September 19, 2015, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
Would you, if you could, kill Hitler as a baby? It’s a classic moral conundrum that puts utilitarianism against a purer form of right and wrong. If you kill the child, millions of lives may be saved. But could you bring yourself to kill the child? Could you be the person who murdered an innocent, even if it meant salvation for millions of other innocents? If that’s the way to save the world, is it worth saving? And would you be a hero for doing so?
“The Magician’s Apprentice” is a spiritual sequel to one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories, Genesis of the Daleks (and in part, it is stunted by the ways that it relates to that story, and by the ways it relies on a knowledge base and a series of emotional triggers fans of the revived series may not possess). In that story, the Fourth Doctor is ordered to travel back into Skaro’s history and prevent the creation of the Daleks so that their reign of terror throughout the universe never begins. It is there he first meets Davros, and there also he comes up against his inability to take such action, asking “Have I the right?” The question of whether The Doctor’s refusal to commit genocide to prevent genocide is morally weak or morally strong is a fascinating one, and one on which many people my disagree One of those people may, in fact, be The Twelfth Doctor, who abandons Davros to his theoretical death in the battlefields of Skaro, only returning later to kill him outright.
Of course, the moral conundrum here is not as complex (The Fourth Doctor was faced with wiping out a race rather than just killing a child), nor is The Doctor’s question “Who created Davros?” nearly as interesting as Steven Moffat supposes. The answer to that question in Moffat’s mind is clearly “The Doctor” (query whether that is the answer to every question in Moffat’s mind), but the more interesting answer was laid out before The Doctor ever arrived. In both Genesis of the Daleks and the cold open here, we are given a glimpse of Skaro at the end of its millennia-long war, at a point where everything has become weaponized and all knowledge is reduced to survival and victory. That this society created the morality of Davros, and that it eventually twisted itself into the thirst for universal genocide present in the Daleks tracks morally and is a far more interesting story than “Davros became evil as a little boy when The Doctor left him to die.”
There’s another flaw at the core of the hypothetical that drives this story and stories like it: the idea that evil can be encapsulated in one individual, and that atrocities of unimaginable vastness can really be caused by the actions of one man. Hitler didn’t personally murder millions; he simply created the conditions for those deaths. Plenty of thousands of others assisted in the perpetration of the Holocaust, and even if you can lay all of the blame at the feet of Adolf Hitler, there’s really no way to know whether someone else would have taken his place had he been killed in childhood. Similarly, Davros is in some sense inevitable due to the history of Skaro. It doesn’t matter if Davros dies as a child. The Daleks will exist. That’s just the pull of history.
I don’t reference the pull of history merely out of the idea that the Daleks are bound to happen (that there existence is, in the parlance of the show, a sort of fixed point in time), but rather because they are the culmination of the evolution of society on Skaro. Davros is the mad genius who brings the Daleks into being, but Skaro’s rot and devolution created conditions that made something like the Daleks impossible to avoid.
I don’t think you could tell this particular story in this particular way with any other Doctor, and in some sense, that makes this a good Twelfth Doctor story. However, even outside its plot (which we will return to), “The Magician’s Apprentice” has some of the flaws that have now become stock in trade for Moffat’s premieres and finales. It is overstuffed with ideas, to the point that this first half of the story alone could probably have been mined for three or four decent stories elsewhere in the season. It’s also so focused on inflating the stakes, it barely stops to consider why we should care or to give us the kind of character moments that make those stakes land as well as they might (this is why “The Eleventh Hour” and “The Big Bang” are Moffat’s best premiere and finale, as each takes time to explore the inner emotional life of the young Amelia Pond and to ground the story in her experience of the world and, yes, The Doctor). “The Magician’s Apprentice” is the third time Moffat has premised one of his premieres or finales on the stakes that The Doctor is going to die, stakes that are of course undermined by the knowledge that of course he won’t.
The first half of this story also trades in one of the most dangerous trends in the history of Doctor Who (as someone currently watching the Jonathan Nathan Turner era, I am perhaps keenly aware of this): the idea that simply bringing a classic villain back is going to up the ante and make the current story a classic. This is always true in a purely visceral sense—if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you are trained to understand that the Daleks showing up is a big deal, even if it doesn’t often lead to great episodes—but the return of a classic villain only matters beyond that momentary thrill if the story they return for has merit in and of itself. “The Magician’s Apprentice” doesn’t just bring back the Daleks, but also Davros, and Missy (and, while Colony Sarff is apparently not the Mara, there was a while there where I worried the Mara was also being worked into this story). It’s impossible to know whether this is overkill until “The Witch’s Familiar” wraps this story up, but it certainly seems unlikely this story will wind up being a great Dalek story and a great Davros story and a great Master story all while setting up whatever longer arc Moffat has prepared for us this season (with the premiere’s focus on the return of Skaro, my bets are even more firmly in favor of the idea that Gallifrey will return in the finale).
But it may yet prove to be a great Doctor story (the kind of story Moffat has always been best at), in large part due to the performance of Peter Capaldi. The Doctor looks gaunt, haunted, ashamed, and tired throughout this episode. He has the look of a man who knows he is going to his death in part because he does not have the will to survive any longer. “The Magician’s Apprentice” does not sufficiently establish the stakes of this story, but Capaldi’s performance nearly pulls off the trick anyway. The Doctor isn’t “fated” to die here, as he was on the shores of Lake Silencio and again on the fields of Trenzalore. It is The Doctor himself who sends Missy his confession. He believes this will be his last meeting with Davros, at least in part because he does not want to survive with the knowledge of what he has done.
There are plenty of other great character moments throughout as well, even if they don’t yet connect to the plot in the way they would need to in order for this to be a great story. Michelle Gomez is phenomenal as Missy, milking her every line for its full worth and simultaneously playing the Time Lady as The Doctor’s oldest friend and as a psychotic murderer who also fancies herself his archenemy. Whether she is brushing off her apparent resurrection, bristling at The Doctor referring to Davros as his greatest foe, or bluffing at giving the Daleks the power to destroy the universe, Gomez is fantastic throughout. Clara is a little lost in this premiere, what with her having to do so much (get to UNIT, get to Missy, get to The Doctor, get out of that room, get out of that other room) that she doesn’t really get to be anything in this story but part of the plotting. Again, it’s a common Moffat problem rearing its head again in a story that seems to have more of his detriments than his genius on display.
There may be something to the way this episode pings Missy’s chaos against Davros’ chilly order in the long run, and “The Witch’s familiar” may reveal that all of this was set up for a truly excellent payoff, at which point a lot of this will be moot (I tend to be forgiving of a lot of flaws in Doctor Who if the show can create something iconic and interesting, and both the hand mines and The Doctor playing a guitar on top of a tank are images I won’t soon forget). One of the challenges of covering this season will be the fact that two-parters are difficult to write about in chunks. I am reviewing half of a story right now, which feels a little bit like cheating. But here we are, and “The Magician’s Apprentice,” for all of its fun moments, feels both bloated and insignificant, so focused on its next reveal it never stops to consider the significance of what it’s revealing. As I’m sure I’ll say a lot this season, this all could be going somewhere, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
- “I was looking for a bookshop. How do you think I’m doing?”
- “Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.” “Davros. My name is Davros.”
- “Ok, cutting to the chase, not dead, back, big surprise, never mind.”
- “How come you’re still alive?” “Death is for other people, dear.”
- “What are you doing? It was sent to me. Well, of course it was sent to me! I’m his friend.” “Then what am I?” “See that couple over there? You’re the puppy.”
- “You’re not his friend. You keep trying to kill him.” “He keeps trying to kill me! It’s sort of our texting. We’ve been at it for ages.” “It must be love.” “Oh don’t be disgusting. We’re not animals. We’re Time Lords. Try, nanobrain, to rise above the reproductive frenzy of your noisy little food chain and contemplate friendship. A friendship older than your civilization and infinitely more complex.”
- “Thanks for bringing spares.”
- “How did you know I was here? Did you see me?” “When do I not see you?” “One face in all of that crowd?” “There was a crowd too?”
- “You want to know how dangerous I am? Davros sent you. You want to know how stupid you are? You came.”
- “Doctor, listen to me. I know traps. Traps are my flirting. This is a trap!”
- “Compassion is wrong.”
“The Magician’s Apprentice” has some of the flaws that have now become stock in trade for Moffat’s premieres and finales.