01 “The Magician’s Apprentice” (Doctor Who series 9) [SPOILERS]


doctor who peter capaldi

So the Doctor is back. Thank goodness for that.

The previous season, Peter Capaldi’s first in the leading role, was a hit and miss affair, but it did rather end on a high note with Michelle Gomez’s fantastic “Missy” (The Mistress… As in, The Master, but female. Geddit? -Ed) as the perfect villainous counterpoint for Capaldi’s mad Scotsman. One of the finest climaxes, in fact, since the BBC resurrected the series.

This, though, is the difficult second album of the Twelfth Doctor. In some ways a little more hopeful that it might be a little smoother this time around, given that the episodes here have all been specifically written for the Capaldi, rather than Matt Smith’s leftovers.

And, having had a glance down the episode list, it looks to me like the episodes are actually structured as a series of two-part stories. Which, from my perspective, sounds great. What we need from this new Doctor is some exploration of the particular character of this incarnation. And Capaldi is just crying out for a darker, grittier sort of Doctor.

With the Doctor having gone to ground, Clara is surprised to hear from a worried Missy, who wants to help her find him. Meanwhile, agents of Davros are seeking out the Doctor themselves. The creator of the Daleks is dying, and wants one last conversation with his old enemy.

Okay, this is the darkest series opener I can recall ever from Doctor Who. With Capaldi in the lead it’s always been a more serious show in tone, but this is something else. From the beginning, the visuals told a story of what was to come.

It opened in a muddy, misty battlefield. A boy strays into the middle of a field of “hand mines”, and the Doctor is there to talk him safely out of it. And they’re classically unsettling Doctor Who, these mines: hands with eyes set into the palms, rising up out of the mud to pull the unsuspecting down to their doom. Excellent design work, but it’s only when the Doctor asks the boy’s name and he answers “Davros” that we really get a hint of where the episode is going to go.

And the look on the Doctor’s face as he realises who he is trying to save, is one of perfect horror.

In the present day (Not a particularly helpful indicator in a show predicated on time travel -Ed), one of Davros’ creepy employees, Colony Sarf, is going around the universe asking where the Doctor is. We see the Sisters of Karn, and the Shadow Proclamation, before Davros tells Sarf that the Doctor’s friends are the key to finding him. Which it feels like he could let him know when he first sent him looking.

Cut to Clara, who is doing that teaching thing again. And, as last season, she manages one anecdote about Jane Austen being a lesbian, before a crisis calls her away. This time aeroplanes around the world have all frozen where they are in the sky. It doesn’t take long for Clara and UNIT to figure out who’s behind it: Missy. “Not dead, back, big surprise, never mind.

Quite how she’s not dead isn’t covered, but given that nobody actually believed that she was I suppose it doesn’t matter a great deal. She’s received a Time Lord will and testament, suggesting that the Doctor expects to die shortly. And nobody can find him — nobody but Clara. She deduces that a Doctor about to face his death will be having a party. Which he is. In twelfth (Geddit? -Ed) century Essex. Playing an electric guitar whilst standing on a tank.

Yeah, sure.

And, sure enough, Sarff shows up, getting short shrift from the Doctor until he produces a rather old looking version of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and says that Davros remembers…something. It has the desired effect, as the Doctor agrees to go to Davros. And to his terror, Missy and Clara insist on going with him. Meanwhile the Daleks have acquired the TARDIS.

So Sarff takes the trio to a drifting space station, where they are held in a cell before the Doctor is taken to Davros. But the two Time Lords have noticed something, which Missy explores. The gravity doesn’t taste right, she says, and feels too much like a planet. She breaks out, and rather than being sucked into the vacuum, she and Clara step out onto an invisible world which gradually becomes visible. A world which Missy and the Doctor both recognise in horror.

They’re on Skaro, the planet of the Daleks.

So Missy and Clara are captives of the Daleks, whilst Davros enjoys taunting the man who left him in a field of hand mines to die. The Daleks mean to destroy the TARDIS, and Missy’s pitch to unlock the powers of time travel within it only gets her disintegrated. When Clara runs, she too is shot down, whilst the Doctor looks on helpless, all of his begging achieving nothing.

Compassion, Davros says, is weakness. This has been the argument between them since the Fourth Doctor met Davros on Skaro in The Genesis of the Daleks. And now he means to prove himself correct: the Doctor’s compassion in letting Davros live time and again is what has led to his friends’ deaths.

And cut to a scene of the Doctor, at some point in the near future, heading back to child Davros moments after he abandoned him. He’s going to save his friend the only way he can, he says, whilst pointing a Dalek gun at the boy.

Like I said, dark. It felt more like one of the classic episodes, ironically like The Genesis of the Daleks itself. In that episode, Tom Baker’s Doctor grapples with knowing what Davros and his Daleks will become, and whether he should stop it all from happening. Here that’s an even more real conundrum, and the Doctor is an older, different man. And it looks like he’s making a different choice.

More than that, we’re into a more interesting interpersonal dynamic. I am really liking Michelle Gomez’s Missy, for nothing else than she has a more complicated, more living relationship with the Doctor than previous incarnations of the Master, and they feel more similar than they have done in a long time.

Recall that last series, the main driver behind Missy’s plan was to get her friend back by destroying the Doctor’s sense of morality. Perhaps it’s that the Doctor feels he has compromised that morality himself buy leaving Davros in the minefield, but they do seem to be friends here. And as a dynamic to pin the show on, it really works.

This is probably the best series opener that New Who has produced to date. It forgoes the usual light introduction for the full on heavy, and actually managed to make Davros and the Daleks scary again, in a slow, methodical way.

I loved it.

Closing thoughts:

  • Hey Missy, you’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind. Hey Missy!
  • Skaro looks a lot better than the last time we saw it, in the Asylum of the Daleks.
  • As soon as the Doctor notices Missy and Clara, he starts playing the intro riff from “Pretty Woman”.
  • Those hand mines were brilliant.
  • So, did Davros survive the destruction of the Dalek crucible, in “Journey’s End”? Are we not meant to ask how?
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