“Hunter and prey, held in the ecstasy of crisis. Is this not life at its purest?”
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is old.
This is more than just a statement of biological fact; it’s an aesthetic and an atmosphere that informs the whole show. Awareness of the show’s fifty years, and the Doctor’s millennium of life, saturates Stephen Moffat’s latest outing, the first in this year’s series of Doctor Who, which sees not one but two old friends from the Doctor’s past cropping up to haunt him. Missy (the Master that was) receives the Doctor’s last will and testament. She summons Clara to help save him (because she couldn’t do that on her own, obviously, being an evil mastermind and all), and they discover that he’s wanted on Skaro. Davros, master of the Daleks, remembers that the Doctor once failed to save him on a battlefield, when Davros was only a child. And…he wants revenge? Possibly.
So the Doctor is dying again. But Capaldi’s Doctor is always already dying. After all, he came into being on Trenzalore, where one day he will die. Presumably. He’s a liminal character, forever reaching the end or the edge of something, inhabiting the boundary between good and bad and alive and dead and true and false.
He drags his history with him. He is old.
And The Magician’s Apprentice gets the whole weight of that old-ness. It’s an episode constantly, irrepressibly aware of what has gone before it: of all the encounters with all the Daleks that have ever been in the show’s long history, of every reference to the Time War. It samples old bits of footage from Doctors long gone. It knows its history. It venerates its history. It lives, as Davros realises, on the edge of crisis, permanently frozen on the knife-brink of the past, unable to move forward into its future, obsessed by its own weight.
It’s therefore completely the wrong kind of story for Doctor Who to be telling.
I’m perfectly aware that the rest of this post is probably going to be wrong-headed and vengeful and completely biased, and I don’t really care. I’ve been trying to get my head around why The Magician’s Apprentice failed so comprehensively for me, and this is as close as I’ve got so far.
See, I don’t think that Doctor Who has ever been particularly in touch with its own continuity, and that’s one of the reasons why it has such longevity as a series. Like many folk myths, it developed not according to any internally consistent logic but mainly in response to outside pressures: the kinds of stories the writers needed to tell, the departure of a key actor, the demands of TV scheduling. The mythology that new Who so idolises – the regeneration process, the Time War, Gallifrey and the Time Lords – was mostly just made up on the spot. So what Doctor Who really is is a collection of resonant but essentially singular tales retconned into some kind of creaky order. Like the Arthurian tales, its history doesn’t usually matter nearly so much to it as its present does. (Remember the furore when Russell T. Davies quietly gave the Doctor 507 lives in The Sarah-Jane Adventures? That’s the show not caring about its past as much as it cares about the needs of its present.) It’s true to an atmosphere, not to a series of facts. As such, it doesn’t fit particularly well into today’s very fannish SFF culture, which places a great deal of emphasis on continuity, on knowing all the details of a world. (This is, incidentally, why Harry Potter is such a phenomenon – it is eminently discoverable, completely true to itself, internally consistent, fully built.)
What Moffat is trying to do, then, is focus on a past which the show itself was never really interested in. These are not supposed to be stories about their own past, but stories about our present, and I feel like every step Moffat takes into this self-obsessed SFnal past is a step away from relevancy – a step over the knife-brink and into the abyss of overacted oblivion.
Let’s escape the moment of crisis. Let us not become hunted, as the Doctor is, by the long shadow of the past.