We’ve finally returned. The long, 9-month drought of new televised Doctor Who following the Christmas special is at an end, and everybody’s back. No, literally, I think everyone is back in the Series 9 premiere episode, “The Magician’s Apprentice.” Ever since the 50th Anniversary, episodes have been teeming over with references to older Doctors and enemies long past, and it seems to have all come to a head here. Zero complaints, though, if, like lead writer/showrunner Steven Moffat, you’re able to combine everything so neatly, tightly, and compellingly. While “Deep Breath” felt to me like too much silliness, a generic adventure to introduce everybody to the new Doctor, this episode didn’t waste any time and expects you to keep up. Yeah, I think I loved it.
From here on out, I STRONGLY urge you to have watched the episode or not mind some plot spoilers. It’s impossible to talk about this show without giving things away, and I don’t want to try. It’s not going to be a plot summary, but discussion needs context. We good? Cool.
Oh my crikey, what an opening. Very rarely has a series started out with so much doom; maybe “The Impossible Astronaut” was the last one I can think of. Usually, series begin on a bit of a lighter note (see last year’s “Deep Breath”) but not here. Not only do we have the Daleks, being perhaps the most bloodthirsty and decisive as we’ve ever seen them, but we have Missy being both an ally and a horrible murderer still (just like the Master was at his best in the 1970s), AND we get a pre-credits scene that proved to be genuinely shocking. We finally now know the origin of he father of the most evil creatures in the universe.
Davros (played once again by the wonderful Julian Bleech) hadn’t been seen since the Series 4 finale, “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End,” and though I really disliked that story overall, the performance of Davros was spot-on. But how did he get to be the way he is? We know that, at some point during the centuries-long war between the Thals and the Kaled races on Skaro, Davros became horrible disfigured and paralyzed due to chemical warfare. He remained intelligent and cruel and eventually sacrificed his own people to being cased in metal and made to lose any semblance of compassion. Was he wrong to do this?
Getting slightly ahead of myself. When the Doctor goes missing, Clara tends not to worry too much, but she should have this time. Planes start freezing in time, UNIT is baffled, and they’re getting a call on the Doctor’s channel… it’s Missy! Not dead, but wanting to talk, somewhere in “one of our warmer countries.” She’s been given the Doctor’s last will and testament and needs (nay, demands) Clara’s help to find him. Eventually, they track him down in medieval times.
I love this beginning a lot for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a pretty huge way to reintroduce Missy into the program, and they go out of their way to prove that she hasn’t lost her edge, killing two secret servicemen for no reason. Think Gomez is amazing in the role; she’s easily my favorite interpretation of the Master since Roger Delgado. Everybody else is utter hogwash by comparison.
Second, Clara is now totally in control, which is something I am so happy to see. She’s no longer learning from the Doctor, she’s learned and now she can stand in when he’s off doing whatever, and even Kate Stewart knows it. We also had a whole beginning of an episode where the only people in authority were women: Clara, Kate, Missy, and the computer tech woman. Super great, I think.
True to form, the Doctor’s been running, and I love that he can’t go quietly into that good night even if he has resigned himself to doing so. Three weeks creating every kind of anachronism possible, introducing the word “dude,” and shredding a mean axe. I don’t know if that’s actually Peter Capaldi playing – I’m guessing not – but I’m going to choose to believe it is him.
He’s acting like he’s never acted before, because he knows it’s the end. And why is it the end? Because Davros’ snake pit in a dress of a servant (and how weird and great is that, by the way?) has finally found him. It’s the end, and the Doctor knows it, but Clara and Missy can’t let him go off alone. Missy, again, is such a great character because she falls in line when she needs to. She’s a survivor, always looking for an angle. And I do think she and the Doctor have legitimate friendship with each other, as she explains in the piazza.
“Davros remembers.” Why it’s taken him so long to remember is anyone’s guess, but perhaps the chemicals and technology that have kept him alive for such a long time have made him remember things long forgotten in his dotage. Or maybe it took that long for Davros to realize the man he saw in the field of Hand Mines (sidebar: how much do you want to bet Steven Moffat was writing and meant to type “landmines” and did a typo and thought “boy, that’s a creepy idea!” I can feel it) and who tossed him the sonic screwdriver really was his arch nemesis.
I truly enjoyed Davros replaying the Doctor’s previous encounters with Davros (even if it doesn’t make sense) and I especially love that the Doctor’s own parable he sets for during “Genesis of the Daleks” about being faced with the chance to kill a child you knew would grow up to be someone horrible and cause the death of thousands and millions. We usually, when we hear such a parable, think about Adolf Hitler, and surely that’s what writer Terry Nation was doing, but what if that same thing had been applied to Davros himself? Was the Doctor wrong for showing him compassion? Not killing the boy, but also not helping him, thus ensuring the boy would become the father of evil.
The last two series were almost entirely made of individual episodes, but Series 9 is going t’other way and will be made almost entirely of two-parters. And for that, we needed a really monstrous cliffhanger. Well, what’s more monstrous than Skaro still existing, the Daleks completely and swiftly exterminating Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS, and Davros asking if the Doctor realizes his compassion was wrong. Somehow, he gets back to the field and seems about to exterminate the little boy Davros, alone and afraid. WOW! The Doctor has nothing left to lose and everything to gain, but will he actually do it? We’ll find out next week.
“The Magician’s Apprentice,” though I’m still not entirely sure why it’s called that (The Doctor’s clearly the Magician, but is the apprentice Clara, Missy, or Davros?), is a triumph, and I want to give special mention to the glorious direction by Hettie MacDonald who made the moors of Skaro look extra spooky and who was able to portray dozens of different locations and time periods distinctly. The Dalek city on Skaro looks really great, definitely a nice visual reference to “The Daleks,” their first story back in 1963-’64.
I truly can’t wait to see how “The Witch’s Familiar” shapes up. I certainly wasn’t expecting this, but I’m really glad we got it.
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Image Credit: BBC
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor, a film and TV critic, and the resident Whovian for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!