This article covers the episodes The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar, which together form a single Doctor Who story.
DOCTOR: Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right?
That was 40 years ago. The Magician’s Apprentice is built on re-running that same dilemma: given the opportunity to stop the Daleks at their genesis, will the Doctor do that? The idea tops and tails the story, with largely bluster, spectacle and fun between those two points. But the problem is that it was a question with only one answer 40 years ago, and it’s still a question with only one answer now: of course he won’t. It’s the baby Hitler conundrum, and the Doctor wiping out the Daleks before they get going would derail the whole series. It just wouldn’t be the Doctor, and would collapse Doctor Who altogether. Genesis of the Daleks dodged the bullet by taking the decision out of the Doctor’s hands. In this post Time War version of Doctor Who, in which the Time Lords have obviously tried repeatedly to avert the creation of the Daleks (and presumably the Daleks have tried repeatedly to undermine the development of Time Lord society), it’s obvious that allowing Davros to die as a child isn’t going to work anyway. This time the question is answered, and there’s only one way it can go. So all Steven Moffat can do is offer us up the red herring alternative that the Doctor will abandon Davros to his fate (although I can’t deny it’s done with style: those handmines are stunningly creepy).
Oh, and one has to assume that Davros was an unusual name on Skaro and not equivalent at the time to, say, Bob. Otherwise the Doctor’s reaction to the child’s name is a bit odd 😉
As for the Doctor, his character has been softened since Capaldi’s first series, and there is only one interpretation of this that makes sense to me: Moffat realised what should have been obvious from the word go. Making the Doctor a character who is not likeable to watch is foolish. It will only ever lead to two possibilities: changing him back to actually behaving like the Doctor, or the series getting cancelled. So we have our second attempt at doing this, and the second failure. Note to future show runners: it won’t work. Nobody wants the Doctor to be unkind. Write out 100 times:
Never cruel or cowardly.
While we’re on the subject, once the companion becomes a pseudo-Doctor, it’s time for her to go. We are faced here with the spectacle of UNIT soldiers taking commands from Clara, who acts on behalf of UNIT in negotiations with Missy. There is nowhere further to go from here with her character that is not going to be a negative development. She has reached her peak. A version of Doctor Who with a Doctor-equivalent companion worked well exactly once, with Romana. A human strolling around like she owns the world, being all Doctorish, strains credulity and creates an end point for any useful character development.
So in between those moments of the Doctor abandoning Davros and inevitably going back, we have our first ever Master/Davros mash up. We are in new territory with Missy, at the start of a new arc that is one of co-operation with the Doctor, while retaining her danger and craziness. She starts on the road to being a very different kind of Doctor Who companion here. It’s utterly bizarre, but it works brilliantly, and what is so good about it is that it emphasises so strongly how the Doctor and the Master’s history has a start point that is a friendship. The Master was the Doctor’s best friend, and Missy wants to be his best enemy.
Hang on a minute, Davros is your archenemy now? I’ll scratch his eye out!
And she nearly does, giving his third eye a poke when they meet. When the two come together it is a remarkable clash. In fact, it’s almost like a genre clash it is such a moment of incompatibility. The Master is the one villain who can’t die. There’s no point trying, because he/she always comes back, and Missy just hangs a lampshade on that bit of Doctor Who absurdity:
Okay, cutting to the chase. Not dead, back, big surprise, never mind.
So she is basically invulnerable, and placing her in the middle of the Daleks, in front of Davros creates a problem. We have the Doctor and Missy facing off against Davros, the two people he can never kill. What that does is inevitably lessen the impact of Davros, a character that on his previous appearance heralded apocalyptic levels of danger. Now he is by necessity right back to being the Daleks’ pet from his repeat appearances in the 1980s. So that doesn’t leave much to do with him, other than the fact that he will always be a gift for a writer when he’s alone in a room with the Doctor, duelling with words. And a couple of rules get broken to give us some wow moments. Both are mis-steps but one is far, far worse than the other.
At the better end of the spectrum is Davros opening his eyes. It has impact as a scene, but no, there aren’t any eyes there any more after thousands of years. There has never been anything other than skin, every time we have seen him. It’s a cheat, but it’s fun. But then we have an example of Moffat’s occasional lapses into bad taste. It has to be said, he has a strong claim to being the best Doctor Who writer of all time, but he is also the writer who was the worst by a mile at knowing where to draw the line. It really doesn’t matter who it is, having the Doctor remove a disabled man from his wheelchair and go wheeling off it in for laughs is, well… yuck. Write out 200 times:
Never cruel or cowardly. RP
The view from across the pond:
We’ve been taking a look at some of the two-part stories with the Daleks and we have arrived at The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s’ Familiar. Like so many of the two part stories, the first part is largely filler to get us to the second, stronger part. The first part is played partly for laughs (which is acceptable) and partly to say “let’s see what sticks when we throw spaghetti at the wall” (which is horrible). How could you say that? Well, series 9 was problematic at best and should have been a dream coming off the Christmas Special from the previous year, but that’s another story.
After a truly stunning opening with the Doctor encountering young Davros, we get far more filler than we should have for an opening story. And it becomes annoying right away. Clara, who has already been on a downward trent as a character takes a massive nosedive with her comment to her class about Jane Austen: “Now, where was I? Jane Austen. Amazing writer, brilliant comic observer, and strictly among ourselves, a phenomenal kisser.” This is a throw-away comment that should, in fact, have been thrown away by the script editor, who clearly was asleep at the job. She’s a teacher of a grade school class and she’s telling the class about her sexual encounters? Forget the same-sex relationship that she’s sharing with her class, the fact that a grade school teacher is talking about this to her students would make national news, in a very bad way! Lucky for her, all the planes stop in midair causing nationwide panic, or parents would be calling the school with complaints! (In fairness, I did like Clara’s idea of circling the plane on the windows to verify they were not moving!) But the planes offer the next bit of uselessness: why bother? Missy wants the Doctor’s attention, so she pauses planes? What for? Then she’s able to use 3D tech to pop her head out of a UNIT monitor. The rest of the episode is a game of Where’s Waldo, where the part of Waldo is played by the Doctor. When he finally makes his appearance, I confess it’s incredibly enjoyable, but it ignores the fact that the Doctor simply wouldn’t bring a tank into the past! A) What does he do with it when he’s done playing the role of Goofy? B) Who is driving it into the arena, or is it just rolling? Again, doesn’t Moffat want to produce quality? The Doctor himself may have answered some of my questions in this very story. Part two, as he glides around in Davros’ chair, he says of the tea he’s happily drinking (and basically so many of my questions) “I’m the Doctor. Deal with it!” And taking the advice from my favorite character I’ll move onto the better elements of the story…
The fourth Doctor once posed a question to Davros:
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 story puts the Doctor front and center with that very dilemma and the conflict is magnificent. It truly paints the Doctor as the hero he is, but it leaves the audience wondering if that choice is the right one. In fact, most of the scenes with Davros are fantastic right from the very opening of the story, with the Doctor finding that very child of his moral dilemma. Their dialogue later in the story is great too, especially with Davros cracking a joke at the Doctor’s expense (“you are not a very good doctor!”)
Unfortunately, the magnificent Missy (Michelle Gomez) doesn’t fare as well. She has some great moments like the scene on Skaro which is cinematically beautiful. It is stunningly shot, when she realizes, against the blackness of space, that she is standing on ground. Unfortunately, throughout the story she goes the range from brilliant to caricature villain. The dialogue about the Doctor being a little girl is unnecessary considering how many times we’ve established that the Doctor’s first incarnation was William Hartnell. The scenes with Clara when she figures out how the Doctor always escapes, is another great moment. But the worst of her scenes comes from the line “the bitch is back” which, considering Doctor Who is viewed globally, might be frowned upon in some audiences. What makes it even worse, is that the title of this very episode is The Witch’s Familiar which gave a better choice of word with the same sound and the meaning would not have been lost on adult viewers, but could have shielded young viewers from an unnecessarily crass word. Then to add insult to injury, the part at the end where Missy is surrounded by Daleks, she says to them “You know what? I’ve just had a very clever idea!” What was it? To lock herself up with the Doctor and repent if they let her go? We don’t see Missy again until season 10 with Extremis where we learn she was being executed by the Doctor and is now locked up in a cell, a la Hannibal Lecter. I know, I know, drink my tea… I get it, but it’s just poor writing, and that’s ultimately what I’m against.
Colony Sarff made a wonderful villain and they really should have put more time into the effect of his face unwinding, because that was far superior to seeing Missy’s head pop out of a monitor. The triumphant return of the TARDIS after its apparent destruction was also a win for the episode, while some of the failings were the sonic glasses (please!) and the notion of a Hybrid (which ironically no one ever heard of before but they are all suddenly obsessed with for a whole season only to utterly ignore a season later; such are obsessions, huh?). This is why I said the whole of season 9 should be a dream but season 10 was so good that you can’t run the risk of unraveling that!
Look, the shot-by-shot approach is rarely the way to go but the episode is all over the quality-map, so it’s only fair to give a balance. Otherwise we are left with focusing on the morality question posed by the Doctor which comes down to “do the ends justify the means?” Or perhaps the ultimate message is a far simpler one: that a hero can be many things, but should always possess mercy. Always mercy. ML
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