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Monday, 21 September 2015

Doctor Who S35E1: The Magician's Apprentice

Doctor Who
Series 35, Episode 1
The Magician's Apprentice.

You know, I was running out of things to review, so despite how unremittingly terrible the last series of Doctor Who, I was very glad to see it returning. But I'm not afraid to admit that I was not - and still aren't, all told - expecting anything particularly great from this series. Moffat has always been a great ball of disappointment, and it's difficult to foresee any scenario where that changes, short of him announcing that he's stepping down from Doctor Who.

But I'll admit, this episode is an improvement over more or less anything we were given last series. A pretty stark improvement, actually.

Set an undisclosed time after the Christmas Special, the Doctor encounters a young boy in the middle of a war, and discovers that he's Davros, future creator of the Daleks. Cut forward a little, and the Doctor is summoned to meet Davros, who is dying and wishes to meet the Doctor one final time. On Earth, meanwhile, every plane stops dead in the sky, leading Clara to a meeting with Missy, who claims that the Doctor is in grave danger and that she needs Clara to help her find him.

Let me start by saying how very, very old it is to have Moffat constantly use 'the Doctor is dying/going to die' as his go-to plot device of choice. Let's count how many times he's used it since he became showrunner, shall we? It was the principle conflict of the last two episodes of series thirty-one, with the TARDIS exploding and such; it was the big conflict for the entirety of series thirty-two, with The Impossible Astronaut showing him dying and then the rest of the series building up to it; it was a big part of series thirty-three, with the idea of the Doctor dying at Trenzalore being the basis of the plot; and it was the entirety of the focus of the two specials that came between thirty-three and thirty-four.

"Steve, the Doctor doesn't like guns." "WHAT'S THAT? I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER

Moffat constantly uses 'the Doctor is going to die for realsies' as a cheap way of building up tension, and it always plays out exactly the same way: The Doctor knows he's going to die, he parties in a vaguely melancholic fashion before dramatically going to face his death, and then it's revealed that it was all a trick and he wasn't really going to die after all. One has to wonder, with how often Moffat uses this trope, whether he doesn't wish that the BBC would let him kill the Doctor off, so that no other writer would ever be able to use him.

So, this episode was already off to a terrible start, and every scene with the Doctor in dug that grave a little bit deeper, as he goes through exactly the same motions that he goes through every single other time Moffat uses this plot which, as we know, is in every single series he's ever written bar one. It's tired and it's boring and I want it to stop.

But the episode does manage to redeem itself a bit with the scenes between Missy and Clara. Michelle Gomez is a fantastic actor with brilliant comic timing and just the right edge of sinister to her performance, and while I would usually chafe at a character being brought back literally two episodes after they died (not that I think any of us believed the Master was gone forever, I mean, c'mon), she is basically eighty percent of the reason that this episode is tolerable, so I will let it pass.

Yes, very creepy, moving on.

Every scene she's in crackles, her chemistry with Jenna Coleman (who is the remaining twenty percent of the reason that this episode is tolerable) is superb, and all in all the whole thing made me wish that we could just get an entire series of Missy and Clara travelling through space and fighting crime. Like regular Doctor Who, but with a slightly greater concentration of evil and hopefully a lower concentration of 'ooh the Doctor's gonna die' plotlines.

The Daleks show up again, and actually manage to be just barely intimidating this time. Please, BBC, I'm begging you, put the Daleks on ice for a couple of series. Let some anticipation build up for them. Give us some Dalek foreplay, in the name of everything most holy, please. But I did not, at least, hate the Daleks in this appearance, not least because they take a back seat as far as villainy goes: Davros, who in this appearance is not allied with them (as he so often isn't), instead takes the reins as this episode's villain, with the Daleks as a kind of ominous background threat.

Oh, Michelle Gomez, you're the one bright spot in this bloody quagmire.

(The episode tries to ramp up tension by showing them killing Missy and Clara, but we all know that it's the old 'they seem to be dead but they actually got teleported away' trick, so who really cares.)

They'll probably be more in evidence next episode. So that's a thing.

All in all, this was a tolerable series opener, and one which may lead on to good things in the next episode, as this is a two-parter and they are quite often a bit slow to start. I'm looking forward to the next episode, although I do rather imagine that that excitement will quickly fade about six minutes into it.

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