Doctor Who reviews: The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar

The two-part debut of Doctor Who Series Nine, “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” written by Steven Moffat aired a few weeks back.  I’ve been so busy with stuff that I haven’t had an opportunity to comment on them.  But, by popular demand (well, okay, one person requested it… hello, Jim O’Brien!) here are my thoughts.

Looking at my past Doctor Who reviews, they’ve run long.  So this doesn’t go on forever, I’m not recapping the plot.  If you need to have your memory jogged, you can read the synopsis on Wikipedia.

Also, to make things organized, I’m numbering my thoughts.  Other bloggers on WordPress do that, and it can be effective.  So here goes…

Doctor Who The Magicians Apprentice

1) Let’s Kill Hitler?

This story offers a variation of the question of “Would you go back in time to kill Hitler as a child?”  The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) lands on a planet embroiled in a horrific war.  He sees a young child trapped in a mine field and is ready to save him… until he learns that it is Davros, who will grow up to destroy his own people, the Kaleds, and create the Daleks, the most evil life form in the universe.

The Doctor is appalled.  At first he just departs from ancient Skaro, leaving young Davros still trapped among the mines.  Clara (Jenna Coleman) later realizes the Doctor is full of shame, but it is not specified over what.  Is he ashamed that he did not have the fortitude to kill Davros in the past, before he grew up to become a monster?  Or is the Doctor ashamed that he abandoned an innocent child like that?  Maybe it is both.  Maybe the Doctor is so torn by this that he does not know how to feel.

Of course, later the Doctor does return to Skaro thousands of years ago to rescue young Davros.  The Doctor hopes this act of mercy will remain in his subconscious so that, in the future, when Clara is trapped inside a Dalek shell, the concept of mercy will be something she can access among the Dalek programming to alert the Doctor that it is her.

2) The Third Path

Thinking over the moral dilemma faced by the Doctor, to kill young Davros or save him, a third alternative eventually occurred to me.  To a certain degree, Davros is very much the product of his upbringing.  He was raised in a fascist society obsessed with genetic purity that was locked in a centuries-long war.  What about removing him from that environment?  Why not take the young Davros aboard the TARDIS and find a peaceful world where he could be adopted by loving parents?  That would give him an opportunity to grow up in a much better place, to hopefully develop in a positive manner.  The Doctor would have changed history, averted the creation of the Daleks, without having to kill a child who had not yet committed any crimes.

Missy The Magicians Apprentice

3) Hey Missy, You So Fine

Despite her apparent demise at the end of “Death In Heaven” Missy (Michelle Gomez) is back.  Hey, the Master / Missy has always been brilliant at improbably escaping certain death.  It’s actually a neat twist that we learn Missy stole the method of her escape from the Doctor.  She is so obsessed with the Doctor that she would crib his methods for herself.

It does make a certain sense for Missy to be a recurring adversary for the Twelfth Doctor.  Capaldi was a huge fan of Doctor Who when Jon Pertwee was portraying the Third Doctor.  It’s apparent that Capaldi has incorporated some of the Third Doctor’s mannerisms and personality into his own interpretation of the role.  Back then, the Master was a regular fixture on the series, so it is appropriate for the two of them to once again have an ongoing rivalry.  As long as Missy is not overused (i.e. showing up in every story in a season) there isn’t a problem with her popping up now and again.

In any case, as written by Moffat and played by Gomez, Missy is brilliantly scary.  She is terrifying because you never know what she is going to do next.  When she walks into a room, you don’t know if she is going to start murdering people or do something wacky like singing show tunes.  And if Missy does break out into song, just when you allow yourself to relax, suddenly she’ll whip out a weapon, casually murder some poor innocent, and then resume her recitation of Rodgers & Hammerstein without missing a beat.  That sort of capricious evil means that whenever she’s on the screen the viewer is on edge.  It’s sort of like having to share a room with a venomous snake.

4) Here come the Daleks… again

Yet another Dalek story already?  They feel overused at this point.  I wish we could have a season without them showing up.

That might be out of the hands of Moffat, though.  Reportedly the arrangement that the BBC has with Terry Nation’s estate is that Doctor Who is required to have the Daleks appear at least once a year in order to retain the use of them.  That would explain why in the two years that there weren’t any Dalek stories there were brief cameos made by them.

If this is the case, well, having fulfilled the Dalek quota for 2015, I hope that we will not see them again until next year.  Even seeing Skaro restored to its classic appearance, with various old incarnations of the Daleks showing up, left me a bit underwhelmed.

Davros The Magicians Apprentice

5) Davros is a bastard

Julian Bleach, who played Davros in “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” reprises the role here.  He has a very good handle on the character.  Davros is at his most effective when the screaming and ranting is kept to a minimum.  As I observed in my review of the Big Finish audio story “Davros,” the most dangerous thing about the character is that he is so incredibly manipulative & charismatic, so brilliant at getting people to underestimate him.  Davros is also very insightful, and he really knows how to get under the Doctor’s skin, point out his weaknesses and failings.

Moffat’s dialogue for the Twelfth Doctor and Davros is very dramatic.  Capaldi and Bleach play these scenes brilliantly.  It was riveting just watching these two adversaries conversing.

6) UNIT is useless

One of the problems I had with UNIT when they were regulars on the show in the 1970s was that they were often depicted as incompetent.  That trend has unfortunately repeated itself with Moffat’s use of the organization.  They show up to provide some exposition, a bunch of their personnel get killed, and then the Doctor steps in to save the day.

I’m not sure why you would get Jemma Redgrave to play Kate Stewart, and then write her as an ineffectual idiot.  In “The Magician’s Apprentice,” when every airplane on earth becomes frozen in place, what does Kate, a scientist who heads a multi-national military & intelligence group, do?  Does she consult with her staff and attempt to devise a solution on her own?  No, she calls the Doctor for help.  And when Kate cannot get hold of him, she brings in Clara.  It’s really embarrassing to see a civilian schoolteacher start suggesting possibilities that hadn’t occurred to a single person in UNIT.

Worse yet, when Clara goes to meet Missy, UNIT has no plan for dealing with her.  When Missy begins disintegrating UNIT personnel just to amuse herself, they have no idea how to react, and Kate is left shouting “Don’t shoot her!”  Yeah, that’s great, just stand there and let Missy murder you.  Brilliant plan!

More than ever, I am happy that Redgrave will be playing Kate Stewart in a series of Big Finish audios.  I really hope that when presented in stories that do not feature the Doctor hanging around to save the day, Kate and UNIT will have an opportunity to actually accomplish something.

7) What’s in a name?

I’m left wondering what the meaning is of the episode titles.  I am guessing that the Magician is the Doctor and the Witch is Missy.  Clara is probably both the Apprentice and the Familiar.  I wonder if these are just clever titles that Moffat devised, or if they have a significance that will become apparent as the season progresses.

8) Colony Sarff

Davros’ henchman, Colony Sarff, is a collective entity made up of hundreds of snakes.  He is wonderfully creepy.  He is just the sort of thing you can imagine coming out of Davros’ twisted mind.  Sarff reminded me a bit of the weird entities devised by Grant Morrison & Richard Case during their classic run on the Doom Patrol comic book.

The “hand mines” on Skaro were also reminiscent of the bizarre quality of that series.  I wonder if Moffat has read Morrison?

Peter Capaldi plays guitar

9) The Doctor plays the electric guitar

Seeing the Doctor playing an electric guitar atop a tank in Medieval England was one of my favorite parts of “The Magician’s Apprentice.”  Even more so now that I know that Capaldi himself was actually playing it.  One of the ways that Tom Baker stated he liked to portray the Doctor was to act serious in silly situations and silly in serious situations.  Capaldi also has that sort of quality about him.

That’s one of the things that I love about Doctor Who; it’s definitely not afraid to be silly from time to time.  At its best, the series has always possessed a healthy balance of the serious and the ridiculous.  Speaking of which…

10) Vampire Monkeys

Maybe it would not be something that would be enough to fill out an entire episode.  In fact, perhaps it is an idea better left as an offhand comment by Missy about an untold adventure of the Doctor.  But I really have to smile at the idea of the Doctor facing a horde of vampire monkeys.

That’s my take on this two part story.  While I didn’t think it was an overwhelming success, and there were definite weak points, for the most part I liked it.

Doctor Who reviews: Davros

I mentioned in my last post that I really feel Colin Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor was underrated, and how he was much better served by the Big Finish audio plays, most of which contain extremely high qualities of writing and acting.  I remember listening to one of Baker’s earliest Big Finish stories, “The Marian Conspiracy,” written by Jacqueline Rayner, and actually thinking to myself “Wow, if only he had gotten material half as good as this to work with when he was on television, he would have been remembered as one of the best actors to play the Doctor.”

Another excellent Doctor Who Big Finish story starring Colin Baker is “Davros.”  It was released back in 2003, but I unfortunately kept putting off getting it.  It took meeting the story’s author, Lance Parkin, last month to finally motivate me to order a copy.  I listened to the story yesterday, and was absolutely riveted.  Parkin does an amazing job writing not only the Sixth Doctor, but also Davros, the infamous creator of the villainous Daleks.

Davros made his debut in the 1975 television serial “Genesis of the Daleks.”  Many viewers, including myself, consider “Genesis” to be the very best appearance of the character.  Writer Terry Nation, with likely a great deal of input from script editor Robert Holmes, crafted a truly Machiavellian figure, a brilliant but twisted scientist, a fascist with a god complex who sought to remake the universe in his image via the Daleks.  Actor Michael Wisher brought to life this brilliantly-scripted individual in a fantastic performance.

At the end of “Genesis,” the Daleks turned on Davros, seemingly exterminating their creator.  He was, of course, later brought back to life.  But many fans of the series have long felt his subsequent appearances were quite lacking, that he had been reduced to a one-dimensional ranting megalomaniac.  In the original series, I think the only time the writing for the character ever came to approaching the quality of “Genesis” was in “Revelation of the Daleks,” by which time the character was being played by Terry Molloy.  “Revelation” saw a return to some of the guile and subtle machinations that had characterized him in his debut.

Doctor Who: Davros
Doctor Who: Davros

In his audio play “Davros,” Lance Parkin appears to have drawn much from both “Genesis” and “Revelation.”  He gives us a Davros who is a magnetic, chilling figure.  Returning to play Davros in the audio format, Terry Molloy does a superb job, making his character extremely compelling.

Set between the events of the television stories “Resurrection of the Daleks” and “Revelation,” the audio play sees the seemingly-dead Davros retrieved by Arnold Baynes, amoral CEO of the galactic mega-corporation Trans Allied Inc, and his wife Lorraine.  Arnold Baynes, who is played by Bernard Horsfall, is a futuristic titan of finance, a space-age robber baron who regards himself as a man who is simply providing the people of the galaxy with the products they need.  Like most corporate figures, he honestly believes he is a good man, doing a necessary job, regarding capitalism as the ideal economic form to regulate human life.  Baynes makes sure the employees of TAI have their lunch breaks, and finds the idea of spying on them to be morally repulsive.  Yet if he occasionally has to arrange an “accidental” death, his conscience is unbothered, just so long as it is for the good of the company.  Baynes is unperturbed by Davros’ status as the creator of the Daleks and a war criminal, regarding that as past unpleasantness.  If Davros can apply his scientific genius to helping TAI develop new technologies, to increasing the company’s vast fortunes & holdings, then that is all that matters.

Lorraine Baynes, voiced by Wendy Padbury, also has her reasons for wanting to give Davros shelter.  A revisionist historian, Lorraine regards Davros as a pioneer and a visionary, a titanic intellect who has been unfairly maligned by posterity, labeled as “evil” and made the scapegoat of the Daleks’ atrocities.  There is a great deal of hero worship at work on her part.  She hopes to write the definitive history of Davros and the Daleks, and is soon probing her new guest for information about his past on the planet Skaro.

Into the picture comes the Doctor, who was investigating an unrelated matter involving TAI.  The Doctor is naturally horrified at the idea of the Baynes reviving Davros and giving him a position of corporate power.  He was present on Skaro, and saw first-hand the treachery and violence that Davros engaged in to ensure the creation of the Daleks.  Unlike the Baynes, who are blinded by profit and idolatry respectively, the Doctor knows full well how dangerous Davros can be.

Unfortunately, the Doctor is unable to impress upon Arnold Baynes the urgency of the matter.  So he hits upon a different stratagem: he offers himself as an alternative to Davros.  If TAI needs a genius, well, the Doctor is willing to lend his services.  However, to the Doctor’s dismay, Baynes has another proposal: he will hire both of them.  And so the Doctor, in order to keep an eye on Davros, agrees to become TAI’s newest employee, with one of his greatest enemies as his co-worker.  This leads to some very interesting verbal fencing between the two, this time not across the battlefield, but the work table of the laboratory.  Parkin writes absolutely riveting dialogue for the Doctor and Davros.  Both Baker and Molloy fully rise to the occasion, turning in superb performances.

Davros Martin Geraghty Doctor Who Magazine 335

One of the things that have often been examined over the years is what, exactly, is the appeal of the character of Davros?  Yes, his visual design is fantastic.  He is literally a half-human, half-Dalek figure.  But there is certainly more to him than that.  I think a great deal of what makes him compelling is his seeming limitations, and how he overcomes them.  Here is a crippled, blind, one-armed figure trapped in a wheelchair which serves as his life-support system, aided only by artificial senses.  Yet this apparently pathetic, insignificant being is unstoppable.  Throughout his original appearance in “Genesis,” despite his severe diminished physical condition, he continually triumphs.  Through force of will & strength of personality, utilizing guile & cunning, he bends others to his will.  When necessary, by adopting an unassuming, humble personality, he causes others to severely underestimate him.  Through his intellect, Davros repeatedly outwits the Doctor and all his other rivals in “Genesis.”

Parkin brings all of these characteristics back to the fore in his script.  Davros comes across as an incredibly dangerous individual, constantly scheming & coercing.  Throughout much of the story, he claims that he sees the Baynes’ offer as a chance at redemption, to make up for his myriad horrific crimes.  And the strength of Molloy’s performance is such that you never really know if Davros is being sincere.  He sounds genuine… but at the same time, the Doctor knows full well that Davros is incredibly charismatic, a master of manipulation.   And so the listener is constantly kept guessing.

I was left wondering if Parkin’s writing had influenced Russell T Davies when he penned the 2008 television episode “Journey’s End.”  In it, Davros refers to the Doctor as “The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons.”  This seems to mirror a scene early in Parkin’s story.  The Doctor, discovering the Baynes are attempting to revive Davros, pleads with them to kill him.  Davros snaps into consciousness and tauntingly says to the Doctor “You are weak. There’s the switch. End my life. You, not them! Do your own dirty work. End my life if you have the stomach for it!”  And when the Doctor cannot bring himself to kill Davros in cold blood, Davros mockingly laughs in his face.

Reflecting on this dark, chilling story, something occurred to me.  It has been long been said that Davros created the Daleks in him image.  Physically that is apparent.  But Parkin, through a series of flashbacks to Davros’ early days on Skaro, reveals that there is more to it than just appearance.  Just as Davros removed from the Daleks the ability to feel such emotions as empathy and pity, so too has he done so with himself.  In the audio play, Davros continually claims to be unable to feel love or affection.  When he does experience any sort of regret or guilt at the monumental atrocities he has engineered, he dismisses this as an insignificant biological or chemical process of his body, one he instantly regulates via the drugs dispensed by his life support system.  And so Parkin establishes both the similarity and difference between the Daleks and their creator.  The Daleks are evil due to circumstance, a result of the removal of their ability to possess certain emotions, depriving them of what we would label a conscience.  Davros, on the other hand, is evil by choice, because he has willingly discarded or suppressed those emotions in himself.

“Genesis of the Daleks” still remains the iconic Davros story, probably the best use of the character.  That said, I would certainly have to put the “Davros” audio play at a very close second.  The writing by Lance Parkin, and the performances by Terry Molloy & Colin Baker, made this an unmissable production, one I recommend to any long-time fans of Doctor Who interested in the character of Davros.