Television, or most entertainment, is made up of different pleasures. You go to a comedy for a taste of laughter, or to tragedy for tears, in a more general sense. But in a broader sense there are a whole pallet of tastes that make up entertainment. You might know this without even being able to express why when you are trying to think of a movie to watch, and think of two movies that are so very similar but you enjoy for different reasons and you feel a strong urge to watch one but not the other. The Magician's Apprentice knows its pleasures, and is unabashed in rolling them out on a tank for us.
What's really interesting about the episode is what those pleasures are, and exactly how unashamed of them the episode is. This is after all playing with the joy of nostalgia, and not just in the more vague way that TV often plays with nostalgia by throwing in tiny references, or bringing back an old villain for a new plot, but by directly tying the entire plot of this episode into the history of Doctor Who. From Missy's nonchalant, “Yes, I'm not dead just like always lets move on with the plot already,” to the casual use of Unit, all the way to showing off Davros, an old Dalek City, every sort of Dalek, and the clips of multiple Doctors from earlier in the show, its steeped in those things in a way that Doctor Who has shied away from since its return. Sure, the show has brought back plenty of old things, but it usually has done so in a way that it treats them as being new, or as tangential. Here, they are part of a past we are diving into. The past is the problem that needs to be solved, after all.
“Genesis of the Daleks” is one of the most revered Doctor Who stories, where the 4th Doctor and Davros square off for the first time, and the Doctor is given the chance to kill the Daleks forever, but doesn't. Its a moving moment for sure, but its also one that has been criticized: after all, if the Doctor had killed all the Daleks, it would have saved all the people they continually killed. This is dealt with in the episode itself, but not everyone buys the Doctor's reasoning on the matter. Here the consequences of his decision are laid out again for him: was it the right choice he made back then? We won't really find out where he falls on this question again till next week, but its a powerful one worth bringing up again.
But lets return to the pleasure of the past. With how much of my child hood was spent thinking through idea like, “but what if the Doctor returned to that story?” I find it totally charming that the show was finally brave enough to do so this directly. Not with a wink and a nod, but opening with it. This is after all an entire way we engage with stories: we pick apart their possibilities, create new futures and alternate routes for them. Now we've taken a chance and jumped down that rabbit hole. But even while its indulging in it, it stays away from the sort of excess that makes people despise this type of story: there are no long rambling explanations, and the problem isn't based around nonsense or technobabel. Instead, the story shows us what we need and centers the dilemma around the people involved in it.
Being that the entire revived series of Doctor Who has been written by fans who turned professional, there is something sweet about one of the overlooked pleasures of fanfiction being stripped of its thorns and made into a main course.
But lets not overlook the other fun that we had this week: first off, the Doctor played the guitar. Allow me to break my writing style for a moment to say oh wow that was so rad I mean wow that was super cool yes please I want more of that rock on you sunglassed powerchording hero. So yes, that was a highlight. Seeing Clara work with Missy was also fascinating, as Missy took on the role of the Doctor in the story, requiting Clara for the mission, leading her out onto Skarro's surface, figuring out problems and explaining the solutions, but also being utterly different than the Doctor even while she was similar by being utterly bonkers and without a trace of sanity.
Also, the very nice realization of the colony of snakes was fantastic, and it got the funniest line in the episode: “We're a democracy!”
These pleasures are just as important as the weightier ones, and that the show is so utterly fine with just sitting back and enjoying these moments makes it a delight. We're allowed to let Clara take a spin while walking on stars, and even though it barrels onto the next taste in its copious buffet, oh what a taste it was.
But in the end the thing I'll remember most from this is poor tiny Davros standing in a sea of hands with eyes. Those eyes that see and grab. They're always watching us. You have a one in a thousand chance of making it through, but can you? Whatever decision you make, you'll be seen. You can never escape horrors in a vacuum, nor end them. Maybe the scariest thing is knowing that even your hardest decisions, even your own death, are held to a captive audience, made of palms, or in the chair in front of the television.
But since we like being scared enough to watch this show, what could be more pleasurable than that?