Spoilers. Big Ones. Right from the start.
It’s strange, but I knew exactly where “The Magician’s Apprentice” was going less than 30 seconds after it began. And I mean exactly.
As soon as I saw soldiers fleeing over the smoke-wreathed battlefield and the eclectic mix of technologies (WW1 biplanes, bows and arrows, laser blasters) I thought ‘Skaro’. And the minute the young boy came into focus I knew what his name was before he gave it. And I was also pretty certain that we were heading for an exploration of a seminal bit of dialogue from the classic “Genesis of the Daleks”, the one in which Tom Baker’s Doctor asks Sarah Jane (Elizabeth Sladen) what she would do if she travelled back in time and met an evil dictator – Hitler, say – when he was just a small boy. Would she be justified in killing him before he could commit his heinous crimes, even though he’s just an innocent, blameless child? Sure enough the exchange was not only implicitly evoked but eventually explicitly shown.
I don’t know how or why I was able to instantly jump to this revelation. I had stayed absolutely clear of spoilers, save for the fact that the Daleks themselves were back – and that was hard to avoid given that they were out and about, doing station announcements on the London Underground as part of the PR blitz leading up to the first episode of season 9 of Doctor Who. While you could argue that Daleks immediately suggest Skaro, in fact the Daleks’ home world has only featured once – and just briefly – in the rebooted TV series to date. Similarly. while Davros might appear to be an easy leap to make, the creator of the Daleks actually hasn’t been in the show for seven years, not since he encountered the Tenth Doctor in “Journey’s End” during the Russell T Davies era. In the circumstances therefore, I don’t think my sudden flashforward leap was quite as obvious as it might have initially appeared. But it was made, and that’s all there is to is, and with it comes a bit of a problem.
That’s because once you make those connections, the rest of the 45 minutes of the episode becomes rather a case of treading water and watching the pieces you already know are coming duly arrive and fall into place. I rather expected the story to move along faster, and the large fan treats dropped into the episode – the Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation, the Sisterhood of Karn, a cameo from UNIT and Coal Hill School and of course the return of Missy/Mistress/Master, along with the full roll call of Dalek casings from down the ages that we were promised in 2012’s “Asylum of the Daleks” but somewhat short-changed back then but fully made up for now – all came across like magician’s sleight-of-hand tricks to disguise the fact that not all that much happens in this episode, for all its epic feel and superlative production values.
The story, in essence, is this: the Daleks want the Doctor and send out their agent Colony Sarff to find him by exploiting the Doctor’s connection with his companions, in this case Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Missy (Michelle Gomez). Once acquired, they’re all hauled back to Skaro where Clara and Missy are both killed and the Tardis destroyed. End of part one, if not quite the actual cliffhanger.
That’s slim. And it’s also strikingly familiar, heaving very close to the first ten minutes of the aforementioned “Asylum” opener to season 7. In fact there is a lot that’s very familiar here: the Doctor-less first 20 minutes was strongly reminiscent of the opening half of “A Good Man Goes to War” for example, while the Doctor playing hookie and going for an extended party the day before he knows he will surely die is a rerun of the build-ups to both “The End of Time” and “The Wedding of River Song”. That’s rather a lot of self-cannibalisation from the showrunner, Steven Moffat.
The parts that I liked best in “The Magician’s Apprentice”, perhaps not surprisingly therefore, were the bits that were genuinely new and fresh. The field of ‘hand mines’ for example was chillingly well realised by director Hettie MacDonald who created the proper stuff of nightmares; so was the threat of Colony Sarff (worryingly cod-Essex accent name aside) and the way he glided around the set before uncoiling his true nature was just superb. Even the red herring threat of all the world’s airplanes suspended in the air was pregnant with possibility – except that all these things were summarily swept aside, just mere style accents in place of story substance when they could and should have been so much more. It’s far from the first time that I’ve quibbled about Moffat doing exactly this, and I don’t like it any more today with each further repetition of the ‘trick’.
But of course, Moffat’s mercurial, never-stay-still style of storytelling also throws up some true gems and details that no one could have seen coming, such as how the ‘minor’ anachronisms of an electric guitar, Ray-Bans, a modern-day tank and a prolific overuse of “Dude” by the populace of 1138AD help Clara track down the Doctor to his hiding place where he makes what must be his all-time best first entrance in the show’s history. The sequence of Missy and Clara walking in space on the thoroughly camouflaged surface of Skaro was another rather magical delight.
Performance-wise, Peter Capaldi was clearly having a blast in the role in his second season as the Doctor, and Gomez was equally fantastic finding ever more outlandish ways of playing a thoroughly dark version of a Time Lord (sorry, Lady) which simultaneously shows just how evil the Doctor could be if he ever put his mind to it. A particularly lovely touch was Missy being seriously affronted by the Doctor referring to Davros (rather than her) as his ‘arch-enemy’, which succeeded in not only getting a big laugh but also somehow painted these characters as real flesh-and-blood rounded people at the same time.
Only Jenna Coleman seemed off: well, not the actress per se who is as fantastic as ever (I’ll be very sad to see her leave the show) but the character which has once again been reimagined. In her first year Clara was ‘the impossible girl’; in the second she finally got some character development as a new school teacher with a blossoming romance. But here, out of nowhere, it appears that her teaching gig is just a front for her real undercover role as top kick-ass UNIT consultant who is summoned to ride in on her motorbike to solve global emergencies and face down extraterrestrial super-villains at a moment’s notice before going home to do the marking in the evening. Just where did “Agent Oswald of UNIT” come from? It seems that Moffat is picking up on an aspect from last year’s “Flatline” in which the Doctor was troubled that Clara was becoming too much of a risk-taking thrill-seeker (like the Doctor himself) and that this thread is now being expanded to become Clara’s season nine arc and presumably her exit strategy. Unfortunately in doing this, Moffat once again demonstrates that he has had worryingly little sense of what the character’s inner core really is, and that she is simply there to do what that season’s plot requires no matter now uneven or unbelievable it makes her as a ‘person’.
Despite a load of cameos from the likes of Jemma Redgrave, Clare Higgins, Jami Reid-Quarrell, Kelly Hunter, Daniel Hoffmann-Gill and Jaye Griffiths, there is actually only one other major player in the show apart from Capaldi, Gomez and Missy – and that was Julian Bleach. Okay, when I said at the start of this piece that I knew exactly where the episode was going, the one thing I hadn’t been expecting was the appearance of the fully grown Davros. I don’t know why, it just didn’t occur to me that Moffat would bring the character back in his most familiar guise; or if he would, that it could possibly turn out to be the same actor returning to the role as in 2007; or that it could possibly happen without spoilers leaking out left right and centre. If it did leak out then I certainly didn’t catch wind of the news in advance, and it was simply fantastic to see both the character and actor back in the show. It was also terrific to see a very different Davros on display, no shouting and ranting megalomanic but a sick old man albeit one still capable of dripping pure malice into his quiet utterances which in many ways made him come across as even more chilling, evil and dangerous than ever before.
Davros’ appearance here might explain one aspect of the show’s production much-discussed before the episode aired: how come the so-called ‘new paradigm’ Daleks that premiered in the show in 2010 are missing from the all-star Dalek line-up that appear to comprise every other model. In the real world, the actual explanation for their absence is simple and well known: no one apart from Moffat liked them, and fans disparaged them as ‘iDaleks’ because they looked like commercialised albeit hunchbacked Apple candy floss versions of the iconic adversaries. With “The Magician’s Apprentice” it seems that even Moffat has given up on them now after merely sidelining them in the background in “Asylum”. However in story terms their omission from this latest story actually does also make sense: the new paradigm Daleks famously wiped out the last of Davros’ bronze-casing edition as deviations so it’s hardly likely they would be here playing second fiddle to Davros himself. If they return it will doubtless be as part of a Dalek civil war plot line, something that’s already been rolled out many times in the past.
In the past, Moffat has been quoted as saying he was going to rest the Daleks, suggesting that they had lost their potency because of all the times they had lost out to the Doctor. But it seems that Moffat can no more resist the allure of the metal menaces than the rest of us, and that’s absolutely fine as far as I’m concerned. It also gives Moffat an excuse to load on fan-pleasing treats galore, not just the return of Skaro and Davros but also the Judoon and the Ood and the Sycorax and more, oh my. Truly, for a long-time Doctor Whofan, watching this episode was like devouring a metric ton of the finest, richest chocolate confectionary in a single sitting and then adding a wafer-thin mint on top for good measure.
I’m no more immune to that sort of sugar rush than the next geek, so it’s no surprise that there were huge parts of this episode that I loved. It was certainly a much more effective, rip-roaring season opener than last year’s rather serious and downbeat (but entirely worthy) “Deep Breath” and I should think it will accordingly prove much more popular with hard core fans, although perhaps not so much with casual viewers who might be somewhat excluded by all the in-jokes and nods to the past leaving them wondering what the fuss is about and what exactly is going on. But what the hell, the (rebooted) series has been going long enough now and is now popular enough in its own right to be able to make such bold assumptions and assertions about its audience without tiptoeing around trying to do its best not to startle the horses like it had to do in 2005 when RTD brought it back from the dead.
As gorgeous as it is to cram in all the chocolate treats Moffat offered us in “The Magician’s Apprentice” I can’t help but wish there had been something more nutritionally substantial in terms of plot to with it. Are we really supposed to be on tenterhooks thinking that Clara and Missy are dead and the Tardis destroyed? I rather think not. As for the matter of the Doctor’s worst secret, we’re presumably being led to believe that his confession is about deciding to kill a child in cold blood; whereas we all know that his genuine shame is that he could never bring himself to do that even if it means allowing the Daleks to live on for eons.
But then it feels more than a little churlish and downright ungrateful to look such a sumptuous gift horse in the mouth, especially one that has been so beautifully crafted to tease and tantalise fans and tickle all our fancies quite so full-on as this episode sets out to do from the very first scene. Let’s forget the carping and just enjoy the admittedly self-indulgent head-rush of all that fanboi sugar for a few days, because by any count that really was a quite extraordinary opening gambit from the show that just demands to be applauded for its raw, gooey, chocolatey chutzpah.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings.
Advance note: work commitments in the coming week mean that I won’t be around next Saturday and Sunday, and will not be able to see the second part of the opening story until a few days after transmission. Any review I do eventually get to post will therefore not be available for several days and will also likely be rather brief.