The Magician's Dilemma

14-episode full season set 6-episode set
Region A/1
6-episode set
Region B/2

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(Doctor Who Story No. 259, starring Peter Capaldi)
  • written by Steven Moffat
  • directed by Hettie MacDonald
  • produced by Peter Bennett
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 2 episodes:
    1. The Magician's Apprentice (48 minutes)
    2. The Witch's Familiar (50 minutes)
Story: A chance encounter on a battlefield puts the Doctor's highest values to the test, and has many of his closest friends and most troublesome enemies worried. Will he live up to his standards, or make exceptions to the rules? And how far reaching might the consequences become?

DVD Extras for this story on the 14-episode box sets include:

  • Doctor Who Extra featurette (6 min.) with Peter Capaldi (The Doctor), Michelle Gomez (Missy), Joey Price (Boy),
    Jami Reid-Quarrell (Colony Sarff), writer Steven Moffat, and production designer Michael Pickwoad.
  • Dalek Devotion featurette (6 min.) with Capaldi and Moffat.
  • "Sublime Online" featurette segment (approx. 3 min.) with Capaldi, Gomez, and Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald).
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Prequel Scenes:
    • Prologue (2 min.)
    • The Doctor's Meditation (6 min.)
  • Wil Wheaton interviews Capaldi and Coleman (42 min. - extended version)
    (Amongst other topics, Wheaton attempts to pull spoilers for the rest of the season out of his guests, luckily without much success.)
  • Comic Con panel 2015 San Diego (59 min.)
  • Trailers (2 @ 21 sec. each)
  • "Series 9" Launch Promos (2 @ 1:36 and 1:04)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program.
To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide to the season instead.


All right... Doctor Who the television series makes a proper return with this opening story. Though not immune from some of the more recent excesses and problems of the latest era, this adventure returns to a good number of the strengths of the original show which are well-matched with Capaldi's Doctor in particular. Most importantly, there's a really strong dramatic core to this piece, which turns out to trump the classic series in both its depth and its final philosophical statement.


Surrounding the Core

That dramatic core is simply two longtime adversaries having an in-depth conversation, going both to places they've never been before and revisiting some well-worn territory. The parts of this story that succeed best and are most on-purpose are often as simple as just putting the Doctor and Davros in a cosy little lab together, and watching the drama spark between them. If that sounds too simple to be exciting enough to fill two long episodes... well, there's much more to it than that.

This big Davros story features quite an extended lead-up, which can seem quite disjointed at times. However, most of the lead-up pays off enormously by adding significant weight to the core drama in the Davros scenes.

There are really three categories of scenes in this story outside of Doctor and Davros in the lab: those that are bang-on relevant to the main story, those that seem frivolous at first, but wind up adding significant weight to the central dramatic core of the story, and those that are just plain non-functional distractions.


This is really the only story of the season to have prequel scenes. The first "Prologue" on the planet Karn is bang-on relevant I would say, and a lot of fun, creating a bit of a mystery as to what the big story will be about.

"The Doctor's Meditation" is a bit more questionable at first, though it does have its charm. It seems a bit excessive at 6 minutes long, but ultimately it pays off very well, both in terms of adding weight to the Doctor's main dilemma later on, and also in balancing the first half hour of the main story. We won't see a lot of Capaldi's Doctor in that opening half-hour, but by watching these prequel scenes first and getting a good 8 minutes of scenes featuring him heavily, it helps make up for his later absence.

In terms of strict chronology, the opening hook of the main story on the battlefield actually happens before the prequel scenes, but those scenes nicely set this hook up as the answer to the mystery that they posed. And this is a really excellent grabber for the story, and the most bang-on relevant scene outside of Davros' lab. Can the Doctor take his highest values of helping those in need, and apply those values to his most irreconcilable adversaries? This is EXCELLENT territory to explore, and the main hook here shows how he bumbles his way into a practical test of that idea. I knew then that Doctor Who had come up with a can't-miss episode, provided it was handled right.


The Distractive Quest

The next section introduces a character called "Colony Sarff" on a quest to find the Doctor, searching many locations across the universe previously seen on the show, with the scene with Kelly Hunter's Shadow Architect perhaps being my favourite. But although Sarff's entire sequence is quite good in theory, it appears quite hit-and-miss at first. The attempts to make Sarff scary while holding back for later the reveal of what he can actually do is very dependent on directing and performance. There's good mileage here from Sarff's Dalek-like ability to glide about wherever he goes, but the implications of him doing nasty things to people never really works visually while it's being held back. Quite often I really just don't know who or what I'm looking at, and at this early stage of the story, I'm not sure I care. In retrospect though, these scenes again work to add weight to all that is coming at the end of the story, so it is very good that they are here.

I was a bit surprised to see a modern version of Davros appear so early here in the story, but it is perhaps better this way. The hook had made me imagine that the event that originally injured Davros and made his chair necessary might be tackled in this story, but I do think it's better to leave that off-screen and up to the viewers' imaginations as it has been for four decades and counting now. This early Davros scene does a good job of linking up to the next section...


Clara interrupts her school teaching routines to collaborate with Kate Stewart and U.N.I.T. on a global problem. Though it's nice to have these characters, it's a bit of a cliché story beat, and not all that exciting. The actual problem with the airplanes was a bit silly, and if it was dropped entirely from the story, I certainly wouldn't miss it.

The sequence gets worse when Missy shows up and dumps excesses of her own personal foolishness onto the table. Although she's much more tolerable in this story than in the previous year's stories, primarily because the flirting aspect has been toned way down this time, I still really don't like this character or what she brings to the mix in an adventure. Missy is really just far too full of herself for my tastes, and she winds up being the most finely crafted element of the story in writing and creative acting that still just doesn't work.

She's not really working well here as a version of the old fan favourite villain the Master, in the sense that yet again we neither see this villain's TARDIS (which would be very appealing and, I think, atmospheric) nor do we get any mention of what the hell has happened to it since last seen in 1986 - and that backstory tidbit is long overdue by now. It's also a bit boggling to try and figure out if any or all of these New Millennium incarnations of the Master are meant to precede the end of his natural life-cycle as seen in the Tom Baker era, or if these incarnations can stem from the unnatural extension he later got - my original assumption was that he would continue to need to find unnatural means to regenerate himself further. And some of the worst bits of dialogue from Missy seem to want to make her into a lifelong advocate of women's lib. While women's lib is a noble pursuit in itself, I think it really undermines this particular character when it tries to come out of her past... After all she was a MALE character in every other incarnation we've seen, and certainly became the fan favourite in that form. Turning retroactively women's lib now feels quite hypocritical.

I think the things I like best about Missy are the areas where her personality overlaps with that of Anthony Ainley's Master. I often find myself thinking that the script wouldn't have to change that much to accommodate him playing the role, and I find myself imagining him in her place for many scenes as I ask - Would I be less opposed to the character if Ainley could be there to deliver? Yes probably, to a degree. Ainley would more easily carry my previous favourable opinion of the character into new material even if the new material was only so-so okay. But the character's central aims don't seem to be right anymore. Something's really not working at the core of this character, and indeed the things about this story that I would be most comfortable about losing completely usually have Missy at the heart of them.


Dude!

Finally, we make our way back to the main dude himself in medieval times, who is having a deliberately out-of-character moment. I think it just manages to work okay in conjunction with the prequel scenes, whereas it didn't work too well on first viewing before I'd seen the prequel material. Capaldi mentions an attempt to make sure the character didn't appear like an old rock star in a mid-life crisis while selecting his exact electric guitar - but, I'm sorry, old rock star in a mid-life crisis is exactly the impression I still get everytime I see him play, especially with the dark sunglasses on. The anachronistic qualities of the scene are working fairly well though, all things told. Perhaps the impact is lessened somewhat by the fact that we so often see so many things on modern Doctor Who that are just plain bonkers. But in the end, the crazy quality lends extra weight again to the main story we will eventually get to....

Colony Sarff gets his best sequence of the story as his abilities are revealed here, and he becomes a worthy addition to the story, nicely and logically filling a gap in the social structure between Davros and his Daleks that perhaps only Nyder and Kiston had previously occupied. Good stuff.

This story really has the scope and astronomical locations that could have ideally given the Doctor's TARDIS more to do in the adventure, and it is sad that the fantastic interior we now have only appears in one brief effects shot. However, the TARDIS still has its moments, and doesn't come off too badly here.

It is REALLY late in the first episode before any actual Daleks appear, and the initial sound of their voices is actually quite startling when it first blares out. Another indication of the story escalating, which it does well here.

"They built it again; they brought it back. No, no...."

The planet Skaro has a bizarre reveal - it works fantastically in visual terms. In story terms, I have to say I have lost count of the number of times the planet has supposedly been destroyed and then come back again, and with that I've really stopped caring. I'm really not sure why Steven Moffat bothered to put yet another explanation for its resurrection here, or how its existence should be a surprise to the characters, since our last encounter with the place at the beginning of "Asylum of the Daleks" (story no. 231) had shown the place still standing.

And then the gathering mass of distractions begin to accrete around the main story as the Doctor and Davros come face to face in his little lab, and the questions posed in the story's hook come back around to haunt these two characters. The added weight here is more palpable I think BECAUSE it has been avoided and postponed and teased and built up and anticipated for this length of time. Thank goodness this is a two-parter.


The cliffhanger situation here really piles on the threats and questions, including more deaths, destructions, and taunts than one would think the series could withstand, along with a quick tease of the Doctor supposedly succumbing to his worst philosophical instincts. Quite powerfully packed.


The Second Movement

Though the second episode is by far the more powerful of the two, it isn't yet finished with distraction. Missy narrates a tiny stand-alone episode of the Doctor's backstory, which turns out to be one of the more worthwhile scenes of the tale. One of the more questionable scenes involves Davros' actual chair going on a bit of a jaunt, the apparent simplicity of which grates against some of the things I've always imagined. Would there be room in that chair for anyone's legs if Davros no longer has any? Or, if there is room for legs, surely he'd be sitting on a toilet that no one's really cleaned very well for millennia. Hmmm, best not speculate too much further about that.

Of course there are also out-of-sequence scenes of the Doctor and the young boy on the battlefield thrown in as well, as needed to highlight different qualities of the main argument, and these remain the most on-purpose scenes of the story outside of the lab.

All these various scenes help satisfy the need to get Capaldi's Doctor moving around a bit in this particular episode, such that we won't be bothered too badly when he ends up spending the great bulk of the rest of the story chattering away with one other character in one other room. Smartly done.


The biggest counterpoint to the physically static Doctor/Davros scenes is the journey that Clara and Missy take in the second episode. It's a bit hollow in the sense that they end up basically repeating the move they did at the end of the first episode, yet make an even more extended and overcomplicated exercise of it. It has its ups and downs, and it is there for good reason. The central concept of a journey for the companion, with related physical goals and barriers to work through, is spot on. Co-operation with an adversary or otherwise untrustworthy person is also a challenge that should produce some good entertainment value. But perhaps the execution wasn't quite all that one should theoretically hope for.

I think the biggest groan of the Clara/Missy journey is that it takes us through "the sewers". This is one of those daft sci-fi tropes we've suffered with previously in tales like "The Invasion" (story no. 46), "Attack of the Cybermen" (story no. 138), and "Evolution of the Daleks" (story no. 186) where it really just goes out of character to imitate a disused, dingy corridor. I'd rather they just gave us corridors, caves, and (secret) tunnels in the first place. This time around, Steven Moffat seems to have used that part of his extensive imagination that David Tennant referred to as "sick" in the commentary for "The Girl in the Fireplace" (story no. 175) to bring about a bit of a twist on this particular sewer. Additionally problematic is the idea of this sewer being what Moffat claims it is while at the same time the entire planet was destroyed and then "put back together" by what I assume to be the Daleks throwing the rocks together in space and letting the accretion process happen at a speed reflecting deliberate engineering. The sewer idea really wants be a leftover of a planet that was never destroyed in the first place.

On the other hand, this isn't an easy element to simply drop from the story, since it is also functioning as a mechanism for plot devices that are important to the story's final fix. If we take the sewer subplot out, another whole new mechanism needs to come in to support many of the other elements of the plot. Still, this replacing would ultimately have been a worthwhile thing to attempt.


One of the biggest things that has been missing from most modern Dalek stories, and missing from this one even more acutely, is any appearance or mention of the Thals. We know from their most advanced appearance on Spiridon in "Planet of the Daleks" (story no. 68) that they became a space-faring culture. But the canon television series itself has never really paid any serious attention to the fact that they could have equal and/or greater claim to Skaro as their home planet, particularly when all this talk of its destruction and/or resurrection comes about. Did the Thals even survive long enough to witness their home planet's various extended fates? What is their opinion on matters of galactic import? Do they have any part to play in the continuing Dalek saga? Does the Doctor even bother to take them into consideration anymore when deciding the fate of Skaro?

And when you consider how much smaller the cast is for this second episode, compared to the overflowing number of extraneous castmembers scattered all over the first episode, it seems that what this story missed out on most are some sympathetic characters whom our protagonists might want to protect. A subplot with Thals might have provided that, and might have added something more interesting to the Clara/Missy journey than the sewers were able to provide.

I have to say, I think the titles for these two episodes are head-scratchers and quite bizarre. Thankfully, they're not in bad taste like some of those in seasons 32 and 34, but exactly what do they mean? How do they even come close to describing the story being told here? If we ask to whom they refer, well the previous story "Last Christmas" made multiple references to the Doctor as a "magician", so we can infer that he is the Magician in the title. When we look at the second episode, and the fact that Missy and Clara spend so much time working together, we can infer that Missy is the Witch and Clara her Familiar, but that's not a very strong or relevant title. Missy is really quite peripheral to the real story being told here. Theoretically, having the long-term character of the Master in this story doesn't really hurt it, but it doesn't really help it either. Clara could have partnered up with any number of other characters while the main Davros story went on uninterrupted. The real question is, who is the Apprentice in the title? Clara again? She doesn't really spend much more time under the Doctor's wing in the first episode than in the second - but she's with Missy constantly. So... what is the title really all about? Perhaps the answer is here somewhere, if we really dig deep enough, but I think it's all too obscure to be working well. Perhaps, instead of letting the overall story take its title from one of its individual episodes, which did happen in the William Hartnell era a number of times, we should look to a far more common practice from the Hartnell era, where something completely different and far more relevant was settled on. Perhaps this story should get an overall title like "The Magician's Battlefield" or "The Magician's Dilemma" or "Heart of Davros" or something.


At the Core

As the extraneous bits of the story dance around and give the adventure a bit of razzamatazz, often hinting at the scale of what is at stake, the core of the story's immense strength is just two characters in a lab with a lot of probing dialogue to share with each other. Both Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach milk the opportunities given to them by this script and really bring about a piece of drama that covers a surprisingly wide variety of emotional bases.

Self-admittedly, their central argument is an old one, and they do cover some territory that is so well-worn that long-term fans can easily doubt that there is anything new to cover here. I am reminded most strongly of the confrontation I analyzed so heavily between Davros and Peter Davison's Doctor in "Resurrection of the Daleks" (story no. 134), where writer Eric Saward at the same time wrote so well for Davros's side of the argument and so poorly for the Doctor's. Could the Doctor ever really hope to... not just argue his case better, but actually win it by embodying it and acting on it and triumphing over the Daleks with it, considering that the BBC would be unlikely to want to change their marketing tactics with Daleks to upset their current success? I'm happy to say that Steven Moffat here has taken a brazen swing at just that, and hasn't done too badly at all at substantially hitting the mark at least partially.

As I say, the emotional and philosophical territory explored here was fairly wide, having time to cover all expected bases as well as a few less-expected and more-refreshing ones. And I'm extremely pleased to see that the Doctor is able in this story to get back on form to following his highest ideals, while also being clever enough to continue to outwit his enemies. Attacking "the evil scheme" rather than the "evil person" is always a better, cleaner use of the Doctor's heroic character. Even Davros has been able to understand his opponent's philosophy to a degree that he is able to use it to certain advantages, which seems to indicate a hopeful bit of growth for him, compared to where he was in "Resurrection". What we ended up with here was a Doctor/Davros confrontation done REALLY RIGHT, with both characters able to showcase and debate their most core values with significant convincing power. This definitely beats the confrontations in "Resurrection" and in "The Stolen Earth" (story no. 203). Only "Genesis of the Daleks" (story no. 78) can compete with this Doctor/Davros confrontation, and is more or less on equal footing with it.

In the end, I think this is one of the best resolutions to be found in any Steven Moffat Doctor Who story, on par with "The Day of the Doctor" (story no. 245) at the very top of his work so far. In particular, the dynamics of the characters' motivations and emotional turning points are absolutely spot-on, and correctly timed and paced in the final product. Fantastic. The sci-fi mechanisms used during this might not quite handle a lot of scrutiny, however, so there is definite room for improvement, but still this is pretty darned good and satisfying. Hats off to both Moffat's writing, and Capaldi and Bleach for bringing it to life with such dramatic power and beauty.



The wrap-up has a good energy to it, saving one of the most poignant scenes for the very last. One leaves this adventure with the sense that a very important and excellent page has been turned in the history of this show and where its philosophy will be headed next. Thankfully, excellence such as we have seen and heard here would continue to echo throughout the season ahead....



This story is available on DVD and Blu-ray:


Season 35 Box Set
11 stories in 14 episodes
U.S.


NEW for
April 5, 2016.
Canada


NEW for
April 5, 2016.
U.K.


NEW for
March 7, 2016.
Blu-ray U.S.


NEW for
April 5, 2016.
Blu-ray Canada


NEW for
April 5, 2016.
Blu-ray U.K.


NEW for
March 7, 2016.



This story is also available in a 6-episode volume with only some of the special features.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:


half-season volume
6 episodes
DVD NTSC
Region 1 U.S.


NEW for
Nov. 3, 2015.
DVD NTSC
Region 1 Canada


NEW for
Nov. 3, 2015.
DVD PAL
Region 2 U.K.


NEW for
Nov. 2, 2015.
Blu-ray U.S.
Region A/1


NEW for
Nov. 3, 2015.
Blu-ray Canada
Region A/1


NEW for
Nov. 3, 2015.
Blu-ray U.K.
Region B/2


NEW for
Nov. 2, 2015.

Bonus features include:



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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Under the Lake"



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