Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Preview Review: Series 9 Episode 1 The Magician's Apprentice [Very Light Spoilers]

Note: While this review doesn't include any of the major details, it is quite detailed in places so please read at your discretion. Apologies for this being later than planned.

Doctor Who finally returns to our screens this weekend and expectations are as high as ever for the so called golden age, especially after Peter Capaldi's first series going so well, with the vast majority of the stories being highly rated. The glory years are here, yes?  But, Steven Moffat, where do you go from here?

The Doctor finds himself on an unknown wasteland
In this opening episode, it's clear that Steven Moffat has taken a page from practically all his previous series; to make the opening episode to be be like the finale and start as big as possible. To be truly cinematic. While this was only really previously aimed at and publicised for the series 6 opener, which is one of my all-time favourite stories, all of his openers have had this feel to them. But this opener is even bigger and better, working surprisingly well. The opening scene especially shows this off well with a zoom-in through the clouds to a futuristic battlefield, although the obvious low-budget nature of the show is still ever present.

The episode is packed to the brim with content, without being overly complicated providing a great balance. The term "fanservice" immediately comes to mind with this episode (no, not that type of fanservice) with multiple cameos of locations, such as The Shadow Proclamation and Karn, and species, such as the Hath and Sycorax, it feels very reminiscent of The Pandorica Opens' cold open. It also feels like a massive combination with a certain RTD finale.

While the amount of content provides a good balance, the pacing of the episode isn't very well balanced. It is acceptable but isn't consistent throughout the episode, with the slow-paced sections so much more noticeable to the point where you could even get slightly bored, especially after being used to a whole previous series of almost entirely single parters. While I don't think this will cause too much of an issue while watching this episode, the fast inconsistency will make the future episodes harder to get used to.

Missy and Clara team up to find The Doctor
While the fan-service is on top form, touching on the vast majority of areas the show has covered in its 50+ year span, and is simply spectacular for us fans, this can be highly unnerving to any new viewers to the show as practically none of it is actually explained, but rather just assumes the viewers have seen at least series 8, if not more.

Of course, this not only affects the new viewers to the show, but any casual fan who doesn't know the lore. Luckily, this is primarily an issue throughout the first half and explanations and subtext make it easier throughout the second, more important, half.

Having said that, the non-reliance upon watching Classic Doctor Who is fantastic since all the details can be gleaned from the statements in the episode or are featured in the previous New Who episode. Although, of course, watching episodes like Genesis of the Daleks massively help give it that extra "Woah" feel.

But yes! The Daleks are back! Remember when Asylum of the Daleks was publicised and the tagline was about it being every dalek ever? That didn't go well but TMA is a massive improvement. While the range of Daleks isn't as much as we'd like, we get to see pre-RTD Daleks actually take part and talking. Even a Dalek that has never spoken before. The best part about this is that they made no fuss about it.

And the plan? What are they actually doing? Well, without going into too much detail....there's not actually much detail to go into. We don't really get to see an actual plan, other than the assumed traditional Dalek conquer plan. Because why waste time on plans when we all know what they mean anyway!

Colony Sarff
However, it's not just the good old Daleks being featured! We have two new monsters in the episode, The Hand Mines and Colony Sarff. While these are actually pretty creepy and could terrify children, these are not that scary. Fortunately, they serve their purposes very well.

Unfortunately, Colony Sarff remains a mystery. Since we don't actually know anything properly informative about it, one of its major issues is that it has no 'bite'. The 'monster' hisses a lot, but we don't actually get to see it do anything bad to anyone. On the contrary, we even see a moment of it displaying some humanity and practically get 'shot' down. The fact that it quite obviously moves on roller skates doesn't help the suspension of disbelief either.

Unfortunately, the overall plot point of The Doctor being missing doesn't make absolute sense. We spend a good third of the episode on the sheer fact that The Doctor cannot be found, but we never get an explanation as to why that is, or even a hint at one. The entire idea is simply glossed over which is massively disappointing when such an occurrence is fairly rare in Doctor Who, and the episode (alongside its publicity) make a big deal out of it. To make matters worse, the way he is found is quite ridiculous and I can't help but feel it's quite ignorant of canon. On the plus side, when the Doctor is found, despite the awkwardness, it's quite a funny scene.

Aside from a slightly cringeworthy and slightly drawn out reveal for Missy, the UNIT scenes were very entertaining too, although the absence of Osgood was very apparent, perhaps caused more by the fact that none of the characters even hinted at her and the fact that we have a new alternate Osgood replacement than simply being missing.

This is, however, saved by keeping that third entertaining and unique. We have a problem that, surprisingly, we've never seen before in Doctor Who. All the planes suddenly freeze in mid-air without any explanation, something which I found was another example of Moffat using such imaginative but obvious ideas in his work. It presents a good mystery and if it wasn't used in the episode, I think it could have made a great basis for an actual episode with The Doctor taking an active role in it.  In fact, the whole story uses so many ideas in one go, it's incredible.

Unfortunately, I cannot go into detail into the final two thirds without getting shot by the BBC, but rest assured it is an entertaining story and the premises are quite fun even if not a huge amount happens. The episode drops down in pitch and gets really dark and heavy towards the end and, even with the light-hearted joke in there, it still is obvious. And luckily, the lines from the first two acts converge nicely into the final act to setup the cliffhanger.

When we first see The Doctor, he's a slightly cheerier version of The Doctor we've know for the past series, starting with a beautiful Listen-fear-esque speech. But he soon reaches his tipping point and his character changes. He's different. Very different, but doesn't let that on easily.

Instead of hating everyone else, all that hatred is turned in on himself (instead of just most of it!), and hiding that has become his first priority, cracking jokes at almost everything on his final night (which are admittedly, pretty funny in a dad-joke way), hugging people and being nice. One scene must have cost a fortune just to crack a joke (OK, it was worth it, but still!)
The Doctor is playing the guitar, sure, but what is he standing on?
While it's strange to see a Doctor act this way, it's not out of character from within the story and Moffat has written much more radical changes in his character, e.g. The Snowmen's seclusion, so fortunately, the jump in character isn't unexplained or too alienating for the viewer.

Despite this past experience, this severe attitude switch of the Doctor is almost as if it's a theme of the series as a whole, considering the titles are designed to be oxymorons too. All the same, Capaldi does a great job of hitting you directly in "the feels" more than once during the episode.

Michelle Gomez returns as Missy, the new Master reformed into Missy, and takes her character to a whole new level by focusing on being The Doctor's so called "friend". This is the first story where we know who she is from the start and she definitely isn't above reminding us of that fact, perfectly fitting in with the character and killing random people. However, she's lost some amount of her bonkers persoa, which will please some people who weren't fans of the OTT nature, but she's a lot more cold and calculating now. In fact, the character as a whole feels a lot more fleshed out.

Sharing the screen time with Gomez is Jenna Coleman, back as Clara, forming an uneasy (for Clara) relationship with Missy. While her acting is superb, between the two Time Lords and a major enemy, she feels like the third-wheel throughout the episode, something which is directly referred to but still makes her feel fairly useless. The excuse for her to be included is a pretty lousy one since it's hard to see how she is actually needed.

Despite this, she is still in the episode the most out of any character so "Clara Who" haters will be disappointed at that. Sadly, she's pretty lousily written, but I imagine it's about as well as it could have been given the circumstances around including Missy. There are still problems though. Things like immediately thinking of things UNITs top scientists have never thought of (don't they have more than one or two anyway?) make it somewhat silly and even less believable.

Blink's director, Hettie MacDonald, returns to direct this opening two-parter. The episode was directed exceedingly well and looked beautiful on the big screen with everything coming together smoothly.

Murray Gold doesn't bring amazing new pieces to the table, but rather an amalgamation of the pieces he has created over the past several years and these are pulled off really well.

The cliffhanger of this episode is amazing and something that we've never quite seen in Doctor Who in the past. And not quite as obvious as you'd think at first (of course, I cannot go into any more detail than that!). Even the cold open gives you that WTF feeling! I'm greatly looking forward to a series of two-parters and I'm glad Moffat has continued to break the formula and try something new. The only problem with having a cliffhanger this big? The resolution had better stick up to it.

Finally, the title (while clearly referring to Clara) is not related to the plot of the episode in any way, like we first thought it would be. I confess I considered both episodes' titles for a long time in an attempt to figure it out, but alas, didn't quite make it.

It's also amazing to think that a good proportion of the trailer we saw was from these first two episodes. What more is to come!

Conclusion: It's not without it's faults, like any episode, and is far from recommended for any beginner but as long as you don't think too hard about it and just enjoy, it is possibly the strongest start to a new series that I've seen.


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