The Magician’s Apprentice Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the opening episode of Series 9.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” is apt as a title, because Series 9’s opener is mostly smoke and mirrors. The “trick” here is one played on the audience, as little happens; what is present is mostly popular moments and characters recycled from better episodes, culminating in a totally unbelievable cliffhanger.
The entire narrative of “The Magician’s Apprentice” can be summed up in three sentences, a sure sign that the plot is too simple to justify a two-part episode:
Ashamed that he left a young Davros for dead, the Doctor goes on his standard pre-regeneration bender, before meeting with an aged, dying Davros. Missy, knowing that the Doctor is in mortal danger, freezes all of Earth’s planes in mid-air to lure Clara and UNIT into helping her locate the Doctor. Reunited, the three meet Davros on Skaro, where Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS are all seemingly destroyed, leaving the Doctor to reconsider his decision to merely abandon the young Davros.
Further, the major plot points have all been utilized in recent episodes. The Doctor on the run before his eminent death? Been there.* The Doctor mysteriously summoned to Skaro? Done that. The moral debate of killing one to save many is the basic concept of “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and was done better in “The Beast Below,” not to mention “Genesis of the Daleks,” a classic episode (in every sense) from which “The Magician’s Apprentice” pulls a vintage clip. If you’re going to recapitulate the emotional underpinning of an episode verbatim, it might be best to not directly quote it.
Additionally, several previously terrific quotes get rehashed. While one could defend “Say something nice” as Missy’s “Geronimo!” the altered “Hey, Missy” lyrics and “Hugging is a great way to hide your face,” recur a mere two episodes after their introduction, to less effect.
Worse, the inclusion of familiar elements actually undercuts the development of a key character. Kate Stewart is the director of UNIT, but, here, she appears barely briefed on the emergency situation, with Jaye Griffiths’ Jac carrying all of the exposition. Kate does little more than say, “Call the Doctor!” and “We need the Doctor!” rendering her character ineffectual. Despite being UNIT’s Head of Scientific Research, it never occurs to her that planes could be used as bombs? The scene feels tailored to demonstrate Clara’s capability, but this is displayed at the expense of one of the series’ most accomplished characters.
At times, writer Steven Moffat struggles with crafting suitable follow-up episodes for his best characters. River Song, the Weeping Angels, the Silents, Clara/Oswin, Kate Stewart – – none have repeated the glory of their very first story. The many familiar faces returning in “The Magician’s Apprentice” emphasize this point. True, they add to the episode’s epic feel, but contribute little more than padding to a thin storyline.
The sparse narrative is maddening, particularly because terrific opportunities to follow up on Series 8’s character arcs go unheeded. While it is probably best that Missy’s sudden reappearance is dismissed with, “OK. Cut to the chase. Not dead. Back. Big surprise. Never mind,” Clara’s first encounter with Missy merits a stronger reaction. True, the Time Lady wasn’t responsible for Danny’s death, but Missy still had a role in his final, painful moments as a Cyberman, not to mention killing Osgood, and ruining the sanctity of death for an entire species by raising a literal army of their dead. When last they met, Clara was willing to murder Missy, as was the Doctor. Granted, the narrative gives little indication as to how much time has passed since “Death in Heaven,” and, surely, reasonable Clara has grieved and matured. Still, seeing Missy for the first time raises suspiciously little ire. Has Clara’s need to control come to include her own temperance?
Rather than build tension via character development, Moffat’s script builds to a cliffhanger that proffers no believable resolution. Missy’s extermination is dubious at best, since she died in the exact same way, two episodes ago, and she returned, with not so much as an explanation as to how.
Clara’s death is even less believable as this is literally the seventh time Clara has been killed, quit, or evicted from the TARDIS, with at least one of these scenes occurring in each of the last two episodes! It’s telling that the Doctor Who PR machine sprang to life, the day before this episode aired, and announced that actress Jenna Coleman would be leaving “sometime this series,” as if to goad the audience into believing that, this time, it might be for real – – pay no attention to the photos that same PR machine had already released, featuring Clara in future episodes.
Sadly, even Moffat’s clever, time-twisted narrative undermines his cliffhanger, as the aged Davros has kept the Twelfth Doctor’s sonic since childhood, thus raising the question of why Davros is only now confronting the Doctor. While the idea that the series is exploring an ontological paradox from the Doctor’s point of view would be revolutionary, a more likely explanation is that, since there wasn’t an aged sonic in Davros’ possession in any of his previous appearances, the Doctor must do something to retrieve his sonic, prior to those appearances, thus overwriting events of this episode, and negating the dramatic tension of the cliffhanger.
One point where Moffat’s script really shines is its mention that Time Lord friendships are infinitely complex, considering that they last, literally, for ages, and involve beings who change personalities, sexes, and appearances, yet who remain the same person, at heart(s). Unfortunately, this brilliant revelation actually undercuts the driving force of the narrative; in further redefining the Doctor’s relationship with Missy, the episode calls the logic of his actions towards Davros into question. Why must the Doctor face Davros? Why will confronting him result in the death of the Doctor? Is Twelve so guilt-ridden that he would allow the father of the Daleks to kill him in return for abandoning a young Davros, in the past? The Doctor would never give himself up to Davros, because the Doctor, like all Time Lords, has mastered (see what I did there?) the art of forgiveness – – a necessity for beings who live for eons. We’ve seen in the past that this includes the Doctor forgiving himself. Certainly, the Ninth and Tenth Doctors struggled with what they perceived as their role in the destruction of Gallifrey, at the end of the Time War, but both were able to live with themselves, realizing that they sacrificed the many to save the many more. Why is Twelve again struggling with this concept? Is it because the narrative has recursively implicated the Doctor as the cause of Gallifrey’s demise, or because a young boy’s face is now attached?
Is “The Magician’s Apprentice” a terrible episode? No, but it’s far from great, and with the strong thematic and character arcs from Series 8 to build upon, the episode should be stellar. Hopefully, with the narrative established, and an entire episode with which to resolve his impossible cliffhanger, Moffat will take the opportunity to mine his take on Time Lord relationships, answer lingering questions raised in the opener, and deliver a conclusion that is slightly less familiar.
*One of the great things about “The Time of the Doctor” is that the childish Eleventh Doctor had matured to the point that he didn’t run, when it was his time to die. Is that growth undone, now? This seems weird, since the Doctor has a whole new set of regenerations, so it’s not like with Ten or Eleven, where he’s nearing his ultimate end and each successive life becomes that much more precious.