Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Magician's Apprentice written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald

This story in a nutshell: 30 minutes of set-up, 15 minutes of plot...

Indefinable: Now it is time for Capaldi to have some fun with the role. He's still got a fair amount of that gravitas that made him such an electrifying presence (for me) in the previous year but it is tempered with some much needed humour and warmth. If my friends and family are anything to go by Capaldi's choice to play the Doctor as a complete and total bastard didn't exactly go down so well with the general public, who were used to David Tennant's geeky mania and Matt Smith's nutty Professor. Whilst the fans lapped it up, all I'm hearing is 'I don't like him.' It will be interesting to hear what they think of him after The Magician's Apprentice and the sequence where he rocks it with the electric guitar. 'What does Davros want with the Doctor?' is a chilling line because of how it sets your mind racing. Was the Doctor once a little girl? Missy does suggest that might be a lie but it's worth including the line just to wind people up. Clara is a little perturbed because the Doctor is laying on the charm and hugging of his own volition, it's such a contrast to last year they could practically be different characters. Even though he suspects a trap how could he resist an invitation from Davros? I love the idea that their rivalry, their conversations about morality transcend even the Time War. Davros still wants to hear the Doctor say that compassion is wrong but he will be a long time waiting, even if he strips the Time Lord of everything he cares about. The absence of the Doctor in the first half of the episode only serves to make his presence felt even more when he does show up. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

Impossible Girl: I don't think we will ever settle down to any kind of consensus with Clara. There has to be a reason that I have had such trouble warming to the character despite the warmth that Jenna Coleman imbues her with and I can only put that down to the terribly inconsistent writing that the character has been handed. She metamorphosed into a completely different person between series 7b and series 8 and despite some efforts to turn her into a person that people can relate to (fat chance when that involves pairing her up with the walking clothes hors Danny Pink) it was undone by some sloppy writing that showed her getting filthy angry about how the Doctor treats her one minute and then expecting him to treat her that way the next. It was a bizarre year for the character, despite some dramatic moments, where she failed to gel completely with her Doctor. Last Christmas looked as though she was about to embrace the life of a time traveller now that her affair with Danny has been mercifully cut short and here we are at the beginning of series 9 and she's back at school teaching, living her life on Earth. All that promise of a partnership in the TARDIS lost. And boy she's back to being a smug know it all again, someone who is unfazed by everything. If she is supposed to be the person that I can relate to (and given she is practically the only human character in this story), I have to admit I find her a little out of reach. If the rumours are true and she is going to be written out mid-series, I think she might wind up being the least successful new series companion for me. Don't get me wrong I had a reaction to Amy akin to a tropical skin rash but at least I understood who she was, even if I didn't like it all the time. With Clara, she's just too distant and mechanical for my tastes. She's presented as being smarter than UNIT here, smarter than practically anyone else on the planet.

You're So Fine: 'Let's have a goodbye selfie for your kids...' Absolutely my favourite part of this episode. I'm completely sold on Missy now and I was already fairly convinced last season. Moffat has dropped the snogging (but not the chance for her to make a sexual reference at every opportunity) and focuses on what the Doctor and the Master have always been about, a twisted friendship that is half the pair of them wanting to get along and half the pair of them wanting to thwart each others plans (with a little bit of attempted murder thrown in for good measure). I really got a sense of the shared history between the two characters in this story, especially since Missy doesn't need to play the central villain of the piece. She's not exactly upstaged by Davros and the Daleks...because nobody could possibly upstage a woman who freezes every plane in the sky just to say hi but she's doesn't have to fulfil the role of the antagonist and as such we can concentrate on the friendship between the two characters rather than their rivalry. It's so rarely done and the idea of having the Master along as a companion is so delicious you have to wonder why it hasn't been done more often. Gomez is clearly having an absolute ball with the character and she tones down a few of the outrageous excesses from Dark Water/Death and Heaven and the result is a character that it is an enormous amount of fun to hang around with. If she keeps this up she might just be the finest innovation of the Moffat era. 'I'm gonna need eight snipers!' is such a cheeky line but Missy has a point, unless UNIT feels like they are in control they will shoot her on sight. Slapping away Clara when she has pretensions of being the Doctor's closest friend made me chuckle, comparing her to the dog made me howl. When she started picking off UNIT operatives just to prove that she hasn't turned good I was almost falling off my chair. She's such a naughty thing. A friendship older than Earth has been civilised and infinitely more complex, that's what Missy shares with the Doctor. 'Let's make jam' is what she says when she opens an airlock and threatens to blow both herself and Clara into space. She even tickles a Dalek bump and mentions the dogs bollocks. I think I might be in love.

Scarred Scientist: 'Where does an old man go to die but with his children?' The twist in that pre-titles sequence quite took my breath away, not only because it was an excellent surprise that linked back to Genesis of the Daleks and the central moral dilemma at its core but because it was the first time in official age (probably since Oswin's appearance in Asylum of the Daleks) that the production team had managed to keep something that could have been a massive crowd drawer a secret. I could hear the collective gasp of Doctor Who fans nationwide. Anybody who feels that Julian Bleach didn't have a fair crack at the whip in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End must be delighted to see him back and giving a much subtler performance. I thought Davros worked a treat amongst the adrenalin fuelled madness of Tennant's third years finale but mostly when he was kept in the shadows and used for body horror. He was lost in the deck of so many returning characters at one point (a shame because his 'EXPLODE THE REALITY BOMB!' proved that he was still the finest batshit crazy madman around). The chemistry between Capaldi and Bleach is palpable but we don't get to spend enough time with them in this episode to see how far they can go. I imagine things are going to get intense in the second episode.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I try never to understand. It's called an open mind.'
'Hang on...Davros is your arch enemy now? I'll scratch his eye out.'
'Did the Doctor tell you that because you should never believe a man about a vehicle.'

The Good:

* Sweeping statement - The Magician's Apprentice features one of the strongest pre-titles sequences since the show has returned, ironically given last season was the one that Moffat touted as scoring the biggest hits in this regard. Dirty, dramatic, disquieting and's everything that Doctor Who should be every week. It also happens to be the best scene in the entire episode but that doesn't stop it being a moment of absolute perfection, stunningly realised by Hettie MacDonald. A child actor that can act is the icing on the cake (the Moffat era hasn't exactly scored high in this regard). Moffat wisely keeps those cue cards that informs us of the setting well away from the top of the scene to preserve the surprise, which means you have to go back and watch the whole thing again to spot the little details (Dalek extermination blasts, bows and arrows and modern weaponry as reference by Harry in Genesis). I love the way the smoke clears to reveal the Doctor, a powerful figure here to save the most hated man in the universe. Capaldi's reaction to Davros' name might be my favourite piece of acting to have come out of the show in a long, long time. If there rest of the episode had stuck to this level of intensity and focus we would have been in astonishing shape. That zoom in to the battlefield is quite breathtaking and a great to start the season. Hands slick with mud with feeling their way out of the ground and opening to reveal an eye in the palm? That's just nightmarish.
* I don't think Skaro has been given this kind of severity since Genesis so it's right that the episode refers to it so much. It was Missy's reaction that impressed me the most. When the woman that brought the dead back to life last year is this concerned, be scared. The attention to detail in the recreation of the Dalek City is the sort of thing that only fans can appreciate and the sight of those gleaming towers brought bang up to date with modern effects gave me chills all over. And as soon as we headed down into those cramped, claustrophobic corridors with the original Daleks gliding about...well I how could any fan of this show resist?
* Having Colony Saarf looking for the Doctor in a myriad of locations gives Moffat the chance to do what he loves doing, skipping from one place to another and making the story feel as epic as possible (in the same vein as The Time of Angels, The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, The Wedding of River Song, The Name of the Doctor...). Whilst it is quite an old approach now, this time it is being realised by Hettie MacDonald and she brings each location to life with real atmosphere. The Maldorium under her watchful eye is a seedy place, full of secrets and disreputable characters.
* Saarf himself might not be the most substantial of characters but the very notion of a man comprised of snakes that can slither apart and become one enormous serpent is enough to give me nightmares. I can handle anything but snakes. Well, I can handle the one in Kinda but pretty much no other. I love the fact that we see his transformation first from his POV to keep the suspense high. And the way he glides into each room tells you exactly what he is long before we find out. This time it is all in the realisation.
*It's a massive time wasting exercise but the realisation of the sequence in the European square is beautifully done. The sweep into the square to find Missy sitting alone, the snipers on the roofs, the plane casting a pleasant shadow in the Mediterranean breeze. It looks phenomenal.
* The Daleks have built the original Skaro to spec, justifying the use of every single Dalek at large in the City and this time given the appropriate exposure.

The Bad:

* Back to the Shadow Proclamation and Kelly Hunter still has difficulty with the little she has to do.
* I worry about the amount of continuity that has been amassed to kick start the season. Not for myself because I was lapping it up but for the audience at whole that might not know what The Shadow Proclamation, Karn, Missy, Davros, the Daleks, etc are all about. It must be alienating to decide to watch a new series and be assaulted with quite this much mythology in one whack. The telling factor will be the ratings this week. Of course you must expect that a show in it's ninth series to have raked up a fair amount of backstory in it's time but the joy of Doctor Who is that it can be re-invented over and over again and each story can be standalone. With this story, Moffat is pretty much making it for the fan boy in himself. If he took a step back as a new audience member he would see that each scene comes with a wealth of questions to a newbie that aren't answered.
* The planes feel like a wasted device that could have been used to prop up an entire story. It feels slightly reminiscent of the blood hostages in The Christmas Invasion, a gun being held to humanity's head but nowhere near as effectively staged. Let's chalk this one down to Missy being a big drama queen and wanting to make her presence known in as grand a fashion as possible. Anything to do with planes in fiction makes me slightly twitchy but I have to say this quite an attention grabbing mechanism that was thrown away in a story with much more impressive elements surrounding it.
* Should UNIT be used in such a throwaway fashion? I question when they did it in the Pertwee era (The Time Warrior) too. Although I love the use of Jaye Griffthis from BUGS. I hope she returns. 
* The Doctor is dying, his death comes with a whacking great prophecy yadda yadda yadda. Haven't we been here before? Don't you remember how well that turned out last time?
* Unfortunately the whole medieval sequence is pointless, daft and barely raises a smile. And it sits right at the heart of the episode when things should be hotting up. The jokes ('You said you wanted an axe fight') made me want to bury my head in the sofa. They procured a tank for that gag? We could have had the Doctor turn up and solve the plane crisis, meet Missy in the Square and Saarf catch up with them there. The episode would be better for it.
* The Daleks have  operatives in medieval times? Since when? Why? What the hell?
*  The cliffhanger should be shocking - this is the Doctor willing to kill a child after all - but like Smith's regeneration into Capaldi, it's rather like a sudden hiccup of a development because of how it is brought up and over with in a second.
* Shock horror! Missy is dead! Clara is dead! The TARDIS has been destroyed! Don't you remember this is the Moffat universe where nobody is killed? I await the inevitable reset with a throwaway line in episode two. How sad that moments like this have been rendered pointless because we know that the status quo wont be shaken up quite this much by a showrunner who is afraid to make those kind of decisions.

Result: Impressive moments scattered around a terribly indulgent episode, The Magician's Apprentice is possibly the ultimate expression of all of Moffat's strengths and weaknesses as a writer of Doctor Who. Huge creative ideas, individual scenes that take your breath away, a vivid Doctor and villain and moments that make you scream 'why didn't they do that before?' (especially the twist in the pre-titles sequence). Countering that you have some over generous humour (that pointless medieval sequence), few concessions to a non-fan audience (perhaps justifying the appalling overnight rating) and an episode that schizophrenically shifts tone and pace with alarming inconsistency. Moffat is one of the most fascinating writers to have ever written for the show, capable of refining what this show is all about with absolute clarity and delivering it to perfection but also capable of taking the show to places that where it cannot sustain itself and filling episodes with some of the most appalling scenes and blandest characters imaginable. He reminds me of Chris Carter over at The X-Files, both the best and the worst writer of the show he is writing for. Essentially what you have with The Magician's Apprentice is a morality tale about whether Doctor could kill Davros as a child - a bold way to open the season. The trouble is that this is only dealt with for about fifteen minutes and the slack is taken up with some of the most indulgent padding imaginable bringing our heroes (and anti-heroes) together. The plot kicks in around the 30 minute mark...and that should never be the case. This might be the first of the two parters this year but that doesn't mean you should waste the extra time that you have and still have to rush things. I don't want to be too critical though, especially when Hettie MacDonald is on board to paper over most of the cracks with her avant garde direction. She makes Missy's introduction in the square palatable despite the fact that it is completely unnecessary and if it does have some horribly unfunny moments there is a energy to the medieval scenes. However she does her best work on Skaro, giving the actors appropriate exposure and letting Capaldi, Bleach and Gomez flaunt their talents. There is certainly a confidence to how this story is presented and the second episode promises to be a fine companion piece to Genesis of the Daleks. Who would have ever thought that would come to be. The Magician's Apprentice is basically Attack of the Cybermen all over again; the opener of a season comprised of 45 minute two part stories, loaded with continuity and a little distracted in it's first episode, albeit with some tasty moments. Let's see if it dive-bombs in episode two in the same way. We're almost back where we were in the eighties, the show being made for fans: 7/10


Lian Misaki said...

just a note about the bearded gent being a dalek operative, i think it was meant that he became one when saarf's snake strangled/bit him

Ed Azad said...

The Carter comparison is apt. Though in Moffat's defense, he's at least ambitious in the sense that he's bursting with ideas and wants to get them all out of system before he leaves. If that means pinching ideas from the NAs or leaving the next showunner little to do, well, more's the pity but as you say, DW thrives when it jettisons the continuity for a while.

Carter always struck me as a huckster when compared to the likes of Vince Gillian. He isn't one to share credit either.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I prefer this episode that any episode of Series 8 with Danny Pink.

There is a small overhead of continuity here, something that I missed in the Eleventh Doctor era, but at least is not so contaminated with fan-nostalgia as Big Finish.

Spacedog2k5 said...

I genuinely agree w/95% of your reviews, but this one (and the concluding "Witch's Familiar", were both rubbish! Capaldi's a great Doctor, probably the best of the NuWho actors to share the honor of being the Doctor. However, the script is just full of too much silliness and inconsistencies (really, Moff's going to do that to Kate Stewart? Why the flark was she even in the episode? They could have just had no-name UNIT personnel, considering how little she really adding to the episode!). And, don't even get me started on Missy's "toilet humor" ("'s unmentionables.."? Sad, that Moff has to resort to that sort of crass dialogue!).

Yeah, Big Finish may be a bit heavy-handed ofttimes with the continuity refs and such, but you know what? At least what they are doing (for the most part) feels like WHO.