Television Review: The Magician’s Apprentice (Doctor Who)

Doctor Who Series 9.01: The Magician’s Apprentice

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Hettie MacDonald

Child from opening
Image Copyright BBC

Motivation

I have been a fan of Doctor Who off and on since I was three. At this point, I don’t think I will ever not watch it.

The Pitch

In this opener to series nine, a decision the Doctor made a long time ago has consequences that threaten to destroy his closest friend . . . and his best enemy. However, the Doctor must first be found.

The Good

Missy is probably my favorite new recurring character. I enjoy every scene she is in. Likewise, Peter Capaldi is able to take the most absurd scene and make me believe.

And that pre-credit scene . . . that’s how you hook an audience.

The Bad

There is too little plot stretched across 45 minutes. And since this is part one of two, I am a bit worried. Many of the scenes in this episode didn’t really advance the plot much, and those scenes didn’t do much for me other than make me wish they would get on with it. But again, if a scene isn’t going to advance the plot, you could do worse than putting Missy in it.

The Ugly

The “would you kill a child if you knew he would be a brutal dictator” argument moves out of the abstract.

Closing

I would characterize this as average Steven Moffat fare: not his best but certainly not his worst. The performances and direction put this at a 3/5 for me. I look forward to seeing how he resolves the story, though I doubt the resolution will make me change my mind about this episode.

Advertisements

Religious Authority in “An Unearthly Child”

This is the first in what I hope to be a semi-regular series exploring how religion is used in Doctor Who. I’m not sure how often I will update this series since the next few months will be very busy for me, but this particular one has been on my mind and I want to get it out there as soon as possible. I don’t plan on covering every episode of Doctor Who because I don’t expect every episode to have religious themes or subtext. However, quite a few stories comment on religion, explicitly and implicitly, and I think it would be fun to explore this.

Doctor Who: Year Zero

The Doctor and Susan check the year on the TARDIS console.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Cave of Skulls.” It is owned by the BBC.

In exploring the origins of this new television show, the decision was made to explore origins in a very historical way, to cast our view back to the dawn of human civilization. The Doctor kidnaps the two teachers Ian and Barbara in an act of self-defense, and the TARDIS arrives at year zero. We can quibble about the idea of “year zero,” but in terms of the new show, it is the beginning—nothing had come before. It truly is year zero for Doctor Who.

But along with that, we have prehistoric humanity. Years are arbitrary expressions of time used to categorize information. Even the term “prehistoric” has a categorical meaning: that which happened before we recorded it. It is an era of mystery and uncertainty, part of the long chain of events that led to where we currently exist, but we still don’t know what happened then.

And as far as Doctor Who at this point is concerned, it is year zero. It is a new calendar to mark a beginning. Yes, things happened before, but what matters most is what happens right now, in this story, with these characters. Maybe the TARDIS knows more about what its occupants need than they do. It recognizes this is their beginning.

The Tribe of TARDIS

I love the way Anthony Coburn and Waris Hussein set up the conflict in this story.

Za and Hur of the Tribe of Gum debate who these strangers are. Kal, the usurper who found the strangers, insists they arrived from a magical tree and they can make fire. Za believes instead that they are part of another tribe, one from the mountains. Za is more right than he realizes.

Just as Za and Kal fight for political authority, so do the Doctor and Ian struggle against each other. While the latter struggle is less political, it is still no less a fight for survival. The Tribe of Gum will die out if they do not have food or fire, for an ice age is coming. The Tribe of TARDIS, on the other hand, will die if they do not work together to escape. In his intense need for fire, Za wants to sacrifice these strangers to Orb (the Sun) so he may be given the divine flame that will keep his tribe warm to survive the cold. He who has fire is the leader. Those are the terms. Thus, fire is both practical and religious. It meets a physical need while being an authoritative sign from the divine Orb.

And Orb has withheld its favor. Za does not have fire. But neither does the usurper Kal.

With Orb’s silence, the conflict unfolds politically. Kal’s best political weapon is to attack Za’s authorizing agent. If Orb grants authority and that authority is seen in the creation of fire, then Za is obviously not a leader. Where is his fire? Does Orb truly speak to him? On the other hand, Kal brings food to the tribe. Surely fire is not necessary to survival, but food is! So, with Za sitting around waiting for Orb to give something that he doesn’t seem willing to give, Kal is feeding the tribe.

This opposition becomes ideological very quickly, as the immediate need—food—is put against the impending need—heat. In reality, both are needed, but the easiest way to for Kal to usurp power is to make the conflict an either/or, to simplify the solution to the problems the tribe faces.

Politics has changed very little, it seems.

Dichotomies

“Old men see only as far as tomorrow’s meat,” Hur says. But the old men have earthly authority. Without Orb’s divine approval, the old men become the council that grants leadership. Za, however, brings vision and innovation, both through fire and in the wisdom he gets from the Doctor and Ian.

Ian advises Za on tribal strength.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

“Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” It is a lesson that was imparted by both the Doctor and Ian.

And yet, up to that point, the Doctor and Ian were in a similar conflict. The Doctor could only see as far as potential discovery and capture—an immediate need, an immediate fear. He kidnapped Ian and Barbara. He was willing to kill Za to guarantee their escape. Ian interfered in this latter action. While Ian also valued escape, he wanted to do so ethically. He did not want to violate his principles.

So, once more, concrete versus abstract, meat versus fire, Machiavellian tactics versus ethical tactics, immediate need of escape versus impending need of unity.

Both the Tribe of Gum and the Tribe of TARDIS must learn the same lesson:

Struggle is not stronger than the whole tribe.

Divine Authority?

It is after Ian and the Doctor learn to work together that Ian succeeds in starting a fire with sticks and leaves. He even has a moment where he defers to the Doctor’s leadership. They have learned their lesson, and now they can impart their gift of knowledge, their gift of fire.

But who grants the authority of fire and leadership? The terms were clear in the beginning: Fire is the sign of leadership, Orb gives fire, but Orb won’t give fire without a sacrifice.

Ian made fire, but only Za saw it. And as Orb rises above the tribe, Za must make a decision about the Tribe of TARDIS. The turning point comes in the cave when Kal returns in secret and tries to kill Za. Instead, Za kills Kal. He then emerges from the cave with a flaming branch.

Kal is killed, Ian gives Za fire, and now the tribe acknowledges Za’s authority.

Za emerges from the cave with a flaming torch.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

Sacrifice, fire, authority.

The terms were fulfilled. The divine right of leadership was upheld because events unfolded according to the prescribed terms. The religion wasn’t subverted; it was upheld. And so the question becomes, was this a humanistic unfolding of events, where Kal’s death coincidentally occurred before Za was given the fire created by Ian? Or was Kal’s death a necessary sacrifice in order for Za to be given the fire?

Regardless of your interpretation, the fire became an authorizing object for Za’s leadership. But, in an interesting turn, Za gives fire to the tribe, an act that will, with time, remove the divine authorization of fire. Is Orb still divine? The story doesn’t really address this, but it is telling that Orb is the ruler of day and that night is feared. Za’s last statement in the story is that with fire, night becomes day. Has Orb entered the world as fire, bringing light to the darkness? Or has the fire removed the need for Orb as an authority, leaving the tribe to make their own way without fear?

For an exploration of the relationship between the construction of authority and the role myth and religion play in that dynamic, I recommend Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion. His ideas lurk beneath the surface of this post, so the very least I can do is give him a shout-out. Not that he needs that from me.

New Year Forecast

I’ve been extremely busy for, what my blog archives indicate, are seven months or so. Indeed. I took an internship that led to full-time employment in technical writing. Balancing the remaining classes with this new work schedule forced me to narrow my focus. And while I can’t guarantee I will be posting frequently in the next few months (due to my final semester of college), I hope to get a post up from time to time. I have some ideas for evaluating classic Doctor Who episodes (and new Who, as I come to them) that will enable me to apply some things I learned this past semester.

And I doubt that every episode of Doctor Who will fit what I want to do, so I’ll be picking and choosing. We’ll see how it goes.

A few minor thoughts that have occurred over the last few months:

  • I love Peter Capaldi’s take on the Doctor, and thought that series eight was a breath of fresh air. Steven Moffat impressed me with the change in tone and style. I didn’t expect him to pull it off. Series eight may be my favorite series of the revived show.
  • For the critics who say Missy is yet another appearance of Moffat’s sassy/sexy/smarmy Amy-River-Adler-etc. trope, I disagree. Missy is Moriarty from Sherlock. (These links have spoilers.)
  • I am not happy that Doctor Who DVDs are going out of print in the U.S. I refuse to pay $100 for “Battlefield,” and “The Curse of Fenric.”

Happy 2015.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible Part 3

Cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

In my continuing read through of Doctor Who: The New Adventures: Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, I hit chapter, which has some significant throwbacks to the early days of Doctor Who.

Chapter 4: Inside Information

Synopsis

The Doctor and Ace are questioned by the police. The police are concerned about the Doctor’s well-being. Is he ill, drunk, having an emotional breakdown? Ace is aware of the surreal landscape morphing around them, and realizes that the police officers cannot see it. The Doctor insists that he just wants to get in his TARDIS, to get in the police box. Unfortunately, neither of the time travelers can enter the ship because the door keeps moving. The TARDIS has gone into self-defense mode as it attempts to keep something dangerous from entering. That includes the Doctor and Ace, unfortunately. Ace tries to get the police to find the door to the TARDIS, but that fails as well. She then tries to get the police to call UNIT to confirm the Doctor’s identity (and thus, sanity), but that fails as well since the police have never heard of UNIT. The Doctor theorizes the only way to find the TARDIS door with this particular defense mechanism is to happen upon it by accident, with no deliberate attempt or thought.

Then the TARDIS phone rings.

The Doctor answers it, confirms his identity, grabs Ace’s arm, and they are yanked into the TARDIS. From inside the TARDIS, they can hear a “scrabbling” sound. Something is just outside the door and it is trying to get in. The TARDIS scanner shows a normal Earth landscape, further reinforcing that the surreal images were put in their heads by the TARDIS as a warning. The fault locator registers everything as normal, which is good.

“Unless there’s a fault in the fault locator,” says the Doctor.

But the next clue they notice is that the door controls are gone, an empty space on the console. All the while, the scraping of claws on the door continues.

The Doctor decides to flush the creature out of the space between the TARDIS door and the dematerialized world. The Doctor searches through a trunk in the console room and pulls out the TARDIS manual. Pages have been consumed. The effects of the TARDIS’s defenses have caused time to echo. Basically, the creature hasn’t yet entered the TARDIS, but at the same time, it already has entered the TARDIS. As a result, the creature is both inside and outside the TARDIS at the same time. The Doctor fears it could be a datavore, a creature that consumes information and knowledge.

Then Ace notices that all the TARDIS coordinates are set for zero. The Doctor checks the console circuitry and sees the fluid links are malfunctioning. All power is being slowly drained away. The Doctor needs to find the secondary control room. Unfortunately, with the TARDIS malfunctioning like it is, the interior dimensions of the ship are uncertain. He gives Ace the TARDIS key and tells her to “trust us. Don’t leave home, Ace.” He then grabs a bicycle and rides off into the dark corridors of the TARDIS.

Commentary

This chapter had a strong vibe of “Edge of Destruction” to it. In that story, the TARDIS was malfunctioning because of a broken spring. The defense mechanism gave surreal clues to the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara. It even altered their perceptions. At one point the crew theorized that something had entered the ship and was influencing them. Platt seems to have taken that red herring and applied it as the actual threat here. He gives us some throwbacks to the First Doctor’s first season in this chapter: the fault locator, fluid link. Ace even mentions that the Doctor built the TARDIS, which echoes Susan from those early days of Doctor Who. It is a bit of an odd statement considering we know that the TARDIS is a piece of Gallifreyan technology. Does Ace not realize this? Is it a continuity error? Is it a result of the defense mechanism?

So, full confession: I’m not a big fan of “Edge of Destruction.” While David Whitaker is one of my favorite of Doctor Who’s early writers, EoD is probably my least favorite of his stories. Combine that with 1960s art-house surrealism, which I also don’t much care for, and you are left with a story that I am glad is mercifully short (two episodes). I love the ideas in it, I just don’t care for the journey.

And since this chapter draws so heavily from that story, I am just a bit ambivalent to it. Too much attempt to obscure, too slow at revealing things. It is odd that I’m engaging more with the chapters that don’t include the Doctor and Ace.

Cybermen Vs. Daleks

I have a guest post up on the Popgun Chaos site. I argue that the Cybermen are better villains than the Daleks. Let the controversy resound!

And be sure to check out Big Finish today. In celebration of this year’s anniversary they are having a sale of The Sirens of Time, Jubilee, and The Harvest for $1.00 as a download or just over $5 for CDs. The Sirens of Time is a multi-Doctor story (5, 6, and 7), Jubilee is a 6th Doctor and Daleks story, and The Harvest is a 7th Doctor and Cybermen story. So in a way, this sale goes along with my post, although I’m sure it is just a coincidence.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible Part 2

Cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

In my continuing read through of Doctor Who: The New Adventures: Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible (that’s a mouthful), I hit chapters 2 and 3, and learn to hate Vael.

Chapter 2: Cat’s Eyes

Synopsis

We are back with Vael, only moments after his encounter with the Pythia and his vision of the TARDIS. He heads out on to the streets, where people are still celebrating the hero Prydonius. He is confronted with Loie, a young woman who insists on trying to be his friend. He rebuffs her. She insists that despite his attitude and scores, the Academy needs him as a temporal physicist for the Time Scaphe project. As Vael tries to get away from her, he meets the gaze of the dead Sphinx and hears a riddle: Who are you?

He insists he wants nothing. He wants to be a nobody. He doesn’t want a future.

He can’t get the visions of the TARDIS, the Sphinx’s eye, and the Pythia’s eye out of his head.

Back in Ealing, reality continues to do its Dali impression. Being a time traveler, Ace is able to see timelines streaming through the streets. People move slowly. She realizes the TARDIS is warning her and the Doctor about something dangerous. She encounters her mother, but since they are currently inhabiting different flows of time, her mother does not notice her. The time streams are yet another obstacle keeping them apart. Not that Ace cares.

The sky cracks, slowly ripping apart. Ace finds the Doctor kneeling beside the TARDIS. He can’t get in; the machine rebuffs him each time he tries. The Doctor tells Ace that something has made its way into the TARDIS. He doesn’t know what it is, when it got there, or where it came from. The TARDIS, in an attempt to protect itself, has removed its door. All the while, the Doctor and Ace hear a scrabbling sound from inside the TARDIS.

Commentary

Psychic advertising! I love this concept, not because I particularly want it to be implemented in our world, but because it seems like a plausible detail about a telepathic society. In this case, it compels people to buy junk food from vendors.

Reading Marc Platt is a bit like reading Grant Morrison. Sometimes I can’t quite make out what is happening. There’s quite a bit of surreal, abstract things going on which I sometimes gloss over. Vael’s characterization works, though, and I am starting to dislike him. I’m pretty sure that is the point. He insists on being nobody, which probably means he won’t get his wish.

Ace encounters her mother, who she continues to hate. This is a character detail that I wish would resolve itself. Honestly, I’m surprised it has come up again. I got the impression that season 26 was about deconstructing then reconstructing Ace. Granted, the show was cancelled and any further development was dropped. Maybe the character change was all in my head, but I liked what I saw, even if it was imaginary.

Chapter 3: Bootstrapping

Synopsis

The Time Scaphe has its Chronaut crew and Pilot. The Pilot is a child who plays with toys as the ship moves through time. The Chronauts propel the ship with their minds. Captain Pekkary holds everything together, but he is extremely concerned because he was assigned a last-minute replacement for his quantum theorist/Pilot guardian. The previous quantum theorist had been killed in a freak accident, and Vael replaced him. Unfortunately, Vael didn’t like the Pilot, and the feeling was mutual. Also irritating was that Vael could shield his thoughts from the rest of the crew. With the sensitivity and danger of the Time Scaphe experiments, Pekkary is uneasy having this unproven addition to his crew, an addition who had not trained and bonded with the rest of the crew.

Vael takes joy in scaring the Pilot, which is extremely dangerous as the stability of the Pilot keeps the ship from going wild in the vortex. Unfortunately, Vael steals one of the Pilot’s toys, and the crew loses concentration.

Commentary

Okay, when you start stealing toys from a child you start signaling that we are supposed to hate you. But the circumstances surrounding your arrival on the ship are quite suspicious. Is it mere coincidence that the previous quantum theorist was killed and Vael reassigned? The Pythia thought Vael was important but also thought he was wasting his life. The Pythia and Rassilon are at odds with one another. A genius who can shield his thoughts from others in a telepathic society would be very dangerous. He would be a perfect spy and saboteur. And here he is, tormenting the Pilot of a time machine and, presumably, knocking them off course.

The concept of a time machine piloted by a child is interesting. The implication is that only children have the imaginative capacity to adapt to the psychological changes that accompany time travel. As such, they are perfect pilots because their minds haven’t been conditioned against such things. Similarly, time travel is technically instantaneous, but artificial passage of time is necessary to keep the mind from stress. In this case, the crew stays in the Scaphe for 90 minutes but will be travelling 90 days into the future. Those 90 minutes are yet another illusion, another alteration of reality. Things are not what they seem, although there is logic to their unreality. This is a challenging book, but it has some great ideas beneath the surface.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible Part 1

Cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

Series Introduction

I have decided to try something a little different, something I thought about trying with Timewyrm: Genesys, but couldn’t due to time and general mental fogginess. Since I may be working on Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible a bit longer, I am going to experiment with doing a read through. Basically, this means I will summarize a couple chapters at a time and give my thoughts on those chapters. This will enable me to get my thoughts organized and out there quicker (i.e. – more blog posts), and it will also enable readers who do not have the book to follow along or get a more detailed synopsis. If you are like me, you haven’t read very many of the Doctor Who books (NAs, MAs, EDAs, PDAs, and so on). Most of these books are out of print anyway, and while there are many sites out there that do a good job of offering detailed synopses, sometimes it is fun to tackle things in a bite-sized post.

Book Introduction

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible is the 5th book in the Virgin New Adventures series. It was written by Marc Platt, which marks (heh) the first time a writer for McCoy’s Doctor has penned an original novel for the Seventh Doctor. Essentially this means that the writers for the show are having a hand in the formation of the book series, which is a big deal. Platt, who wrote Ghost Light, wrote this book. Andrew Cartmel, who was script editor for seasons 24 – 26, wrote the next book. So while they may not have been directing the direction of the book line, at least they had a say in things and were able to develop themes and ideas from their approach to Doctor Who.

Prologue

Synopsis

The Doctor frets over some of the TARDIS’s quirks and noises, particularly that a noise he had grown accustomed to has stopped. He casts his mind back to the Time Lords and the frustration he feels for their imbalance of power and potential. He disagrees with their fundamental belief of sitting and observing, not interfering. Lost in thought, the Doctor burns his toast, and then he remembers a nursery rhyme:

For Tweedledum said Tweedledee

Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Commentary

On the one hand, this prologue seems to exist to introduce the casual reader to a few of the general concepts of Doctor Who: time travel, the Doctor’s disagreements with his people, his headspace—where thoughts take precedence over food—and so on. But on the other hand (since I have read ahead a bit), I know that this prologue also serves as a type of thematic thesis. Platt draws our attention to the TARDIS’s operation and to the Time Lords. In particular is this gem: “The most powerful civilization in the cosmos would have been better off staying in the Dark Time; the time of Chaos and superstition.”

And so we have the introduction of Chaos and superstition as Dark. The implied inverse is, naturally, Order and reason as Light.

The nursery rhyme is an interesting addition for its connection to children and play. Connect to that the book’s title (or the mini-series title), Cat’s Cradle, and there is a type of frivolity and playfulness implied. A cat’s cradle is a type of game which refers to making figures through a complex web of string. A cat’s cradle is the perfect way to describe how this Doctor constructs his adventures. He has been characterized as a chess player, but he may more accurately be described as playing a game which weaves complex webs of events, players, and time. And given the dark ending to the couplet above (spoiled his nice new rattle), I expect something will be broken. (The TARDIS, obviously, but will it only be the TARDIS that is broken?)

Chapter 1: Moussaka and Chips

Synopsis

On ancient Gallifrey, Vael is a special young man who has the ability to become a Young Hero. He studies time theory and generally prefers to be alone, something that was difficult after the Pythia, Gallifrey’s ruling matriarch, proclaimed that his red hair marked him as an Individual.

Vael can block his mind from the thoughts of others, something that is uncommon among Gallifreyans. In general he is a troubled youth. He can see the conflict brewing between Rassilon and the Reason revolution and the Pythia. He doesn’t want to be a Hero like Lord Prydonius, who had recently returned with the head of the Sphinx, but he has no choice as he can see that the future rests on him. His choices and actions will tip the balance one way or another.

And he has visions of a blue police box.

The Doctor and Ace, meanwhile, are eating at a café. The Doctor contemplates baked Alaska: “frozen in the middle, but hot on the outside.” A tom cat enters the café and stares at Ace, unnerving her. The Doctor entertains a young girl by playing spoons. Then the clock drips to the floor. The geometry of the café begins to shift and alter. Another cat appears, this one silver. The Doctor is suddenly racked with pain. He and Ace notice the rapidly disintegrating reality, but the other people in the café do not. The Doctor says they need to get back to the TARDIS.

Commentary

Talk about plunging in to the deep end. Jumping right in to ancient Gallifrey takes some chutzpa. We had been given myths and references to it on the show—stories of Rassilon and Omega, the Death Zone, the Great Vampire—but we have never seen it. In fact, the mystic/science divide is a development of the conflict between the Time Lords and the Sisterhood of Karn (“The Brain of Morbius,” “Night of the Doctor,” “Sisters of the Flame/The Vengeance of Morbius”). On some level Platt isn’t portraying anything too far removed from what has been mentioned on the show. Seeing it, however, is sometimes a different thing altogether. But I’ve listened to enough of Platt’s Big Finish stories to feel safe with him, even if this story preceded those by a few years.

There was an idea in Paul Cornel’s Timewyrm: Revelation about the battle between the Doctor and the Timewyrm being an event that reverberated throughout history, that all stories of ancient evil and ancient good were derived from this battle. A monomyth, essentially, the real event of which all myths are mere shadows. In Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, Platt gives us epic, Gallifreyan heroes who slay mythical beasts. He is deliberately placing this story in mythic time which may be the real time from which myths are shadows.

Putting Vael, an angry and thoroughly unpleasant character, as the pivot for the future of Gallifrey is horrifying. But then, how often is the future determined by unpleasant people? For better or worse, such is history.

With the Doctor and Ace hanging out in Ealing (and I looked this up, Perivale is a suburb of Ealing), I can’t help but wonder when this story was envisioned in Platt’s mind. Was it to immediately follow “Survival,” or was it always conceived as the follow-up to Timewyrm: Revelation? It isn’t an important question, but there are certain thematic ideas which come up in the next few chapters that make me question when Platt thought this story was placed. Or maybe things were played fast and loose back then. I have no idea.