Sunday, September 20, 2015

In Which I Review Doctor Who (9x1)

And 'lo, another summer slowly crawled to a close and with the ending of one season came the beginnings of the man who fights the monsters; screwdriver in hand he lands, carefree, in your front room every week for one hour with the promise of transcendence. And an awful lot of running. Yes, Doctor Who is finally back after nine long, TARDIS-less months off the air. Can you tell I'm excited? How could I not be? Doctor Who, with its pulpy, fantastical, science fiction, and fairy tale like mentality is a welcome relief to blogging less than stellar quality TV. In our the first episode of the new season, "The Magician's Apprentice," showrunner Moffat pulls out millions of stops and surprises and has you looking left, right, up, and down all at once. The crazy, fast paced, blockbuster type approach is Moffat's forte (at least as of late) and when he's concentrating on simply giving you loud and whiz-bang with little time to breathe in between, he does know how to shine. Perhaps most importantly, the premiere felt like a season premiere of Doctor Who; while I might often quibble over the explosions-galore type of approach to modern day science fiction TV and movies (because where there are explosions, there is usually very little heart), for the first episode in nine months, it was well executed; the kind of blood thrumming, heart racing episode I've been anticipating for weeks. The Doctor is a rockstar; old enemies come back to play, and no time is wasted while the audience is zipping here and zooming there (as one is wont to do in a time and space machine). Grab a guitar and let's go!

"Davros made the Daleks. But who made Davros?" Or so the Doctor asks Clara and (a not so dead) Missy on the final night of his life as he takes a space ship to see one of his oldest and deadliest enemies. It's a good question because anyone familiar with the history of the Doctor and the madman inventor we know as Davros is well versed that the two beings have a long and sordid story about what is right, what is wrong, and whether or not powerful men can or should play God. The question, though, is better if we rephrase and ask in broad generalities and not specifics: can you be an hero without an enemy to fight? No one is going to deny the Doctor's heroic tendencies; he's trapped in that classical hero archetype; a bit of a solider, a bit of a trickster, a bit of a sage, but all hero. He's the man who fights the monsters and defends planets and people. The Doctor faces death every moment of his very long life and conquers it when everyone else would fall before it. The Doctor's a hero but also an "H"ero, capital, cosmic, universal H, if you please. It means that he's more than just an ordinary hero; he's mythic. And, as such, The Doctor needs an equally mythic villain to fight, for how can we really know what a hero is if we don't have his contrast with whom we can compare. Harry Potter needs Voldemort. Luke Skywalker needs Darth Vader/the Emperor. God needs his Lucifer. The delicate dance between hero and their villain rival is often one of necessity, thus complicating the relationship to a cyclical one. Back and forth; fight and flight; around and around and back home again. That is why, in this season premiere, it is so interesting that we have both of the Doctor's greatest arch-enemies come back to play, both of whom spend quite a bit of time remembering their long history with the Doctor, and the cosmic chess game the universal figures have been playing. First, we have Davros, younger and still standing on two legs. A young boy in the middle of a very bad war (Kaled and Thal for those of you who aren't familiar with the classical era) who is scared and alone and in very real danger. In other words, just the sort of situation that would have the Doctor putting on his white hat and saving the day with some cunning and a grin. Except, that in this case, the Doctor's compassion is, like a dying Davros will tell him at the end, an indulgence. What would have happened had the Doctor never shown up on Skaro to assist a little boy out of the Hand Mine field? If his compassion hadn't gotten the better of him? Would Davros be so traumatized by this stranger's help and then refusal to help (going so far as to flee) that he would still create the Daleks? Is the Doctor, then, responsible for not only his arch enemy but his most dangerous adversaries, the Daleks? I don't know that we have an answer, in all honesty. History and time are tricky as are people and morality. Surely young Davros would have been broken enough, just from the war alone, to want to save his people by (to quote the Doctor) putting them in tanks. But then again, maybe it was that "compassion" that really pushed him over the edge. At any rate, the Doctor made his own arch-enemy but just like Davros might not be Davros without the Doctor, would the Doctor still be the Doctor without Davros? Can you be a proper hero without a proper enemy? And if the answer is no, as I've been suggesting, then is your enemy really your friend?

Missy certainly seems to think so, eh? Also, hello Missy. I'm not sure how you're back (but then again, I was never sure how you came back last season, so we'll quibble over that later). Missy spends much of this episode being exasperated that Clara would question the friendship between herself and the Doctor because all they do is try to attack, harm, and generally kill each other. To Missy, that's what friendship is. For Clara, friendship is simple. It can be put into a box of correct and right actions and anything that does not fit into that box is equated to being, simply, not a friend. Missy constantly trying to kill the Doctor? Not friendship. But for Missy, and it turns out to the Doctor as well, friendship is infinitely more complex than a set of correct and right actions. This goes back to what I was stressing above; the relationship between hero and enemy is born out of necessity; you cannot have one without the other in this cosmic chess game. There might be hatred and ill will toward the other party, but there is an understanding that you need each other. The hero creates the villain just as the villain creates the hero. It's not love, really, but something higher, something that Clara (and perhaps, really, humanity) cannot grasp because we see heroes and villains, light and dark, right and wrong as two separate, binary entities. But those concepts, especially in modern media and fiction, are far more complicated and it's our inability to see those complexities that lead to hostility, racism, sexism, and prejudices. Missy is "evil" because she opposes the Doctor, right? Then why is she trying to save The Doctor, especially under the headline that she's his best friend? Because they need each other; but that doesn't mean she's crossed into the light--she'll still kill the guards standing 'round. We are complex creatures and the threads between us and the rest of our kind are infinitely more complex than we could ever hope to conceive.

So what are we doing this season? It's hard to accurately pinpoint where we're going this season but I'd say that the idea of heroes and villains and the complexities behind them is Moffat's working thesis. First, I doubt Missy just died again on Skaro. That would be fast and ridiculous, even for Moffat who is known to do flash-in-a-pan and never properly explain things. Given that the Doctor recognizes that Missy is his best friend and one of his own people, I'd lay some odds that we're going to see the "totally bananas" Missy travel with Clara and the Doctor through all of time and space. Is Davros going to die next week? Again, I doubt it. Something tells me he'll be sticking around, plaguing the Doctor, just like old times. Enemies and friends; they need each other. Secondly, given that Skaro (and the Daleks) came back, and that the Doctor still has not found Gallifrey yet, I can't help but wonder if this is the season when we finally go out in search of the Doctor's home world and the rest of the Time Lords. After all, with every classic villain returning, a veritable who's who of the Doctor Who universe, why not bring back the Time Lords in their funny hats? I do so enjoy the funny hats. The search for Gallifrey is best conducted as if it's a race between the Doctor (and Missy) and Davros (and his Daleks). Which leaves Clara out in the cold, the human who knows too much but is forever on the outside, looking in. Jenna Coleman is leaving the TARDIS before the end of the season and I'm going to bet that Clara will be minimized in the search for the Time Lord home planet, if that is what season nine is. I must say, Clara was far less annoying this episode than she has been in the past. She's not broken or sad or lying. She's smart; she's keen; she can tangle with Missy and hold her own. It's a nice change from weepy, wide-eyed Clara and, more importantly, from Clara who was placed at the center of everything last season, in her attempt to become the Doctor. All in all, this was a strong start to the season and I can only hope that Moffat continues to deliver these fun, intriguing, and somehow heavy and light episodes for the next 11.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Magician's Apprentice

--If the Doctor is the Magician, then is Davros his apprentice?

--"Survival is just a choice."

--There were a ton of callbacks to the classical era (hi, Tom Baker and Genesis of the Daleks!) and the pre-Moffat regenerated era, including the Ood, the Jadoon, and the Shadow Proclamation (they've redecorated. I don't like it...)

--Clara should give up teaching and go work for UNIT. It gives her the rush she craves without having to leave her home or time period.

--"Not dead. Back. Big surprise. Never mind."

--The Doctor. In Essex. In 1138. On a tank. With a guitar. I have missed you, Doctor Who.

--"I am a dragon slaying...." "DUUUUUUUUUDE"

--Speaking of classic heroes, I got a strong whiff of Norse mythology when the Snake Alien was tying up the Doctor with one of his slithering friends. Very Thor and Jormungandr, the latter of whom often represents the idea of cyclical history and birth/death/rebirth, an ouroboros, a theme we're seeing play out.

--"I was right to create the Daleks." "You were very wrong." "This is the fight we've had since we met..." 


  1. Great review and good start to the new season! It certainly left us with a cliffhanger until the second one. I hope the heroes and villains aspect gets more complex as time goes on. :)