...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Day 5372: DOCTOR WHO: This Seems Very (Witch’s) Familiar


This seems familiar because we've seen this story play out before: the Doctor going alone to face his absolutely final death, after one final farewell party; the romp through the back-catalogue of places we’ve seen and monsters we recognise; the time-twisting trap. It’s the start of Series Six, the end of Series Seven, and several times in between. It’s the Wedding of Let’s Kill Hitler Again with the Time of the Impossible Moon.

Yet I love how this show brings me a whole new existential horror: dare I pronounce it "good" until I've seen how it resolves next week?

The return of two-parters – while welcome for the scale and scope and not-to-mention old-style cliffhanger – also spells the return of trying to comment on a story only half seen.

But this cliffhanger is so well-constructed, not merely mechanically in rounding out the episode by completing the circle back to the pre-title jaw-dropper, but in that it leaves us asking the fundamental question of the episode: “will the Doctor kill a child to save billions?”

That was, infamously, the scripted cliffhanger to Part Five of “Genesis…”, but the production team bottled it, moving the cliffhanger back to have the Doctor attacked by a random wandering (baby) monster instead of the philosophical question. So well done Moffat for restoring the question to the cliffhanger here.

And because that cliffhanger is so integral to the moral question on which the episode, indeed much of Doctor Who itself, hinges I really want to review this before the Schrödinger’s Cat gets out of the box and we see how Moffat resolves his moral dilemma.

(Publishing this, I hope, with just hours to go before part 2.)

“The Magician’s Apprentice” is, essentially, five spectacular set-pieces: the battlefield of the thousand-year war (the "hand mines" with their single eyes surrounded by finger-appendages seeming so foreshadowing of the Dalek mutants, and did they mention "clam drones" in the vicinity?); Colony Sarff's oily, slinky glide from vignette to vignette in search for the Doctor (Maldovarium, Shadow Proclamation and Karn tying together Moffat, Russell and Classic eras of the show); Clara’s eye-acting face-off with the Master (and UNIT have so clearly co-opted Roz from "Bugs" to fill the science roll of the lamented Osgood); the Doctor's Party (the two prologues, the one on Karn and the Doctor’s meditation which leads into the party, both feel like “deleted scenes”, being very integral to the action but, I think rightly, excised because they break up the Doctor-less flow); and the return to a gorgeously-realised Skaro (though didn’t he do that already in “Asylum of the Daleks”? Or at least its prequel).

And each is done very well.

Okay, I think that the Dalek control room should have looked bigger. A lot bigger. I get that it’s trying to recreate the look of the first Dalek serial (and of the first Dalek movie) but for all that is was a large set, it still looked like the Dalek Supreme and his chums were playing dressing-up in the attic.

I’d like to see the Dalek throne room looking this big.

It certainly looks like what they were aiming at

And there's something of a logic flaw in the Master's spectacular "Did you Miss(y) Me" stunt. Why do writers always forget that the planet is moving, both spinning on its axis and hurtling through space; a localised "time stop" – stopping the planes in the sky but not the ground underneath them – would see the planes on one side of the Earth smashed into the ground and on the other left behind in space. You're not "freezing" the planes in space when you freeze them in time; you're making them move through spacetime in a very different and physics-defying way. And if you want to make play of the shadows that they cast on the ground then yes you are saying that the other rules of physics (light and gravity, as well as entropy et al) are all still applying to the "fixed" planes.

But, you know, Time Lord science (aka magic). And it's a call back to "The Time Monster" too.

(While: "I'll be talking to you through…" boing "…the square window" reminds us of the Master's penchant for watching children's television – "The Sea Devils" and "The Sound of Drums". And was hilarious.)

And it's a very Moffat way of making the show. Where Bob Holmes would make the worlds seem larger by alluding to events off screen, the Grand Moff has the budget and the CGI to show rather than tell.

All of which is dressing this up to be a big and important story.

But to be fair, because of the central argument, the difference of philosophy between the Doctor and – let’s say it – Davros, actually this is a big and important story.

Who is the Magician’s Apprentice of the title? I thought it was going to be Clara, but it’s got to be Davros, hasn’t it? Who is the one learning the (possibly wrong) lesson from the self-avowed Magician here?

The choice of title itself is interesting: being a mash-up of the old fable (and Micky Mouse bit in Fantasia) “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia prequel “The Magician’s Nephew”. In the former, the apprentice seeks to solve his problems by creating an army of servants which he quickly loses control of with disastrous consequences. In the latter, the Magician has the (stolen) power to move between worlds, which the boy misuses to release destruction, in the person of Jadis the White Witch, into the world of Narnia. Either seems strangely apposite.

And playing off Davros against the Master makes for an interesting contrast. There is the fabulous discussion of what the Doctor and Master's – have they really been at this longer than our Civilization? possibly, yes – friendship means: the Master is the dark side of the Doctor, the Doctor gone berserk, the Doctor’s ego run rampant. But Davros is the Doctor’s inverse: the scientist-tyrant to the Doctor’s philosopher-knight-errant; the deposed emperor to the Doctor’s abdicated lord; the fascist to his liberal. Missy is the Doctor’s best friend; Davros is his arch enemy. Just as last year the Master tempted the Doctor with an army of Cybermen to see just how far a good man would go: will you do anything to people for their own good? (i.e. are you a communist?) Here were we see Davros asking the “Let’s Kill Hitler” question that “Let’s Kill Hitler” ducked: is compassion worth the price or do you put the greater number first? (i.e. are you a fascist?)

I’ll give the Mister Moffster this: he’s not shy of tackling the big questions.

The problem with the moral question first posed in "Genesis of the Daleks" is that it's just so easy to present the downsides to letting Davros live.

But the Doctor is clearly not going to "exterminate" Davros.

Apart from anything else it would be a paradox big enough to implode the Universe; wiping out the Time War and most of the Doctor's own history. In the climax to last year (also written by Steven Moffat) the Doctor explained the grandfather of time paradoxes to Clara: if she rewites her own history so that Danny's death doesn't happen, she won't have any reason to rewrite her own history. This is that times a billion. Times a billion billion. Times a google.

And I don't think it's particularly difficult to work out how the cliffhanger resolves.

Just to deal with the side-bluff of killing Missy, Clara and the TARDIS for starters… they ain’t dead. Missy and Clara are, for example, carefully established to be wearing vortex manipulators (Clara's, presumably, still got Jack's one which she acquired in "Day of the Doctor") and they are slaved together so (visible skeletons notwithstanding) the pair of them can be teleported away together to wherever Missy planned to escape to. And it’s not impossible that that’s a fake TARDIS shell, either – and the real one has been chameleon-circuited into that tank. (Which in itself might be a comment on the Daleks.)

And for the biggie: the Doctor isn't aiming the Dalek gun at Davros but at the hand mines, not to pre-execute the genocidal megalomaniac, rather try to teach him a lesson in compassion.

But by placing as the cliffhanger rather than instantly resolving this, Moffat forces us to sit and think about this for a whole week. And because Moffat has timey-wimey form, we cannot just dismiss the possibility that he (Moffat if not the Doctor) might just consider rewriting the whole of Doctor Who history. Again.

Moffat and/or the Doctor as written by Moffat is such a tricksy person to pin down, morally. I maintain that he commits genocide against the Silence in “Day of the Moon” (genocide and attempted genocide are the same crime; guilt does not require you to succeed or there would be no one Jewish left alive; and the Doctor is culpable for the order to “kill them all on sight”). But he also undoes the genocide of the Time Lords (and possibly the Daleks – although I’m pretty sure he’s still intent on getting them all killed, they do kind of become the biggest ever “shot with their own weapon” rather than shot by the Doctor).

As recently as last season, he was trying very hard not to have to treat the Boneless (“Flatline”) as monsters to be defeated until they exhausted their last chances and his excuses; and of course this is the same question that sits at the heart of “Kill the Moon”.

It certainly looks like Moffat is saying that anyone who came down on the side of killing the Moon – one life for billions – is buying Davros’ argument that “compassion is wrong”. That’s a pretty serious slap in the face to a lot of Who-fans.

What we’re hoping is that this time the Doctor will win his moral argument with Davros, rather than hand-waving or timey-wiming his way out of answering, having failed so disastrously with Saward and (incredibly) with Russell having Davros apparently shame the Doctor with his rant in “Journey’s End”.

It’s a lot easier to accept “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” when it’s Mr Spock spouting the fascist (in the original sense of the nation must all bind together to the will of the leader) dictum rather than the creator of the Daleks.

But it also gives weight to Davros’ point of view, to Davros having a valid point of view, if quite a sizeable percentage of the audience might be thinking: “hang on though, he’s got a point about this one life for many business”.

In a way, though, that question is much better framed here, because – unlike “Kill the Moon” – we know that the outcome is not that the Earth survives unharmed/“gets away with it”, but that Davros alive is a total Universe-fracking disaster for everyone alive everywhere ever.

And of course it’s wonderful to have the ever-melodious tones of Tom frame the question for us so unambiguously. (And isn’t it nice that Davros has the BBC DVD of “Genesis of the Daleks” – available in good shops and online – for reference.)

I’ve seen this referred to in Craig Hinton’s terms as “fanwank”.

(Even aside from the “so it’s come to this, a Doctor Who clips show”, there were a number of moments that were… reminiscent of earlier Doctors, from the “Dead Planet” Daleks and the look of Skaro’s gleaming, futuristic, Dalek city; via a twelfth century Essex castle like the one the third Doctor visited in “The Time Warrior”; to the look of Skaro’s mist-haunted, blasted wasteland of mines and biplanes with lasers versus bows and arrows as visited by the fourth Doctor; via the possible nod of Colony Sarff to the Mara, the fifth Doctor’s demons, at just the moment he’s facing his shame; up to UNIT’s Tower of London base as visited by the tenth and eleventh Doctors. I’m sure there were others.)

It’s certainly very fan-pleasing. But I would have to say “fanwank” is fan-satisfying to no other purpose. It would be – to pick an example from entirely out of the air – having a story set in 1987 to clarify that the Doctor knows for a fact that there are no Thals left on Skaro before he fries the place to a cinder in 1988’s “Remembrance of the Daleks”.

But Moffat is using the history of Doctor Who to remind us over and over of the importance of his central question: “is compassion wrong?”

Hell, that’s pretty much what the Time War was fought over.

The clips that we see (or rather more hear, though they are up on Davros’ DVD wall of shame) from Peter D and Baker C are from “Resurrection of the Daleks” where the Doctor thinks he will execute Davros, but fails, and from “Revelation of the Daleks” where he castigates Davros not for turning the galaxy’s greatest funeral home into a Soylent Green factory but for not telling the deceased’s relatives. Both in their very different ways hinge on “compassion”. Even Sylv’s “unlimited rice pudding” speech (which we also hear) finishes with the Doctor having pity for Davros.

In the Saward and Davies philosophical confrontations, Davros was an enormous hypocrite. With his back against the wall, he rants and jeers, in part, because his own Daleks are on the verge of killing him. And he would rather die at their plungers than concede the Doctor might have won the argument.

But here, although he’s the mad uncle in the attic, it’s like the Daleks in the other attic have forgotten about him – Alex has a terrible thought: maybe Moffat’s going to announce that the few Daleks playing dress-up are in their attic because the whole rest of the city is run by… Their Greatest Mistakes. The Horror. Though they’d have to have those doors widened – But that brings me back to my point. Who has the Dark Lord Moff, brooding for long ages in the darkness, come to believe is the greatest evil and his arch-enemy, bringing him low since the days of his greatness (under Russell, when he only had to write one script a year, as opposed to now where he… struggles to write two scripts a year)?

The critics, that’s who. The fans. The people who watch his stories over and over again and pull them slowly to pieces until there’s nothing left.

Davros has summoned the Doctor to his DVD wall of shame to do just the same to the Doctor. Never mind “We are the Daleks” (actually, while some of it’s brilliant, I minded some of it very much); Tonight, Matthew, the curly-haired Scottish hero turns directly to camera and tells us: “You are Davros!”

“Genesis of the Daleks” concludes with Sarah Jane asking if their mission to Skaro has failed. The Doctor tells her that out of the Evil of the Daleks, will come good. I’ve previously argued – and still believe – that that good is a Universe with compassion. You can either have a Universe, a version of History, that has compassion or you can commit genocide. Your History can either be Time Lords and Daleks. Or you can be Daleks.

What makes the Doctor a moral character is that he makes choices. Davros makes one choice and creates the Daleks. Who promptly take all his choices away from him. The Doctor still has the ability to choose. Let’s see how he chooses.

Next Time… So Davros is dead and now the Quarks are the most deadly threat in the Universe… perhaps not. If Davros is the Magician’s Apprentice then Clara… “you’re the puppy” …must be “The Witch’s Familiar”.

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