Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Magician's Apprentice / The Witch's Familiar - "I wouldn't die of anything else."

The Magician's Apprentice (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 9, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #258a) | Previous - Next | Index


This is half a story, setting the stage for next week's presumed payoff. As, such am going to hold off rating this one and decide retroactively how I feel about how it worked. In terms of the cliffhanger, which showed us the death of Missy (again), Clara, and the destruction of the TARDIS, I'm deeply ambivalent, leaning towards I'm-going-to-be-pissed-when-the-timeline-is-reset-and-it-never-happened. But, let's see first how it unfolds. As much as I suspect it's going to be rubbish, I'm hoping to be surprised.

The Doctor's idea of a 12th century axe battle is to ride a tank in while playing electric guitar. His axe. It's bombast this show can pull off every so often under the right circumstances. Are these the right circumstances? Well, close enough. Should we be encouraging this sort of storytelling behavior? No, I think not. But, for an opening night fireworks show, which you've set up by the Doctor believing he's partying his final days away, I'll play along.

Back to maximum extermination the Daleks unleash ... doesn't it feel like we're being trolled? How is it possible to care when of course the TARDIS isn't destroyed, and it's unlikely that's how Jenna Coleman left, and Missy was just vaporized the story before last and brought back with some hand waving about never mind all that. Moffat must know what buttons he's pushing, so I don't want to be the fool that falls through the first trapdoor. But if that's how he's playing this game, the second trapdoor better be a spectacular bit of engineering because it's got to not only be cleverer than the audience, it's got bring coherence to plot that to this point, as Missy might say, pants.

You know those card trick videos, where a sharp shuffles and cuts the deck, telling a story as he flips over cards that fit the tale? Doctor Who can't be that. If it's just a clever bit of slight of hand where we're left marveling at the skill of the trick's creator, but the characters are just varnished polyvinyl chloride that can be discarded and added back to the deck willy-nilly, and the story is just what the trick needs it to be, then we're wasting our time. That mode of storytelling can be a 3 minute youtube video but not a meaningful part of what's made Doctor Who a story going strong fifty-plus years after it started being told.

But, if there's an actual point to the thing beyond a storyteller saying, "Look how clever I am," and it makes us think, and question our beliefs about how to make and live in a just society, well, that's proper magic then. The gnawing doubt I have is rooted in the moral dilemma the Doctor faces, the question about how to be a good man in the story he's in, being child's play.

This dilemma (helpfully played back for us from "Genesis of the Daleks": if you a know a child is going to grow up to be a monster could you kill it? Well, that's no dilemma at all. Look, for the Doctor, sure you can make a case he's got knowledge other don't have, reason to believe his beliefs about the future are justified - still, the case for murdering a child falls apart under those conditions, too; but, it's not even a hard question for us. You don't. You don't murder someone, or let them die if you can save them, just because you believe that child will grow up to be a mass murderer. Look, you and I can't ever know the future,  so the point of the question is obviously to get at a rule that makes other, trickier dilemmas, easier to tackle.  And the rule is:  don't murder. (I trust it goes without saying that if you ever found yourself faced with a child you are considering murdering because you think you know its future, the conclusion you should be reaching is you're mad, and need to not murder anyone, because you think you know things you can't possibly know.)

Have reason to believe the kid is going to grow up to me mass murdering nihilst and want to stop them becoming a monster? Help them in some other way. Murder isn't the only tool in the kit. Or, if it is, you've bought the wrong box, son.

The frustrating thing is, the situation we were shown, the Doctor not knowing where he is, the kid only giving his name. Unless we know for a fact that there was only ever one Davros in the history of Skaro, what makes him think he's even got enough to assume identity? What if Davros is common name on Skaro? But, even if we brush that aside and take for granted he knows it's *that* Davros, it's inconceivable to me the Doctor would leave him to die.

Maybe, one could argue, the Doctor didn't think he could save the boy, and would die trying. In that case, I don't think he's obliged to try to save him. I'd argue a man with a time capsule who could fly over and lift him out of the field might not be using enough of his imagination in making that determination, but people can only decide with the information they have, and if he truly believes they'd both die, he's not obliged to try to save the child. But we know that's not what he thought because he started trying before he knew the boy's name.

So the error in judgment the Doctor made may be the moment at which he created Davros, the Dark Lord of Skaro, Creator of the Daleks. So coming back (emm, how?) to not only not save the boy, but to kill him and undo all kinds of history (like the Time War, presumably, and a few other minor alterations) seems like the kind of thing he wouldn't do, even to save Clara, so soon after explaining to Clara why he couldn't undo Danny Pink's death. I'm not grokking it.

Reading through all that rambling before hitting 'Publish,' the thing that's missing is it's not coming across how much I enjoyed watching Capaldi play the Doctor again. Even when wondering what the hell is going on plot-wise, and grinding my off-with-Moffat's-head axe, there is no end of delight in watching him own the character.

  • If Bors was Dalek sleeper, what was Davros doing sending the snake fella looking for him? Or did the snake bite turn him? That must be it. Never mind, I'm sorted after all on that one.
  • Clara snogging Jane Austen wouldn't be the worst thing for us to circle back and see in a future episode. Not for the snogging, mind, I mean for the story where the Doctor and Clara meet Jane Austen. 
  • That Missy is back (was back, will be back again), despite how ludicrous it is, is fine with me. Michelle Gomez is the panto/camp John Simm Master elevated to new plane of existence. She's perfect. If they're giving us a sort of rehash of the Pertwee-UNIT-Master stories, she's holding up the Master/Missy's end of the deal and then some.

The Witch's Familiar (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 9, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #258b) | Previous - Next | Index

Before falling in with the vampire monkeys.
There are interesting, and uninteresting questions, left over from "The Magician's Apprentice." The uninteresting ones are: those around the moral dilemma, such as it is, Four faced in Genesis, and Twelve now faces as he stares down the barrel of a blaster announcing his intent to exterminate young Davros; and, those around how the TARDIS, Clara, and Missy will be un-exterminated so the Doctor will still have a way to get around, someone to get around with, and his most famous nemesis back. Moral dilemmas and matters of life-and-death, as we all know, are tried-and-true dramatic elements that, when executed well, make for satisfying narratives.

The interesting questions have to do with whether a satisfying narrative be derived from the starting position we're left with from the end of "TMA," because the obvious dramatic elements have already been ruled out. In order for Moffat to make this work as a piece of television story-telling, either an interesting moral dilemma not explicitly raised in the first part needs to surface, or a new, unconsidered one examined; or, we need to see the Doctor cope with all that loss as a results events  not-to-be-undone. The latter, viewers know instinctively, is off the table. They will be undone.

With regard to the former, +Docteur Who suggested a possible avenue for finding a hook this story can hang on: basically, that Davros become a more interesting character by having the story unfold such that it's revealed he is playing a deeper, longer game than the Doctor, one we haven't got a grasp on yet. If a dilemma can really be found from Davros's point-of-view, and his actions, his will, become not only plot-movers, but matters of interest in their own right, then Moffat could pull a rabbit from the hat and retroactively imbue the first part of this story with more gravitas than it had on its own. It's a lot to ask though.

(Hard to argue with the characterization of that episode by Jack Graham, that Moffat has basically made himself some GIFsets. Sure, I like a good GIFset, but we all expect and want more ... )

One question I don't know whether to consider interesting, or not, as I write in the interregnum between episodes, is the answer to the question: who is the Magician's Apprentice? (Or how many Magician's, or Magicians' Apprentices are there?)

The Doctor is called Magician by Bors. The Doctor's apprentice is Clara. But, Bors is also a bit of an apprentice himself.  If the Doctor is the Magician, we should also consider the possibility the other Time Lord in the story is also a Magician, and if we do, then who would her apprentice be? Well, interestingly, Clara might, just might, be seen as someone who could be -- but that may just be a function of those two characters sharing so many scenes. The other Magician candidate is, of course, Davros himself. His apprentice could be Colony Sarff -- so perhaps our favorite new serpentine democracy could take on some narrative heft. Although, if Davros is revealed to be playing a deeper game, then perhaps the Doctor becomes the apprentice after a fashion. Of course, there may be, and often is, more than one answer.

Make an org chart with job titles Magician and Apprentice, draw a line between them, slide the characters in this story around so the roles change, and find where there are interesting dynamics at play ...

Then, the question of this episode's title come into play. Who is the witch, and who is the witch's familiar? Ahh, Missy is an intriguing witch -- the female magician. Again Clara is the only obvious candidate for familiar, but who knows ... ?

These questions of roles and relationships in a magician-apprentice/witch-familiar set of pairs can't carry the story on their own though. What they do, and why they do what they do in these roles, or what their relationships say about relationship dynamics that can somehow be ported to questions of interest for us, the viewers, and our relationships to ... one another? ... to Moffat and the show itself? These need more depth, otherwise all this is just shuffling cards, moving of pieces on a board -- gameplay. Gameplay it's possible to enjoy for what it is, but signifying nothing more than: we made two episodes of Doctor Who to open Series Nine.


Last week, I was afraid we'd have to dismiss this story as mere gimmickry. Whatever criticisms we might level at Moffat, there's simply no denying he's a professional writer; what looked like a glorified card trick did indeed turn out to be more. Moreover, when he does use "mere" slight-of had of hand to get Clara and Missy, and the TARDIS (eventually) out of being shot by the Daleks, he actually makes us glad of it. No timey-wimey rewrites, no resets. In so doing, he also goes back even further and explains how Missy survived the climax of last series's finale. We're always a little disappointed when we learn the trick, whether it's a writer's trick or an illusionist's, the mechanics are never as impressive as the illusion they produce, but the skill that goes into executing them can always be appreciated.

After all the showpieces and fireworks last week, this week's story is nearly all conversation and close quarters. We see Daleks buzzing around the city on Skaro, but it's from a distance for the most part. Otherwise we're in the sewers or one of the same two rooms in the city nearly the whole time.

It got smaller, and better. Better because it addresses the themes the modern series has held as touchstones since we met Rose: the courage to be compassionate; and an openness towards the external world, a denial of xenophobia. Only wish they'd been expanded on in some way. They never get old, but there's nothing anywhere near as hard-hitting here as the Doctor asking Clara if she thinks she means so little to him that her betraying him would even matter.

The moral dilemma I pish-poshed turned out to be not to be the dilemma at. We were set up. That "Exterminate" was never for young Davros, it was always for the handmines. The Doctor never went anywhere to kill, not then, not now. He went to see Davros on his deathbed because the old bugger was dying, and asked to see a Doctor. That's the closest, I think, we got to a moment of sheer compassion. (A little more complex than that here though, as the Doctor knew he was walking in to a trap, with every intention of making it spring back on the trap setter once sprung, so maybe he's acting every bit as much as Davros in their scenes together.)

So did I waste my time wondering about the episode titles? Did they mean anything at all? I've read reviews that said they were empty of meaning, but I still feel like they're a reference to Clara's roles with Doctor and Missy, the latter of whom she spends a great deal of time with again. (Canary to the miner as much, or more than, familiar to the witch.) Putting the two of them together was brilliant. Missy, under Moffat, is becoming the definitive iteration of the Master. This is not a claim to be made lightly, and I mean no disrespect to Delgado's character, but if you can stomach Moffat reaching into the past of the series and planting his flag all over the place, and it turns out I still can, you've got to be delighted with the character getting some more of her backstory filled. That line about the brooch and her daughter alone ...

Capaldi, it's worth repeating, is utterly brilliant. Playing dodge'em cars in Davros's chair, explaining why he came, letting Davros set him up and spring the trap, sussing out it was Clara in that Dalek - which probably shouldn't have taken as long as it did -- but that's on Moffat, if anyone -- he was devastating throughout. Michelle Gomez, Jenna Coleman, and, even under all that Davros latex, Julian Bleach are cracking good. The news that this is Coleman's last series should remind us all to appreciate how fortunate we are to have, and to have had, her as long as we have. Seeing her in a Dalek flashed me back to her introduction in "Asylum of the Daleks," but she's a different Clara here than she was then, her performance is as remarkable now as it was then.

If the Series 8 finale started strong and went off the rails in the second half, as I maintain, this one its mirror image: starting out dodgy, but pulling it all together and striding forward confidently. Not a masterpiece, not by a stretch, but not the failure that loomed either.

Stray Thoughts:

  • The internet poll question is: are the call backs to the classic series lowly fan service, or do they enhance the show? Worked for me. If anything, it was the call back to last season, the "Am I a good man?" fell flat when Davros asked it. 
  • "Your sewers are revolting." Look, if you're going to go to the trouble of having the sewers be lined with slime Daleks, you may as well go all the way.
  • This new HADS function seems ... awfully convenient.
  • Did it feel to you, like it did to me, that Clara being hooked up to the Dalek was set up as having consequences we didn't see? Missy mentioning that taking the plugs out could be a different story to putting them in, then the Doctor looking frightened and telling Missy, with threatening tones, to run ... only to cut away and she's out no problem? Clara better not wind up like ol' Bors did ... 
  • Swapping out the sonic for a pair of shades, "wearable technology," is not sitting well with me.
  • Remembering again "Asylum of the Daleks," there too we had a class of Daleks the proper-functioning Daleks couldn't deal with. In that one, it was their mentally ill. In this one, their aged. Feels like Moffat is getting after something here, a point about societies needing to care for their aged and infirm, lest the cruelty of not doing so prove their undoing. Or, as always, it's possible I'm reading too much into it ...

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