Dear Steven Moffat: The Magician’s Apprentice

Capaldi

Dear Steven,

Has it really been nine months since you last disappointed me? I’ve missed you and your Doctor Who fan fiction. Sure, without it I’m calmer, more at ease. I don’t get migraine or heart palpitations or anxiety or psychosis or nervous exhaustion or paranoia or gastrointestinal problems or nausea or impotence, but without those things I don’t feel myself. I don’t know where I am. I imagine you’d be the same without whimsy, conceptual miscellany and paradoxes.

“The Magician’s Apprentice”, the first in this new series of misadventures, assured me that we’re the same, we both need our defects because trying to overcome them is just too damn hard. I expect you spent the hiatus listening to people tell you that you should craft stories that had structure and weight and conceptual clarity and character development, rather than pegging a few ideas on a clothesline and calling it an episode. But to your credit you ignored these armchair critics. The fucking gall of them! Telling you, the Doctor Who show runner, how to write drama. Did they create Chalk? Or that Comic Relief sketch with Rowan Atkinson? No, so they should get back in their convention hall and have the good grace to buy merchandise, pay £40 for an autograph, and shut their space hole.

Anyway, it’s the kids that matter, right? And I’m certain that once they watched this first episode, with its logic farts, stunt complications and dramatic cheats, they’d get a nebulous sense of action and consequence and would fill in the blanks using their imaginations. Ah yes, the mind of a child: the cheapest script editor there is.

Adults, however, might have felt there was something missing from this story, despite the return of classic villain Davros, the planet Skaro, The Master/Missy, and the Daleks; historically big box office. What was it? Could the problem be that hook, the Doctor’s encounter with a young Davros in a handmine field (beware puns, Steven, you’ll be doing explosive old women called Gran-nades next)? It was strong fan bait, a moment designed to induce geek gasps, but as the titles rolled and the implications sunk in, both I and the glass of ginger wine in my hand realised this was just another example of you hijacking a little bit of the classic show’s mythos; a scene that had the imprimatur of your monstrous ego.

What, it’s not enough that Clara, your invention, is now integral to the Doctor’s survival and instrumental in the construction of his psyche, or that the Master, a classic nemesis, has been recast as the Doctor’s wayward friend, you’ve got to retcon the creator of the Daleks too? Steven, I can cope with filler like the Doctor somehow playing an electric guitar in twelfth century Essex, or the idea he transported a tank there somehow, because I’ll forget it as quickly as I hated it, but the Doctor creating Davros? What the fuck?

So the Doctor, hearing a child’s name is Davros, leaves him in a highly deadly situation despite having no evidence that the kid in question, who’s just some tyke on a battlefield (though it’s not clear what he’s doing alone in a warzone), is the young version of his long time enemy. But assuming for a moment that he’s absolutely sure of Davros’s identity, based on this thirty second encounter; resolute in his belief that no other child in the universe could be called Davros, then what would be the point of leaving him to die when the Doctor would know full well that he survived? Why not save him instead and use the opportunity of this chance encounter to try and inculcate some bread and butter values in the little bastard?

The Doctor could have taken him on adventures, shown him that compassion, heroism and self-sacrifice were noble virtues, while fascism, genocidal tendencies and mutant experimentation were occasionally ill-advised. He could have used his time alone with the boy to hammer home the message that even if you were, say, crippled in a Thal attack, you shouldn’t retaliate by creating an army of murder droids. But instead he leaves him there, knowing that doing so might just create acrimony between them and lead to universal holocausts like the Time War, not to mention all the other people who’ve been killed in the centuries-long crossfire.

But let’s not forget about Davros, because he too once had a brain…and a very keen one at that. Young Davros grows up of course, becomes crippled, goes mad and invents the Daleks, but now we understand his hatred of the Doctor is driven by that first encounter; the bastard with the box who left him to die on the battlefield and threw down his sonic screwdriver so he’d be readily identifiable in future. Davros knows and Davros remembers, we’re told, but Davros apparently, can’t think in a non-linear way. He knows the Doctor’s his mortal enemy, that the man he’s encountered many times loathes him because he’s his ideological opposite and the Time Lord hates conquest and the cold logic of the psychopath. So armed with that information, might Davros, as he careered toward old age and an encounter with the Twelfth Doctor, have realised that THIS was the reason the Doctor left him there? Because of what he became? Wouldn’t that recast the Doctor’s apparent callousness as an explicable reflex, like whistling and walking on by as a young Hitler struggled in the deep end of a swimming pool?

So neither the Doctor or Davros’s actions made any sense, given their knowledge of one another. That, Steven, would have been bad enough but you had to do it, didn’t you? You had to tease the most loathed time travel plot device in the universe, the ontological paradox. “Who made Davros?” says the Doctor, and a nation cried “fuck you” and threw its wine glass to the ground, destroying the last in a set that Saggy Membranes got me for Christmas. The Doctor left Davros to die because of who he became but he became Davros because the Doctor left him to die. Steven, I hope to go on holiday to Tuscany with you someday, but go fuck yourself.

This, and Davros’s belated revenge, was the pallid meat of “The Magician’s Apprentice”, a revenge he could have taken at any time during the Doctor’s previous eleven incarnations, but didn’t think to. He didn’t even mention his childhood encounter. Well, that was the villain’s ultimate motive but where was the story? Those trying to delineate the dramatic through line had a thankless task. Instead of finding an organic way to drop the Doctor and Clara into a mystery that would ultimately be revealed as the front for a Dalek trap to make the Doctor pay for the thing Davros had forgot to punish him for in every previous encounter, you skipped the difficult part and contrived to get the Doctor to Skaro using an avalanche of contrivances.

Why have a mystery when you can reveal the villain’s motive at the outset and spend a third of your episode having his henchman search for the Doctor, who once found, is taken without a fight? A fuck up like that could murder all the tension, but wait, you had an idea. Portending the Doctor’s death worked once, though we didn’t believe it then either, why not do it again? And why not have his will delivered by a character you had the good sense to kill last year but have since decided to revive? Though you’ll be buggered if you can explain how she survived. And fuck, if that’s all there is to the story – if it’s just getting a group of people you like together for a bit of chat and a reunion, why not attempt to revive the traditional Doctor Who cliffhanger with some deaths that no one watching will register as credible? Killing Missy and Clara would have been great, not to mention ruthless, if you had the balls to irreversibly, finally, do it. But wiping them and the TARDIS out – acts we know will be reversed using time travel, is a cheap trick. It amounts to a cliffhanger with no teeth…you know, if a story element had dentures. Haven’t you learnt the lesson of the Pandorica yet? I wrote to you about it, after all.

For drama to grip a story must have internal logic, something at stake and characters in tangible, “how the Matt Smith will they get out of this?” jeopardy. On each of these “Magician’s Apprentice” failed – not least because the final seconds, with a wide-eyed Capaldi ready to murder a child, told us that a) he escapes from Davros and b) he has the means to reverse everything we’ve just seen. Even that so-called cliffhanger was bunk, because if the Doctor wouldn’t wipe out the Daleks in “Genesis of the Daleks”, and save billions of lives, he’s not likely to do it now so that Clara can finish her dull Jane Austen lesson.

It’s good to have you back, Dude. Oh no, I wrote Dude, like some twelfth century Essex person.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Why are there WWI biplanes on Skaro? I know the war went on a long time but did the Thals or the Kaleds really have time to procure ancient technology from another planet? How desperate were they? And if they could do that, why not just escape to another planet?

P.P.S: “The planes are frozen in time,” says the UNIT woman from Bugs, despite having no idea that’s the case. Could they not be caught in a beam or something, or be moving at a rate the naked eye couldn’t register? Who briefed her?

P.P.P.S: You’d think the Doctor would realise that insisting his companion travelled with him continuously would make the Earth safer, y’know, because his enemies may use a companion to flush him out? It seems he instinctively understood this in the past, when he had no truck with fitting in around his companion’s day job, but he’s become a bit cavalier since then.

The Initial and Often Tolerable Adventures of Curious Clara and her Wizened Companion:

The Fag End of Matt Smith’s Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

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20 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As someone whose first Doctor was the first Doctor, I find that there is a misunderstanding about what the fellow & the show was/is all about.
    It uses speculative fiction, but is television fantasy. It is a television fantasy that originally skewed to children., specifically those from the British Isles. The companion(s) role was represent that audience. The military & official science & government big-wigs were representing the adults who thought they knew more than everyone else. The Doctor over time came to represent the eternal wonder of childhood, a cross between Peter Pan and Merlin.

    Part of the current problem is that now there is a large enough American audience which is skewed young adult that is expecting “science fiction” with romance and adventure. This creates a tension in how the narratives are structured and how the characters are portrayed.

    I can understand your frustration based on your expectations. When I see the weakness you point out, it just reminds me of the roots of the show. When the Doctor gets very grim and dark it reminds me of the Frank Miller and Nolan’s view of the American superhero who lives out the failure of the American Dream. When the companion behaves like the girl in a Romantic Comedy trying to tame the Doctor while proving herself to be his equal, I recognize there is an audience that will find that appealing. All of it is part of the Grand mess that is the Doctor Who show. 😀

    I anticipate based on some reviews and tonight’s episode that we are in for some fancy timey-wimey footwork. I enjoy the nonsense and puzzle pieces so I will reserve judgement on the choices of both Darvos & Doctor.

  2. If only I could employ the Moffat idea of nipping back and rescuing those 45 minutes? Unfortunately I can’t. It’s with me for life now and no amount of timey wimey wimsy can mend the scars. Dude.

  3. Erm, the Doctor and the Master have always been friends…

    Yes, the Master is the Doctor’s arch nemesis but he/she is also his friend and that’s been established plenty of times in the show’s past.

    Besides: I’ll be shocked if Missy doesn’t have an ulterior evil motive.

    • Were friends, not are friends. The idea they’ve always been pals, as Missy claimed, is probably wishful thinking on Missy’s part (or more like Moffat imprinting his own, ill-conceived interpretation of their relationship on both characters, as is his wont). Perhaps the Doctor feels some residual tie to him/her, but it’s probably the same feeling you might have for a callous and unpleasant ex-girlfriend. Sure, you don’t want them to go under the wheels of a train, because you’re a nice guy and maybe deep down you wish the bad feeling wasn’t there, but you wouldn’t want to spend any time with them either.

      • Correction: are friends, not were friends.

        Piece of advice: just shaddap up and try watchin’ da show before having a go at Moffat – question mark.

      • Oh, well that’s told me fanboy, thank you. I suppose you’re right. I mistook the fact the Master grew to hate the Doctor and tried to destroy him on multiple occasions as a sign their friendship might be historic rather than ongoing, but I see now that was just a spat between pals. By the same token I suppose Moriarty and Holmes are friends deep down.

        If Moffat amends continuity from now on I’ll accept it without question. If he doesn’t care about the show’s history, why should I?

      • The master is more than delusional enough to think that they are still friends.

      • Sure, but that would be his/her delusion, not the truth. I mean she didn’t even get an invite to his wedding.

  4. Thank you for telling the truth about the lamentable junk that is this episode…I am at the point where I am just about done with the latest Doctor…he’s personally fine, no complaint with Capaldi, but the writing–! The stories are careening all over the place and have no heart or logic for me. And the bit over the last few years where they keep killing characters off and then they just come back…I HATE that trick. It’s such manipulation of the audience, it’s disrespectful. So why should I continue to watch?

    • It is a shame that Capaldi fulfilled his dream to be the Doctor during an agist period where the head writer assumes you have to push the companion he’s obviously more interested in, front and centre, and to have said writer be no dramatist worthy of the name. Hopefully he’ll survive Moffat’s tenure and get a second bite of the cherry and a chance to chew on some red meat before he quits. Steven’s done 5 years like Russell Dust, and he’s obviously out of ideas, so with luck he’s already planning his exit strategy.

      • And yet Moffat started out so fresh and promising. We need term limits on these people, before they start to rot and smell from standing in harness too long.

        I find his “Sherlock” series too difficult to watch also. I almost feel as if I’m watching “Doctor Who” when I watch it, too much visual jiggery-pokery and cutting-edge cleverness, not enough thought in action. I don’t blame the actors for this, they are very good (although Martin Freeman seems to be in too many things ever since The Office. Good for his wallet, boring for the audience. He’s overused, like Geoffrey Palmer was back in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond). Fine acting or not, I just can’t follow the much-lauded Holmes series. Too dark, too many twists and turns, too much insider jokey stuff vamped to much younger people. (I’m 56, not part of that whole thing.) I know Sherlock Holmes stories very, very well, but Jeremy Brett was my guy…can’t help that, but really, I must be the only person on earth who thinks “Sherlock” is actually lousy and is an example of totally lazy scriptwriting.

  5. Unfortunately, the fans of the show (such as myself) who have not enjoyed Moffat’s tenure and are waiting in hope for someone better to replace him seem to be labelled as ‘haters’ whenever we post. As a longtime Whovian, I agree with Ed – the simple art of storytelling, involving a good plot and character development, seems to have been sacrificed for lots of shiny bells and whistles. It’s particularly depressing because a) this used to be my favourite show, and b) I had misgivings when Davies announced he was going to revive it, but found myself loving what he did with it. I was emotionally involved with every episode and came away feeling like I’d been taken on a journey, and left with something to go away and think about. That’s all gone for me now, and if the rest of my family didn’t tune in to watch the show nowadays, I wouldn’t either; in fact I did manage to skip almost the entirety of Matt Smith’s last season, though I was pleased with the casting of Capaldi and wanted to give his Doctor a chance. I think he’s great, within the severe limitations he’s been given. This has been the state of affairs with the show too long for me to be disappointed anymore, since I know what to expect by now, but it’s still, just . . . sad.

    • I have to say I’ve not been entirely satisfied with either Nu-Who era. Davies was better at structuring stories, no question, but his take on Doctor Who was too broad for my taste, and occasionally camp. I don’t want Who stories featuring Britney Spears’ songs or the Doctor singing the Ghosbusters theme. For me the best two eras of the show remain Philip Hinchcliffe’s with the Forth Doctor, and the final two seasons of Sylvester McCoy’s stint. Meaty, atmospheric and occasionally leftfield stories that had intelligence, wit and dramatic integrity. Moffat made a mistake making a thematic sequel to “Genesis of the Daleks”, because the comparison doesn’t flatter him. Not only does it showcase all the weaknesses in his approach – habits that have got worse as time’s gone on, but they constitute a TV crime, retconing a great story like “Genesis” and making it a little worse as a result. He should lose a finger for that at least.

      I suppose when he began with Smith he looked to have corrected some of the fundamentals – I mean, he made the show less broad, introduced more intrigue and imaginative acts of conceptual masturbation, and he’s probably the first showrunner to truly understand the non-linear potential of the show, but he’s wasted that potential by relying on circular plots, which for me will always be less interesting and intriguing than clear cause and effect (regardless of the order in which we see them), he’s never excised all the trying pop culture references (which instantly date episodes), and as time’s gone on it’s become clear that to him a story is a tease, followed by a set of scenes featuring stuff from the cool wall, rather than a piece of drama that’s about something. I assumed he’d get better at sorting out the latter as we went, but he’s actually got worse – in fact I think he’s now just lazy. For me, Who should be made up of long form storytelling with the scope to develop supporting characters and explore intelligent sci-fi ideas. It should never be fan service for those half watching it while tweeting during the other half. If the BBC want to give me Steven’s cash, and send him away to write a new sitcom, I’d commission 6 feature length screenplays a year – the only stipulation being there had to be a fucking great cliffhanger half way through each. 6 stories – any genre, any period, anywhere in the universe. Oh, and we’d have the cliffhanger sound back. Right now the show’s like listening to Ziggy Stardust with Bowie’s “and Zig-gaaay, playyyed gui-tarrrrrrrrrrr-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh” cut off the end.

    • RTD was just as bad as Moffat. Rose was the impossible girl. All his companions fell in love with the Doctor, too!

  6. I’m definitely with you on the Hinchcliffe era, my favourite too from old-Who too. I know RTD-Who could get a bit cheesy at times, but with the other elements going for it that I mentioned, I always found it easy to forgive. I also agree that Moffat shouldn’t have touched ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, a classic story that was so very different – and superior – in its approach, tone, and message. He seems to like to continually ransack the unique treasure trove of past episodes of the show just to do stupid ‘fanboy’ stuff. No wonder the viewer figures are so low for this season opener; he’s made the show inaccessible to casual viewers and insulted the long-term ones who aren’t impressed with ‘Look – the Sisterhood of Karn!’ -type cameos. There’s no substance. As for Missy, she’s yet another manifestation of Moffat’s female dominatrix archetype – sadistic and oh so sassy. I truly hope he hasn’t thought of bringing back Romana in this kind of mould – can you imagine?

    • I’d rather not. At this rate my impotency will never be reversed.

      Oh God, Missy. Must all Moffat’s Time Lords be child-like? I thought Derek Jacobi was terrific in the two minutes he got to play the Master – menace and gravitas. Why couldn’t we have more of him?

      • Given that we have had 2 prolong encounters with Time Lords since 2005, The Master and the Doctor, who are child like, an then we have had one small, 30 seconds here and there of other Timelords who weren’t child like at all, in fact they were anything but child like in those scenes.

  7. Given the biplanes were firing lasers, they clearly weren’t from Earth but an invention of their own.

    “”or the idea he transported a tank there somehow””

    We know the Tardis can grow or shrink, we saw that last season. He probably just enlarge the Tardis door so he could just drive the tank in.

    I think the biggest question is, what did he really need the tank for, I’m betting we are going to see it get use in the future other just a prop for his solo performance.

    Davros could only have known from that one encounter on the minefield was that he encountered a time lord, even that a bit of a stretch when the Tardis can look like anything a Time Lord want to look like, there was no way he could have known that it was The Doctor, even knowing it was a Time Lord is a bit of a stretch.

    The Doctor always goes without a fight, when was the last time the doctor by himself actually fought against going with a enemy into their lair. An most of your other complaints are things they been doing in Doctor Who from day 1.

    • Well that explains the biplanes. It’s obvious that a planet six galaxies from Earth would engineer a flying machine of identical design to our planes. I expect decades later the Thals had their own versions of Ford Fiestas and the Intercity 125.

      From memory the TARDIS only shrank last year, eventually returning to its original size. I don’t think it’s ever been externally bigger than we’ve seen it. I suppose theoretically it could be bigger, but I think Moffat just thought it would be cool for the Doctor to ride in on a tank in 12th century Essex and hoped the audience would be so impishly delighted that they wouldn’t ask questions. No one asked where the power to his electric guitar was coming from, after all.

      I think as Davros saw both the TARDIS in its distinct form and had the Doctor’s sonic screwdirver, he’d eventually work out that the man he subsequently encountered who had both these things and the ability to change his face, was the same man. Obviously he wouldn’t know what a Time Lord was initially, but the point is that he chose to get revenge many centuries later, in full knowledge of the facts, with oodles of time to reflect on the Doctor’s motives and the part his genocidal lunacy might have played in it – the Doctor being a time traveller and all.

      I’m not sure the thing about the Doctor always giving himself up without a fight is true. I base this on all the times he didn’t go willingly to his certain death and that of his companions – you know, the hundreds of episodes in which he said something like “run!” or ran, or tried to get away from danger. But I accept you may have either blinked or had a microsleep during those moments.


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