Tuesday, 22 September 2015


Doctor Who's back on and seems to be dividing the fans more than ever, but there's still plenty to enjoy.

Best publicity shot EVER. (Image copyright: BBC)

THE STORY – WITH SPOILERS: Davros, creator of the Daleks, is dying and looking for the Doctor via his mysterious emissary, Colony Sarff. Missy has been given the Doctor’s Time Lord ‘will’ and, through the ruse of freezing airliners in time, finds Clara and uses her to locate the Doctor. The trio are taken by Sarff to a reconstituted Skaro, the Daleks’ home planet, where Clara, Missy and the TARDIS are apparently exterminated. Back in time in the war between the Kaleds and the Thals, the Doctor prepares to execute Davros as a boy…

So, after blanket trailers that seemed to start in the middle of last year, Doctor Who is back. Predictably, the press are making a fuss that ‘millions’ have deserted the show and that it was ‘slaughtered’ in the ratings by The X Factor. Get past the hysteria and hyperbole, however, and you find that it was still the most watched programme of the day on BBC1. What intrigued me most over the weekend, and has done since Peter Capaldi materialised, is the reaction of the committed, i.e. other long-term fans like myself.

Look at Facebook or some of the online forums and you’ll find people saying that ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ was the last straw and it’s where they and Doctor Who part company, or that it was ‘terrible’ – one of the more printable descriptions. At the other extreme, one friend of mine thought it was the best episode since the show was revived in 2005. Last year, some fans I know, and have generally shared the same opinions with, thought that Capaldi’s debut series as the Doctor was the worst season of Doctor Who they’d ever seen. I couldn’t understand it: their views were so diametrically opposed to mine – I loved it, generally speaking – that it was like they’d been watching a different programme.

Each to their own
Because the series has been going so long and has varied so much in style and content, perhaps certain fans have their own ideas – usually dictated by the era they grew up with, I’d say – of what Doctor Who should be like. By any stretch of the imagination, what was shown on Saturday wasn’t ‘terrible’. Looked at objectively, it’s a more than competent piece of modern television, with pace, jeopardy, wit, exemplary special effects and good acting (OK, Jami Reid-Quarrell’s Colony Sarff was a bit one-note, but that character was dependent for its impact on visual effects, and it really was stunning when he disintegrated into a pile of writhing snakes). The friend I watched it with third time around over the weekend – I told you I was a fan – isn’t a Doctor Who enthusiast and she thought it was great.

2nd best publicity shot EVER.
(Image copyright: BBC)

So what did I think, as the kind of fan who’s a long-term watcher but who tries to keep an open mind? Hmm. The first time I didn’t really know what to think. With modern Who, I’ve never been a fan of the frenetic comic-strip type of story that hops around multiple locations. That’s why I preferred the more sedate pace of episodes last year, which I felt suited a more austere, older Doctor better. In fact, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ felt very much like a Matt Smith story, particularly all that larking around with the electric guitar and the tank. That scene in particular seems to have got people’s goat. If it was designed to make the Doctor look cool I thought it fell flat. To my mind, having an angular, sharp-tongued Doctor the age of Methuselah dressed in severe threads achieved hipness last year. The gimmick of having him play the Doctor Who theme in the style of Slash from Guns N’ Roses felt like the nerdy kid at school trying to make you believe he’s ‘cool really’. Perhaps that’s why some people have gone postal on that sequence, as fans of my generation tended to be seen as nerdy at school if they liked Doctor Who.

The rough with the smooth
What else did we have? Daleks, Daleks and more Daleks. The Missy Master. Davros (young and old). UNIT. Skaro… you could be forgiven for thinking there was a Gallifreyan kitchen sink in there somewhere, too. Again, it’s a personal thing: with a few exceptions, I’m not big on stories that riff on Doctor Who’s heritage. (Mind you, as someone who sat open-mouthed in front of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ in 1975, I did get a kick out of seeing the conflict between the Thals and the Kaleds again, particularly as it looked like the production team had gone back to the same quarry). I prefer the episodes – like last year’s ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’ – which break new ground and/or take a good central idea and explore every angle of it. There were so many good ones scattered around ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’: you could have made a whole story out of Missy freezing the world’s passenger jets in time, as well as those macabre ‘Handmines’, the sort of surreal Gothic concept that Steven Moffat effortlessly comes up with on a regular basis. In fact, the more you think about it – dead bodies being cannibalised, presumably, and turned into weapons – the more disturbing it becomes.

Despite being rammed to the gills with continuity, the story clearly wasn’t a mess as my female chum, who’s only got a passing understanding of Who lore, was able to follow it. So if you like that sort of thing ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ worked, and as it’s only the first half of the story, we’ll really have to see next week’s episode to form a complete opinion of it.

(Image copyright: BBC)
What I liked the most were the performances. The rough edges of Capaldi’s Doctor appeared to have initially been smoothed down, but the same dangerous man who (might?) have pushed the Half-Face Man out of a flesh balloon was back in the cliffhanger – the first of many this year, hopefully. Jenna Coleman as Clara was as self-assured and feisty as ever; Missy (Michelle Gomez) had the funniest lines, to the extent that she nearly walked away with the episode, but was matched by the weary gravitas of Julian Bleach’s Davros. Thinking about it, I’d happily watch 50 minutes of the Doctor debating morality and ethics with the Dalek’s creator, and the scenes of that we did have were the story’s high points for me.


I’ve just written over a 1,000 words on the first part of a new series of Doctor Who. There can’t be many other TV series that are analysed in such detail episode by episode, and the passionate response of fans, positive or not, feeds that intense scrutiny. Even if I’m not 100% into ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, I know that there’ll be more stories down the line that I’ll prefer, and that something mind-blowing will come along that you won’t see in any other TV show.

That’s why I’m still a Doctor Who fan.

Bit to rewind: Missy (Michelle Gomez) doing That Thing With Her Head.

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