13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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THE MAGICIAN'S APPRENTICE/THE WITCH'S FAMILIAR
Some people ask us why we call ourselves Doctor Who fans, given that we don't like everything about it, and in some episodes don't like much of anything about it. Well, if you equate "fan" with "uncritical adoration", that's a fair question. We don't, however. And hey. Not only have we been watching Doctor Who our whole lives, we've been doing this reviewing thing now for fifteen years. Fif. Teen. Years. You don't devote that amount of time to idly standing around tossing darts at something you couldn't care less about.
And sue us, we're optimists. We approach every new season, and even every episode, with an undimmed faith that this time it's going to be fantastic. We're always sure that this time the writers are going grab some of the limitless potential Doctor Who has for astonishing and original storytelling, run with it, and leave us thrilled down to our toenails.
And this is the case even in the face of the evidence. We haven't actually done the maths, but we suspect that Season Eight might have been our least favourite Doctor Who season of all time. Didn't stop the optimism, however. Even when we found the opening episodes of this season were penned by Steven Moffat.
Yes, our reviews aren't always positive, but that's never the direction we were hoping to go in. OK, occasionally ripping something apart can be, shall we say, cathartic, but we want to write glowing reviews of Doctor Who after seeing terrific episodes. We want our optimism to be justified. What we don't want is to start another season at a point so abysmally low you practically need a bathyscaphe to see it.
So we are disappointed to say that that we really didn't like The Magician's Apprentice. And we liked The Witch's Familiar even less.
There are so many crimes against humanity here that it's hard to know where to start. So instead, why don't we start with the good stuff? That won't take long, since it's mostly about the performances. We have to hand it to Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach: they're really putting in the hard yards to try and make the talky-talky look deep and meaningful. Jemma Redgrave is predictably good as Kate Stewart. Jenna Coleman is reliably on point as Clara. And needless to say Michelle Gomez continues to knock it out of the park as the Joker-style Missy.
What else? Um. The snaky guy unwinding looks nice. Oh yes, and we can't overlook our very favourite moment of all: when the Doctor's spinning round in Davros's chair, wildly waving his gun, one of the Daleks puts up his plunger and eggbeater, all "Whoa, dude, don't point that thing at me". Utterly adorable.
The trouble is that all of that good stuff is pointless when it has no foundation. The plot, the character work, the themes: they're all horrible. Horrible.
When we heard this season was going to be mostly two-parters, we bounced up and down on our toes and hummed little tunes. This sounded like an excellent development: while longer stories open the door to padding, which the classic series was guilty of on, ahem, more than one occasion, it also allows room for deeper and more complex storytelling. The Magician's Apprentice, however, was not exactly what we had in mind as the first part of a two-part story.
Because it's just endless prologue. A series of incidents are strung together haphazardly, many with little connection to each other. And some stuff's clearly there just because somebody thought it was nifty.
A misty Genesis-alike battlefield. Some hands sticking out of the earth, because they're not landmines, they're handmines! Ahahahahaha! They yank people under the earth, which would be scary and all if we hadn't seen the Tractators do it in Frontios.
A guy made of snakes bops around the universe looking for the Doctor. There's really only a need for one (max) of these scenes: the rest are there to fill up the running time and to dust off and drag in cool characters that people like. Meanwhile, the planes all freeze on Earth: nice high-concept stuff, but thrown away, as it turns out it's just a postcard from Missy. Also thrown away is UNIT: they turn out to have nothing to do with the plot either. Poor Jemma Redgrave has to endlessly bark "We need the Doctor!" before being unceremoniously bundled out of the story.
Then Clara and Missy have a nice chat over a flat white. Michelle Gomez is so very, very good that this scene is one of the highlights purely for her performance. From here on in, Missy and Clara make a terrific team, but we might be able to enjoy that more if it had a shred of believability. It's thanks to Missy, after all, that Clara's dead boyfriend was Cyberfied and, Doctor's safety or not, we think Clara would be less likely to be trading quips with Missy and more likely to be disembowelling her with the coffee spoon.
And it's back to the Middle Ages we go. Sorry, but this scene, drawing on Peter Capaldi's past in punk bank The Dreamboys and showing him playing the electric guitar in an era before electricity, makes us cringe. The Doctors have always had a lighter side, and the best of them can turn from dark to light and back without blinking (Matt Smith is a master at this). With this Doctor, however, it seems to us that they're struggling to make anything beyond rudeness and angsty brooding seem natural. This is just…ugh. It seems way more Capaldi than Doctor.
Then we're off to a dinky little space hospital. But we're not. It was good old Skaro all along. The Doctor finally meets Davros, and Missy and Clara get fried by the Daleks, except we know that's not true. Roll credits.
Forty-five and a half minutes. That's a long time for what's actually very little information. Surely a two-parter can be used better than this. Especially when two of the major characters are pretty much de trop. Fun as they are, snip Missy and Clara out of the story and it wouldn't change anything at all.
The Witch's Familiar does have more narrative coherence than The Magician's Apprentice. It's in more or less one place, for a start, rather than bouncing around like a galactic pinball for no reason other than shiny things. And at least Missy and Clara have a point in this, although that's symptomatic of another problem. More on that story later.
There are some characters who do earn a place in the story, however. Yay! Unfortunately, they don't come out of it too well, either.
In the Doctor's case, after the previous season being All About The Doctor it should come as no surprise that his character is, yet again, also the plot and the theme. Yes, it's The Doctor Is Angsty About His Guilty Past again. They went on (and on and on) about this last season, to the detriment of any actual plots about, dare we say it, science fiction things, but at least we got some sort of resolution there. After many brow-furrowing ponderations, the Doctor made a splendid speech about how he was actually just a guy in a box, and we all breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to Doctor Who being about something else for once. After it, it's not just this Doctor. It's the one before him, and the one before him, and the one before that as well. But sigh, here we are again.
Man, we're tired of this. All those scenes with Davros, which are meant to be hard-hitting emotional drama, are really just another example of the tiresome habit of everybody lining up to have a pop at the Doctor with no justification. This constant Batmanising is intensely irritating. At least in Batman's case, whether he's as bad as the villains is a perfectly reasonable question. With the Doctor? No.
And it's even sillier when you look at who's asking the question. Davros is wagging his finger at the Doctor? Davros? Yeah, we're going to take that seriously. And the mirror scene, with Davros asking if he's a good man in the same way the Doctor banged on about last season, is equally ridiculous. We hate to break this to you, Davros, but since you're not only responsible for the death of billions but actively set out to kill them, computer says no. Can we move on?
What's more, when it's All About The Doctor, the other characters are there solely for the Doctor as well. Davros at least has a plan, Doctor-adjacent (and stupid) as it may be. But Missy and Clara have no agendas of their own at all, which is what makes them superfluous to the story for most of the running time. That's no way to treat a companion, and it's a criminal waste of the Master.
What about the Daleks themselves? They never tend to fare well in a Davros story, but we feel particularly sorry for them here. Yes, there's lots of new info about how they work, which we're sure a lot of fans who are not us cared about and appreciated. Fair enough. But other than that? Hardly anybody takes them seriously: maybe Clara, a bit, but that's undone by her being killed when we know that's not going to stick. Missy has endless tricks up her puff sleeve for making the Daleks look stupid, and of course the Doctor's always on top of the situation too. Yes, there's all the writhing around in the tubes, but come on. Heart-tugging Davros tears notwithstanding, we never for a second thought the Doctor was stupid enough to come to his aid. Bit of a laugh together, maybe. Some of that may even have been genuine: they've got a lot of history together, after all, even if it's all been as enemies. But frenemies? Hardly. And setting the Daleks up to be englobulated by goo makes them look even dumber. Poor little pepperpots. They might not be our favourites, but we like 'em when they're allowed to be the ruthless killing machines they were born to be. Making them look silly is just sad.
So the plot's understuffed and the characters are mishandled. But there's more: nothing means anything.
This hurts the story in both big ways and small. The small ways are there all through it: the impossible guitar, the impossible tank, the magically appearing cup of tea. Even snake man unwinds himself for no reason at all. Not big important things, but it pick pick picks away at the credibility. When things happen for no reason, how can they have any meaning? How can any of it have any meaning?
But it's the big stuff too. Clara dies, but we know she's not really dead. And even if we did try to take the angsty brooding of the Doctor and Davros seriously, the plot wouldn't let us. Because it's all a ruse! Moohahahahaha! All the tear-trickling, all the BAFTA-quality regret and pain, all the touching little jokes between old enemies approaching a rapprochement, are an utter waste of time because both of them are lying like rugs. Way to gut your own drama. Steven Moffat used exactly the same device in "The Curse Of Fatal Death", but that was supposed to be funny. Here, the emotions they evoke in us when the two enemies face off are meant to matter.
What's more, when we discover, or worse when we suspect, that the Doctor has it all in hand the entire time, it means that nothing at all is at stake. If you believed it was all real, you're going to feel as deflated as an elderly soufflé. And if you don't buy it from the beginning, it's like watching a poker game where people are playing for bottle caps. Where's the drama?
And speaking of drama, it's good to see the BBC has embraced green initiatives so thoroughly, because there's recycling out the wazoo here. Angsty Doctor's just the beginning. The other plotly issues we've seen a lot more recently. The Doctor turning up at Skaro, where the Daleks want his help. The Doctor running from his apparently approaching death. Clara being killed. Even the classic save the one vs. save the many's had a very thorough airing. Yawn.
Okay, so none of that's very good. But there's something worse, and that's the way they handle the central question of The Whole Entire Thing.
We loved Genesis Of The Daleks, you loved Genesis Of The Daleks, everybody loved Genesis Of The Daleks. It's got its flaws, but it's still a masterpiece. Steven Moffat clearly loved Genesis Of The Daleks too. He's doing a riff on the classic, with the Doctor addressing the Fourth Doctor's question: "If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?"
The Fourth Doctor manages to dodge this question. Steven Moffat does not. According to this two-parter, the answer is yes. And no. The Doctor apparently wastes dear little Davros with a Dalek gun, but it turns out he actually saved him. You may or may not think that answering a question of this kind onscreen is a bad idea. We do (how famous would Genesis be if they'd actually answered the question? How about letting us make up our own minds about what the Doctor should do, which is about a thousand times more interesting?) but that's not even the point here: what really matters is how they do it.
Because Moffat manages to miss the point of Genesis entirely. Which is not what the Doctor does or doesn't do, but the fact that it's an incredibly complex question. Moffat sweeps away the complexity and serves us up a pat answer: no, of course the Doctor wouldn't kill a tiny adorable little child. The consequent question "But what about all the billions of innocent victims?" is brushed under the rug with some rather sickly mumblings about mercy. Tell that to somebody who's been plunged to death. Sorry, but the issues should be nowhere near this tidy.
And there's another even more unfortunate consequence of choosing to tell the story this way. The Doctor's busy trying to decide whether killing Davros is the right thing to do. Meanwhile, he's setting up the Daleks to kill each other without a moment's forehead-wrinkling: in fact, he's positively gleeful. While the fate of the humanoid child deserves angst, shame, regret, etc, the fate of the non-humanoids isn't even questioned. Granted, this kind of underhanded backstage murder is frequently the Doctor's M.O., but in this context it's through irony and out the other side.
One more thing. Does it all have to be so on the nose? There's so much of that, but the worst, the very worst thing...actually, we can't decide if it's Missy going on about frenemies or all that stuff with Clara and the Dalek and "Mercy"….nooooo…..
It takes a lot of hubris to take on Genesis. Especially when you lose in straight sets. Maybe not a great idea? You may very well think so; we couldn't possibly comment.
WE WERE WRONG ABOUT CLARA BEING PREGNANT, THOUGH
How smug are we that we correctly predicted the reason for Missy's survival in our review of Dark Water/Death In Heaven?
Isn't using the screwdriver to create an audio corridor a bit overengineered? They're not very far apart: what's wrong with shouting?
DOES WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN
If you speak Welsh, the unwinding of Colony Sarff's snakes must have been a bit of a fizzer, as "sarff" is Welsh for "snake". Nice callback to where the series is filmed, though.
ONE SIZE FITS ALL
We did wonder, when a Dalek casing is normally meant to accommodate something that looks like an obese jellyfish, how Clara squeezes in there. Still, if it was good enough for Ian Chesterton…
DEATH WILL NOT PART US
How have the Dalek innards managed to dodge mortality, anyway? That seems to be quite the feat, yet nobody blinks at it. And if they can't be killed, what's wiping out the ones on Skaro at the end?
Sonic sunglasses? Faugh.