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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice

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When I started watching The Magician’s Apprentice, I was about as un-enthused about a show as you can possibly be while still making time to watch it. Habit told me that I should probably tune in, but my caring level was pretty much zero.

By the end of the episode, my caring level was about a four. So, in one sense, The Magician’s Apprentice was a very successful episode of Doctor Who. It converted my apathy into intrigue, and it deserves kudos for that.

As a whole, though, the episode was on the good side of “classic Moffat Who” — fun, with some genuinely creepy and shocking moments, but casually offensive, and lost in an attempt to be more epic than it needs to be.

First, the kudos. The opening scene was excellent, even if the dramatic throw of the sonic screwdriver felt a little overdone. The hand minds were frightening and clever, the overall tone was very unsettling and eerie, and the Davros reveal was genuinely shocking and built a lot of anticipation for the episode to come.

But then things got sidetracked with the same epic plotline we’ve had at least once every season, seemingly since the beginning of time. The Doctor is dying! It is his last day! He’s probably already dead! He’s somewhere in time, doing the things that he wants to do before he is finally dead, because seriously, he won’t regenerate, it’s for real this time. Is any viewer surprised by this plotline? Does anyone actually feel any suspense that he might die? We’ve been here so many times before that they might as well say the Doctor’s popped out to buy a bacon sandwich, for all the impact it has.

And maybe I missed something, but I don’t even see why that was included in the plot this time, except perhaps to facilitate the guitar solo. It didn’t add to the tension of him going to see Davros, because that would be dangerous either way. It was just sort of there, like the show included it out of habit. Like Doctor Who doesn’t know how to create tension any more without a few melodramatic statements about the Doctor’s impending demise thrown into the mix.

Even if it had been believable and effective, it wasn’t necessary here. The episode had plenty of actual plot and tension working for it, from the opening scene with Davros, to the revelation that they’re on Skaro, to the use of old sound clips to create context for the Doctor and Davros’ endless philosophical debates. It almost feels like the show lacks faith in itself, like its become so wrapped in overly convoluted plotlines that it saw the simplicity of the set-up here and decided it couldn’t possibly be enough.

I was, however, surprised by the direction that the Davros plotline took. As I watched the episode, I thought about the implications that the Doctor had created Davros — he left him to die because of who he would grow up to be, but what if he grew up to be that way because the Doctor abandoned him? What if he learned that only the strongest can survive, and that he should have no pity for others, from that moment? Perhaps this question will be explored in the second part, but this episode seemed more concerned with what this says about the Doctor than about the effect it may have had on Davros himself. When he travelled back to that moment with Davros and the hand minds, I assumed he was going to save him, thus changing the timeline. The fact that he goes back to kill him is certainly darker, but it also feels like he’s simply doubling down on his initial impulse. I’d really like to see another attempt to ret-con the moment at the end of next week’s episode, with him actually helping Davros… but we’ll have to wait and see for that.

The problem is that the Doctor killing Davros is bigger and darker than him saving Davros, and it makes for a more dramatic cliffhanger, but, like many Big Dramatic Moments in Moffat’s Who, it doesn’t really make sense. If killing Davros before he invented the Daleks was an option, why wouldn’t the Doctor have done it before? Why wouldn’t he have done so after the Time War, or the death of all the Time Lords, or any other time the Daleks have killed his companions and friends? Why do Clara and Missy in particular make him do that, more than any of those other events? It wasn’t an unsurpassable plot hole, if the show dug into the Doctor’s emotional state or the sense of it being the last straw, or if it used his discussions with Davros about compassion to finally push him over the edge and lead him to that decision… but it didn’t. It left things shallow and showy, so a great opportunity didn’t quite make sense.

And then, as always, we have to discuss the show’s use of female characters. On the plus side, this was a very female character heavy episode. We had three on screen at once, talking about fixing a huge catastrophe! We had Missy and Clara working together to find the Doctor and to figure out what the hell was going on. The show is clearly trying there, and that’s good.

But then there are the little things. The random mention of Jane Austen being a good kisser, because… why, exactly? The chance to use another historical female figure for a quick joke, this time about bisexuality? Why would a teacher ever say that, even if she knew it was true? There’s a moment when Missy tells Clara “you’re the puppy,” which is in character for her, but fits into a subtle ongoing narrative where the companion is constantly put down and must prove herself worthy, in contrast to the old Doctor, who always believed them innately worthy. There’s the moment where Missy says “Davros is your arch enemy now? I’ll scratch his eyes out,” playing on a cliche of female jealousy for no real reason at all. It’s just these little things, these casual things, that build up and remind us of the show’s general attitude toward women for years now. It’s these things that make The Master turning into Missy not just seem like a plot-twist convenience, but an uncomfortable statement, as the male version has a powerful title, and the female has a sassy, light-hearted one.

It is what it is, and it’s not going to change, but these small things stand out after years of similar small things, over and over again.

And it’s getting old. It doesn’t even provoke outrage any more. I didn’t go into this season feeling sad about how much I used to enjoy Doctor Who. I’d reached the point of not really caring any more. Yeah, it’s gonna go all overdramatic and convoluted and not make sense. Yeah, it’s going to be casually misogynistic in a really throwaway way. No point being disappointed or outraged. That’s just what the show is.

For what the show is now, this was a good episode, and I’m intrigued to see where it will go. But that’s for what the show is now. It should be capable of being so much more.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

5 thoughts on “Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice

  1. I’m torn about the whole Master-to-Missy transformation. On the one hand, it means we get another recurring female character, one who’s a Time Lord and whose established characterisation can’t be slid neatly into a female stereotype. On the other, I get a definite femme fatale vibe from her that I didn’t from John Simm, as though her becoming female means she suddenly needs to fit into a ‘feminine’ mould.

    That said, the big disappointment, for me, is that thus far there’s been no attempt to actually explore what it means for a Time Lord’s sex to change. Of course, I’m not sure I can trust Moffat to actually do that sensitively, so it’s perhaps a good thing that it’s being ignored, but when I found out Missy was the formerly-male Master, I had questions, about her personally and about sex and gender in Time Lord society. Does Missy still identify as male? Or perhaps she has always identified as female? Do Time Lords have more fluid notions of gender? Does their personal identification affect their regeneration? And if it does, does that mean they have some measure of control – conscious or unconscious – over their new body? I want to know!

    1. The other thing that bothered me in this episode in particular was when Missy made reference to having known the Doctor since he was a little girl. I’d like to think it’s an indication of an utterly non-judgemental view of gender in Time Lord society (ie, a little girl can grow up to regenerate into a man, or vice versa, and no one cares), but it came out sounding like an insult, like when boys are told they’re “girly” or men are accused of “screaming like a girl”.

  2. they really need to retire the “doctor’s dying!!!” plotline. It was interesting with ten: then they repeated it eleven and now twelve. It’s the show’s big cliché at this point.

  3. You refer to 3 female characters being on screen at once. I too noticed this, and said to my son – ‘when they have these strong female characters all going on about one man, waiting for him to make the decisions it rather undermines the point’. Would it pass the Bechdel Test?

    There is so much hero worshipping of the Doctor going on ( and kowtowing to his brilliance – Axe scene for eg) that I do not feel that is any real autonomy for the female characters. I have to go back to Donna to find a female character that I feel comfortable with. Missy is very entertaining, but inconsistent, as you have pointed out.

    1. When I watched that scene, I immediately thought it was a Bechdel pass, because it was three women strategising about how to deal with a huge global threat. But if their whole strategy was about how to get in touch with the Doctor, rather than how to actually solve the problem, then you’re right… it might be a technical pass, I’m not sure, but it misses the point either way.

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