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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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2 responses to “Thoughts on The Magician’s Apprentice

  1. Reading this after having just finished watching Part 2. Just once I wish that Moffat would tell a linear story with supporting characters, like he did at times during the RTD era. This two-parter at some moments felt like it was being crushed over its own weight. It contained so many homages to so many different Classic Series moments, and so many entertaining but extraneous bits, that you could boil the core of the story down to a single, very powerful 20-minute minisode. That said, I loved that the UNIT algorithm also featured a shout-out to “The Masque of Mandragora”!

    • I’ve got thoughts about the second part of the episode coming soon (well, hopefully soon), but you make a good point about the tremendous weight of every episode Moffat writes lately. It would be nice to see him write a more traditional story, like he used to in the RTD era, because his stories were often the among the best (if not the best) of the season.

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