"Son of Adam," said the Lion. "There is an evil Witch abroad in my new land of Narnia. Tell these good Beasts how she came here."
A dozen different things that he might say flashed through Digory's mind, but he had the sense to say nothing except the exact truth.
"I brought her, Aslan," he answered in a low voice.
—from The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis
There are two great myths evoked by the title of Steven Moffat's "The Magician's Apprentice," the ninth season premiere of Doctor Who. The first, of course, is Goethe's poem "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," forever embodied in popular consciousness by a hapless, broom-battling Mickey Mouse in Disney's Fanstasia. It is the story of someone carelessly playing with forces he cannot possibly understand, and setting in motion a series of spiraling consequences that he cannot possibly control. (That the foolish young apprentice is attempting to clean up a mess, and in the process creates a larger mess, means that this story always has resonance for Doctor Who.)
The second story—and one I suspect is even closer to Steven Moffat's intent and heart, given his earlier proclivities—is The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis's prequel to his Narnia stories. The Magician's Nephew is Narnia's creation myth: it is the tale not simply of how Narnia came to be, but—more importantly for our purposes—of how evil was introduced into the land. Evil first came to Narnia in the form of the white witch Jadis, who destroyed all life on her own world by employing a curse called "The Deplorable Word." And she came to the newborn paradise of Narnia riding on the coattails of a boy, Digory, who was recklessly jumping between worlds.
It's been a good many decades since I read The Chronicles of Narnia, so I'll leave it to someone more fluent in Lewis's tale to tease out just how deliberate and direct the parallels are with this particular tale of the birth of evil. (The title of next week's conclusion, "The Witch's Familiar," suggests that the connections are very intentional, but the way Moffat plays with causality here certainly complicates the obvious reading of the Doctor as Digory and Davros as Jadis.) And none of it is really necessary for appreciating "The Magician's Apprentice," though it provides additional, rich layers of resonance to an ambitious story that is already packed to capacity with allusions and significance.
For there is yet a third legendary story haunting "The Magician's Apprentice." The Twelfth Doctor may not recognize the bleak, smoke-filled battlefields on which he finds himself at the beginning of "Apprentice," but most old-school Whovians no doubt felt a thrilling rush of recognition as these scenes—gorgeously realized here by returning director Hettie Macdonald ("Blink")—instantly evoked the opening of one of the all-time great Doctor Who serials: 1975's "Genesis of the Daleks." In that story, the Fourth Doctor was sent to Skaro, during the endless war between the Thals and the Kaleds, to commit a monstrous act: to exterminate the entire race of Daleks by preventing their very creation. "Have I that right?" the Doctor asked his companions, while he wrestled with the ethical conundrum of preemptive genocide. "Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?"
Davros is the Hitler of the Doctor Who universe, and this was the show's version of a classic ethical dilemma: if you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?
The Fourth Doctor didn't do it, obviously. ("If I kill—wipe out an entire intelligent life-form—then I become like them," he said. "I'd be no better than the Daleks.") But here, in the "The Magician's Apprentice," the Twelfth Doctor gets another stab at the baby, and this Doctor is not the Fourth, nor is he quite like any of the value-life-at-all-costs Doctors we've seen since the show returned in 2005. When this Doctor encounters a young Davros (Joey Price) surrounded by "handmines" on the battlefields of Skaro, he coldly abandons him to his fate.
This, it is strongly implied, is a key moment—perhaps the key moment—in the development of Davros. (If we want to play up the symbolism of those delightfully creepy "handmines," it is the moment when Davros is first sucked into Hell.) "Davros made the Daleks," the Doctor says later in the episode. "But who made Davros?" That's the question at the heart of this episode, and the answer is more complicated than it appears.
First, it's tricky from a perspective of temporal ethics: in declining to save the child, was the Doctor attempting to alter the timeline—by causing the death of the future monster—or was he simply allowing the timeline to proceed unmolested? After all, the Doctor knows who Davros becomes, and he knows what the Daleks mean to the universe, and he decided way back in "Genesis" to let it happen. So when he accidentally stumbles upon this formative experience in the life of the young dictator, there's an argument to be made that he does exactly the right thing: nothing. He simply declines to interfere with the timeline of established events, not knowing what such a monumental revision would do to the universe.
However—though Steven Moffat is more infatuated with time travel than any showrunner in Doctor Who history—thinking too much about paradoxes and temporal ethics is always headache-inducing, and rarely rewarding. The question of whether it's right or wrong to interfere with the established timeline comes up occasionally, for example, but it's one of those questions that the show must largely ignore in order to exist. (The Doctor travels through time and interferes: that's what he does, and whether he does it in the 9th century or the 21st century or the 51st century makes no difference.) Furthermore, it is ultimately an unanswerable question whether what the Doctor does here is a "revision" of the timeline, or whether it is what "always" happened: from Davros's perspective, perhaps this strange man he met on a battlefield was always part of his formative experiences.
But this event is complicated in other ways as well. For what actually happened to young Davros after the Doctor left? We don't see, so we don't know. Presumably something terrible happened, perhaps the terrible thing that first set Davros on the road to monstrosity. But did the Doctor cause this terrible event? Did he simply fail to save Davros from this terrible event? Or did he inadvertently provide him with the means to survive this terrible event? (For, before he learns who the child is, the Doctor throws the child his sonic screwdriver: perhaps this is the only reason Davros lived at all.)
I'm dwelling on this because I think the question is important: was it the Doctor's actions that brought evil into the universe, or was it his inaction? In other words—more to the point—was it the Doctor's hatred that made Davros, or was it his compassion?
For compassion is at the root of the Doctor's centuries-long argument with Davros (Julian Bleach). "Compassion, Doctor," Davros taunts him towards the end of this episode. "It has always been your greatest indulgence. Let this be my final victory. Let me hear you say it, just once: compassion is wrong." Davros designed the Daleks to be the perfect soldiers, and his final modification to his creations—in "Genesis"—was to introduce "chromosomal variations" that would leave them "creatures without conscience, no sense of right or wrong, no pity." A Dalek has no compassion: that's what makes it a Dalek.
And the corollary is largely true as well: the Doctor is supposed to have compassion: that's what makes him the Doctor. But the Twelfth Doctor has consistently shown less compassion than almost any of his predecessors, and certainly less than any Doctor in the modern era. As we saw repeatedly throughout Season Eight, this Doctor is unsentimental, practical, even ruthless when necessary. We frequently saw him spare barely a thought for innocent casualties—like the soldier Ross in "Into the Dalek," or the passengers aboard the Orient Express—who might have to be sacrificed for the greater good. ("You are a good Dalek," the Dalek "Rusty" accused him, at the end of "Into the Dalek.") Throughout that season, Clara was often horrified by the Doctor's apparent callousness, but she also came to recognize that being effective is not the same as being kind, or nice, or good: sometimes, you have to just get on with it, and save who you can, and not worry about saving who you can't. ("You made an exceptional Doctor," the Doctor told Clara in "Flatline." "And goodness had nothing to do with it.")
Which brings us to Clara and Missy, whose presences in this story are more significant than usual. The last time they were all together, in last season's finale "Death in Heaven," it was Clara arguing for ruthlessness. In her anger and grief over Danny Pink's death, she wanted to kill Missy, or she wanted the Doctor to do it. "Old friend, is she?" Clara asked the Doctor, of Missy. "If you've ever let this creature live, everything that happened today is on you. All of it, on you. And you're not going to let her live again."
It was the same argument his former companion Sarah Jane Smith made in "Genesis of the Daleks": "Think of all the suffering there will be if you don't do it," she had said, as the Doctor contemplated erasing the Daleks from existence. And where the Fourth Doctor balked at such an act, the Twelfth Doctor did not: he was willing to kill Missy: he just wasn't willing to let Clara become a murderer. Being the Doctor means making hard choices, and—as he told her in "Flatline"—he thinks the way he does so other people don't have to. (As it turned out, neither of them had to do it, because the Cyber-Brigadier got there first. And, as it really turned out, no one killed Missy at all—a development that is barely waved at here.)
But now Clara discovers that the Doctor apparently not only knew that Missy was still alive, but still considers her his closest friend. "Try, nano-brain, to rise above the reproductive frenzy of your noisy little food chain, and contemplate friendship," Missy lectures Clara. "A friendship older than your civilization, and infinitely more complex." Whatever else their relationship has been—and yes, they have tried to kill each other, from time to time—these two Time Lords share a history, and experiences, and an emotional connection, that cannot be broken.
Peas in a pod, they share a bond of compassion: from the Latin compati, "to suffer with."
So here, in "The Magician's Apprentice," we have the Doctor's two greatest enemies, the Master and Davros, together for the first time. With one he shares a bond of friendship and compassion; with the other he has only hatred and revulsion. One he allowed to live; one he tried to erase from existence. Which is the real reflection of the Doctor? Which one brings out his true self?
In last season's premiere, "Deep Breath," the Doctor asked Clara a question: "Am I a good man?" I have been critical of that question, because it seemed to me that Moffat had already answered it, over and over again throughout his run, and most definitively in "The Day of the Doctor," which undid the Doctor's most monstrous act, the destruction of Gallifrey. The Doctor was a good man: he was the man who would never give in to hatred and despair; he was the man who would never be cruel or cowardly, never give up, never give in. It has been established time and again—most recently in "Death in Heaven"—that he is neither a warrior nor a hero: he is a doctor.
But perhaps the question of whether someone is a good man is never definitively answered. It seems, at least, that Moffat is still interested in exploring this question for the Twelfth Doctor, and it may be a more interesting question than I'd thought. At one point in "The Day of the Doctor," the War Doctor suggests to Clara that perhaps it was the very guilt over destroying Gallifrey that made the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors so infinitely compassionate, so kind and heroic and affirming of life. ("How many worlds has his regret saved, do you think?" he asked her.) Perhaps this Doctor—the first new-era Doctor freed from the guilt of the Time War—is, ironically, the least compassionate as a result. Perhaps he is now willing to count the costs of his goodness for the universe, and weigh the burden, and conclude that—as Davros suggests—compassion is a luxury he can ill afford.
It remains to be seen—but I don't think so. "The Magician's Apprentice" ends with the Doctor apparently going back in time to kill young Davros once and for all, symbolically—almost literally—becoming a Dalek himself. ("Exterminate!" he says, pointing a Dalek blaster at the child.) It is one of the most horrific and game-changing images in Doctor Who history, if it means what it appears to mean. But I don't think it does. I have to believe that, if the Doctor made a mistake in his first encounter with young Davros, it was not in erring on the side of compassion. I have to believe that, given a do-over, he will not double-down on hatred, but instead double-down on kindness. This, too, is a theme we have seen throughout Moffat's run on Doctor Who: in stories like "A Christmas Carol" and "The Day of the Doctor," he has repeatedly changed the future by introducing more compassion into the past, not less.
We shall see next week, I suppose. But my money is on the Doctor having learned all the lessons Moffat has so painstakingly provided him over the past three seasons. I have to believe he is still neither cruel nor cowardly. I believe he will still never give up, never give in. I believe he is still, and will always be, the man who would rather fail doing the right thing than succeed in doing the wrong.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Blimey, I hate discussing half of a story: this piece is less a review than it is a round-up of themes and ideas that cannot be resolved until (at least) the conclusion of next week's episode. But reports are that Season Nine of Doctor Who will be mostly two-parters, and it's a development that I wholly support. (With two, 44-minute episodes, each story can have the same room to breathe as classic Who stories, which favored four 22-minute episodes per tale.)
- But let me throw in a little "reviewing" before I go: this was Steven Moffat working at the height of his game, and I am thrilled. Moffat's most common sin is overreaching: he frequently throws in too many ideas, too many plotlines, too many characters and elements and setpieces for him to really juggle them all comfortably. Partially owing to the freedom of the two-part format, however, "The Magician's Apprentice" is packed to the brim without being over-stuffed: everything is working and feels of a piece. Furthermore, I am excited at the perfection of tone, the result of combining an excellent script from Moffat with absolutely fantastic direction from Hettie Macdonald. Doctor Who is firing on all cylinders when it can seamlessly blend the horrors of a Skaro battlefield, the beauty of Clara and Missy dancing in empty space, and the sheer lunacy of the Doctor shredding atop a tank in a medieval arena.
- The cast, too, is flawless. It took me a while to warm to Peter Capaldi, but he is the Doctor now, and as complex and fascinating a Doctor as we've seen in the modern era. Jenna Coleman has recently announced her imminent departure from the series, and—though I'm on the record as having quibbles with her character, and believing the time is ripe for a new companion—this episode reminded me of just how good she is in this role, and how much I'm going to miss her. And, as far as I'm concerned, Missy can be the new companion when Coleman leaves: Michelle Gomez is absolutely killing the role of the Master.
- Speaking of which: it's a minor complaint, but I object to the show's insistence on calling her "Missy." I've followed suit for consistency, but she is the goddamned Master, and she deserves the title.
- A great performance also from Julian Bleach, playing a much more mature and restrained Davros than he was allowed to be in his previous, overblown appearances in "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End." And some lovely writing as well: "They want her to run, they need her to run. Do you feel their need, Doctor? Their blood is screaming, kill, kill, kill. Hunter and prey, held in the ecstasy of crisis. Is this not life at its purest?" The ecstasy of crisis: a good phrase for all of Doctor Who.
- Finally: hey, welcome back to Doctor Who! Based on this strong episode, I'm already more excited about this season than I was all of last season. But I'll be here either way: though I'm running (characteristically) late this week, I hope to have my reviews up by Sunday evening. Hope to see you here.