Discussing Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar

I’ve written repeatedly about Doctor Who here on the blog (including what episodes to watch if you are trying out the show for the first time), so I thought it could be fun to have a blog discussion about each new episode this season with a friend, fellow nerd and Whovian—Kevin Harvey.

Kevin is an editor and author, including his most recent book (which is relevant to this discussion) All You Want to Know About The Bible in Pop Culture. He blogs at BibleInPopCulture.com, where he talks about the intersection of faith and culture, and you can catch him on Twitter, often live tweeting Doctor Who, at @PopCultureKevin.

From here on out, we will try to post each week. But to start off, we discuss the two episodes that made up the season opening story. In case it needs to be said, *spoiler warning.*

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How did you like “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” as a start to series 9?

Aaron: For me, as someone who is now steeped in Doctor Who lore, I loved the introduction of Davros as a child and the interconnectedness between he and the Doctor. He, like Missy (or the Master) in some ways, is the mirror reflection of the Doctor. He simply has an inverted sense of morality. The Daleks almost embody the imaginary country C.S. Lewis referenced in Mere Christianity where they have the opposite moral understanding as we do. Lewis said it would be like trying to imagine a place where 2+2=5, but that’s almost the case on Skaro, home world of the Daleks. Almost being the operative word, but we will get to that shortly.

Bringing back the Dalek’s planet was a nice touch as it continues to set the stage for the Doctor to find Gallifrey, his home planet. I hope that will be one of the over-arching themes of this season. The Doctor, the man without a home, searching for his home. It sets up so many interesting questions about his interaction with the other time lords and his (possibly) changing relationship to the Earth.

The episodes may have been a bit much for someone who just stumbled on to the show without much background. If you were new to the show, I would definitely not advise you to start with that episode. Too much background was needed to really understand all that went into it. Even though I’ve watched all the episodes since the 2005 reboot, I still feel like I didn’t get all the depth having not watched older episodes. With that being said, I did love the opening where Colony Sarff, Davro’s snake servant, traveled to various places from previous seasons and interacted with old characters.

There were a few loose ends that seem oddly untied—like Bors, the Doctor’s medieval friend being a Dalek and capturing the Tardis. Maybe we will see some of those brought back around by the end of the season. He really served as a great pseudo-companion to the Doctor, especially if you saw him in the prequel, “The Doctor’s Meditation.”

Kevin: So I believe you’re saying that overall you were impressed with these first two episodes. If that’s the case, then I completely agree. I should introduce myself here as saying that I still consider myself new to the Doctor Who world. Back in 2005 when it was rebooted, I was too lost in the world of, well, Lost, as well as changing diapers of my firstborn. But thanks to your recommendations during the writing of my book a couple of years ago, I binged-watched the reruns on BBC America. However, my relationship with the Doctor is much like River Song’s—it’s all “back to front.” I didn’t watch everything in order. (And perhaps the Doctor would appreciate my “timey wimey” approach to the show.)

So in these first two episodes I immediately recognized the significance of Davros and Skaro, and I noticed other little tidbits that tie in to past stories, but since the Whoverse is all “back to front” with me, it wasn’t all “chills down my spine,” as though we were watching something fairly huge for those who are steeped in the Doctor Who world. But in fact, I believe we actually were. I just didn’t understand it all.

And doesn’t it feel like we just watched the premiere episodes of the final season? Though we know that is not the case (praise God!), having both Davros and the Master serving major roles in these first two episodes, as well as the reminder that the Doctor is now searching for Gallifrey, his home planet he thought had been gone forever, it feels like this was the beginning of wrapping up the show. But perhaps this was merely a tease, and they will take their sweet time carrying out these storylines.

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What did you think of Clara in this story, especially since we know this season will be her last?

Kevin: Since “Snowmen” was the first episode I ever saw, I have felt a special connection to Clara, more so than the Doctor’s other companions. Going back to last season, beginning with her outrage toward the Doctor at the end of “Kill the Moon,” and then her anger at his refusal to go back in time and change Danny’s death, it’s easy to contribute her up-and-down relationship with the Doctor to careless script writers who can’t make up their minds how Clara feels about the Doctor.

She hates him. Then she’s going on a train ride with him. She betrays him. Then she cries at his feet. She lies to him so she doesn’t have to travel with him again. Then she has a bad dream on Christmas that causes her to realize how much she loves him and misses him. Make up your mind, Clara!

But I believe that overall she knows how much she loves the Doctor, and she can’t really hide that. And she also can’t hide wanting to go on adventures with him, risking their lives for the sake of others. So I think at the beginning of “The Magician’s Apprentice,” when UNIT calls her at her school and she takes off to go help them, we are seeing her in what she now knows is her purpose in life. This is who she is. She is no longer just the Impossible Girl. She’s the Mission: Impossible Girl. And she’s willing to do whatever it takes to save others, even meeting for tea the resurrected Missy who has frozen all the planes in the air.

With some of the Doctor’s previous companions, such as Rose Tyler and Martha Jones, we’ve seen them become soldiers in their own right after their time with the Doctor has concluded, but with Clara, we’re seeing her become the soldier right now. And she’s a soldier that the Doctor needs by his side.

Aaron: There seems to be a divide between those that came to Doctor Who during Clara’s time and those who started before her. While I often enjoy her on the show, she may be my least favorite major companion since the reboot.

I will always have a soft spot for Rose, as the Doctor does as well. Donna mastered the friend/partner-in-crime role. Amy and Rory were absolutely perfect. It’s hard for me not to see Clara like I see Martha Jones—the one unfortunate enough to follow a companion with a real, obvious connection. She likes the new coach that follows the legend. The comparisons make things more difficult.

And it’s something I always forget—she is the longest running companion since the reboot. She seems like she just started with the Doctor. I suppose that could be a good thing, but it comes across to me as if she should be further along and deeper than she is having been on the show as long as she has. I don’t think the writers have done as much with her as they could.

But with all that being said, I liked a lot of what Clara brought to this episode. She’s better on the show when she’s not the main attraction. Having her and Missy play off of each other made them both shine brigther.

I loved her being inside the Dalek shell and the allusion to her first appearance on the show as Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks. She was a girl who didn’t know she was a Dalek, and now she is woman who doesn’t know how to show she isn’t a Dalek.

Missy Doctor Who

Speaking of Missy, how much do you love her?

Aaron: She may have been my favorite part of the show. I love Missy, maybe more than I should as a villain. I believe they had her kill those innocent men toward the beginning of “The Magician’s Apprentice” and had her try to trick the Doctor into killing Clara at the end of “The Witch’s Familiar,” so we would remember that she is, in fact evil.

But sometimes it’s hard to keep that in your mind because Michelle Gomez plays her so fantastically. I am so looking forward to more interactions between her and the Doctor. Is it wrong to say that as much as I appreciate Peter Calpadi’s take on the Doctor, I would rather see him regeneration into someone new than Missy?

Kevin: Yes, indeed the question truly is not, do you love Missy, but how much do you love Missy? Michelle Gomez is one of my new favorite actresses, for sure. In fact, most of my favorite lines from these first two episodes are hers. And they’re not just great because of the lines themselves but because of how she delivers them. When tied-up Clara asks Missy why she’s tied up, if Missy is truly only sharpening her stick in order to hunt something, and Missy replies, “In case there’s nothing to hunt,” giving that amazingly awesome wink at Clara, I just howled, even the second time watching it.

Missy also gives us a great picture of Satan, the deceiver, which I will expand on later. That explains a little why we kind of like her, even though we know we should hate her.

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What did you take away from the interplay between the Doctor and Davros? Did it lose anything for you once you realized both were being more clever than caring?

Kevin: I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for enemies finding ways to work together. Seeing the redemption of bad guy Ben Linus on Lost was one of my favorite parts of the show. So it would’ve been quite touching for me if indeed the Doctor had helped Davros see his final sunset with his own eyes, and all because of sharing some of his regeneration powers.

But of course, that was not the feel-good story we ended up getting, and I’m okay with that. If we paint Davros as not just a bad buy, but the bad guy, then it’s okay to be reminded that evil is evil. Period. Davros is not a troubled guy who tends to make bad choices. He’s evil wrapped inside R2-D2, and he cannot be trusted at all.

Also, the scene we ended up getting was, for me at least, a nice little picture of the resurrection, which I’ll explain in a bit.

Aaron: In some ways, I always appreciate the Doctor always being one step ahead of his enemies. They set up this fact from the very beginning of the show with Missy describing how the Doctor escaped some previous seemingly impossible situation. It reminded me a bit of Gideon being forced to trust God in a no-win circumstance and coming up with an ingenious plan that allowed him to save the Israelites without losing a single life.

That being said, I would like to see there be real consequences to the Doctor’s compassion. Sometimes when you turn the other cheek, it gets slapped to and you have to learn to deal with that. It forces you to decide if you truly want to be compassionate even when it causes you pain and loss.

But the chemistry between Davros and the Doctor was great. They built on so much history and hatred, that the tears and emotions carried even more weight. I will not mind bringing Davros and his Daleks back this season.

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So … sonic sunglasses?

Aaron: I don’t mind the introduction of a new toy for the Doctor, though I could have done without the Ray-Ban product placement. But I am glad they have not replaced the sonic screwdriver. I know the screwdriver is not as sacred in the Doctor Who mythos as the Tardis, but it is the only other thing that has served as a tie between the Doctors since the reboot.

It seems to me they have toned down the use of the psychic paper since David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. So if they want to sprinkle in the sonic shades once or twice a year, I’m on board.

Kevin: Yeah, the sonic sunglasses made for a cool surprise at the end, but how practical will they be later? Every time the Doctor needs to open a door, shut down a Cyberman, or investigate a mysterious presence in a room, will he slap on the shades and quote Jack Nicholson? I won’t be surprised if our favorite screwdriver makes a quick return to the show.

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What were some of your favorite quotable lines?

Aaron: Clearly, the shock line was when the Doctor is facing the boy in the hand mine field (which, by the way, tremendously creepy) and he says, “Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today” and he hears back across the battlefield, “Davros. My name is Davros.”

When Missy said, “I know traps,” all I could think of was Admiral Ackbar.

And I pretty much loved every time Missy opened her mouth … or poked Davros in his eye.

Of course, I appreciated the Doctor asking why he ever let Davros live, to which Davros responded, “Compassion, Doctor. It has always been your greatest indulgence.”

Then the closing line: “Friends, enemies, I’m not sure any of that matters as long as there’s mercy. Always mercy.” That was especially poignant when the Doctor told that to young Davros.

Kevin: First, I’ll see your Admiral Ackbar line and I’ll raise it with a dying Anakin Skywalker line that was nearly repeated word-for-word by Davros when he said that he wished he could see the Doctor with his own eyes.

When Clara asked the Doctor, “How did you know I was here? Did you see me? and he replies, “When do I not see you?”

“Davros made the Daleks. But who made Davros?” Of course, at the time we thought it was the Doctor who made him, leaving him to die as a boy among the hand mines. But that turned out to not be the case. So who made Davros?

“Why does the Doctor always survive?” “Because he always assumes he’s going to win.”

What spiritual elements did you draw from the story?

Kevin: As I mentioned above, there’s a reason we kind of like Missy, even though we know we should hate her. She, like Davros, is the enemy, but she did a great job of convincing Clara otherwise. Just as the devil does a great job at convincing us at times. Jesus said about him, “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The same thing could be said about Missy, “the time lady of lies.” But as we continue to fall for Satan’s lies, so Clara falls for Missy’s. (By the way, how many times was Clara going to fall into one of Missy’s traps? How could she let herself be talked inside that Dalek after all the previous tricks of Missy’s?) Shame on her, and shame on us.

Clara inside the Dalek, not being able to do and say what she was trying to reminded me of Paul in Romans 7 when he wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

And back to the final scene that we might’ve hoped was going to end with the Doctor and Davros watching a sunset together, did you notice the crucifixion and resurrection analogies? When Davros had thought he had tricked the Doctor into giving he and the Daleks the final victory over the last of the time lords, the Doctor arose and began counting down from three…then two…then one. And then after the third day—uh, I mean, after the count of one—there was an earthquake (reminiscent of the earthquake in Matthew 28 during Christ’s resurrection) and the Doctor revealed to Davros that his regeneration power had been transferred into every Dalek on the planet, including the dead ones in the sewers. Another reminder of Christ’s resurrection when it is said in Matthew 27 that many of the dead in the graves actually arose and walked around Jerusalem.

Could this be a pretty big stretch to make? Perhaps. But I love when even accidentally Hollywood gives us a picture of the resurrection.

Aaron: Death brought life. I like it.

I appreciate how you are careful to point out, both here and in your book, how Hollywood often pictures the gospel, but they do so accidentally. It’s not that they are trying to retell or even contradict the greatest Story, but it’s that they, being made in the image of God, cannot help but craft stories that reflect the Story He has imbedded in this world. The concepts of creation, fall, redemption and restoration are everywhere in storytelling, including Doctor Who.

The story begins with a moral pondering the Doctor himself has asked: If you could kill one boy and prevent him from growing up to become evil and killing many others, would you do it? I’m thankful to see the Doctor, as he almost always does, choosing life and bestowing mercy even when it is difficult.

Speaking of mercy, it obviously played such a crucial role in this two-part story. You had the contrasts of individuals who refused to show mercy in Missy and Davros with two people who are characterized by the mercy they show to those in need with the Doctor and Clara.

It is with the word, “Mercy,” that Clara convinces the Doctor not to shoot her as the Dalek. In turn, the Doctor displays mercy to, initially unbeknownst to him, Clara and then the young Davros trapped on a field of war. That mercy shown to Davros as a boy enables Clara to speak the word to the Doctor thousands of years later. Again, the time lord reminds us of our Lord in that one act of mercy stretches across generations and changes history from that moment forward.

Join us next week, as we dive “Under the Lake.” Here’s the trailer to get you ready.

This is cross-posted over at Kevin’s blog Bible in Pop Culture.

13 Comments

  1. This reviewer mentions CS Lewis also: http://unaffiliatedcritic.com/category/tv-reviews/doctorwho/ Check out his reviews for the same two episodes

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.