FREELANCE WRITER. JOURNALIST, AND SCRIPT READER – FILM AND TV RUNNER – FAN OF SCI-FI AND CHOCOLATE DIGESTIVES – YSTV'S BEST DRESSED MEMBER 2013

Sunday, 20 September 2015

#squadgoals

“It’s my party, and all of me is invited.”

If any line sums up The Magician’s Apprentice, it’s that one, from the midpoint scene; a bombastically grand entrance for the Doctor in the same way the whole episode serves as a grand entrance for series nine. Gone are the days in which we can start a series with a little scuffle against some Autons – in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, everything is a blockbuster.

So, the, erm, “plot”… With the Doctor not answering his calls, Clara teams up with Missy to find him. Turns out he’s got himself into quite the dilemma, having saved/abandoned/shot a child who turned out to be Davros, and now the older incarnation of the Daleks’ creator wants a word. Not long after Clara and Missy find their old pal, the three of them are whisked away to Skaro.

Now, I have a strong feeling that if, in a few years time, we ask ourselves what this opening two-parter was about, we’ll think of whatever happens in next week’s The Witch’s Familiar. This first half is all set-up, really – one long first act. But what set-up!

Moffat is great at making it look like a lot’s happening when actually nothing substantial is, and the sheer pace of this episode is captivating, taking us on a tour of time and space and using several pretty good ideas (the frozen planes, the handmines) for a couple of scenes only before moving onto the next thing.

And these ideas see Moffat do what he does best – terrifying the pants off kids.  The handmines sequence turns a daft pun into something genuinely creepy and atmospheric, and Colony Sarff are an instantly iconic henchman (henchmen? henchcolony?) who’ll be haunting many nightmares for sure.

You just know there was a deleted scene where he introduced crack to the Middle Ages.

But what keeps bums on seats is the confident chemistry between the three leads. Peter Capaldi’s settled into the role of the Twelfth Doctor, having fun on lighter form than last year. This is the rock and roll Doctor, and Capaldi is fantastic, arrogantly commanding the crowd, switching effortlessly to sentiment where it’s needed, showing compassion for friends and enemies alike. If anything, he’s toned down the grumpy up a bit too much – begging Davros to save Clara seems out of character, and it would be nice to have one or two of his Malcolm Tucker-esque acerbic put-downs.

Michelle Gomez’s Missy, however, is hard to fault. From her wonderful put-down of Clara, via her terrifying murder of yet more UNIT grunts, to her tickling a Dalek’s balls after making a ‘dog’s bollocks’ joke, no one steals a scene like Missy, and it is intriguing to see her portrayed as an old friend of the Doctor’s, for once on his side as they journey into what she’s sure is a trap. Oh, and I loved the offhand explanation of her being alive – “not dead, back, big surprise, never mind.” And then she dies again, fast becoming the new Rory Williams (who himself was the new Master).

If there’s one weak point, it’s Clara. Sorry, Clara. She’s never had the most consistent characterisation, and her portrayal in some scenes here felt rather too heightened. Commanding an army of kids before being summoned by the Prime Minister and instantly solving all the problems that were puzzling the world’s security services, she’s the coolest schoolteacher in the world – unbelievably so. I did, however, like the scene in the prison cell where she tells the Doctor off – “Don’t apologise, make it up to me.” – which feels very teacher-y, giving her the moral upper hand on the Doctor while very much rooted in her background. For better or worse, Clara’s an experienced companion now – like Amy and Rory in series seven, and we know how well that turned out...

Oh yeah, there’s Davros too, who was due a return. Julian Bleach is ace. More on him next week, I expect, as episode two looks set to delve into his history with the Doctor.

And not a paradigm in sight.

And that’s another remarkable thing about this series opener – it’s full of Doctor Who history, having a brand new villain journey through locales from the Matt Smith, David Tennant and even Tom Baker eras before sending a Doctor in Hartnell-esque trousers into a sequel to Genesis of the Daleks. There’s a proper visit to Skaro, too, featuring an even more varied range of Daleks than 2012’s Asylum of the Daleks (though it’s a shame it wasn’t the Special Weapons Dalek who got to blow up the TARDIS). Never has the series felt so confident in its own mythology, and it’s difficult to resist a game of ‘spot the re-used Torchwood costume’.

But that’s another pleasure that’s ultimately superficial without the backbone of a story; The Magician’s Apprentice is one of those episodes that's really fun on first view but falls apart if you think about it too hard. Indeed, the plot holes are larger than the plot itself… How do you determine that the Doctor is ‘missing’ when he doesn’t ever live in the same place for more than 45 minutes? Surely the Doctor has knowingly gone into much more deathly traps many times before without making such a fuss about it? And how the hell does Clara’s ludicrous plan to locate him actually work?

But, as a way of bringing us back into the habit of wondering whether it's next Saturday yet, a lot of this episode works: it's full of scary villains, bold ideas, and Dalek testicle jokes. It embraces its own mythology while pushing the boundaries forward and blending comedy, sci-fi and horror like no other show can.

The Magician’s Apprentice is in no way a good Doctor Who story. But it is good Doctor Who. Now we’ve had our welcome back party, let’s see what actual stories series nine brings.

(I hear the November issue of Doctor Who Adventures is going to be a good one…)

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