme is deeply ingrained in British popular memory after all, even if the historical truth is a lot more complex.

    Anyway, on to this series. I enjoyed this episode and I think this was the first time Missy has been on screen that she has felt more like a character than a charicature.

    • I don’t know, I just remember Death in Heaven seguing into the Queen attending a Remembrance Day concert and finding it a very pointed scheduling choice. (Although I’m not sure if they knew exactly what would be following it, Remembrance weekend is fixed; so the production team knew where the finalé would land and the transition gives the episode a lot of context.) I think you’re entirely correct that that “lions led donkeys” narrative is ingrained in popular consciousness at this point, and that the reality is more complex; but I think that there’s a difference between making that argument and then building to a story where the bodies of the dead are resurrected as raw materials for the fashioning of a new army. After all, for all that the First World War might be pointless, there is a romance to the way that the soldiers in the trenches are portrayed that affords a certain inherent nobility to the armed forces. (Don’t those recruitment adds offer purpose and meaning?)

      Which is one of the more interesting debates about how we memorialise conflicts by building heroic myths around them. We might accept the First World War was largely pointless, but we still focus on the incredible heroism and valour of those who died in the trenches, and the extent to which we accept the entire conflict as needless and futile is weighed against the celebration of the dead. For example, I’m very uneasy about the centenary of 1916, because I fear that the romanticism of “a terrible beauty” will drown out the perfectly credible argument that the rebellion ultimately heaped more suffering on everybody involved than was necessary to achieve the ends that we have today. Because to voice that opinion is taken as an implicit criticism of those who died for my freedom.

      I think what amounts to an army of zombie soldiers on Remembrance Weekend is a pretty heavy statement, but I accept I may be in the minority on that.

      Of course, reading all that back, I fear that it – as with my fondness for reading capitalist critiques into things – makes me sound like something of a radical leftie; I’m not at all. I think I average out to something approaching the centre of the political spectrum. Ultimately, I’m just prone to bouts of cynicism.

      • Heh, I was afraid to comment for fear of coming across as a warmongering rightist when I’m actually just prone cynicism in the opposite direction. 😉

        I think my issue is that First World War is romanticised by the British left for its own purpose just as much as the right and that a character Danny Pink buys entirely into that romanticisation, where Tommys are salt of the earth working class heroes led astray in life and death by a nebulous establishment who of course gain everything and never have to sacrifice anything (I think it’s only fair to say at this point that Asquith, who led Britain into war in 1914, lost a son on the Somme – and as you brought up Ireland, John Redmond lost a brother and his mortal enemy Bonar Law lost two sons.)

        I suppose my criticism is that the show (IMO) played things so safe; yes it does so from a left wing pacifist narrative but that narrative is very mainstream and while it chooses its myths those myths were played straight. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does prevent me from seeing it as very brave or even particularly radical.

  4. Great review. You summed up the positives and negatives well. I personally really liked the opener and thought it was a decent beginning to a season but it was too closely tied to one central idea, offering a lot of flash and very little actual substance. I’m sure this would work better if you could watch the conclusion of the story immediately rather than having to wait and dwell on how little really happened.

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