Monday, 21 September 2015

Review - 'Doctor Who', S09E01 - 'The Magician's Apprentice'

As someone who wasn't overly impressed with much of the last season of Doctor Who, it would probably be fair to say that I approached this first episode of the 9th season with mixed feelings. Over the years, Doctor Who seems to have succeeded about as often as it has failed, for me - and, in that time, my feelings toward the franchise have gradually shifted from the outright love a held for it as a child to something a little more complicated (it's kind of like Star Wars in that way).

But, I don't want to get bogged down in what I have liked, and disliked, about Doctor Who in the past. This is a very long-running, and very popular, series we're talking about here. If any show deserves a chance at a fresh start, it would be Doctor Who (Star Wars will get its chance in December).

Thankfully, the 9th season manages to get off to a fairly impressive start.

The action picks up on a war torn planet, where desperate soldiers flee from approaching enemy forces. It's a strange war on an unnamed planet - one where one side possesses planes equipped with lasers while the other seems to be reduced to using bow and arrows.

In the middle of all of this, a fleeing child finds himself trapped at the centre of a mine-field. Though, these aren't just any regular old mines - these are 'hand-mines'. Being, seemingly, disembodied hands that reach up out of the ground to grab at anyone that passes by, these 'hand-mines' manage to strike the right balance between being faintly ridiculous (they have an eye in the palm of their hands), while still being genuinely unsettling (seriously, they have an eye in the palm of their hands), that has become a hall-mark of the series over the years. They are like something of of a particularly unpleasant nightmare - and, we even get to see what happens to anyone who gets caught by one, thanks to a hapless young soldier who just wanted to help.

But, the child isn't alone for long. As seems fairly usual for the Doctor, he doesn't seem entirely sure where he actually is when he arrives - all he knows is that there is someone there who seems to need help. Although, things take sudden turn when the stranded child gives his name - Davros, a name that should be very familiar to long-time fans of Doctor Who

Back in what passes for 'modern day' in a series that features time travel so prominently, the Doctor seems to have gone into hiding - secretly ashamed of himself, and fearing the consequences of his encounter with the child. And, also, he is being hunted by a strange creature made of snakes who works for the grown-up, and clearly not too happy, Davros.

Back on Earth, Clara finds herself called in by UNIT, who find themselves in need of the Doctor's help following reports that planes all over the world have suddenly been frozen in the sky. Of course, the explanation for this is simple enough - Missy is back, and she's looking for the Doctor, too. This whole stunt is clearly intended to, either, draw out the Doctor, himself, or attract the attention of someone who can help her find him. So, now, finding herself convinced that the Doctor might be in danger, Clara finds herself forced to work along-side Missy (ie. the Mistress, formerly the Master - the latest incarnation of another of the Doctor's greatest foes).

It seems fairly clear that the intent of this first story in the new season is to try to make the audience question the exact nature of the relationship between the Doctor and his classic villains - and, in that regard, the episode is a success. The idea that the Doctor and the Master were once close friends has been explored before, sure - but, here, we get fascinating hints of a relationship much more complicated than former friends turned enemies. Missy, after all, is the one who received the Confession Dial (a Time Lord will), much to Clara's confusion. And, for Davros, the suggestion that the Doctor may have been responsible, in some way, for the creation of his own nemesis definitely has interesting implications going forward. Also, the way in which the episode was able to make was of encounters between the Doctor and Davros from the original series, cast in a new light here, was especially impressive. I always enjoy those moments when the new series is explicitly tied to the original in interesting ways.

This alone would have to make The Magician's Apprentice a fantastic opening to the new season. Though, there were some issues, as well. For one thing, I wasn't really a fan of the way that UNIT seemed to need Clara to come in and take over during Missy's stunt with the planes. UNIT is an organisation with a long history that stretches back to the original series, after all - but, here, they were just made to look weak and ineffectual in a way that I didn't really appreciate.

Also, there were some general pacing issues, early on. The Doctor's wonderfully bizarre three week party in the Middle Ages, for example (in which he introduced tanks, epic guitar solos, and the word 'dude' to the human race centuries early) is great, at first - but, the whole sequence ultimately just drags on a bit too long. But, that all changes once we begin to move toward the inevitable confrontation between the Doctor and Davros, with Missy and Clara being brought along for the ride.

At the same time, the ease with which Missy seems to have survived her apparent death at the end of the last season could have been an issue, were it not already a clearly established part of the character. Sure, we haven't been given an actual explanation for it, yet (though, I have a few ideas of my own) - but, that was probably too much to expect in the first episode, anyway. Missy was the clear high-light of much of the last season for me, though, so I'm quite happy to accept a bit of vague hand-waving if it means we get some more of her.

Overall, The Magician's Apprentice is a great start for the new season of Doctor Who. It is an episode which clearly establishes what I hope will b a recurring theme for the rest of the season, also - that being the fascinating exploration of the relationship between the Doctor and his greatest foes that we get here. Though, at this point, I will just be glad if the rest of the season can maintain this same level of quality, regardless of what direction they choose to go.

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