Doctor Who: “The Magician’s Apprentice” First Impressions

It’s new Doctor Who time again! Before we begin, let’s talk about what this post is and what it isn’t. What it is: A few thoughts I have about the episode having watched it twice in the first few hours after it’s release. What it isn’t: a full-on critical essay laying out all of the nuances of the story. This isn’t a final pronouncement on “The Magician’s Apprentice.” It’s only the beginning.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

Kaleds of color on Skaro! Thank you, production team, for making an effort to create a more diverse and inclusive Doctor Who. Screencap by

One of the first things I noticed about the story is the diverse cast. Unless I’ve miscounted, people of color have been cast in half of the speaking roles. More than once there are shots that include people of color and no one else. I love this! THANK YOU, casting director and director! Yes, please. More of this!  Next, if you could please cast more people of color in the major roles, which here are all filled by white actors, it would be amazing and I would love you forever. This is noticeable progress toward the more diverse Doctor Who that I long for, and I appreciate it greatly.

I also really enjoyed what I called in my notes The Clara Show. She glances out her window, sees something impossible, and swings into action. She violates classroom rules and tells her students to turn on their cell phones & check for news about airplanes. Her Headmaster turns up, bewildered about why the authorities have called the school, and Clara happily takes her cue to head over to UNIT HQ to see how she can help. I love this super-competent response to what is a scary situation. She takes matters into her own hands and uses her experiences to help. She and Kate Stewart brainstorm the problem as equals. Clara is the one that Missy wants to talk to, and Kate’s UNIT forces support Clara as though she was the Doctor. Every time we see the companion taking the lead like this in Doctor Who, I feel like we add a little bit to the pile of things that will one day add up to casting a woman as the Doctor.

Once again, Michelle Gomez does a fantastic job portraying Missy. I love her crazypants take on the Doctor’s oldest frenemy. I’m glad that the new series is finally taking the time to explore some of the nuances of the Doctor-Master/Missy relationship. The classic series made it clear that they weren’t mortal enemies so much as close friends having a millennia-long argument about ethics. In “The Sea Devils,” the Doctor and Jo go to visit the Master in prison, as much to make sure he is comfortable as to make sure he’s still in there. In “The Five Doctors,” the Master agrees to help the Doctor, albeit for the selfish reason that he’s being offered a new regeneration cycle. The new series has concentrated on the adversarial part of their relationship, but this time we see her turn up because she’s worried about the Doctor and wants Clara’s help to find him. She doesn’t put it like that at first because she’s well aware that Clara won’t work with her without a good reason, so she stops the planes in order to provide one. She just can’t help herself, though, and kills people just to prove that “No, I’ve not gone good!” I’m glad to see the writers showing this side of the character to the modern audience. I happened to watch this episode with a new Who fan, and she questioned this behavior at first. Their friendship is central to the Doctor/Missy relationship, and it’s high time the new series made that fact clear.

The Doctor's ax contest entry level: anacronism times four plus one terrible pun.

The Doctor’s ax contest entry level: anacronism times four plus one terrible pun. Screencap by

Let us now take a moment to appreciate the Doctor’s entry in the ax contest. No, it doesn’t make any sense. Don’t worry about where the dry ice, the Yamaha, or the enormous bloody tank came from! Just appreciate the mad brilliance of the Doctor’s entrance into the entirely-too-Medieval Timesy fighting arena. He looked like a total nerd rocker badass with his worn out t-shirt, dark sunglasses, and guitar. As we’ve all heard by now, Capaldi was the guitarist and lead singer for the Dreamboys, the band he was in with Craig Ferguson. I love it when the actor’s personal life bleeds into the role, and I can’t be the only fangirl who is squealing with delight that Capaldi’s guitar playing has made it into the TARDIS. Thank you, production team, for catering to my particular fanwank needs!

Of course, that brings us to a difficult point: a lot of the story may not survive if I pull too hard on some dangling strings. For example: if his medieval friend was really a disguised Dalek, why did Davros’ agent Colony Sarff have such a hard time tracking the Doctor down? If Davros remembers encountering the Twelfth Doctor when he was a little boy in need of the Time Lord’s help, why has he only chosen the end of his life to throw that into the Doctor’s face? My partner Terry tried to explain it away by suggesting that maybe Davros has only just remembered it. But how can that be the case if Davros still has the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver? Where has he kept it all this time? In his lap? Is there a special compartment in his chair that he opened, found the screwdriver then said, “Wait a minute! I remember now!” No, obviously not. These plot issues could be resolved in “The Witch’s Familiar,” but somehow I doubt that they will be.

These plot holes (assuming they are in fact such) don’t bother me too much because I don’t think this two-parter is about the plot at all. It’s about the moral dilemma outlined in the “Do I Have the Right” speech from “Genesis of the Daleks.” Davros is making it his business to force the Doctor into reconsidering the position he took in that moment long ago. He wants to drag the Doctor down by goading him into thinking that the ends justify the means. Davros just really wants to get the Doctor to say “I was wrong.” Maybe the biggest problem with the story is in my head, because there is literally nothing you could write, no situation that you could concoct, no peril that any character could be in, that could convince me that the Doctor will make a different choice now than he made in “Genesis.” Maybe some people will wonder exactly how far the Doctor would go to save his best friends and the TARDIS. But since I’m sure everyone is fine, and I think the Doctor must know it, too, I just don’t buy the setup.*

I also wonder if there is really anything to be gained by retreading the moral ground covered by “Genesis,” apart from trying to get new Who fans to watch it. I’m not sure there is, but I will suspend that judgement until we see “The Witch’s Familiar.”

So what did you think of “The Magician’s Apprentice?” Let us know in the comments!

*Surely he’s figured out that Missy probably used the same technology to escape the Daleks that she used the last time they met. She made a point of explaining to Clara that the spare vortex manipulator is slaved to hers, so wherever Missy ended up when the Daleks thought they shot her is where Clara (and probably the TARDIS) will end up, too. Yes, he didn’t overheard that explanation, but I think he’d be deeply suspicious of what he saw given that Missy clearly survived the last time someone shot her?

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