The Magician’s Apprentice is a collision of the greatest spectacles that Doctor Who can produce, in rapid succession. It's a frenetic, bombastic swirling chaos of an episode. Its imagery is particularly remarkable in throwing so many strange visuals at the audience that it almost feels wasteful.
|The Doctor's hilarious "biggest useless anachronism in|
human history" sequence is a brilliant moment of
Doctor Who's style of bombastic comedy.
As for what the imagery is, I'll have to say
The Master’s trick of stopping all the planes on Earth could be the foundation of a whole story. Instead, it's a quick sequence to re-introduce the character as theatrically as possible. A creature as beautifully terrifying as the Colony Sarff could be the central villain of a Doctor Who story. He even receives the gravity of a major villain, as he intimidates icons and iconography of Doctor Who’s history.* Instead, he's a henchman, a glorified messenger.
* Sarff terrifies the gathering of many different Doctor Who aliens, including the remarkable Ood, at the partying spot that I like to call the Doc Eisley Cantina. He pushes the Shadow Proclamation around, in their first on-screen appearance since The Stolen Earth, Russell T Davies’ climax of bombast. He confronts the Sisterhood of Karn, now a pivotal figure in the Time War and whose origins stretch back to The Brain of Morbius in 1976.
This whole episode still engages with the shadow of Russell T Davies, using many of his tropes and tones as he sets up the story. The montage of global cable news, the theatrical alien manifestation, the kitchen sink style of narrative excess. But he sets them up only to overcome them trivially, as if to show how ordinary the legacy of Doctor Who's most transformative and historically pivotal figure of the last decade has become.
The story begins looking entirely normal and traditional, as traditional as anyone can say Doctor Who can be. But no, it doesn’t begin this way. It begins in terror, a stark, disturbing landscape haunted by icons of evil.
|This image has existed in Western culture for so long|
that we can feel its power on sight, even if we have no
idea (like most Christians) what it is.
The Doctor meets Davros as a small boy, trapped in a minefield, demanding rescue. It's a manifestation of a classic problem in philosophy, so classic that I found it very dull whenever I’d encounter it (all too frequently) in moral philosophy discussions and articles. It’s the problem of committing evil to prevent evil.
When the Doctor was Tom Baker, he asked this question in the story that invented Davros in the first really notable cavalier revision of the show’s continuity. If you discovered a child, an innocent child, who you knew that one day would commit great evil, could you kill that child?
Could you bring yourself to overcome your immediate feelings of compassion? Could you let rage overcome your sense of basic decency not to shoot a small boy in the face as he asks you to help him?
When the Doctor first appears to the boy Davros, he tells the child that his chances of survival are one in a thousand. So concentrate on that one. Then, when he discovers that the boy will grow up to create the Daleks, he walks away, abandoning the boy to die in the minefield.
Clearly, simply walking away wasn't enough to finish the job. The Doctor’s inspiration and Davros' own grit and intelligence was enough for him to escape. The Doctor must take the active step of killing the boy.
The mines themselves evoke what a true narrative collapse this is, what kind of a bomb has just gone off in Doctor Who, what a fundamental challenge and threat to its nature. In Jewish and Muslim culture, there’s a symbol called the Hamza, an open five-fingered palm with an eye staring from its centre.
It’s a symbol of warding, meant to guard against the powers of ill wishes, destructive schemes and insidious, acidic stares. It manifests to guard you against powers that would destroy you.
Throughout their relationship, Davros has challenged the Doctor to admit that his compassion is a weakness. The defining concept of Davros is that he considered compassion and love for others (even love for the self, love in general) such a weakness and an obstacle for survival that he created a creature that was physically incapable of compassion, love, or sympathy of any kind. The Daleks.
|The cliffhanger for The Magician's Apprentice, the|
narrative collapse of the Doctor overturning all the
ethics that have defined his character for almost the
entire history of Doctor Who.
Davros' ethical challenge is the centrepiece of the cliffhanger of The Magician’s Apprentice. The Doctor now lives in a timeline where his oldest friend and his current closest friend have been brutally killed, and the quickest way to rewrite history is to murder a child you've just promised to rescue.
Beyond the question of compassion’s value, Davros is also offering a challenge to the entire fabric of the show. The last image of the Doctor, holding a gun on the little boy Davros surrounded by deadly manifestations of the Hamza, shouting “Exterminate” is clearly an ethical narrative collapse.
It returns to the same conflict that the Doctor as a character grappled with in Dalek, back when he was Christopher Eccleston: the Doctor is becoming a Dalek, acting with violence instead of searching for a more inspirational way to end the conflict. But there’s a further collapse of the show's premise here.
It begins with the return of the Master, and her substantiated claim that she's actually the Doctor's best and oldest friend. Clara challenges this idea: the Master killed Danny Pink last season, and throughout the history of the show has been responsible for the deaths of billions. She even murders a UNIT operative in one scene, and brags about his having had a family.
Yet the Doctor continues his relationship with her as continued sparring, when the end of the Nuremberg trials is a more appropriate way to treat her. The villains of Doctor Who, despite their horrifying destructive power and achievement, can never be killed forever. This is for a simple reason.
Doctor Who is a television adventure show, and a big part of its appeal is the charisma of its iconography. We saw this in the opening sequences of The Magician’s Apprentice, the intoxicating montage of the show’s icons. This is its history, playing these images and icons against each other to create adventures.
The history of these images and their adventures are part of the excitement of being a fan of Doctor Who. There are so many icons that we can explore through the 52 years of the show. I can freeze-frame through the Skaro sequence in this episode to spot the different Dalek designs from throughout Doctor Who’s history.
I can compare the performances of different Doctors,** Masters,*** and Davroses**** (Davrosi?) for their strengths, weaknesses, similarities, and peculiarities. But all this playfulness is haunted by an ethical dark spot. An evil eye from which the ground of Skaro grows its Hamza to shield us.
** William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, John Hurt, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi.
*** Roger Delgado, Peter Pratt, Geoffrey Beevers, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts, Derek Jacobi, John Simm, and Michelle Gomez.
**** Michael Wisher, David Gooderson, Terry Molloy, and Julian Bleach. They sound almost like incantations, rosaries.
We hold up the Doctor as an ethical role model, but the Doctor as a phenomenon in our world commits egregious ethical wrongs: he lets the killers and murderers go to kill more. He fights evil, but can't destroy those evil forces forever. Without the monsters, Doctor Who can't continue. So the battles among gods are everlasting, without interest in peace.
How can a character whose essence is wrapped up in these eternal, never-ending conflicts be a hero?