The Magician’s Apprentice, the premier of Doctor Who series 9, reintroduces us to an awful lot of characters, places and scenarios. Clara, UNIT, The Master, Daleks, and more. Many spoilers to follow, of course. I suggest watching the episode before reading on.
We begin on a battlefield and when I saw the gas masks, laser guns, and bows-and-arrows I was immediately reminded of Genesis of the Daleks. This was a very nice touch and I think long time fans may have seen the big twist coming, but it was still a great moment. We see a young boy running through the mine field, but these are Hand-Mines. I had been hoping for a whole episode about these creepy things, but still, their short appearance gave me the shivers. Hands with eyes, very reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, surround the young boy and all hope seems lost – he calls for help and just in time a sonic screwdriver lands at his feet.
The Doctor has come and despite his brutal honesty, he is somewhat comforting. This is a caring side of the Twelfth Doctor that had been slowly coming up over the course of the last season and now we see him embracing it. He wants to reassure the unknown child, but he won’t lie to him; the chances of survival are slim, but there is still a chance. The Doctor wants to save him right up until he learns his name: Davros.
After the opening titles we cut to a series of locations where a mysterious traveller who hisses and transforms is out, looking for the Doctor. From a space pub full of old monsters, to the Shadow Proclamation, and then to Karn. Colony Sarff is an interesting character, seemingly a hive mind of snake-like creatures who walk around like they’re on a segway. Sarff is apparently in service to Davros, who is now the ‘Dark Lord of Skaro’. Sauron, eat your heart out.
Davros is dying, and he wants to have a little word with the Doctor before he goes.
Which is a bit odd given that last time we saw Davros he was being burned to death in an exploding space
station with no way of escaping. I’m sure some will feel there’s a gap in the narrative somewhere here. Fans of the original series will know that Davros has come back from apparent death multiple times, so it’s nothing special. But there’s something a bit odd from a storytelling point of view about killing a character, only to bring them back so that they can immediately die again. So-and-so is dying? But didn’t they already die? So what’s new?
Julian Bleach reprises his role as Davros, creator of the Daleks. This is a subtler performance, a quieter, more personally threatening Davros to the shouting and ranting Davros of Journey’s End. I did love his past performance, and I always relish the moments where Davros goes full-on megalomaniac, but this is a side to Davros we don’t see very often. Using his travel machine, his robotic hand, his prosthetic eye and so forth, Davros has always had the image of one who is suffering greatly, and yet he has projected such an air of control and anger that one forgets how vulnerable he can be. It’s an interesting and welcome interpretation of him and paints a more complex image of a vicious character.
Next, we cut to Clara at her school when she suddenly realises that something is not right. The planes in the sky have all frozen in mid-flight. UNIT calls Clara in and we are briefly reunited with Kate Stewart and then, very quickly, with The Master, in the form of Missy.
Much like when the Master inexplicably returned in The Mark of the Rani, after apparently perishing in Planet of Fire back in the 80s, there is little to no explanation as to how she survived. ‘Death is for other people’, she tells Clara. There’s a real delight to Michelle Gomez’s performance, she gives the Master a much more grandiose and expressive personality which is reminiscent of Anthony Ainley’s portrayal with a bit of Eric Roberts thrown in here and there (she always dresses for the occasion? Anyone? No? Never mind then). She delights in her evil and in being able to stay ahead of the game, she loves knowing more than everyone around her and loves showing it off. Yes, this Master is much more like the Doctor than either of them would care to admit.
Missy shows Clara a ‘Confession Dial’, the last will and testament of the Doctor, prepared on the day before he dies and given to his closest friend. Turns out that Missy/the Master is the Doctor’s oldest and closest friend (big shock, I know). So it seems that the Doctor thinks he is going to die. Again.
Moffat has played with this theme a number of times. The Doctor facing his death, faking his death, taking time to draw out his ultimate death. Even the Tenth Doctor did this a bit in his final adventure. It can be a powerful idea, but one best saved, I think, for when the audience has had time to fall in love with the latest Doctor. I thought it was a mistake to try and tug on the ‘oh no the Doctor will die’ line in Matt Smith’s second season when people were still trying to get used to him. It didn’t feel quite as effective. And by the time we got to The Name of the Doctor where we went to the Doctor’s actual gravesite I felt we were re-treading old ground. If not for those previous less-than-great forays into the idea, I would probably have felt a bit better about it rearing its head once again.
If you take this episode on its own merits it’s fine, there’s nothing particularly wrong about it and the execution is middling, really. The Doctor’s impending ‘death’ isn’t given a lot of pathos and the characters are a little less than outwardly concerned. Perhaps because they’ve seen it before. As a result, the Doctor’s announcement of his oncoming death feels more like a cry for attention. Which is what it may have been all along.
With a little bit of jiggery pokery, Missy and Clara track down the Doctor, who is having a ‘axe fight’ in medieval Essex. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor rides in on a smoke covered tank playing an electric guitar and filling the room with anachronisms. Punk Rock Doctor is here. Wearing what look like a pair of Patrick Troughton’s trousers and a band t-shirt, we get a Doctor who is procrastinating and, in true Doctor fashion, going against the Time Lord tradition of peaceful meditation and contemplation.
It’s not long before Sarff returns to give the Doctor his message and his token. He presents the Doctor with the sonic screwdriver he gave to Davros as a child. Now the screwdriver is ancient and battered, but still recognisable. The Doctor recalls that he left the child Davros to die rather than help save his life. The Doctor is filled with shame and regret – he was shown a child who he knew would grow up to be utterly evil and he decided to let the child die. The very hypothetical he posed back in Genesis of the Daleks, was suddenly made very real and he couldn’t hold to his moral principles. He couldn’t bring himself to save Davros. And yet Davros survived.
Sarff takes them to what is apparently a Dalek hospital for Davros. Missy realises that the gravity is just a bit too perfect and threatens to open the ‘airlock’. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Davros have their long awaited confrontation. Having two such fine actors play against one another is quite a spectacle in and of itself, but here we have the added layer of two old and complex characters delving into one another’s psyche.
Incidentally, they seem to have changed the Davros face mask a bit since Journey’s End. It looks a lot less horrific and his nose is a bit bigger. A curious choice that had me raising an eyebrow.
Davros remembers many of their previous encounters, including my personal favourite ‘unlimited rice pudding’ line. But most importantly, the line previously discussed from Genesis of the Daleks.
Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?
The Fourth Doctor’s agonised question has been made real. Davros, it seems, has brought the Doctor here to face up to the choices he made. He abandoned the child Davros to die, but instead he created Davros who, in turn, created the Daleks. So the Doctor’s guilt and shame build and build.
Meanwhile, Missy and Clara have discovered that they are not on a space station but actually on a planet. This planet has been made invisible to them until they sync with the atmosphere, at which point they realise where they are; Skaro, homeworld of the Daleks.
As an aside here, I do wish they’d make up their minds as to whether or not Skaro has been destroyed. It was blown up in Remembrance of the Daleks, and then randomly re-appeared again in Asylum of the Daleks (with no explanation and no sense of surprise at its being there), and now we’re supposed to be surprised when it turns up again. But, if we start listing continuity issues in Doctor Who we’ll be here all day.
As the Daleks capture Clara and Missy, the Doctor’s confrontation with Davros becomes ever more desperate. At the turning point, when the Daleks threaten the TARDIS, Missy turns and offers her allegiance to the Daleks, only to be shot by them -she disintegrates, which is not the usual Dalek extermination method, leading us to believe that there’s some funny business going on here. It’s not long before Clara explodes too and the Doctor’s TARDIS follows.
Somehow, the Doctor manages, it seems, to go back in time to when Davros was a child. Very few family shows would end an episode with their hero holding a gun to a child to kill him. Doctor Who is weird like that.
Join us next week for the second part, The Witch’s Familiar!