Doctor Who season 9 premiere review: Fixing the future
Has any Companion ever had a rockier road than Clara Oswald? Jenna Coleman first appeared on Doctor Who three years ago, airdropped in the middle of the final run of Amy-and-Rory episodes. She died in her first appearance — and died again a few months later, in the 2012 Christmas special, playing a different character who was also the same character.
Clara’s first proper appearance came in “The Bells of Saint John,” but in her initial run of episodes, the show never quite figured out the specific nature of her Companionship. The Doctor looked at her as a mystery to solve — and you could feel the show trying to figure her out, too. This was only a problem insofar as the modern run of Doctor Who has been good at defining Companions almost immediately. Rose was the Doctor’s conscience; Donna was his pal; Amy was the little girl who spent a lifetime waiting for him.
(ASIDE: You shouldn’t necessarily read the Doctor’s Companions as will-they-won’t-they romantic partners—but Martha Jones was unquestionably the Doctor’s post-Rose Rebound. Previous Who showrunner Russell T. Davies always had a knack for portraying the Doctor as an occasional noble hero who is mostly a complete cad, and one of the best things about the Martha season is how the whole romantic subtext of the Martha-Doctor relationship becomes the actual text of Martha being in love with the Doctor and the Doctor treating Martha like the world-saving time-space equivalent of a booty call. END OF ASIDE.)
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Coleman joined Doctor Who right as the hysteria for the show went truly global. This was a blessing and a curse. The blessing: Clara has gone on more elaborately expensive adventures than any previous Companion, and those adventures have played to record-breaking ratings. Curse: Clara’s run as Companion has coincided with the final act of the Eleventh Doctor, the first act of the Twelfth Doctor, and the 50th anniversary special, where Clara had to play believable second fiddle to the entire history of the Doctor Who idea.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m not entirely sure the show has quite figured out what to do with Clara. Last season, the show gave her a sweet romantic subplot, which turned out to be a long-con set-up for a majestic-bummer season finale. That season finale felt like it could have been the end of the Clara story — and in the Christmas Special that followed, we actually saw a very old Clara, sharing one last meal with the Doctor. It wasn’t the best Companion final moment ever — I’ll always remember poor Donna, who saw infinity and forgot it—but it was a final moment. Until it wasn’t.
That final meal was just a dream. And Clara has returned for another season. (Current Doctor Who steersman Steven Moffat has said that Clara’s story was originally going to end last year, until Coleman agreed to another season. And this week, she confirmed her exit from the show.) When we meet her in the new season premiere, “The Magician’s Apprentice,” she is teaching a class on Jane Austen. Global crisis beckons, and she’s immediately off to UNIT headquarters, where she speaks with 24-support-staff fluency about potential terrorist-attack devastation. There’s also a scene where she tells the government’s top save-the-world scientist squad how to locate the Doctor at a specific moment in human history. It feels a bit like they’ve done to Clara what The Walking Dead did to everybody around season 3: Ditch the personal stuff and harden her into a no-nonsense badass.
This works until it doesn’t. I’ll throw up a SPOILER ALERT here, because this episode is filled to the brim from the third minute onwards. “The Magician’s Apprentice” starts with one of the all-time great Doctor Who bangs. We see a cute little boy, trapped on a battlefield full of hand mines. (Hand mines: Hands that appear out of the earth, an open eye on the palm, ready to grab you.) The Doctor appears, gives the boy a pep talk, looks like he’s going to rescue him. The Doctor asks the scared little boy his name. “Davros,” the boy says. Cue title-sequence!
Davros, of course, is one of the Doctor’s all-time archnemeses. The Creator of the Daleks was last seen seven years ago, in “Journey’s End,” which was more or less the series finale for the Russell T. Davies version of Doctor Who. (Davies produced four more David Tennant-starring specials, less an epilogue than a victory lap.) In “The Magician’s Apprentice,” Davros is dying. He’s dispatched a subordinate to track the Doctor down. The subordinate has a message: “Davros knows. Davros remembers.”
“Magician’s Apprentice” features the return of Missy, the feminized regeneration of The Master. The last time we saw Missy, she got vaporized. The Moffat script doesn’t even bother making a joke out of her return. Missy just explains, nonchalantly: “Not dead. Back. Big surprise. Never mind.” This is a smart move, I think. Intentionally or not, Gomez-as-Missy feels like she’s channeling Christopher Eccleston-as-Doctor: There’s that same friendly sociopathy, the same way of turning on a dime from kooky innocence into genocidal terror.
It’s great to see Missy back. But the problem is that bringing back Missy — and frontloading the whole Master-Doctor friendship dynamic — has the unintentional side effect of putting Clara on the backburner again. When she argues with Missy about who knows the Doctor better, you can’t help but side with Missy.
Doctor Who has become a bigger, more popular show under the Moffat regime. Which means the show’s setpieces have gotten bigger. In “The Magician’s Apprentice,” there’s a scene set in medieval times where the Doctor emerges, wearing sunglasses, playing electric guitar, freaking riding a tank. It’s a funny moment — current Doctor Peter Capaldi knows how to chew scenery into gold — but it’s also entirely frivolous, since nothing that happens in that scene really matters.
And there’s nothing wrong with frivolity! But “Magician’s Apprentice” cuts off the wacky stuff, quickly and firmly. The episode concludes with a bold, dark, weird twist that feels like a renewed attempt to challenge the basic precepts of the Doctor Who mythos. And it does that by…
Throwing up another SPOILER ALERT HERE just for added protection…
The season premiere of Doctor Who ends with Clara dying. Again. How this effects the Doctor is interesting — and I’ll withhold final judgment on this twist until next week’s conclusion — but it’s a minor bummer to see the show re-re-unbooting Clara right back to where we met her. One more time, she’s a dead girl the Doctor is trying to save.
“Magician’s Apprentice” is a confident hour of television. It puts several exciting pieces in place for the season ahead — and it proves once again that Moffat is great at situating a bold new Doctor Who direction within the half-century mythology of Doctor Whos past. (Any Doctor Who episode with a clip of Tom Baker gets at least partial grade inflation.) But it’s another weird chapter in the Clara Oswald story. How do you solve a problem like Clara? The show’s solution — yet again — is to get rid of her.
EPISODE GRADE: B+