A thrilling series opener with plenty of shocks and revelations to keep the audience on their toes.
Every year Whovians across the world eat up every new picture, every trailer, every crumb of information with great anticipation in the lead up to the new series. From the return of a British Institution in 2005 to the worldwide phenomenon Doctor Who is today, it seems like no stone is left unturned, so much so that it is a wonder there are any surprises left by the time the show finally airs. As it is, we know going into the new series that it will be Jenna Coleman’s last.
So it was with huge relief and excitement that the episode’s big secret – the return of Davros himself – was kept hidden from the public. Sure the Mirror announced it last April, but then tabloids bombard us with so much rumour and supposition year on year, that the news was lost in the ether.
And it was a huge deal. After the release of that picture a couple of months ago, showing the Twelfth Doctor reeling from ‘a mistake that has cataclysmic repercussions‘ the reveal that he inadvertently saved the child Davros from a minefield certainly didn’t disappoint. It was an episode that wasn’t about Clara or Missy or even the Daleks – it was a Davros and the Doctor story and if series nine can continue to deliver us surprises like this then we are in for a treat indeed.
The premise of The Magician’s Apprentice? If you could go back and kill Hitler as a child would you? It was the very conversation Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor had with Harry and Sarah in Genesis Of The Daleks, the very story that introduced the maniacal creator of the Daleks. In that story, we saw the Doctor faced with the ethical quandary of whether to commit genocide of his feared enemy in order save the galaxy. Here the Doctor accidentally wandered onto the war-torn Skaro before the Dalek’s creation, saving an innocent boy before realising it was his arch nemesis. What a cataclysmic mistake indeed.
And talking of the Doctor’s arch nemesis, we got two for one as Missy returned better and more evil than ever. Now that there is no more secrecy around her identity, Michelle Gomez finally got to deliver Missy unleashed and what a wonder she is. I loved her return, hacking into the ‘Doctor channel’ in a moment of crisis and failing remotely to explain how she survived that fatal blast of energy from the Cyber-Brigadier in Death In Heaven. She is Missy, evil, all powerful and vastly intelligent and in good supervillain tradition it takes more than mere death to stop her.
Her plan to bait Clara was very OTT – like series seven’s The Power Of Three we got the return of the old Russell T Davies trope; the global panic on the airwaves, this time as planes froze mid air across the planet. The mystery of the red dots turned out to be little more than a game Missy was playing to get Clara and UNIT’s attention and it worked, even it was a little superfluous. But anyone who can move a plane just to give someone an extra bit of shade can get away with the rather random plot point it became.
What it did do was get Missy and Clara reunited after the horror and drama of the Promised Land arc from last series. “How’s your boyfriend? Still tremendously dead I expect?” Missy says dryly as Clara arrives in the courtyard. Wonderful evil and lacking any sense of compassion – something that would be mentioned later regarding the Doctor, she continued to deliver one fantastic one liner after another. Gomez played the role with real zeal and Moffat gave her a delicious script to work with, making huge parts of The Magician’s Apprentice very quotable for some time to come.
If you love Clara than this episode would only reaffirm why; a great teacher, intelligent, observant, confident and bringing something valuable to the conversation when it came to UNIT. Clara-haters meanwhile will probably have grated their teeth on more than one occasion. I’m one of those who consider Clara a great companion but even I enjoyed seeing her brought down a peg or ten by Missy. The Timelady pointed out the couple walking the dog, referring to Clara as the puppy, while confidently considering herself the Doctor’s closest friend. The last will and testament, teased in the prologue on Karn, was not delivered to the Doctor’s latest companion but Missy herself. They might have been trying to kill each other for centuries but in Missy’s eyes that still makes them best mates.
Of course Missy is wise to know when she needs help and in this case it is finding the Doctor. She might know him backwards but she knows that Clara can help her find him, now that he has hidden himself from all of space and time. Seeing them working together was an interesting one and that dynamic only developed over the course of thew episode, throwing some sparkage in the Doctor and Clara’s relationship when she later realised he knew that Missy was alive and had kept it secret from her.
After a demonstration of evilness – killing off UNIT soliders to prove the point – Missy and Clara finally located the Doctor having an almighty party before his demise in Essex in 1138AD. On a slightly cynical point, it felt like Moffat had rolled out this story before, the Doctor having one last hurrah before going to his death – see all of series six for example – but again there was so much fun to be had here that it really didn’t matter. Wearing sunglasses, swinging an electric guitar, bringing in a tank to tournament and introducing the word ‘dude‘ several centuries early, this was a side to the Twelfth Doctor we had not seen yet and it was a whole lot of fun. For those worried that Capaldi’s Doctor was going to be all doom and gloom, this proved that he could be fun too, almost playful in nature but still with his blatant disregard for others as his willingness to mess with history a little proved.
But after all the fun – and killing – things took a more dramatic turn with the arrival of the hooded figure who has been searching for the Doctor across the galaxy – on Karn, with Clare Higgins’s Ohila turning him back, a wonderful little scene that looked a lot like the Cantina scene in Star Wars, and even the surprise return of The Shadow Proclamation, complete with Judoon and Kelly Hunter as the Shadow Architect. He was a great creation, a snake like creature shrouded in robes, come to take the Doctor back to Davros. For a moment I wondered if Moffat was going to throw in the reveal that he was the Mara, but with an already crowded episode, that would have been too much. Beside, the Mara are worthy of their own big return without playing sidekick to Davros.
When the Doctor and Davros finally come face to face (Julian Bleach once again delivering a mesmerising performance) we were treated to a thrilling battle of wills, two old men – mentally and physically – sparring over centuries of shared history. It adds real depth and passion to their relationship, one dying, the other both hating and feeling sorry for him. I could have watched them for hours and indeed the second episode looks set to relish in that relationship a lot more.
But of course, there was still room for Missy and Clara brought face to face with the Supreme Dalek after discovering they are not on a space station but the planet Skaro, hidden in space just like Gallifrey. Naturally Missy attempts to strike up a deal, but that backfires spectacularly with her extermination. It was a surprise twist, only added to when a panicked Clara is also killed while the horrified Doctor watches from Davros’s chamber while his arch nemesis laughs gleefully. But the cliffhangers keep coming. The TARDIS is obliterated, despite Clara’s earlier protests that it can’t be destroyed. (Missy again getting all the best lines; “Did the Doctor tell you that? Because you should never believe a man about his vehicle.”
The episode ends with the Doctor back on pre-Dalek Skaro. This time he has returned for child Davros, fury in his face, Dalek gun in hand and ready to exterminate. It is a brilliant end to a very strong episode that has so much fun with the returning Missy and Doctor before literally crushing the child audience watching with one shocking death and destruction after another. Were the return of two-parters worth it? Judging by this episode, absolutely.
The Magician’s Apprentice is a bold, thrilling series opener that – dare I say it – beats everything that came in an already strong series eight. Moffat delivers the chills (the hand mines are a particularly creepy design), mystery, action, laughs and shocks in boundless measure; the episode could have broken by its own weight but thanks to an electric script and Hettie Macdonald’s excellent direction, it follows through breathlessly. Michelle Gomez is a legend as Missy and Peter Capaldi has upped his game too and is never upstaged no matter how hard she tries. It ends, leaving you desperate for next week and that’s what a good season opener should do.
And bravo to the BBC for keeping Davros’s return a secret. It proved that in this day and age of spoilers, sometimes we can all still be surprised.
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