...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Day 5382: DOCTOR WHO: The (Magician's) Apprentice – You're Fired Exterminated


Did everyone else get the same reaction to the recently announced latest spin-off from "Doctor Who": disappointment, regretfully, that it's not the "Missy and Clara Show"?

(Or "Dammit, Missy!" as the Verity podcasters hilariously dubbed this sadly-not-yet-to-be project – and can I also add that their "replace Clara and Michelle Gomez' Missy with Jo and Delgado's Master" game works so perfectly!)

Has there ever been a sci-fi psychodrama sit-com before? What a wasted opportunity if there hasn't. Because judging by this week's episode, it would be genius.

Because this week is all about the Time Lady and the Puppy.

I love Missy's little reminiscence at the start, getting Clara to work out "how I did it!". (Yes, yes, I scored all the points for guessing how the cliffhangers would resolve. Thankfully, Steven Moffat got the answer to the moral question posed last week right too.)

I love that – and I only spotted it on second viewing, but I'm sure most people got it first time out – they actually show three instances of the disintegration/teleport/escape trick, including the end of "Death in Heaven", to confirm that this is what happened then too (meaning last week's cheeky "Not dead. Back." was just a slap to the Saward years' habit of the Anthony Ainley Master to survive without bothering to explain how. Or why.)

I love that it's actually the Doctor's trick – he's done the working out, and on the fly I might add ("what a swot!"), and the Master (he's such a plodder) is merely copying, which seems very much in keeping with the old Jon Pertwee/Roger Delgado relationship (think "Sea Devils") where the Master would have a plan but would have to harness the Doctor's flair and improvisation.

I like to think that the scene with the invisible android assassins might have been written as a cameo for Sean Pertwee to double for his father; he can do the look and would not have had to do the voice. I mean it probably wasn't, but think of the resonance if it had been: "they're all the Doctor to me, so let's give you the frilly shirt" instead of "the eyebrows".

(Of course, that "they're all the Doctor to me" line is pinched from Iris Wildthyme, the erratic possibly-Time Lady created by Paul Magrs and brought to life by the magical Katy Manning.)

This pair of episodes, particularly the second but including moments like the naked horror of her realisation that Skaro is indeed returned in "The Magician's Apprentice", allow Michelle Gomez to transform her Master from merely bananas, however entertaining, pantomime villain Mary Poppins into a fully rounded anti-Doctor. Look at the way she encourages, coaches, even occasionally protects Clara. She's being the Doctor. Of course she might just think of it as house training the puppy, or breaking her in, but…

"If you ever let this creature live, then all this is on you."

That was Clara's accusation to the Doctor in "Death in Heaven". Complicity with the Master if he didn't stoop to the Master's level and murder his oldest frenemy.

Well, how'd'ya like them onions now, Clara Oswald?

Clara's inability to kill Missy the moment she obligingly turns her back is reassuringly human. We would think she was a monster, or a sociopath, if she could actually do it. Even if it wasn't borderline suicidal when wading knee-deep in Dalek sewer.

(The Doctor, incidentally, does to the Daleks what Missy did to the human race in "Death in Heaven": weaponising their dead against them, when he out-Xanatos-Gambits Davros (again), which pays her back for her nicking his teleport trick I suppose. And of course we're playing Time Lord "Hustle" again too ("Time Heist"). My head-canon is going to say that if Davros had taken only the regeneration energy offered rather than trying to take it all, then the Doctor would have let it go at that: that was the "out" he was being offered.)

But it's also a firm rebuke to Clara's words (spoken, to be fair, in anger) at the end of last year's finale. It is a false equivalence to say that one act of compassion is causative of all the harms that follow. This is pretty basic to all our modern morality from "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" to Gandalf's gentle admonition of Frodo that "it was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand" (an act of compassion that, ultimately, leads to the destruction of the One Ring and the utter ruin of evil. So you know, hard to top).

(And I do mean modern; I suspect that a Roman or a Spartan or for that matter the knights of King Arthur would all be entirely happy to stab the evil Time Lady in the back.)

Of course compassion (and mercy) are what saves Clara, in the end, from Missy's machinations trapping her inside a Dalek. That's more than merely an inspired bit of twisted sadistic play from the Master; it's virtually the entire point of the episode – what is compassion if not finding the friend inside the enemy.

Mind you, Clara seems to have forgotten the lesson she tried to teach the Clockwork Man back in "Deep Breath": "Never start with your final sanction. You've got nowhere to go but backwards." Just as Clara called the Clockwork Man's bluff, so Missy immediately calls Clara's. And thus psychologically disarms her. Before physically disarming her using what looks like another example of that super-speed she (maybe all Time Lords) sometimes appear to possess (see also Missy's murder of Osgood).

Actually, Missy was never in any danger from a pointy stick: she (though she could have been, indeed probably was, lying) told us that you would need to take out both hearts and brainstem all at once to stop her regenerating. Which more than slightly suggests that Missy deliberately left her pointy stick for Clara to pick up. Another little game. Who hasn't thrown a stick for a puppy, after all?

Moffat has struck on a rich seam of ideas to explore here. There's something Lovecraftian about the episode (even without the "something slimy lurking down below", why hello Freudian scatological horror!). The idea that humans – even ones like Clara – run into primal forces like Missy and mistake them for something… understandable.

Like the "First Ones" in "Babylon 5" – G'Kar (Andrea Katsulas) has a memorable scene where he picks up an ant on the tip of his glove – "if I put it down and another ant asks 'what was that?' how could the ant explain?". Moffat seems to get that the Time Lords, who really are the "first ones" of the Doctor Who universe are… in the old cliché …aliens beyond our comprehension. That's proper sci-fi that is.

This expands on the scene in the first episode, where Missy is genuinely (to whatever value of genuinely you think applies to her) revolted by the idea she might "love" the Doctor.

"Try, nano-brain, 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."

(I pondered last time whether they have really been at this longer than [our or Clara's] Civilization. If Missy meant modern England, which is probably the 400 years from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II then easily; or even the nearly-thousand years from 1066 and all that, given the Doctor's now more advanced age; but the five thousand plus of human Civilisation from Mesopotamia to present day? That might be pushing it. Unless Missy means that Gallifrey is from, as long suspected, billions of years in the past.)

Andrew Cartmel and Russell Davies toyed with the idea of the Doctor as "god" before, but in Steven Moffat's hands Doctor and Master are rather more Cthulthu and Nyalothatep (horrors from the dawn of time) than magic floaty Jesus.

If this is Lovecraft, then the Daleks, all amoeboid protoplasm and rage, are the Shoggoths, the "machine creatures" of the Elder Things that made war to overthrow the gods.

Again, Moffat is just full of ideas here, gleefully binding together new notions with riffs on old bits of continuity:

The idea that Daleks are functionally immortal was made as a promise from Davros in "Revelation of the Daleks". The full horror of that can only be described as plumbing new depths here.

The third Doctor described the Daleks as moving by psychokinetic power ("Death to the Daleks"), which here translates to emotional energy firing the Dalek gunstick, and saying plainly that Cybermen repress emotion, Daleks channel it into anger. "It's why they keep yelling 'Exterminate!' – it's how they reload." It is absolute genius. As is seeing Missy work this out as she's examining Clara. (Again using her as the canary in the mine, or the test guinea pig in the experiment casing… are you getting that all these are references to Clara as a useful, useable animal, or familiar. Of course both titles refer to Clara – and to the different ways the two Time Lords see her.)

And of course Moffat is not above riffing on himself rewiring the idea of the Dalek's "cortex vault", the prison for their wrong-thinking memories from "Into the Dalek", so that it even translates the words they think/say into Dalek newspeak. Again, entirely consistent with the "computer control" that Davros saddled them with (before they exterminated him for the first time) back in (everything comes back to) "Genesis of the Daleks".

Of course it doesn't quite stack up. We've heard Daleks say things like "Mercy" and "Pity" before, even if it's just to deny they understand the concepts. And if Clara had been thinking calmly – which of course the point is she is not – then she should have been able to come up with a linguistic work-around. But then, given the way that she appears to lose the use of contractions, it's possible there's a kind of feedback occurring between her and the casing by means of the language she is allowed to use. Which is, of course, the point of Newspeak.

We are all a product of our environment, a Dalek even more so.

It's also slightly naughty that the first Dalek to be killed by the let's call them slime Daleks needs to be broached by Missy's brooch, whereas by the end they all seem to be vulnerable to the eldritch horrors of their ancestors' cells. (Oh, I'm so sorry.)

And Alex was quite right when he said how silly it was to have the Special Weapons Dalek right there and not have it be the one to blow up the TARDIS. What do you think it is for?

(I appease him slightly by saucily retconning Moffat's redubbing of the H.A.D.S. from "Displacement" to "Dispersal" by suggesting that it's a call-back to "Frontios" rather than a desperate cheat.)

Anyway, apparently the Doctor and Davros have some special time together in this episode too. But everyone else has talked about that*. And there's some guff about a prophecy and a hybrid and the Doctor's confession dial (which almost certainly contains the message "haha fooled you!"). Tediously that will no doubt turn out to be this year's arc plot. (Rather than the far more interesting hints about the Cloister War or the Master's Daughter.)

Last thought. Every Dalek ever… except for "some of our greatest mistakes". I know it's wrong of me, but in a secret place in my imagination, I see Mr Moffat crying out: "You think my Daleks are sh** Daleks? I'll give you sh** Daleks!!!"

Next time… If the Daleks are aliens from the past then these are ghosts from the future, and Christopher Eccleston needs to be put on danger money. We're going "Under the Lake".

*OK, I can't go entirely without praising the excellent work of Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi. But I feel I talked a lot last time about the central moral dilemma – which is the thrust of the Doctor/Davros battle of wits here – whereas this week is a really good exploration of what the Master and the Daleks are about.


Unknown said...

It hadn't occurred to me that the Doctor was nicking Missy's plan from last year. I do rather like that Missy's objective last year was to get her friend back - and this year, when the Doctor needs help, it's Missy he turns to.

Am I missing something or is this the first time Missy or the Master has had a successful plan?

James Brough

Millennium Dome said...

That's a terribly good point, Mr James.

I'd have to say it's the first time we've seen the Master succeed with a plan - but that might be because we only see their plans when they intersect with the Doctor (who is usually agin that sort o thing).

Mind you, given their obsession with the Doctor, it's not unreasonable to suggest most of their plans intersect with their best friend...

Richard Gadsden said...

"It's also slightly naughty that the first Dalek to be killed by the let's call them slime Daleks needs to be broached by Missy's brooch, whereas by the end they all seem to be vulnerable to the eldritch horrors of their ancestors' cells."

I just assumed that was the regeneration energy that enabled them to do that.