Image courtesy the BBC…
If I could, I would start this review with a blast of electric guitar, possibly riffing on “Pretty Woman”. It seems only appropriate as the signature to launch the ninth season of the Doctor Who revival. After spending a year warming up, Peter Capaldi has made the Doctor his own, riffing his tunes and rocking his shades. What’s even more remarkable is that I hadn’t realized that the eighth season was his warm up.
Fundamentally, I love the two part season opener by Steven Moffat, entitled The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. It swaggers. It exudes a confidence that I had not realized had been lacking in the program this past while. It reinvigorated me, and it also left me thinking hard about the implications. Even though I was spoiled, it genuinely surprised me. Moffat may have come down for criticism recently about the quality of his product, and while I liked Jenna Coleman’s performance as Clara through season 8, I’ve argued that it’s always better to leave them wanting more, but the opening two-parter for season 9 shows that there’s life in this Doctor Who yet. It’s not perfect, but I’m happy to still be on for the ride.
I can’t go further without giving spoilers details about this story, so I’ll break it here. You really should watch all of it with an unspoiled mind. Once you’re ready, click on the link below, or jump the line, for my full spoilery review of The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.
Of course, unless you had your head under your desk, hands over your ears and were shouting “Lalala!” at the top of your lungs, you probably couldn’t avoid all the spoilers, like Missy being back, but I kind of wish I hadn’t heard, however indirectly, that Davros was involved in this tale. However, being spoiled, I relied on the next best thing: I turned to my left and watched Erin’s reaction as the pre-credits scene rolled. We open on a battlefield, and not just any battlefield, but a battlefield in a war that has gone on for far too long. There are lasers, sophisticated weaponry, and parts of the armed forces have regressed to fighting with bi-planes and bows and arrows.
For fans, this should be instantly familiar. In 1975, Terry Nation wrote the Tom Baker Doctor Who story Genesis of the Daleks. Script editor Robert Holmes may also have had a profound influence, as the story stepped beyond the standard Dalek formula (and, with Nation in his later years, unfortunately, the formula was pretty formulaic). The Doctor is sent by the Time Lords to the birth planet of the Daleks with the task of stopping the Daleks from being created, thus saving trillions of future lives across the Universe. Nation, Holmes and director David Maloney managed to evoke a world torn apart by war through script, carefully chosen stock footage, and what sets and costumes as could be made within the budget of an early 1970s BBC children’s show.
There is something in the whole idea of a war going on so long that the two sides can only keep fighting by using whatever the heck they have at hand that is both compelling and horrific. And Moffat (and director Hattie MacDonald) recalls that brilliantly with a bigger budget showing with biplanes and the bow and arrow. He also calls up the biological weapons that came into play in Genesis in the form of “handmines” which, I have to say, are somewhat more scary than the clams that bit Harry Sullivan, though I would have liked a bit more struggling and screaming from the poor soldier than just “WHOOSH!”
Moffat nails the horror of the situation by trapping a boy in this minefield (ably played by Joey Price), which of course brings the Doctor to his rescue. The Doctor comes, doing that amazing thing he does, saving people, to try and talk the boy out of the minefield. He even tosses him his sonic screwdriver, and asks the boy his name. “Davros!” the boy replies. “My name is Davros.”
This clearly sets the Doctor on a turn.
How much of a turn? Well, let us count the ways: he disappears from active service. He drops a honking big hint that Something is Wrong by sending Missy his last will and testament. Missy and Clara finally manage to find him having a three-week-long party in Medieval Times (the real deal, of course), and when Davros’s slithery henchman comes calling to say that Davros would speak with the Doctor, he allows himself to be taken, knowing full well that it’s a trap. Furthermore, when Clara and Missy insist on accompanying the Doctor and end up on Skaro in a room full of Daleks, the Doctor is reduced to begging for Clara’s life, on his knees.
It’s the begging on his knees part that I find a little too much to take. It’s a bit like my objection to the tenth Doctor’s reaction to Rose succumbing to the alien influence in The Idiot’s Lantern — dozens of people are afflicted and, oh, that’s too bad, but when Rose gets afflicted, it’s personal? — but I do think there is an explanation hanging around.
The moment that the Doctor realizes he’s standing in front of Davros as a young boy, trapped in a field of handmines, he suddenly realizes that his universe has been rendered circular. Right there, right then, he has the opportunity to erase the Dalek threat from the history of the Universe. There would be trillions of lives saved. There would be no Time War.
Except that, think about this: this Doctor isn’t supposed to be there. Peter Capaldi may be called the twelfth Doctor, but he’s not, he’s the fourteenth, thanks to John Hurt taking an uncounted body during the Time War, and David Tennant selfishly hogging two. And Time Lords are supposed to be able to regenerate just twelve times, showing thirteen faces. The Doctor was given an extra set of regenerations in The Time of the Doctor by the Time Lords he’d frozen into a crack in the universe in The Day of the Doctor because that was a better decision than blowing everybody to smithereens in the Time War, which the Time Lords arguably started by sending the Doctor back to Skaro in Genesis of the Daleks.
Simply put, Capaldi’s Doctor is a creation of the Time War, which was fought by the Time Lords and the Daleks because Capaldi’s Doctor had a chance to kill Davros when he was a boy, and didn’t take that opportunity.
Well, of course he wouldn’t. He’s the frickin’ Doctor. Indeed, Erin let out a wail of protest when the Doctor hopped back into his TARDIS and took off upon learning young Davros’ name (albeit with a sonic screwdriver, so likely he did end up rescuing him as a result of his interference).
Still, how must it feel to know that your whole existence, including the extra bit at the end that you really should not have had, is part of a massive feedback loop that, let’s face it, powers most of the death and destruction in the universe, including the Time War, and the departure of your people from existence. The Doctor has done all he can to fight against the chaos and has won great victories but, in a fundamental way, he’s a part of it. He’s helped instigate it. That has to shake him to his core, and that’s why I believe he would respond to Davros’ deathbed request to see him, and even accord him his last wish in a fundamentally risky way.
I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence that the very first episode of Doctor Who that I saw, on TV Ontario in 1978, was Genesis of the Daleks. Maybe that biases me towards The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar, but I still love them both. I love the fact that key moral elements of the earlier story gets turned on their heads in this one. The Doctor finds himself with the opportunity to destroy the Daleks forever in Genesis, but cannot bring himself to do it, saying to Sarah Jane Smith, “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?” Well, guess what, Doctor: now’s your chance to put that question to the test. In the same story, Davros says, “To hold in my hand a capsule that contains such power, to know that life and death on such a scale was my choice… To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything… Yes, I would do it! That power would set me up above the gods!”
Now it’s the Doctor’s turn. The story started in Genesis of the Daleks has come full circle, and I hadn’t realized there were curves still left to travel.
This isn’t all the story, of course, and it isn’t to say that it’s all perfect. A lot of time is spent at the beginning reintroducing Missy and getting her and Clara on the search for the Doctor. It’s funny, fantastically acted (Michelle Gomez and Jenna Coleman are in top form), and we see UNIT in action. There’s nice hints at and speculation about the Doctor’s frenemy relationship with the Master, but it all seems a little disconnected from the main story. Why did the Doctor have to send his confession disk to the Master? Was it all a ruse to trick Davros into believing that the Doctor had really given up and was willing to accept his fate? There’s no real pay-off, either, as we don’t get to see what’s on that confession disk, though maybe it will come up again later in the season.
And while Clara and Missy make a good team, I didn’t appreciate how Clara appeared to lose a few IQ points after going toe-to-toe with the Master early in the first episode. Sure, you could argue that Clara was a bit addled after being transported away from the Daleks’ death beams, but everybody saw what was coming when Clara peered down that deep hole and suggested dropping something into it in order to see how deep it was. I mean, everybody, except Clara.
It’s not completely wrong, though. The scene where Missy gives Clara the opportunity to kill her with a pointed stick and Clara hesitates speaks volumes. Like the Doctor with the young boy, when the chips are down, Clara cannot bring herself to brazenly kill. She just has too many scruples (actually, she has more scruples than even the Doctor, since it’s been shown that the Doctor will kill, hand to hand, to protect people if called on. We see it in Deep Breath perhaps. But just as he felt shame for leaving young Davros on the battlefield, even with a sonic screwdriver in the kid’s hand, he doesn’t like it, and that makes all the difference).
The fact that Clara has these scruples, of course, makes her vulnerable to Missy, which could explain how Missy is able to manipulate Clara into the Dalek. Poor Clara must be feeling a sickening sense of deja-vu, here. And while I’m not entirely convinced that Clara would agree to such a cockamamie and likely evil plan on Missy’s part, it does lead to a nice conflict with the Doctor that also leads to his revelation about Dalek mercy.
And speaking of getting inside a Dalek shell, much as I liked Capaldi riding around in Davros’ chair and scaring the bejeezus out of his enemies, the fact that he was captured pretty easily by Davros’ slithery assistant and sent back to Davros’ room felt like a bit of a run-around for no big gain. I can almost imagine Davros calming his creations down saying, “Shh! Shh! We still need the Doctor alive for my plan to work. So don’t kill him yet!”
And for Davros’ plan itself. I find it mostly acceptable. It definitely hits the Doctor in his feels, so I’m 90% convinced by it. The 10% that’s not is 90% salved by the fact that the Doctor knows what the plan is, and is playing along so that the ramifications to the plan that Davros didn’t consider play out. The 10% remaining objection to that 90% salve is that it’s awfully convenient to have Davros say, essentially, “HA! I fooled you, Doctor!” only for the Doctor to, essentially, reply, “HA! I knew you were fooling me, so I played along and fooled YOU!” That was mostly salved by Capaldi’s wonderful delivery of “One word… No, two words, actually! First word…” (thinks a bit) “…moron!”
So, yeah. I loved this two-parter. And I am as happy as ever with the state of the show. This is the true start of Capaldi’s Doctor. The previous season was Capaldi trying on the revered suit and testing it out, seeing what it could do. Now, he’s making the suit his own. You see it in his ditching of the sonic screwdriver, and his donning of sonic shades. You see it from his guitar riffs of “Pretty Woman” (and it’s Capaldi doing the playing, since he was in a punk band years ago with Craig Ferguson). And you see it in the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, which has lost all of the Doctor’s callousness, and all of the Doctor’s insensitive and snide remarks of last season. This is a Doctor who is finally comfortable in his own skin, and Moffat is a writer who is enjoying writing for him.
Truthfully, this Doctor’s future is so bright, he really does gotta wear shades…