Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Doctor Who Returns! (And So Do I With) "The Magician's Apprentice!"

The Good: Character development, Plot concept, Performances
The Bad: The narrative gap, Incredibly insular set-up story
The Basics: Peter Capaldi's tenure as The Doctor continues with "The Magician's Apprentice," which finds The Doctor wrestling with the consequences of a past decision that now may lead to his death.

Following a bit of a hiatus, Doctor Who has returned for its ninth season since it returned to television. I've had a bit of a hiatus of my own, in the form of a very cliche midlife crisis (you can read about that here!), but now both Doctor Who and I are back. The new episode is "The Magician's Apprentice" and after a shaky first season for Peter Capaldi (reviewed here!), "The Magician's Apprentice" provides Doctor Who fans with almost all we could wish for. Capaldi is electric, Clara is somewhat minimized and Missy returns and is already known and established as the latest Regeneration of The Master. "The Magician's Apprentice" is good, but it is an obvious set-up for a more significant episode and accepting the start of the new season forces viewers to accept a narrative leap that is entirely unfulfilling.

Last seen in "Last Christmas" (reviewed here!), The Doctor and Clara were put in a narrative quagmire that forced considerate, attentive viewers to question the entire prior season of the show. "Last Christmas" was a reality-bending episode where The Doctor, his Companion Clara Oswald, and a handful of other people found themselves at the mercy of Dream Crabs, creatures that feed on unconscious people while placing their victims in a shared dream state. The episode smartly has The Doctor observing that people are still at the mercy of the Dream Crabs when they wake up and do not have any damage to their heads where the Dream Crabs inserted their feeding tubes into the skull to digest the brain. That makes perfect sense and at every stage where the Doctor realizes that and awakens from that level of the dream state, he discovers he and Clara are still in the dream, at the mercy of the parasites. It makes sense, but the huge, glaring flaw with the episode is that at the final iteration, neither The Doctor, nor Clara have any form of wound on their head where the Dream Crabs attached and attacked them. So, there is something preposterous about the episode that acknowledges an important technical detail, then hopes viewers will overlook that detail at the episode's climax. Between that and the somewhat ridiculous "Santa Claus exists" final shot of the episode, the reasonable conclusion from a viewer would be that The Doctor and Clara are still in the dream state, under attack. It is possible to go back through the entire eighth season of Doctor Who and pull out clues that imply that the entire season is a dream (Capaldi's first season could be as The Dream Doctor, with the interpretation that Matt Smith's Doctor is actually infected on Trenzalore!). Regardless, "The Magician's Apprentice" entirely neglects "Last Christmas." The Dream Crab attack is not even obliquely alluded to and the story has leapt ahead an indeterminate amount of time (while Clara alludes to having met Jane Austen there is nothing in the episode to state that the meeting occurred after "Last Christmas" - there were montages in the prior season that showed multiple adventures with The Doctor that could easily have encompassed a time when The Doctor and Clara visited Austen, after "The Caretaker," of course). So, once one accepts the incredibly unsatisfying idea that the story has leapt forward and is utterly ignoring the idea that The Doctor and Clara were not really freed from the Dream Crabs at the end of the prior episode, "The Magician's Apprentice" is actually a very satisfying set-up episode.

Opening with a battlefield, a child steps into a field of hand mines, where he screams for help. The Doctor appears, tosses him his sonic screwdriver and encourages him to come toward him. The Doctor, however, is horrified to discover that the child he is trying to save is Davros. Flashing to the present time in our universe, a powerful servant of Davros, Colony Sarff, hunts for The Doctor. He is trying to find The Doctor to get him to return to Davros for one final confrontation, because Davros is dying. On Earth, Clara Oswald is teaching at Coal Hill when she notices an airplane outside suspended in the air, unmoving. The world, it appears, is under attack, by someone who is merely holding the world hostage as opposed to doing real damage.

Clara reports to UNIT where it is quickly revealed that the planes are frozen in time above the Earth by Missy. Missy gets Clara to come to her and she reveals her current scheme. The Doctor has sent her the equivalent of a last will, which will open upon The Doctor's imminent death and Missy is determined to find The Doctor before he actually dies. With Clara's help, Missy and Clara find The Doctor partying in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, traveling there allows Colony Sarff to find the trio and abduct them. Returning to Davros's side, The Doctor has to face that by abandoning Davros in the mine field, he might well have created the monster who created the Daleks!

"The Magician's Apprentice" does a lot more right than it does wrong. In fact, outside the narrative time leap, the only real problem with the episode is that Davros is, apparently, an idiot. It might seem like a little detail, but Colony Sarff goes out into the galaxy on Davros's orders, scouring the universe for The Doctor. Colony Sarff fails to find The Doctor and returns to Davros, who informs his minion that the way to find The Doctor is through The Doctor's Companion. One would think that a dying guy who is unsure just how long he has left would send his minion out the first time with all the information he needs to actually achieve his objective.

Beyond that, "The Magician's Apprentice" does what it promises. It sets up an immense conflict that relies almost entirely upon the follow-up episode for its resolution. The Doctor is given a compelling conflict, though most of the episode is spent with Clara and Missy trying to find The Doctor and understand just what he is running from. Davros is presented in "The Magician's Apprentice" as a scared little boy and an old man who never truly grew out of being that scared child. The concept behind the conflict in "The Magician's Apprentice" is one that makes a lot of sense: the current incarnation of The Doctor interacted with the child Davros and as Davros is dying, he recognizes that version of The Doctor and knows that this version of The Doctor is the one with whom he must have a reckoning.

Clara is not annoying in "The Magician's Apprentice," though the episode once again illustrates the severe problem with the concept of her character. The Companions are often treated like the audience and allow The Doctor to bounce ideas off them. The Doctor has to explain things to the Companions, which makes them clearer to the audience (with some Companions, one Companion explains things to the other). In the case of Clara, Clara Oswald has gone up and down the entirety of The Doctor's timeline to keep him alive: it is the entire idea behind her as the Impossible Girl. The problem is, that forces the writers to use her in a different way, but Steven Moffat has not adapted to that. So, in "The Magician's Apprentice" Clara has every reason to recognize where Colony Sarff has taken her, The Doctor and Missy by the architecture . . . and she should not need Missy to tell her where they are or the significance of that planet. Similarly, it seems somewhat ridiculous that - even initially out of context - one of the three characters who will recognize the planet based on the architecture fail to recognize the architecture when they first see the "hospital."

So, while the writing for some of the characters is not nearly as smart as the characters are supposed to be, the acting in "The Magician's Apprentice" is phenomenal. Peter Capaldi is energetic and sarcastic as The Doctor and in "The Magician's Apprentice" Capaldi finds the perfect balance between snark and the weight of responsibility that is appropriate for the character. Michelle Gomez is delightful and wacky as Missy and Jenna Coleman is sympathetic as Clara. In fact, Coleman's performance makes the best argument for a decent amount of time passing between "Last Christmas" and "The Magician's Apprentice;" she plays Clara as unphased at the mention of Danny Pink being dead and she is offended by Missy getting the Confession Dial, when their relationship was so much more tenuous when last we saw them.

The effects in "The Magician's Apprentice" are pretty impressive. Colony Sarff is one of the coolest villains to grace Doctor Who and had he not been rendered so well, it would have been one of the cheesiest.

Ultimately, "The Magician's Apprentice" does what a season premiere ought to do: it gets viewers legitimately excited about the return of beloved characters, while making them feel like they are watching something new. "The Magician's Apprentice" is an excellent next chapter of Doctor Who!

For other works with Julian Bleach, please check out my reviews of:
The Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Les Miserables
The Brothers Grimm

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Ninth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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