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Doctor, Missy, Davros..Awesome!

The first episode of series nine of Doctor Who surprised me, I have to admit. I really liked it. Doctor Who ground down my enthusiasm over the course of Stephen Moffat’s run with Matt Smith (more due to stories than the actor himself). I am always hopeful that a significant change like a new Doctor can bring me back in, regrettably this didn’t happen in series eight, but I’m sat hoping I can enjoy a good proportion of the new series based on this episode.

Doctor Who is a complex show, it is meant to appeal to such a varied and diverse audience there is no way every single episode can be a stand out for you, it’s always something you have to hope works ‘on balance’. I’m the first to recognise that even the Russel T Davies and Christopher Eccleston first series that pulled me in had terrible fart jokes. The issue is Russel T Davies run worked for me on balance, Moffat’s hasn’t so far.

So, why was The Magician’s Apprentice so good?

It felt like a new Doctor. I thought the first series featuring Peter Capaldi felt a bit too much like he was acting out Matt Smith’s Doctor and still finding his feet. This is often the case, with each actor taking at least half a season to find their feet and the writers adjusting. I know, the Doctor in series eight did numerous things Matt Smith’s Doctor would never do, but I think the problem was the slapstick, they need to find a different way to express the Doctor’s more exuberant side. I think they found it with this episode. Written down on paper the Doctor riding into a ‘medieval’ arena on a tank playing a guitar would have had my head in my hands at how embarrassing it would feel. It didn’t, for some perplexing reason it worked. It was outrageous, but it didn’t feel outrageous, it felt logical and even, in a strange stroke of surreality, subdued. Capaldi managed to pull it off as laid back cool, which was great. We need more of that as Capaldi’s take on the ‘exuberance’ and less of the Matt Smith approach (and David Tennant’s to some degree).

What you really want from Capaldi’s Doctor is the serious nature of Eccleston’s combined with someone who can find and live his own interpretation of the Doctor’s more exuberant side (as Eccleston really didn’t become comfortable with that). This episode shows they’ve hopefully found it.

It was brilliantly paced. Oddly, the episode had in it some of the Moffat staples that usually turn me off, such as the whistle stop tour around Doctor Who locations with relatively quick scenes, but it seemed to work in this case. I suspect this is because they were given enough time to breath, while still not over extending themselves. Normally they are so quick and jarring they feel like a pointless indulgence, and in this case they still are, but they felt like an indulgence that added to the fabric of the milieu. It was the same with the ‘Missy stopping all planes just to get attention’ element. This would again come across as a horrible Moffat-ism, doing something just as a throw away, but because it had a bit of room to build and had pay off in the scenes with Missy it felt okay.

The short answer to all this is, as people have known for a while, we need more two-part episodes that don’t necessarily have to be big, brash show-pieces, they just provide a bit more time for scenes to breath and the pacing to be played with. They’re apparently taking a new approach to two-part episodes this season and having more of them, so hopefully this will afford the series a good opportunity to experiment with the pacing.

The dynamic between the Doctor and Missy as being frenemies is great. They needed to mix up the Master a bit to conform to the new Doctor as The Master should always reflect the Doctor. Since The master was a construct of the Tennant era he naturally came across as an exuberant, maniacal and brilliant pulp scientist. The more subtle relationship they now share is inspired and hopefully it will continue with them helping each other as much as fighting each other as their relationship unfolds. I’m not sure what changed, but I didn’t really click with Michelle Gomez as Missy in season eight, but I loved her in this one.

“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?” – The Doctor, Genesis of the Daleks

The real reason it worked is the episode had narrative weight that mattered, without losing it in a complex load of fast-paced, too quick to really appreciate it bollocks. Give the episode a narrative weight that the audience has time to appreciate and a lot of stuff falls into place. This episode had that. I loved how the episode was actually questioning the Doctors question to himself in Genesis of the Daleks. Okay, some people might say that we got that answer in Genesis of the Daleks, and to some extent again in The Parting of the Ways, but these classic questions are good to see re-interpreted and time has moved on, this is a different Doctor who has been through different things. He’s a Time Lord whose only restrictions are quite often those he places on himself, these are the issues core to the character.

It worked for me.

I’m not sure what was going on with the whole Harry Potter vibe. We have Davros being given the title of ‘Dark Lord’ and he has a new flunky that is essentially a giant snake that can turn himself into a human shape? I’ll admit I didn’t fully get this riff until after I’d digested the episode for an hour or so, but it’s obviously there. Possibly it’s to make the character more understandable to new viewers. I assume Doctor Who always has new viewers coming in and it’s been a while since Davros appeared. I really liked the snake alien and I thought it was really clever.

Moffat also used his let’s do a ‘fake killing’ of some important characters to move the drama along shtick. He does this so much that it is very tiresome. It’s pretty weak as everyone knows it’s not the case and it has happened so many times now you’d think the Doctor would know it’s not the case. I’m hoping in this case it’s not some grand plan, or some Missy trickery, though you’d assume it is to some degree based on her past actions, and that the Doctor has to face the choice of killing Davros. The trailer for the next episode suggests he does.

The weakness in all this, of course, is we know he probably won’t. We can hope they find some way to deliver on this decision without it being the obvious one of him not doing it and finding a way out of not having to. After all, the theme of the last season was whether he was a good man or not? Possibly this might answer the question.

Good start. It may be complete trickery and everything else will be terrible, but this episode exemplifies how Moffat era Doctor Who can work for me. I really wish it would more often.

About Ian O'Rourke

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