A Special Look at: The Magician’s Apprentice

The Magician’s Apprentice follows up after Death in Heaven with the death of Missy the Master, and  Last Christmas where Clara and the Doctor worked on their relationship, and Clara got to say goodbye to Danny Pink.

More importantly though, the episode features an array of returning characters, including Kate Stewart and UNIT, the Shadow Architect since last appearing in The Stolen Earth, Ohila and the Sisterhood of Karn since last appearing in The Night of the Doctor, and of course, Davros (both a younger and contemporary version) since last appearing in Journey’s End. This is also the first appearance of the planet, Skaro, since  Asylum of the Daleks, although the time period where this takes place happens long before Genesis of the Daleks.

This episode also begins the season almost exclusively of two-parters, as the Vox article, “Doctor Who Season 9 made the show good again” explains:

Notably, the season’s most disappointing episode was also the one that stood independently of everything else. Episode nine, “Sleep No More,”was an occasionally agreeable riff on “found footage” horror films that failed to take flight. Scripted by the generally good Mark Gatiss, the hour felt cast adrift in a season that mostly aimed for the epic.

The reason for this is simple: The season’s other episodes were part of larger stories, and were typically two-parters. An episode would set up a situation and then resolve it in the next week, and that gave the show’s sometimes too-hectic pacing room to breathe.

Also notably was that season nine’s stories weren’t really part of a more ambitious, serialized story arc. Outside of the three-part finale and a general sense that the season’s mysteries swirled around the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey, the various two-parters were refreshingly free of connections to each other. If this TV year as a whole has made a great argument for why the medium still needs standalone episodes, season nine of Doctor Who has made a great argument for the idea that those standalones can come in many forms.

For instance, the season’s fifth and sixth episodes, “The Girl Who Died”and “The Woman Who Lived,” offer two very different views of the same character, a young Viking girl named Ashildr (played by Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams). In “The Girl Who Died,” she’s full of life and hope, working on puppet shows and other inventions. And when she dies, the Doctor finds a way to resurrect her that will also make her immortal. In “The Woman Who Lived,” Ashildr — who still appears to be a teenager — has been alive for centuries, and the pieces of her that made the Doctor and his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) decide she should be saved in “The Girl Who Died” have been hollowed out. She’s colder, less caring, less human.

Or consider how the season’s concluding three-parter tells three very different stories about the same basic thing — the Doctor’s grief over the loss of Clara, who dies confronting a horrible force known as the Raven. Clara submits to the inevitable in the 10th episode, “Face the Raven,” and in the 11th, “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor spends 2 billion years fighting a fairy-tale monster in order to have a chance — no matter how slim — to save her.

“Heaven Sent” is the season’s high point, one of the best TV episodes of the year, a tour de force from Capaldi, who utters every line of dialogue in the script, save one (spoken by a Clara who lives in the Doctor’s imagination). What’s amazing about it is how effectively it bridges the space between episode 10 and the finale — while still functioning entirely as a standalone puzzlebox episode. All you need to know to understand it is that Clara has recently died. It also unlocks an even bigger reason season nine was so good.

Certainly, I enjoyed some aspects of this, as Moffat had more room to breathe, but this episode remains quite busy, in fact, rather too, too busy. The Witch’s Familiar concludes the story.

According to The A.V. Club review:

Davros was not inevitable. That’s certainly true in narrative terms. As the creator of the Daleks, he was a natural addition to the Doctor Who mythos, but he only made it to the party in “Genesis Of The Daleks,” 12 years and three Doctors after his children debuted. And, if you go back and watch “The Daleks” with no knowledge of what’s to come, the history detailed there doesn’t exactly demand the presence of a single creator, as it’s suggested in the 1960s serial that the Daleks mutated and encased themselves simply in response to radiation. Davros came into existence because Doctor Who needed someone who could articulate the Dalek perspective with at least a hint of nuance and without shrieking “Exterminate!” every five seconds. The conversations between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Michael Wisher’s Davros in “Genesis Of The Daleks” were so brilliant—you can check out maybe the most iconic of them all below—that the show just kept coming back to them through nearly a dozen combined new actors, a point tonight’s episode acknowledges with the audio montage from past Davros stories. It’s Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach’s turn to try their hand at the Doctor-Davros tête-à-tête, and this story, more than any other, takes us back to “Genesis Of The Daleks,” with the episode once more bringing the two characters face-to-face on Skaro.

The connections to that 1975 classic do go rather deeper than that, and it’s because of this that we now return to the matter of Davros’ inevitability. There may not be a single more unnerving opening to any Doctor Who story than that of “Genesis Of The Daleks,” as a bunch of soldiers wearing makeshift uniforms and painted gasmasks are wordlessly mowed down in slow motion on a foggy battlefield. The beginning of “The Magician’s Apprentice” directly echoes that scene, with laser-equipped biplanes the logical extension of the last depiction of the millennium-long war between the Kaleds and the Thals. An underrated aspect of “Genesis Of The Daleks” is how it sidesteps the Doctor’s question tonight—“Who created Davros?”—by presenting a war-ravaged Skaro that is, as my colleague Christopher Bahn put it, “corrupt, ruined, poisonous and grim.” While the invention of Davros gave the Daleks a specific creator, that first story presented Skaro as such a toxic world that the Daleks—or at least something very much like them—were the inevitable result of a thousand years of hatred long divorced from any reason, with or without Davros. The people glimpsed in “Genesis Of The Daleks” and “The Magician’s Apprentice” had long since proved their capacity for endless war. As the Doctor notes, Davros just removed that last vestige of ability to wonder why.

This speaks to a basic tension in time travel stories that expound on the 4th Doctor’s hypothetical he posed to Sarah Jane Smith all those eons ago, the one that Davros throws back in the current Doctor’s face: “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?” This question most often gets asked about a young Hitler, and since—especially given the very conscious Nazi parallels Terry Nation wove into the Daleks—Davros is Doctor Who’s Hitler, he’s an exceedingly logical fit for this treatment. And in either case, a common question is this: Can atrocities on such incomprehensibly vast scales really be considered the ultimate responsibility of a single person? Or were something like the Daleks always going to happen eventually—if not by Davros’ hand, then by somebody else’s, and if not on Skaro, then somewhere else?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions, but if somebody is in a position to compromise his or her morality in the most fundamental way imaginable—in the Doctor’s case, first by abandoning a child on the battlefield, and then seemingly returning at episode’s end to finish him off—then that person really ought to have some sense of the answer, of whether such a transgression is really worth it. This Doctor is a particularly good incarnation to have to reckon with this question, as part of his alien streak is an active disinterest in the specifics of any given situation. Other Doctors might well have checked the TARDIS scanner and realized where they were, and still others might have recognized those particular scarred battlefields and the patchwork technologies of the warring armies and figured out just where they were. But this Doctor? A war is a war, and a child is a child, and that’s enough—right up to the point that it isn’t. It’s also fitting that the Doctor is done in by his newfound willingness to engage with the insignificant people that make up his universe: The Doctor of last season probably would have stopped and saved that child, but it’s harder to imagine him bothering to ask for Davros’ name, or possibly even registering it if he did. The Doctor has decided to engage, and, as so often happens, the universe has promptly slapped him hard in the face for his trouble.

“The Magician’s Apprentice,” as the first episode of a two-parter—which by all accounts is going to be the norm for this season—offers a whole bunch of questions and precious few answers. Though it’s never quite stated outright—the Doctor is remote here, even by his standards—we learn just what terrible shame the Doctor has been hiding from: He deserted a child in need, and the fact that said child was Davros doesn’t really matter. If anything, if that abandonment was what extinguished the last ember of hope in Davros, then perhaps it’s what set in motion the chain of events that led to the Daleks. Less clear is just why the Doctor appears certain this will be the end of him, given his all-time winning record against Davros and his creations. One might plausibly assume that the Doctor doesn’t want to survive this latest encounter, and Peter Capaldi’s haunted expression throughout lends credence to that idea, but there’s room to speculate here. The Doctor is an enigma here, only really snapping into focus when he begins his latest round of rhetorical jousting with Davros. In these scenes, the dying Davros positions himself as the Doctor’s absolute antithesis, a being intent on proving nothing less than the futility of compassion itself, and he will have the Daleks exterminate as many of the Doctor’s friends as it takes to prove those points.

It’s those friends who end up providing the episode with much of its energy. The return of Michelle Gomez’s Missy is most welcome, even if her opening gambit with the time-frozen planes means the latest, fairly rote repetition of the media reaction to a globe-spanning phenomenon, something that felt clichéd halfway through the 10th Doctor’s era. But whatever: Missy positively crackles with energy in her reintroduction, brushing off her resurrection as no big thing—as she has proven throughout her lives, dying really is something for other people—telling UNIT how to switch her off as an anticipated precondition of a meeting, and killing people indiscriminately to prove that, no, she’s definitely not turned good. What’s really clever about all this is that Doctor Who finally appears to have worked out how to bring the Master back as a recurring player without having her always threaten the world to such an extent that she just has to be killed off at the end of the story, as happened in both of the John Simm Master stories and in last year’s “Death In Heaven.” Tonight’s episode simply takes her at her word when she says she and the Doctor are friends, and that she would earnestly want to help him, albeit with precisely the kind of psychotic, murderous panache we’ve come to expect from her.

In a sense, this takes Missy full circle to what we saw of the two Time Lords when they looked like Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado, a time when the Master’s villainy was balanced by a charm and a camaraderie the Doctor could never quite dismiss. While Davros is the antithesis of the Doctor, Missy works best as a temptation, and that’s at its most concrete when the Doctor legitimately needs the Master in his life. That was part of what made the 3rd Doctor’s relationship with the Master so compelling, because the Doctor’s exile meant he could never wholly dismiss the freedom the Master represented, and the post-Time War incarnations of the Doctor must countenance the rival Time Lord as a friend because she is his last link to his people, to a culture and a perspective that Missy is all too happy to point out is far beyond Clara’s comprehension. Clara too ends up needing Missy here, because Missy represents her most plausible chance of reuniting with the Doctor. And, like Roger Delgado’s incarnation before her, there’s just enough of the Doctor in Missy for a companion to be fooled into thinking she might be acting out of anything other than her own homicidal self-interest, even with all the murders and betrayals.

Indeed, so much of the fun of “The Magician’s Apprentice” comes from seeing the two most plausible claimants to the title of the Doctor’s archenemy—you can see how offended Missy is when the Doctor picks Davros instead—occupy the same narrative space, if not the actual same physical space. For Missy, it’s all just a game, and pretty much always has been, whereas Davros seeks to renew an eons-old, deadly serious philosophical debate with the Doctor. Missy is chaos incarnate, while Davros represents the most evil form of order imaginable; it figures that the Doctor would find the latter far more repugnant. When Missy tried to show the Doctor they weren’t so different in “Death In Heaven,” it was ultimately a desperate effort to win back her friend, to break him so that she might reclaim him. But with Davros? He despises the very core of the Doctor’s being, and is willing to use his dying breaths in a final attempt to prove that compassion is an indulgence, a weakness.

Again, we’ve only seen half the story, and it’s probably wise not to guess too much at where this is all headed. Yes, we see the Doctor returning to ancient Skaro, apparently read to exterminate Davros and change all Dalek history forever, but it’s hard to quite believe the show is going to go in that direction when this episode has only tangentially dealt with the question whether the Doctor—the Doctor, of all people!—could actually kill a child, even that child. This is a man who fled and hid from the universe just for abandoning Davros—and, yes, maybe ensuring the Daleks’ creation, that might be part of it too—so I struggle to imagine the Doctor going through with an actual murder, especially when we can feel fairly confident that Missy and Clara didn’t actually die. (Again, Missy just told us dying is for other people!) “The Magician’s Apprentice” is already a plenty dark episode, but it doesn’t feel quite dark enough to get us to a point where next week’s episode could see the Doctor really, honestly kill the young Davros, even if it were to somehow get undone later.

Instead, the crux of this story—and the “Next Time” trailer seems to lend credence to this—would appear to be in the here and now, on the rebuilt Skaro, with the current Doctor and the current Davros facing off for what I’m almost foolish enough to declare the final time. (But nah, Davros isn’t going anywhere. He might be gone for seven years at a time, but he’s hanging around for as long as the show is running.) This is a story that exists in conversation with “Genesis Of The Daleks,” where the Doctor also had the opportunity to destroy the Daleks forever, if only he could bring himself to commit genocide. How well that story actually grounded that moral dilemma is debatable—Christopher Bahn makes some good points on that score in his review of the episode—but this story takes it all one step further by depicting a Doctor who has already compromised himself, who has already let his own specific hatreds and fears override his universal compassion. From what we’ve seen so far, those impulses saw the Doctor split the difference, leaving the young Davros to face that same thousand-to-one chance with no further assistance. For now, we can only ponder what the true consequences of those actions were, but all will resolve itself soon enough. But if “The Magician’s Apprentice” makes anything clear, it’s that this is now a Doctor every bit as capable of emotional engagement as his predecessors, and he is broken in a way we almost never see him.

One thought on “A Special Look at: The Magician’s Apprentice

  1. Pingback: A Special Look at: Ghost Light | The Progressive Democrat

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