20 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice

It’s exactly the sort of story you’d expect if they ever decided to do a Doctor Who movie, yet it’s being shown at 7:40 on BBC One. The show is back, hitting the ground running. Like the man himself, they’re trying to make a big entrance, cramming it full of everything Doctor Who, new stuff and old. An opener that appears to be aimed at fans - well, fans of Genesis of the Daleks at least!

But first, Michelle Gomez. (“Not dead. Back. Big surprise. Never mind.”) Throughout this, she’s playing to the gallery - literally, in the scenes set in medieval Essex. But it’s the quieter scenes earlier with Clara that really grabbed me. It’s a rare moment of calm and it re-establishes her as a friend, as well as an enemy. Funny how they never say the words ‘The Master’, relying on everybody knowing the character from last series - because what an impression she made last series. Even though the power dynamic has changed since Death in Heaven, she’s still incredibly watchable, still 90% perfect and trying something new all the time. Nice direction in this episode, by the way, though I’m not sure how easy it is to direct Michelle Gomez!

On the one hand, then, it’s throwing in history and more fan references than ever - Missy, Skaro, Daleks, UNIT, Karn, the Shadow Proclamation, everything in the Doctor Who encyclopaedia. But most of the obscure appearances are glib, most of the back-stories are snappily reiterated. Casual viewers might be running to keep up with the madness of it, but they won’t be completely lost. And even they might appreciate quite how big the events are in this story - it feels like new (and old) territory, going into places that we were never able to go before. Exciting, and this is the opener.

Keeping the Doctor from the action is a risky move - making his absence part of the plot is also risky when there isn’t a lot else keeping the action going. This episode manages to sustain it, just.  Peter Capaldi, and later the Daleks, has a big impact when he finally appears. In this way, it’s as unusual a set-up to an episode as last year’s opener, Deep Breath, but the two couldn’t be more different in terms of style and scale. It’s quite an achievement that this episode was kept intimate - three main characters, forced together by events - as well as being pure spectacle, having a few masterstrokes up its sleeve that add to the mystery.

The heart of which seems to be the Doctor himself - this time he seems to think he’s going to die (must be a Tuesday). We’re with Clara, left struggling to catch up. A decent explanation can be found in the fairly substantial mini-episode ‘The Doctor’s Meditation’ - if you were able to work out its complicated ‘online exclusive’, region locked distribution before the series started. That’s a shame, as it’s the answers that were glossed over in the episode itself.

Sending the Doctor on his own quest between episodes is a trick that’s been done before in some of Steven Moffat’s bigger stories (The Snowmen, A Good Man Goes to War, etc), and I’m never totally comfortable with it - which might be the point. It’s a long way from when we last saw him, nine months ago, as if the show always has to keep evolving, that we should never tune in and think we know the Doctor. The show should be surprising us, constantly, always changing.

More things signify it’s a Steven Moffat episode - reviews should come with a checklist of praise, now, to save time - as every scene has a cool idea, and tons of surprises, even if we’re not entirely sure what they all mean. There’s plenty to marvel at: Colony Sarff’s very alien nature being revealed to us gradually; the grabbing hand-mines creating more playground games; the time freezing of the sky as a visual effect; all the mystery involving the hospital and the Daleks coming back. Somehow they all fitted together on screen nicely (again, good direction). But then it’s the start of the series, and this time we’re expecting the big visuals - and how much bigger can you get, with enemies like these? And, as ever, it’s also full of humour - this time, at least half of it as outrageous as the plot.

If I haven’t made it clear already, it’s very very big. But, even though it’s a two-part opener, what’s the story about? It takes us until the final scenes to realise, it’s about the Doctor. It’s about a certain choice he’s had to make, carrying on a theme from last year. The earlier scenes resonate with his difficult choices with Clara (who's very much not in a companion role this episode, and all the better for it), and much earlier in his past with Missy. But these scenes of gathering everyone together doesn’t add anything to the main events on Skaro - full of cool ideas, as the show needs, but we move on quickly onto shinier things. Let’s hope there’s more to it than that.

This episode definitely felt like the first half of a movie, just building and building all the time, so that when we got to the cliffhanger... obviously it’s left me keen to see the rest, with no clue of what the rest will actually play out like. Of course, Jenna Coleman’s leaving, so she’s obviously gone now - right?

All bets are off...

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