TV Fucking-A! No sober reflection from me here as we embark on another series of Saturday evening ministrations. After last year, my expectations for these twelve weeks have been lowered to such an extent, anything half competent probably would have done, episode one of The Space Museum as opposed to the other three if you will, and yet here we are, judging by the Twitters, all relaxing in the splendour of watching the show that we know and love reconstituting itself before our eyes. Look at a something like The Magician’s Apprentice with its swagger and general sense of “Yeah, we’re back” and it’s impossible not to think, “He knows he done wrong last time. Moffat knows he done wrong.”
Dispassionately (right?) you might wonder if another idea would simply to have produced an excellent example of a more traditional piece of Doctor Who, with the Time Lord and Clara landing somewhere, chasing about for forty-five minutes heading into a cliffhanger and underscoring the fundamentals of the series, demonstrating that Doctor Who’s an event no matter what it’s about, not unlike the classical mode, a Terror of the Autons affair or Horror of Fang Rock. This is actually a moment when such a thing could have made sense, since a companion’s already in situ and a new incarnation isn’t being introduced. Last time we were in this space was The Impossible Astronaut, so yes, the other approach would have been something neutral.
I can relate. When the show was non-televisual, after a while it existed in two streams, the past Doctor material which archaeologically excavated the show’s history and the Eighth Doctor material which for the most part didn’t. Arguably it went off the rails slightly when it tried to be too experimental, the Divergent Universe on audio and whatever it was Lawrence Miles was doing in the books, but there was always a sense of trying to move forward, do something new. But as the reaction to the Divergent Universe on audio and whatever it was Lawrence Miles was doing in the books and arguably the modern tv equivalent which was last year’s season demonstrate, if you don’t get it completely right, you’re sunk. As is the case with most genre material, we want it different, just not too different.
Having acknowledged that, let’s just throw it out of an airlock (a proper one not something pretending to be an alien planet) and remind ourselves that the part of the mode of the revival is beginning each season with a big brassy occasion and that however much we tell ourselves the Weight Watchers Chocolate Roll is tasty enough and will do, what we really want is the Cadburys. We’ve been so spoilt now, that not for us any more a bog standard alien invasion story or base under siege. Which is a bit weird when you consider that during the Davies era, pretty much all his season openers were just that. Go back and read a synopsis of Smith and Jones some time in the context of tonight’s episode. For goodness sake.
Now, we’re simply not happy with a season opener unless the Doctor’s running to or from something with his current companion(s) wondering what the hell’s going on. Moffat knew that as he wrote The Impossible Astronaut and here he is again, but with near Sisyphian task of pulling back to the fold those of us who strayed and thought he’d lost his mind when putting something as expressively appalling as The Caretaker or Kill The Moon into production and the way to do that is through our fan gene. Taking the chocolate roll metaphor to stretching point, The Magician’s Apprentice is the televisual equivalent of the Tesco Express that has just moved in around the corner with its aisles filled with pastries and cakes within five minutes walking distance. Sticking with the Weight Watchers has been an act of will. But I’m six stones lighter than when The Name of the Doctor was broadcast so …
Davros. Fucking Davros. You and me both know for how many years I’ve been making that joke about every mysterious figure which has darkened the narrative’s door would turn out to be Davros and finally, there he is, pre and post the Big Finish spin-off series (which hasn’t been contradicted yet – that began when he was sixteen years old). I think you can imagine me laughing rather than doing this which was presumably the reaction they were going for, but it’s so rare to be genuinely surprised at such an early stage in a season’s development. Excellent build up too, with the false sense of security surrounding the non-descript battlefield, which if you’ve heard the bullshit rumour that was floating around a couple of days ago, led me to wonder if this young chap was actually the Doctor.
There are multiple questions about this. If young Davros’s existence is pre-Time War, then how’s the Doctor able to go back in time to save or kill the boy? True, such things have become a bit fluid lately, as per Listen - in which Clara confusingly visits the past of a planet which is “lost” in the future – but even the Doctor’s progress through the time vortex wasn’t that easy back in Genesis and he didn’t have a time lock so stringent it sent Dalek Caan mad when he traversed it in order to retrieve Davros. You see, this is what happens when you stack and episode like this with mythology, sections of it are bound to topple over. Perhaps we’ll be gifted with an explanation next week, but probably not. We'll talk more after the story resolves itself about the effects of the Doctor stepping into his foe's timeline. Perhaps Hayley Westenra will sing on the soundtrack this time around.
In any case, the callback to Tom’s speech from Genesis was the last thing I expected to hear to tonight which means of course it’s probably just the thing I needed to hear. As the clips tumbled out of the speakers surrounding Julian Bleach (a feat of archival casting worthy of a John Wells drama in an episode filled with them), I almost expected Joseph Lidster’s Terra Firma to put in an appearance to represent the Eighth incarnation and felt slightly cheated when it didn’t. But then Tom’s face actually appeared and those sodding wires and I forgave them everything, even if it wasn’t clear exactly who captured the footage. In universe I mean. David Maloney directed the episode but the TARDIS Datacore entry is a bit thin on facts when it comes to camera operators.
Such are the way of things in an anniversary year, when Moffat’s in the mood to produce his version of The Five Doctors. With all of the references to the Davies era in the episode, it’s impossible not to think of the story as being in some way a tenth birthday celebration, even to the point of the Doctor holding up a gun, not just to a Dalek this time, but their creator. Oh well good. Not the gun thing - hopefully somebody will be there to stop him - because sometimes he needs someone to stop him - but the acknowledgement that although this is all one story, that something immense happened ten years ago. Incidentally, I’m also convinced I saw Martha’s silhouette in The Maldovarium so part of me’s hopeful Freema was able to make some time in her Sense8 schedule.
But this was still very solidly of the Moffat era. Anyone else think Kate and rest of the UNIT were especially uselessless in this episode with Clara essentially telling them the plot? What was with all the freezer-like temperatures in the base? I’m having a lapse in memory but wasn’t a cold environments one of the requirements of the Zygon race? Were we looking at the real UNIT or their doppelgangers from the other anniversary story and if that’s the case why didn’t Clara pick up on it as she was striding about being oh so clever? I expect I’m reading too much into a slightly overaggressive piece of CG, but this could also be a new item of mythology to deal with autonomous Zygons lacking stored imprints, a different strain to the version portrayed in Alan Barnes’s Eighth Doctor audio Death in Blackpool.
Missy’s back too and we’ll forgive them the winking manner of it, the yes I’m alive and can’t even be bothered with explanation because "So you escaped from Castrovalva..." was weak mead even in the 80s. Michelle Gomez feels like she’s been playing the character for years, but there’s a clear re-modulation of the approach in comparison to Dark Water with its Dutch angled push-ins and strange gesticulations, a realisation that a downbeat menace has a more long term gain and funnier in some respects when she’s bluffing away. Best moment (because it’s supposed to be): her approbation at being lower, if not non-existent in the Doctor’s pecking order of arch enemies than Davros. Oh and clearly not dying again at the end.
Her re-emergence also sees Jenna Coleman up her game as she’s forced to rationalise how her character can interact in any kind of meaningful with the Time Lord who slaughtered her boyfriend and put to the back of her mind seeing the deaths of those UNIT agents at the moment when she’s supposed to be working with this lunatic. Her approach is to mainly follow the requirements of the script which sometimes puts her the companion mode to Missy. But watch her in the background of shot, especially her eyes and we're sure that at any moment she could treat this murderess with all the diplomacy that Amy Pond did with Madame Kevorkian (taking us right back to Davros’s speech from Journey’s End about how the Doctor trains soldiers even if he doesn’t mean to).
Is she dead? Hmm, probably not yet, although given yesterday’s announcement which now feels like a piece of stage management rather than post-tabloid damage control, I’m not entirely discounting the idea that they shot footage specially for the trailers featuring her in other locales and that the synopsis for all the episodes after this are a complete blag. Unless Clara’s being played by a different, much younger actress. Or they’re different Claras from across history. Part of me even wishes this extermination was real, due to the poetry of a facet of the character having been somewhat introduced as being a Dalek and her now being killed by one. Well, not poetry exactly, but using a phrase like “narrative bookends” is a bit clunky in this context. Or one of Lucas's rhymes.
Bestride all of this is Capaldi who now, after a shakier start than we’re used to in the revivals or expected, feels like the Doctor, feels like the same man who played tiddlywinks with Lenin and eloped with Marilyn Monroe, the benevolent alien deploying rudeness as a prop rather than simply his mode. Oh and stop it with your harrumphing over the guitar playing and the tank – this is precisely the sort of business you were expecting from an incarnation played by this actor and were disappointed when you largely didn’t get it last year. I know I was. Everything about Capaldi here is more confident, from his line readings, to his physicality, to his hair, which has finally decided to do that. A lot. The clothes help. The Pertwee homage of last year was fine, but the relaxed David Banks homage, albeit with a darker jacket over the t-shirt, feels more like him. It's also about the feels, essentially, finally.
Just as an aside, notice how the two prologues that accompanied this episode online actually deepened the experience of the episode, especially The Doctor's Meditation which appeared on Facebook earlier today featuring more from the Doctor's friend Bors played by Daniel Hoffman-Gill (who I'm sure is one of the blokes from that horrendous deodorant commercial which filled the cinemas this year with the dance-off in the middle). After seeing those five or minutes, we have a real connection to character which makes his fate in the actual episode all the more horrible. Although paradoxically releasing it before the broadcast of the episode did rather ruin the reveal of where the Doctor is and also one or two of his jokes.
With all this talk of characters and actors, it’s all too easy to ignore the production elements, what's changed from last year, what hasn't. Having expected the show to return to the editing style of Eleventh’s era, perhaps the more interesting aspect is that scene durations are still surprisingly long. One of the more striking choices last year was how some dialogue scenes continued for whole minutes and the general lack of parallel storylines and The Magician’s Apprentice still has those. The teaser is really just two long scenes and there’s a lot of characters chatting in rooms, sitting or standing, admittedly sometimes very large rooms in the case of the arena.
But it doesn’t feel static. Although we don't quite reach the level of editing inherent in something like The Crimson Horror, the cameras are certainly moving around a lot more, shooting from a greater number of angles than last year where directors in some cases seemed to have been asked to provide a mutation of the multi-camera set up of the 60s to 80s. Now, there’s less of a sense of being able to see which scenes would have been shot on film back then. Everything has the same visual viscosity, not that the style isn’t still markedly different to Blink, Hettie MacDonald’s previous credit for the series. Plenty of the episode is similarly about atmosphere however, notably around the young Davros scenes. For a few brief moments up front, I was somewhat convinced we were about to see a return to The War Games.
But no, it’s Skaro, it’s the Daleks and its multiple Daleks from many eras including what looked like a CG recreation of an classic version in the wilderness. The “new” paradigm’s pretty much dumped now isn’t it? Not since the Mechanoids has a new Dalek related creation been set to one side and good riddance to them. Unless there was one there and I didn’t notice it. The return of the battle-model from Remembrance and such is another attempt to re-engage us older viewers and we’re suckers even though my wilderness years birthed fandom inoculates me a little bit, probably. Armies with a single, authoritarian visual look feel more impressive and deadly than this ragtag, whose slightly jaded appearance resembles the Dalek equivalent of LINDA, even if they clearly have just as much of a destructive capability.
As is the case with two-parters, of this season is supposed to have several, we won’t really know if this is able to maintain the same level of squee-inducing slack-jawed intensity. We fans know that no matter what’s in the throw-forward trailer, we can never completely trust what we see with our eyes and the chances of any of those three having gone are pretty slim. Perhaps my biggest complement is that I wanted to watch it again straight after it had finish, which is quite something when you considered that some of the discs in my copy of the blu-ray set from last year still haven’t left the trays in the amaray case. Welcome back Doctor and welcome back Doctor Who. Here’s to the next eleven weeks and Christmas. Fucking-A!