Doctor Who S09E01 “The Magician’s Apprentice” Review
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Hettie MacDonald
Essential Plot Points:
- On a planet ravaged by war, the Doctor is about to rescue a little boy from certain death in a “handmine” field, until he learns the boy’s name – Davros.
- In the future a dying Davros sends a serpentine henchman on a search through time and space for the Doctor.
- Missy receives a Confession Dial, the Doctor’s “last will and testament”, which will only reveal its contents when the Doctor dies. She turns to Clara and UNIT on present-day Earth to help her locate the Doctor.
- They find him at the end of a three week party in medieval Britain to mark his imminent demise.
- But so does the snake man, Colony Sarff, who takes the Doctor, Clara and Missy back to… Skaro! Somehow it has survived the Time War.
- The Daleks kill Clara and Missy, then destroy the TARDIS, apparently making the Doctor reconsider his choice of action back when he met young Davros.
“Let’s kill Davros!” is what the episode should really be called, except that would have been a bloody great spoiler. “The Magician’s Apprentice” is, at heart, just that hoary old SF chestnut, “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a child, would you?” The Daleks have always been the show’s metaphor for the Nazis, a parallel never more explicit than in the Tom Baker story in which Davros was introduced. So even though the teaser delivers a real whammy when the little boy that the Doctor is about to save reveals that his name is Davros, you’re already thinking, “I can see where this is going,” as the opening credits roll.
But Moffat pulls it off, not just because he knows that he’s doing “Let’s Kill Davros” but because he knows most of the audience will know that’s what he’s doing as well. The result is an elaborate exercises in smoke and mirrors, where the smoke is smoking and the mirrors come from the craziest funhouse in galaxy.
So we have Missy turning up as psychotic and loopy as ever. Her escape from death is seemingly accepted by everyone as “one of those thing that the Master does” until Clara actually tackles the Doctor about it and it suddenly becomes a plot point. Missy mixes things up by claiming that she is clearly more important to the Doctor than Clara is because the Doctor sent his last will and testament to the her, not his puppy dog, so yah boo sucks to you. Clara does not look amused. (Hey – we just did an Easter egg!). Missy may be grating at times but overall her edgy relationship with Clara is fun to watch, and deliciously unpredictable.
We also have a patented Moffat location-hopping sequence, with Colony Sarff tracking the Doctor across time and space. These sequences must cost a bomb to make – even given that Neill Gorton clearly just sends along any old monsters he has hanging round his workshop to populate them – but they help give the show an epic feel, and they’re always loaded with fan pleasing-continuity nods (see below). Plus, Sarff is front-loaded with gimmicks – the way he moves like a Dalek and has nest-of-vipers nature – and Doctor Who always loves a villain with a good gimmick.
Then we get the Doctor giving medieval Britain the delights of heavy metal and Bill and Ted vernacular. Capaldi looks like he’s having a whale of a time and his enthusiasm is infectious. And, just for the hell of it, we have aeroplanes frozen in time, UNIT, a trip abroad and random references to Jane Austen’s sexuality. If, by the end of 50 minutes, the central story may have seemed a little thin, there was, at least something fun or intriguing or emotionally engaging going on in each scene.
And when the Doctor finally meets Davros, his old arch enemy (boy did that rub with Missy), throws his whole “have I the right?” speech from “Genesis Of The Daleks” right back in his face. This is Hitler looking you in the eye and saying, “Go on, I dare you.” Quite what Davros’s endgame is here remains unclear, but the undercurrents going on between these two old nemeses are electrifying.
Interestingly, young Davros looks downwards for much of the time he’s on screen, his head drooping in a reflection of his older, dying self. It’s a lovely character touch, presumably suggested by director Hettie MacDonald, who, for the most part, does a solid job with some tight pacing, gorgeous lighting and nurturing some great performances out of the secondary characters. (There’s a blessed absence of bit-parters who look like they haven’t got a clue what their lines mean that often blight Who.) She also produces simply stunning transition from the the destruction of the TARDIS to the Doctor’s face then back to Skaro. However she struggles to make the Daleks look dynamic which is a shame after “Into The Dalek” showed how it could be done.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” isn’t perfect, but it has the feel of a show trying something a little different in terms of pace and tone. Occasionally the traditional New Who grand gestures and broad strokes seem at odd with a talkier, slower, slightly more dour approach as if the show is trying to be all things to all fans, but it’s a promising start to a new series for a show that thrives on reinvention.
- Brilliant teaser – looks amazing and has that perfect WTF? moment when the little boy reveals his name.
- Brilliant cliffhanger. You can imagine that Moffat must have been toying with the idea of the Doctor saying “Exterminate” while holding a Dalek gun at an episode’s end for a while. It’s an almost irresistible image.
- The idea of Davros throwing the (fourth) Doctor’s own words back in his face (it’s great to know he archives all his old CCTV footage) is a great conceit.
- “Your chances of survival are about one in a thousand. So here’s what you do. You forget about the a thousand and concentrate on the one.”
- “I try never to understand. It’s called an open mind.”
- “Jane Austen… amazing writer, brilliant comic observer, and – strictly amongst ourselves – a phenomenal kisser.”
- The reveal of Skaro – stunning.
- The Doctor almost playing a rock version of the Doctor Who theme.
- Missy proving she’s still bad in the most extreme way.
- Handmines – brilliant.
- “I approve of your new face Doctor. I like it… so much more like mine.”
- Some of the aircraft shadows looked really iffy.
- Missy – great at times – can occasionally be just a little too much. Her speech to the Daleks could have been a chance to dial the theatrics down and deliver something more chilling; instead she’s a bit pantomime dame.
- The ’60s style Dalek city interior is all well and good on an homage level – and, yes, Daleks wouldn’t be big in interior decoration – but it still looked suspiciously like an excuse to keep that main Dalek set cheap.
- The Doctor’s puns at his party weren’t any funnier 900 years later.
- Clara’s methodology for locating the Doctor is bobbins.
- The Doctor’s begging at the end felt a little overegged. Capaldi was excellent throughout but even seemed to struggle to sell this bit.
And The Random:
- Kelly Hunter reprised her role as the Shadow Architect from “The Stolen Earth”.
- So Davros is the “Dark Lord” of Skaro now? Has he been watching his Lord Of The Rings box-sets thinking, “Now there’s a guy I like!”
- Old monster cameos included Ood and Judoon, but we think we also spotted the silhouette of Blowfish from Torchwood right at the back of Maldovarium’s bar as well.
- When UNIT scientist Jac (Jaye Griffiths of Bugs fame) is listing various sightings of the Doctor she mentions, “three possible versions of Atlantis”. A well known continuity error from the classic series is that it gave three possible reasons for the destruction of Atlantis: in “The Underwater Menace” (1967), “The Daemons” (1971) and “The Time Monster”(1972).
- The Doctor mentions during his party (to which all of him is invited) that, “I spent all day yesterday in a bow tie. The day before in a long scarf.” Which may explain why he also appears to be wearing the second Doctor’s trousers.
- Soundbites from previous Davros episodes include, “If you had created a virus in your laboratory…” and the “Do I have the right…?” speech from the fourth Doctor story “Genesis Of The Daleks” (1975); “I’m not here as your prisoner, Davros, but your executioner,” from the fifth Doctor story “Resurrection Of The Daleks” (1984); “Unlimited power! Unlimited Rice pudding!” from the seventh Doctor story “Remembrance Of The Daleks” (1988); and, “Everything we saw, everything we lost…” from the tenth Doctor story “The Stolen Earth” (2008). There is also a clip of the sixth Doctor (from “Revelation Of The Daleks”, 1985) on the monitors but it’s difficult to work out if any associated quote goes with it – feel free to let us know if your hearing is better than ours!
- Casual throwaway references to “the Cloister Wars” and “Suicide Moons” are so enticing, expect Big Finish to announce audio series based on them…
- “Since he was a little girl.” Hornets’ nest well and truly stirred.
- Right, so how does a Confession Dial know when somebody who travels through has died? Is there some kind of Gallifreyan Meantime?
- The Doctor’s party is held in 1138AD which must surely be a reference to George Lucas’s film THX 1138 (which Lucas references all the time himself in subsequent projects).