In many ways, Doctor Who since 2005 is a very different show from what had come before.
The pace is different. The look, feel and the sound – THE SOUND, THE EPIC BOOMING SOUND – are all very much different too.
The role played by the ‘showrunner’ is different also. Russell T Davies and Stephen Moffat now both occupy a sort of celebrity role which eclipses the show itself. And like fandom as a whole, they don’t so much love the show as the way it allows them to indulge their ego. Which perhaps explains why it is now less and less a show about the Doctor and more and more about their own fan fic excesses.
However, last Saturday’s episode, The Magician’s Apprentice, also had the sense that it has been done before. Here, every trick, every twist and every moment can be traced back to that fateful first 2005 series.
For example, here we have the Doctor portrayed as a flawed, villainous figure (like in 2005’s Dalek). The Daleks are less monsters and more mirrors for the Doctors’ scenery-chewing angst (also like in 2005’s Dalek). We have a companion who’s both a Shrew and a Mary Sue (pretty much the case since Tennant). There’s also a long shaggy dog story arc that will only make sense in a disappointing series denouement (like every series since 2005). And there is an emphasis on gimmicks and self-indulgence that get in the way of the plot, such as there is. (Pretty much the entire Moffat era.)
Is this 2005 or 2015? It matters not. We are still going to keep getting the same reheated stodge time and time again until Moffat at last disappears back into the void.
As for the story itself, here the Doctor finds himself in a blasted desolate planet ruined by eternal war. (It’s as if he doesn’t watch his own show, given that the viewers twig far sooner what world this is long before he does.) Trying to rescue a child from a series of booby traps known as ‘hand mines’ (geddit? Because they’re hands? And mines? Yeah?) he finds out the boy is in fact a young Davros, future creator of the Daleks, and that this is Skaro. (Y’know, a world he’s been to many times before, but doesn’t recognise in this case.)
All of which flies in the face of what we know about Davros, but hey!, every fictional character should have an awful childhood. (Listen to Big Finish’s far superior Trial of Davros series if you want a decent origin story.)
Anyway, the Doctor, having forgotten the ‘Do I Have The Right?’ lesson in Genesis of The Daleks (which this episode freely travesties), legs it, and leaves his sonic screwdriver/magic wand behind him. Old Davros then hires Colony Saarf, a talking swarm of snakes, to hunt the Doctor down in a suitably dramatic fashion. Meanwhile Carla the Mary Sue and ‘Missy’ (formerly the Master – try not to laugh or groan), find him having yet another farewell tour/end of life crisis, this time in the Middle Ages. The talking mass of snakes beams them onto his ship and then flies off to invisible Skaro (I’m not joking here), where the Doctor gurns while the Daleks zap Missy (meh), Carla (YAY!) and the TARDIS (NOOOOOO!!!) and Davros does another “We’re Not So Different, You and I” speech.
Then the Doctor goes back in time again, this time to do a Sarah Connor on young Davros and exterminate him. Or not. Tune in next week while this shambling mess congeals on the wall it was splattered on. The End.
There is much to lament about this episode. Moffat has no respect for Sci-Fi, which is why the show has the feel of an ill thought-out cartoon aimed at stupid children. Missy is mainly there to keep changing her accent and being weird-flippant-evil in a random fashion, like a bi-polar Daffy Duck. The self-indulgence is now at toxic levels, as shown when the Doctor enters the scene on top of a tank as he strums an electric guitar. This is a show that doesn’t even care now. The fans have prevailed, and as long as the show panders to their dim bulb palate rather than being, well, Doctor Who, they will overlook any degree of shoddiness…. And this episode is very shoddy.
Even the bits that work are cynical in tone. Colony Saarf is a wonderful creation, but he (or rather they) exists mainly as a dramatic McGuffin, there to provide yet another visual spectacle. Julian Bleach is once more a magnificent (grown-up) Davros, albeit one that’s been sorely underused in the last few years. Sadly, his return and that of Skaro (SKARO!!!) alike are simply yet more smoke and mirrors, a shock spectacle that may as well come with the Eastenders drum machine kicking in each time.
Peter Capaldi is still excellent too, when he’s not been turned into a total riff-plucking muppet by the script. He is an asset who’s being squandered without shame by a schmuck. None of these flickers of light serve any end other than to dish out another whizzbang for the punters.
It is TV at its most cynical. Planes frozen in the air? UNIT agents being zapped to dust? It’s all for shock and effect. This is a series of visuals with no heart or soul. Doctor Who was once used to teach people about science. Now it has ‘acoustic corridors’ and lines about artificial gravity being ‘sexy.’ This is codswallop of a frankly dire nature.
For all its attempts to be ‘cinematic’, ‘epic’ and ‘iconic’, the show is just too gormless to realise that the garnish is not the main dish, in the same way that the plunger is not the Dalek. Speaking of which, the brightly lit sets on which the Daleks roll about in this episode make them look, well, FAKE.
Back in the not so good old days with RTD and his ego, at least they got the lighting and set design right. This helped hide the fact that Daleks really are just blokes in a wheelie bin. Here though you can see the tin can murder machines wobble about in a fashion the original show’s mid 80s nadir would have cringed at. Don’t get me started on the Dalek zombie, antenna sticking out of his head like a forlorn penis.
None of it makes any sense, but it doesn’t matter. RTD and Moffat are the Rob Liefelds of Doctor Who. Their era cast aside all sense, quality and storytelling for an absurd banquet of the ego.
And lo, the audience figures for Saturday night’s mess are the lowest ever for a Who series opener. You’d think they would have got the hint. But instead the show slips ever further down the plughole, BBC higher ups holding up the two wires and wondering if they have the right….
Alexander Hay is a writer and polemicist based online and in print.