Big spoiler alert: don’t read this if you haven’t seen the episode. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“It’s changing. What about you, Doctor?”
I wanted to love this. Really, I did. I have had enough of being grumpy. It’s no fun watching new Doctor Who episodes that you don’t enjoy. I don’t like being one of those people who spend all their time complaining about how the old light bulb was better. I have made a resolution this year to try and find the positive side for each story, and I’ll try and stick with that, but I can’t help it if the same old mistakes are cropping up time and again – and I’m talking about mine, as well as the ones the BBC are making.
The basic problem with ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ is the same one that’s dogged New Who ever since Moffat stepped into the chief writer’s chair. In the old days – and as recently as 2009 – the girl would be strapped to the table three feet from an advancing circular saw (as Terrance Dicks would have put it) and that would be the cliffhanger. Fast forward to 2015 and the cliffhanger is the scene in which she gets sawed in half, while the hero spends the next episode – or, in some cases, an entire series – stitching her back together.
When this happened in series six, it was at least reasonably interesting, for about five minutes. You knew – of course you did – that the Doctor would manage to walk away from the lake, and that there would be a trick of some sort (although it didn’t stop conversation among several enthusiasts I knew who genuinely believed that this would be the end of the show). This was par for the course on Classic Who as well, albeit at a lower scale (which is part of the problem, but we’ll get to that). ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ – a story referenced both directly and indirectly in ‘Magician’ – features a notorious cliffhanger in which Lis Sladen falls three feet down a rocket silo. It is one of the weakest parts of the narrative, and yet it was somehow more effective than the end of tonight’s episode, if only because a low-key ending seems somehow more manageable (and believable) than dead companions and the prospect of a huge ripple effect from the Doctor’s actions.
The problem when you drop in a wibbly-wobbly bit of trickery like this on such a regular basis, you see, is that life as we know it ceases to have any real value. The first time I witnessed the death of Jean Grey – at the end of X-Men 2, in which she allows herself to be drowned so that the others can escape in the plane – I was genuinely upset. Then I went back to the comics, and discovered that Jean Grey dies every five minutes. Deaths ceased to mean anything in Marvel long ago; Charles Xavier has been reincarnated more often than Optimus Prime, and no one cares when Scott Summers carks it. I mean seriously, the guy’s a nob.
The other difficulty is that by killing off leads (as the Daleks do tonight, in earnest) you automatically lose your audience’s interest. We know that the TARDIS will be back soon, and that Clara will return, because we’ve seen her in the rest of the series. Moreover, we can take a reasonable stab at how the Doctor’s going to do it, although the actual resolution will be stranger and more unnecessarily complicated than we can imagine. Hence the dramatic appeal lies entirely in the how, rather than the whether. This works on a week-by week basis when the girl is strapped to the table, because it becomes part of the routine, almost a recurring motif or in-joke. It is a transient thing, a means of structuring a story, and it is excusable because it is not ultimately what the story is about. When you repeatedly kill your babies, largely for the sake of getting the Twitter feeds buzzing, the supposedly devastating impact you’re aiming for is lost faster than the top half of Captain Kirk’s uniform. Or, as Clara says in ‘Deep Breath’, “Never start with your final sanction. You’ve got nowhere to go but backwards.”
There were some lovely moments. The monster-of-the-week is a man made of snakes who glides around on Heelys. The opening – in which Thals with bows fight off Kaleds with biplanes (at least I think it was that way round) – was suitably bleak, and the hand mines are one of Moffat’s better inventions, even if (or perhaps because) they evoke the finale of Carrie. Michelle Gomez is back – with no explanation – and still splendid, whether she’s casually blasting UNIT agents outside a cafe (supposedly in Italy, although as Emily pointed out, it was “probably Devon”), or singing opera on the floor of a prison cell. In many respects Missy is no more the Master than Simm was, but in all honesty perhaps our assessment of her is more lenient for her lack of male genitalia. The personality differences and pop culture references seem forgivable, somehow, as she herself is so different – and when she talks about her age-old friendship with the Doctor, you can almost believe it.
The supporting cast are functionally competent, rather than outstanding, but that’s largely because they have comparatively little to do. Likewise, Hettie MacDonald’s direction fails to match the exemplary job she did on ‘Blink’, but this is not entirely her fault: the story (or lack thereof) is partly to blame. The one scene that will make the YouTube playlists for years to come is the Doctor’s triumphant emergence from the smoke on the roof of a tank in a twelfth-century castle in the middle of Essex, open-necked, and doing his best Pete Townshend. It’s a standout moment that is very hard to dislike, for all its cheesiness: here, we are told, is a new, less highly-strung Doctor (excuse the guitar pun), far more like Troughton than Hartnell, with dashes of Tom Baker here and there.
Moffat’s determination to resolve the Mystery of Peter Capaldi’s Face is manifest in several oblique references to the series in which Caecilius appears. The Shadow Proclamation is revisited (they’ve redecorated; we didn’t like it), with Kelly Hunter still in residence as the Architect. The big draw, of course, is a welcome return from Julian Bleach. I’ve long insisted that Bleach’s Davros impersonation is like a wheelchair-bound Emperor Palpatine, and indeed the end-of-episode confrontation between scientist and Time Lord directly mirrored the scene in Return of the Jedi in which Luke comes face to face with the Sith Lord, right down to the cuff release.
Ethically, this is clearly the Doctor’s Hitler moment. The dilemma from ‘Genesis’ is played out in full, with Capaldi’s Doctor apparently about to pull the trigger. It’s evoked in a way that it wasn’t in series eight, in which ethical debate was unnecessarily shoehorned: the episode here is at least about the lesson, rather than an otherwise entertaining story with a pointless message tacked on, like a 1980s American children’s show. The Doctor steps out of the fog on the battlefield, pointing a Dalek gun at the terrified Davros and bellowing the one word I really hoped he wouldn’t say; it’s a line that perhaps shouldn’t be crossed, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to at least explore the possibility. Otherwise, how do we grow?
The problem is that several corners are cut to get there. Missy seems genuinely surprised when she gets vapourised. The TARDIS – this previously impenetrable shell that kept out the assembled hordes of Genghis Khan and even put up a fight against the Z-neutrino energy at the heart of the Crucible – crumbles in a matter of seconds against a few Dalek lasers. And on the basis of this episode the Doctor himself is pushed to breaking point far too easily. This is the man who would not go back for Adric, would not spare Gallifrey, would not save Pompeii, and yet he’s apparently ready to rip apart the universe for two people: one Moffat’s creation, the other his eunuch. I don’t want to go on about ego again, but it really feels like that’s where we’re going.
Perhaps the ethical deliberation is coming next week, or later in the series – perhaps this, rather than sorrowful introspection, will be the subject of the Doctor-fixated episode eleven. Herein lies the other difficulty with watching ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’: structurally it’s all over the place, with cameos and references that evoke a series-wide arc rather than the sort of thing that fits a single story. The frozen plane stunt feels like an afterthought, a missed opportunity. Kate Stewart is come and gone in a flash. And crucially, it takes forty-five minutes for not a great deal to happen. But that’s the way it used to be. Nothing happens in the first episode of ‘The Mind Robber’, and yet it’s a masterpiece (Derrick Sherwin’s ability to spin straw into gold helps, of course). The first episode of ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ is mostly a group of scientists staring at a monitor. ‘The Ark in Space’ is one of my favourite stories, but it opens with three people walking around empty corridors for twenty minutes before one of them opens a cupboard. Viewed as part of a composite, they work because the rest of the stories morph around them.
The problem is that this isn’t the way New Who works: we are instead given standalone episodes that will never form part of a cohesive whole because the series dynamic has changed so much. It isn’t enough to say that series four is “dark”. Series four has ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’, which is about as silly an episode of New Who as you get in Tennant’s run. The story arcs we now endure tend to play out thematically but not stylistically. The buzz around series nine has been that of a return to the multi-episodic stories of the original series – certainly the cliffhangers are back this year, with a vengeance – but the 21st century production process may be more of a hindrance than an assist. Tonal consistency is easy to maintain across a single story that spans several episodes; it’s nigh-on impossible with an entire series with a multitude of writers and directors and approaches. I can see what they’re trying to do but I wonder if we’ve gone too far down the road to ever go back to the way things were, much as I might want to. And that’s the gamble: an episode in which nothing happens may, in the grand scheme of things, be the important preamble to a larger whole. That would be great. But given the way Doctor Who is produced these days, it may simply be remembered as an episode in which nothing happens.