Friday, 25 September 2015
Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice (Episode Review)
As a series' opener, The Magician's Apprentice is a hard tale to judge. How so? Because it really exemplifies the best and worst qualities of the current era. As many seem to have judged, Series Eight was extremely hit and miss, for some it highlighted the finest qualities of the franchise but for others it was a misstep of the worst kind. While the latter point would certainly be a gross exaggeration, The Magician's Apprentice really varies in quality from scene to scene.
Having parted way from the Doctor once again, Clara has returned to her normal life. Teaching children and keeping order in her classroom, her day to day life is soon disrupted when the skies themselves freeze. Countless aircraft are held hostage in the skies, with some unknown force threatening to drop them on the populations below and killing millions. However, as the mysterious force comes forwards, worse news comes to light. The Doctor is dying, and in his final days two old foes seek a reckoning with him...
To be simple, the episode aims to go big or go home. It throws practically every staggeringly massive idea it can think of at the screen to hook in audiences from the start. The first third of the episode is spent raising the stakes over and over again, getting the audience invested until they are hungry just to know how the hell this can possibly resolve itself. While it certainly might have seemed overblown if mishandled, this actually works for once. Rather than simply front-loading every little detail all at once, the audience is let in on things bit by bit. The effect is staggered with one revelation being surpassed by one which utterly dwarfs it, before expanding further upon the concepts it introduces. In many respects it really seems like a modern variation of classic Who. Rather than simply rushing the whole tale in a narrow window, everything here is effectively serving as the first act of a story before ending on a massive cliffhanger. It ensures that the introduction is far from small, and reminds audiences from the very start as to why they tune in each week.
Perhaps the most noted quality on hand is that there really seems to have been a push to address a few old failures which hung over past stories. Not every one of course, but enough of the more vocal ones focusing upon how the Classic era was being treated, often sidelined or left purely to fan-service. In this case, while it can't be discussed without spoilers, we have several events from past Doctors which become core to the story's driving point. Much of the actual tale, and what will follow, hinges upon one of Tom Baker's most famous serials, and there are some very direct call-backs to old encounters. Atop of this, the classic depiction of certain old foes (sidelined in their past appearance) are seen as being very alive and very mobile here.
The actors on hand are definitely at their best here, and even those I previously criticised were definitely far more on point this time around. While one in particular feels far too much like River Song lite (yet again) she's more acting as her personal self here, and it feels as if the actress is more certain of her role. Clara herself is sadly not given too much to do, but there's more a sense of power behind her actions and, again, a degree of certainty. She takes more control here than we see usually and the way she handled particular events was oddly intelligent in some regards, while admittedly very stupid in others. As for Capaldi, well, this image sums up how much fun he's having here:
So, with all that good, what exactly does the episode do wrong? More than anything else, it unfortunately keeps falling back on old habits. The episode wants to start up big, no problems there, but even in the excitement of the final chapter you might find yourself thinking it's too much. It really seems to be pushing everything it can up to the Nth degree to evoke as much drama as possible, but within as little time as it can. What we have here is effectively a series' finale worth of events, yet it doesn't take the time to really develop or run up to that point. It ends up cutting corners in many places, falling back on the attitude of "this is happening now, don't question it" and hand-waving away past story decisions. The most infamous of these has been the return of a foe seemingly killed off for good last time, only to show up here without a hair on her head harmed, and offering no explanation as to how. The script seems to flaunt this very fact, and after so long it really seems to becoming less flippantly charming and more downright frustrating.
The lack of explanations would be one thing, but this is also compounded by a few other old failings. Some scenes seem to exist purely for their own sake and to get social media hyped. While in this case i'm tempted to give one particularly egregious offender a pass thanks to its sheer entertainment value (you'll know it when you see the Doctor picks up an axe) you might notice that for all its pacing it's kind of spinning its wheels.
We have a big build up to one revelation which is just the tip of the iceberg. It then leads into a second one following a bigger one, and then it never stops to really let the audience feel the weight of that impact. This might be something you miss at first, but you'll pick up on it as things go along, and once you do you'll also start to notice that we have a lot of very familiar ideas showing up once again. Until the end of this paragraph there will be spoilers, so skip if you need to. Those left, how many times have we seen the following now? The Doctor is dying, seemingly inescapably so. Earth is under threat on its own and needs to contact the Doctor, with that being the big crux of the opening tale. We have a monster whose main gimmick is "don't do X if you want to live". We even have the Doctor partying like hell to celebrate his death.
The series' creative spark seems gone and the enthusiasm for new ideas has gradually ebbed away. It's a sad thing to see, as that creativity and genius determination to try new things was really what helped to get people so invested in the first place. With it gone, the series is still good in some regards, but it honestly feels like the scripts are running on borrowed time. It isn't helped that some of these recycled elements and ideas even contradict one another. A certain event with the TARDIS during the conclusion highlights it the best, which should have royally wrecked the whole universe. Even ignoring that, just look at this line of dialogue and ask yourself if this even sounds like the relationship the Doctor would have with a very old foe:
Clara: He's not your friend. You keep trying to kill him.
X: He keeps trying to kill me.
Now, all of this isn't to say that the episode is bad in any regard. There's plenty here to like and if you switch off your brain you'll certainly be kept thoroughly entertained for the better part of an hour. Even if you are sitting by and picking at some erogenous problems, thinking things through, you'll be in the right mindset to appreciate some of the well thought out shout-outs slipped in here and there. The real issue simply is that the series just keeps making the same old mistakes for some inexplicable reason, and there's no real push to seriously improve upon them.
Should you watch The Magician's Apprentice? Definitely. You'll see plenty of fun scenes here and there, and grin more than a few times, but don't be too surprised if you feel a little underwhelmed by the end.