Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice

Posted on September 20, 2015

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Michelle Gomez in “Doctor Who,” on BBC America

A season of Doctor Who is never as wonderful as it is just before the first episode starts airing. It’s a show full of promise – it’s practically a show made of promises – but it seems to us there’s a built-in disappointment factor in its DNA. Doctor Who can’t ever be as good a show as its fans wish it to be. Which is perhaps why we had such a distressingly familiar emotional arc as we watched this one; from hand-clapping glee at the opening credits to “Oh. That’s it?” at the closing. We’re starting to think that’s just how things tend to go for Who fans.

Show runner Steven Moffat is quite the controversial figure among the show’s fandom, and to be honest, we’ve grown bored with the constant trashing of the guy and parsing of every word he says, because it tends to lead to willful misreadings in order to paint him in as bad a light as possible. To read Doctor Who critics, you’d think Steven Moffat was some sort of mustache-twirling villain hellbent on crushing fandom dreams instead of a guy who loves the character and has strong ideas about what to do with him. In other words, the Moffat-bashing is tiresome to us.

But he still needs to go.

Look, we have no anger toward the guy, but when your 4th or 5th saucy middle-aged woman character (and the eleventieth one inexplicably dressed in Victorian garb – seriously, Moffatt, we’re beginning to think it’s a fetish) informs the audience that The Doctor is about to live his 6th or 7th “last day,” it may be time to hang up your hat as the show’s steward. You’ve officially run out of ideas. There is simply no tension left in such pronouncements. “The Doctor is going to die!” is now met with a bored “Wake me when he does, darling”  on our parts – and that’s not as it should be.

The Doctor is not going to die, Steven Moffat. Not in this episode, or the one after that, or the one after that, ad nauseam. You know it and we know it, so why would you waste time on such a tired and un-engaging narrative trick? To open up a new season with this extremely lame and overdone premise is to essentially kill all that promise we held in our hearts just before the credits started rolling. Yeah, that’s melodramatic, but DW seasons are short affairs, with long lag times in between them. For the fan and viewer, the experience becomes all about the anticipation of what’s going to happen, so when you open up with something that has already happened several times over the last few seasons (someone declaring that the Doctor was about to die), it’s hard to recover from that initial disappointment.

That disappointment may be why we had such a hard time with the guitar scene. It didn’t read like Doctor Who at all to us. It read like what a middle-aged man thinks is cool. It’s “Risky Business” Ray-Bans and a “Pretty Woman” riff played to an actress young enough to be his daughter. It wasn’t cool at all. It was cringe-worthy in the extreme. Worse, it lacked any subtlety.

One of the things we’ve consistently praised about the Capaldi era is the costuming for the main character, which has quite wisely played on his looks to give us a Doctor indistinguishable from any number of aging British rockers or former punks. It always felt like a great way to reinforce this subtle idea in the costuming that we’re looking at an old man who’s done some kickass revolutionizing in his time. But Christ, Moffat. You didn’t have to go the literal route with the idea. It worked better as subtext. Rock-and-Roll Doctor Who is an embarrassing idea that should not exist.

The Doctor is a character so flexible that it’s almost a requirement that any thoughtful take on the character should impose some sort of framework or interpretation to it. And because of the unique nature of the character, it’s definitely a requirement that any thoughtful take will try to shine a light on a different facet of him. The Doctor is a parent figure. The Doctor is an explorer. The Doctor is a teacher. The Doctor is a hero. The Doctor is a romantic figure. The Doctor is an anarchist. The Doctor is a rock star. But the interpretation always weakens when the creators start making it overt and literal. Seeing The Doctor acting this episode like a drunk uncle at a wedding reminds us a bit of the final days of Russell T Davies on the show, when his “Doctor Who is a superhero” subtext got so overt that he had him literally crashing through skylights like Batman. Keep the subtext with this character subtext. The minute you make the subtext text, you weaken him.

Anyway, wasn’t it great to see Missy, Kate Stewart and UNIT again? Michelle Gomez has really won us over in this part because she’s so clearly having the time of her life playing her. We wish Missy had been envisioned differently – we hate the name and the costume – but the casting is dead-perfect. We especially enjoyed the exploration of the idea that, due to the very long and very odd nature of Time Lord lives, what she and The Doctor have is a form of friendship, by their own culture’s definition. Missy may be twisting it a bit when she characterizes it that way, but it does plant the idea that you can’t define their relationship in human terms. Kate and UNIT are always fun check-ins, but the former came off kind of slack-jawed and powerless against the awesome intellect and brilliant tactical skills of Clara Oswald – who Mary Sue’d her way all through this episode. We like Clara and we like Jenna, but we have to admit, the stale feeling that permeated this episode was partially fueled by her presence. It’s not entirely her fault. The “cute, plucky 20-something girl companion with a possible crush” role had already grown stale before she was even cast. Once the main character starts Poochie-ing out just to keep this relationship dynamic fresh, it may be time to start thinking of an overhaul on the concept.

Honestly, it wasn’t an awful episode. It was just an hour full of stuff we’d seen many times already in recent seasons – and we don’t mean the Daleks. Current Who is less about the villains as it is about the relationships, and this type of relationship is played the hell out. It’s possible we’ve got a great season ahead of us (there’s that hopeful Who fan rearing his head again), but nothing about this episode excited us, and most of it had us actively wishing for some serious change. Nothing new or interesting is being said.
[Photo Credit: Simon Ridgway, © BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED]

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