Thoughts on The Magician’s Apprentice

Season 9 of Doctor Who opens with a love letter to the series, especially the classic episodes; it seems made to appeal to the long-time fans.  While there are some new inventions, there are more references, homages, and allusions to previous episodes than I could catch in a single viewing.

One of the creepiest additions to "The Magician's Apprentice," the handmine.

One of the creepiest additions to “The Magician’s Apprentice,” the handmine.

The opening of the episode seems as if we are learning about a new place.  We find ourselves jumping into the middle of a battle being fought with technology of different ages, and follow a soldier chasing after a little boy. The scene between the soldier and the boy is very tense, as the boy has stumbled upon a field of handmines, hands with eyeballs in their palms that will pull you underground. The handmines grab the soldier, but the boy remains. The Doctor is ready to help him survive until he learns that the helpless boy is Davros and that we are on Skaro, before it was the planet of the Daleks. Rather than make any kind of decision about what to do, the Doctor flees, leaving his sonic screwdriver behind with the young Davros.

After the opening credits, the episode starts to feel more like a classic Who episode in terms of pacing. Unlike a classic Who episode, however, the first half of the episode is very female dominated with Clara, Kate Stewart, Missy, and another female member of U.N.I.T.  We follow Clara and U.N.I.T. as they investigate why all the planes are suddenly frozen in the sky. (As an aside, Clara is once again teaching her students about Jane Austen, and the implication is that she has met Jane. I hope that’s not true because I still want to see the Doctor and Jane meet.) While I like the character of Kate Stewart, I was a bit disappointed that once again she fades into the background. Clara quickly takes charge, and then Missy shows up, leaving very little for Kate to do. Of course it was Missy who froze the planes in the sky to get their attention; the Master has never been one for understatement or subtlety.

I loved the return of Missy.  She offers no explanation for her survival, but is just as interesting a character as ever. I’m not as big a fan of the explicit discussion of Missy being the Doctor’s best friend (much like the Doctor’s relationship with Delgado’s Master, I think this is better left to the subtext), but the complex relationship between her and the Doctor is still fascinating, and it was enjoyable watching her and Clara each testing the other and attempting to gain the upper hand. Clara and Missy seem to realize that they need each other to find the Doctor, but they are still in competition for the title of the Doctor’s best friend.  The algorithm U.N.I.T. uses to track down the Doctor is another treasure trove of references to past episodes, as references are made to locations from various episodes, all the way from “The Mythmakers” and “The Underwater Menace” to “The Angels Take Manhattan.”

Missy_Clara

Missy and Clara face off in one of our “warmer countries” (probably still Cardiff).

The main new character introduced in this episode is Colony Sarff, a creepy-looking hooded figure who we discover is actually made up of a colony of snakes. Davros has dispatched Colony Sarff to find the Doctor; he visits locations familiar to fans of the show, such as the Shadow Proclamation, not seen or heard of since Davros’ last appearance. He is an interesting character, but he made me feel a bit like he had wandered in from a Harry Potter story. Still, I’ll refrain from judging the character until I see if Moffat had any plans for him in part two.

It’s not until Clara and Missy track down the Doctor that he enters the story again. He believes that he is about to die and had been having a massively anachronistic party in the Middle Ages. Countless gifs will be made of the Doctor’s “axe” wielding entrance, but the arrival of Clara and Missy also brings Colony Sarff to the Doctor, meaning it’s time to face the dying Davros, now that Davros remembers his childhood encounter with the Doctor. I loved Missy’s obvious hurt feelings at the Doctor calling Davros his archenemy, since she thought that title belonged to her.

Soon, however, Colony Sarff takes the three of them to visit Davros in what seems like a floating hospital. The Doctor is taken off to see Davros while Clara and Missy are held captive.  I’ll get to the Doctor’s encounter with Davros, the heart of the episode, in a moment. What Clara and Missy discover is that the “hospital” is not free-floating and is, in fact, a building in the face of an invisible planet. The invisible planet is, of course, Skaro which was either not destroyed by the Seventh Doctor as we thought, or has somehow been rebuilt. The Daleks seize Clara and Missy and the cliffhanger is one in which the Daleks  (from all different eras, including the blue and silver 1960’s Daleks, the Special Weapons Dalek, and modern Daleks) appear to destroy both of them and the TARDIS.

Daleks from all over the Dalek timeline!

Daleks from all over the Dalek timeline!

The most important moments of the episode, however, all deal with the Doctor and Davros.  Why exactly Davros didn’t remember this childhood encounter until now, we are not told, but for the moment I’m willing to let that go.  Another point I’m willing to accept without questioning is the fact that Davros seems to have access to a library of clips of the Doctor; I can actually explain Davros having recordings of the Doctor’s interactions with him (who’s to say Davros doesn’t have the capacity to record what happens around him), but how he has access to that key moment from “Genesis of Daleks” I guess I just have to let slide because I enjoyed it too much.

And, ultimately, it is that moment from “Genesis of the Daleks” that is what this episode is really about.  In “Genesis of the Daleks” the fourth Doctor decided that he could not commit genocide.  Part of his reasoning was the moment featured in the clip, “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 episode forces the Doctor to once again have to decide what type of man he is.  In “Genesis,” he felt that to commit that genocide and wipe out the Daleks would make him no better than the Daleks themselves.  This continues the theme brought out in “Into the Dalek” of the Doctor’s similarity to the Daleks.

A lot has happened to the Doctor since “Genesis of the Daleks” took place.  The seventh Doctor had no problem tricking Davros into blowing up Skaro with the hand of Omega.  The eighth Doctor and the war Doctor watched the Time War rip the universe apart.  The tenth Doctor has seemingly wiped out the Daleks a few times during his time.  I’m not sure that the Doctor in his current state would come to the same conclusion he did when he was holding those wires on Skaro.

Murdering a still innocent child, however, is another story.  Given the parallels between the Daleks and the Nazis, Terry Nation meant for that line to make the viewer think of Hitler: could you murder a child knowing that he would grow up to be Adolph Hitler?  Would the Doctor actually murder a frightened child who has yet to commit or even think of any of his crimes?  He seems poised to do so at the end of this episode.  Is his hatred of the Daleks strong enough now?  I guess we’ll find out in “The Witch’s Familiar.”

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Just Act Stupid: The Dominators

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love-they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”  The preceding quote ran through my head as I watched “The Dominators” as I realized that this serial is essentially arguing the same point as Harry Lime in The Third Man, just far less successfully.  The second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe encounter a civilization that is living through an era of peace and has stagnated.  Which is unfortunate, because the pacifists are ill-prepared for their encounter with the aggressive Dominators.

The Doctor and Jamie play dumb with Rago.

The Doctor and Jamie play dumb with Rago.

The sixth season of Doctor Who starts out with an episode the familiar season five template; this is a planet under siege story, instead of a base under siege story.  Two Dominators land on the planet Dulkis, looking to find fuel for their ship.  Dulkis is a peaceful planet whose occupants, the Dulcians, have long ago given up any kind of fighting or war.  The Doctor, Jamie, Zoe arrive to find the planet in peril.  The Dominators want to use the planet to create the fuel they need and will ultimately kill or enslave the natives.  The problem is that the peaceful Dulcians cannot fight to save themselves and their planet.  The TARDIS crew, along with Cully, the troublemaking son of the Director of Dulkis, must find a way to save the planet before it’s too late.

I must confess that I had a review all written and ready to go about this episode and my overall opinion on this serial was that it was dull and difficult to watch.  However, I wrote it before I went back and watched all of the reconstructed episodes, so I decided to re-watch the episode.   Upon my re-watch, an unexpected thing happened; I found myself enjoying the episode. Don’t desert me yet, though, I’m not going to argue that this is a great serial, just not as bad as it’s reputation.  This new attitude was mainly due to a shift in my opinion about one aspect of the story, the Dominators themselves, but I’ll get to that later.

Looking at the way the different characters function in the story will help illustrate my point.   The main reason the story has a bad reputation is because of the Dulcians.  Dulcians are aptly named; except for Cully, they are incredibly dull.  Cully claims that they have no curiosity as a people, but they also seem to have very few emotions as well.  Even when confronted with a possible danger, the council does nothing but get into a debate about the issue on an intellectual level.  They are not a stupid people; in fact they seem to value intelligence.  They also have had to respond to natural disasters, like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, so they have not lead a completely sheltered existence. So why do they have to be so passive?  They are pacifists, but pacifists don’t have to be wimps.  There are ways of resisting that don’t require the people to take up arms.  The concept could have been an interesting one, it was just poorly executed.  There were times when the Ducians’ passIvity was so maddening that I wasn’t sure they really deserved the Doctor’s help.

Zoe and Cully show off the latest in Dulcian fashion.

Zoe and Cully show off the latest in Dulcian fashion: bathing suits with sheer skirts for the women and togas with mantles for the men.

Small robots called Quarks help the Dominators in their domination.  These Quarks are another flaw in this story because they just aren’t scary.  They can kill people by shooting them with some kind of energy or laser, and they can temporarily paralyze people.  Despite this, they seem cute, not terrifying.  Their voices are far from intimidating, as their high-pitched voice makes them sound like children.  They trundle along when they walk and seem incapable of chasing anyone at a high-speed. Their “arms” also seem fairly useless in most situations and it’s quite ridiculous the way that they flap them to recharge their power (it seems like it would use up power).  They are also very easily fooled and destroyed; at times they even seemed confused or panicked by attempts to destroy them.  For the second serial in a row, Jamie disarms a robot by throwing a sheet over it; the result is that the Quarks seem quite helpless.

In terms of the Doctor’s companions, the episode is a mixed bag.  It’s a pretty good episode for Jamie.  He is very involved in the action, running around and destroying Quarks with a glee that we don’t often see from Jamie.  He feels like he is fighting the redcoats back at home, so he is really in his element and allowed to operate quite autonomously from the Doctor for much of the episode.  Zoe, unfortunately, doesn’t fare as well.  It doesn’t feel like the writers knew what to do with her yet.  She has moments when she shines, like when she comes up with the plan to take out the Quarks that are guarding them or when she shows her that her knowledge of robots and spacecraft can rival the Doctor’s.  However, for much of the story she is in the background.  Given that she is someone who believed that logic would provide the answer to any problem (until she met the Doctor, that is), it seems like a missed opportunity to not have her interact more with the Dulcians who are coming from a position that isn’t completely dissimilar from hers.

On point strongly in the favor of this episode is the fact Troughton’s Doctor acts more like himself in this serial. The Doctor is not sidelined in this story. He is coming up with plans on the fly and putting them into action.  He is also up to his old tricks, playing the fool so his enemy will underestimate him.  He very explicitly does this during the Dominators’ tests; despite the fact that the tests are causing pain to the Doctor and Jamie, Troughton’s performance keeps the scene funny.  Continuing this train of thought, this episode had a few other scenes in which Troughton got to show of his comedic skills.  The scene in which the Doctor needs to divert the travel capsule in mid-flight is classic second Doctor; te banter between him and Jamie shows of the great chemistry between the actors.

Now for the Dominators themselves; I must admit that they really aren’t much better developed than the Dulcians and have equally ridiculous costumes.  Nevertheless, it was amusing to watch the relationship between Navigator Rago and Probationer Toba.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but it’s like watching a comedy duo performing a very subtle routine.  Ronald Allen’s Rago is the straight man; he simply wants to get the job done and move on.  Unfortunately for him, his colleague on this mission is Kenneth Ives’ Toba who just wants to blow things up and destroy people.  It’s hard to miss the glee with which he says “total destruction!” to the Quarks.  It’s almost as if Toba doesn’t really care about the mission at all.  For instance, he wants to send the Quarks after Jamie and Cully when they are blowing up the Quarks, but then he remembers his orders and can’t; the look of frustration and disappointment on his face says it all.

The ending left me with a few questions, which isn’t surprising in a story that was so rewritten that the actual writers (Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln) had their names taken off of it.  The Dominators get blown up with their own nuclear seed device at the end, but what about the other Dominators?  Rago and Toba are in constant contact with the rest of the Dominators.  Are we sure that Dulkis is really safe now?  And what about other planets?  I guess we’re just not supposed to dwell on that.

Toba and his Quarks

Toba and his Quarks

I’m not going to argue that “The Dominators” is a great story.  What I will say is that there are aspects of the story that are entertaining.  The entertainment value of the Dominators themselves was greatly increased after I read Bill Evanson’s clever “blog post” from Toba in the book Outside In.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do because he captures exactly what I imagine is going on in Toba’s mind. It makes the story far more amusing when you picture Toba thinking things like, “all Rago wants to do is drill, drill, drill.  What a bore.”  While some people, including me from the past, would say that about this story, I have had a slight change of heart.  While it doesn’t succeed in its goal of being an insightful examination of pacifism, it has entertaining aspects.  They are often unintentionally entertaining, but they are entertaining none the less.

Thoughts on The Wheel in Space

“The Wheel in Space” is a decent episode; it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either.  There’s quite a few things wrong with it, but it does a few things perfectly.   It was written by David Whitaker, who wrote some great episodes for both Hartnell and Troughton (and one for Pertwee, but we’re not there yet).  This, however, is Whitaker’s only story featuring the Cybermen (he adapted it from a story by their creator, Kit Pedler), and it’s not one of his best efforts.  Considering that Whitaker wrote two of my favorite Troughton stories, “The Power of the Daleks” and “The Enemy of the World” perhaps I was hoping for too much.

Zoe is hard at work as some Cybermen dance behind her...okay, that's really their menacing pose.

Zoe is hard at work as some Cybermen dance behind her…well, at least that’s what it looks like to me..

After the Doctor and Jamie say goodbye to Victoria, the TARDIS materializes on a rocket drifting through space.  The TARDIS’s fluid link is malfunctioning, and vaporizing mercury forces them to leave the TARDIS; the Doctor grabs a small rod, the vector generator, on his way out.  Much like in “The Daleks” the TARDIS need mercury before she can continue on her way.

Jamie and the Doctor carry the entire first episode, as it is just them and a non-speaking robot.  They do not interact with the crew of the wheel until they are rescued from the rocket in the second episode.  Well, the Doctor doesn’t interact with them in episode 2, since Patrick Troughton was on vacation, but Jamie does.  The commander of the wheel is Jarvis, a man who seems incredibly ill-suited to running a space station.  He can’t accept that there are unknown elements to life, things that might require him to go beyond his training.  He is exactly the wrong kind of man to run a space station, especially one that is part of an elaborate plan by the Cybermen to take over the earth and exploit its mineral wealth.  One of the most interesting parts of the story was watching how he slipped further and further into denial as the evidence for a Cyberman attack mounted.  He even seized on the idea of Jamie and the Doctor being saboteurs/terrorists early in the story since that was the only possibility he could understand; I wished more had been made of the storyline of Jamie essentially becoming a saboteur to stop the wheel crew from destroying the TARDIS.  Of course the story had to move on to focus on the Cybermen and their evil plot…

The story starts out well.  I enjoy the chemistry between the Doctor and Jamie, so I didn’t mind the first episode containing just the two of them, and it ends with a nice cliffhanger as the wheel crew are about to blow up the rocket.  The rest of the story basically held my interest, but it did drag on a bit too long for me; there was a lot of padding in the story that slowed it down.

The main reason that I felt the story was slow-moving was that I didn’t really care about the people on the wheel.  It felt like each crew member was assigned a trait or two and that was it.  Basically, until I learned their names this is how I thought of them: there was condescending, chauvinistic guy (Leo), alert but ignored Russian woman (Tanya), woman who clearly should be in charge of the wheel (Gemma), plant-loving guy (Bill), and feisty Irish guy (Flannigan).  Their characters weren’t developed beyond that.  I know this is true of other stories as well, but a good episode at least introduces some interesting dynamics or conflicts between the supporting cast.  Except for Jarvis’ mental collapse, there wasn’t much going on with the crew besides simply doing their jobs.  This was disappointing since Whitaker had done a great job at keeping the supporting cast interesting in stories like “The Crusades,” “The Power [and ‘The Evil’] of the Daleks,” and “The Enemy of the World.”

My biggest problem with an individual chaacter was with the character of Leo.  He was so chauvinistic and condescending that I kept hoping he would get killed by the Cybermen.  When the women were against blowing up the rocket FOR NO GOOD REASON, without making sure there was no one on board, he basically said they were being a stick-in-the-mud.  When Tanya cautioned him, he said, “if you get scared, I’ll let you hold my hand.”  How condescending is that?  And did his attitude towards them change when they were proved right time and time again? No.  I know “The Wheel in Space” was written in the 1960’s, but come on.

Leo probably making some condescending, sexist comment to Tanya.

Leo probably making some condescending, sexist comment to Tanya.

Of course Leo was not the only character having problems with women in this episode.  Jamie begins the story missing Victoria and spends the rest of it sparring with Zoe.  I did like the touch of having Jamie mention Victoria several times in the first episode, since they were very close.  He and Zoe, however, get off on the wrong foot when Zoe basically says that he is wearing female clothing.  He then threatens to spank her (really, Jamie, you should know better by now) and they spend the rest of the story trying to one-up the other.

Of course, Zoe’s introduction as a companion is what makes this episode notable and is the best thing about it.  I have to admit that watching this episode gave me a great deal more insight into and appreciation of Zoe’s character.  It was easy to see why she ended up trying to sneak aboard the Doctor’s TARDIS.  She is a “librarian” on the wheel.  She is a parapsychologist and essentially seems to be used as a walking computer; she provides information and does difficult calculations in her head.  She never seems to interact with the others in a human way.  Leo even calls her a robot and says she’s “all brain and no heart.”  After getting into a debate with the Doctor about pure logic being the best solution for everything (the Doctor argues for common sense and says, “logic merely enables one to be wrong with authority”), she begins to question her role on the wheel.  Her training has tried to eliminate emotional reactions, but Zoe realizes that she wants to experience emotions as well.  All this provides her with a clear motivation for wanting new experiences with the Doctor and Jamie.

What I haven’t spent much time on is the actual plot.  As usual, the plan of the Cybermen is rather convoluted.  Their speech was also still a bit difficult to understand; there were a few times I had to play a scene multiple times and I’m still not sure I understood everything that the cybermen said.

As far as I could tell, their plan was to use the rocket to get near the wheel and send the cybermats aboard (I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure how they got on the ship, but I’m not going to dwell on that).  The cybermats would then corrode the Bernalium needed to run the x-ray laser.  The cybermen had also managed to make a star go nova, ensuring that the wheel crew would need to use the laser to protect themselves from meteors; therefore, they would have to send crew members to the rocket to look for extra Bernalium.  This allowed the cybermen to control the mind of the men and sneak aboard in the box containing the Bernalium.  Once they were on board, they disabled the transmitting portion of the radio and let the crew protect the wheel from the meteors using the laser. After this they were going to kill the crew and use the radio signal transmitted to the wheel from earth to enter earth’s atmosphere and invade the planet.

It was nice of the Cybermen to politely wait for an invitation to enter the room and kill the Doctor.

It was nice of the Cybermen to politely wait for an invitation to enter the room and kill the Doctor.

Overall, however, “The Wheel in Space” is not a bad episode.  As I mentioned, it does a good job of introducing the viewer to Zoe, which is its main purpose.  My main complaint would be that Troughton’s Doctor just felt a bit off for me in this one.   Perhaps if I could actually see more of the episodes I would feel differently, but he just felt rather subdued in this one.  At times, I saw shades of the first Doctor in him; he seemed to spend most of the episode sitting on the sidelines, out of the main action.  I also wasn’t thrilled with how callously he seemed to send Jamie out into space to return to the rocket.  For all the people complaining about Capaldi’s Doctor’s unfeeling nature, all the Doctors have always been willing to make sacrifices.  The Doctor here states that it is worth risking the lives of Jamie and Zoe to save the lives of many.  In this case, unfortunately, the scene plays as if the Doctor is avoiding going himself which doesn’t match with the second Doctor’s personality.  The story felt a bit like it was leftover from Hartnell’s time on the show, which doesn’t make it a bad episode, just a poor fit for the Troughton era.