This is a promising start to the current series of Doctor Who, steeped in Classic Series lore. The only requirement to enjoy it (besides an extensive knowledge of the back story) is not to ask questions.
Spoilers From Here On In!
Early in episode it is revealed that Missy is back, freezing all of the worlds planes in order to get Clara’s attention. It is never explained how she escaped death in ‘Death In Heaven’ and Missy urges her audience not to mind this and just cut to the chase.
This perfectly summarises the episode itself. Things happen and we are not supposed to question how they have occurred or look too closely at the logic behind them. Just enjoy the individual scenes because it is a tv show and you shouldn’t take things so seriously. Luckily they are very good moments.
The opening is very effective and provides a good example of why Doctor Who is such a delight. As soldiers a muddy battlefield flee a bi-plane above them the audience asks themselves where and when are we? The first guess would be World War 1 but the soldiers are using bows and arrows and the bi-plane is firing lasers. Is it the future or an alien world?
There are few shows that give you that excitement and sense of discovery.
A young boy is put in peril, stumbling into a hand mine field. Hand mines resemble human hands with eyes in their palms that drag you down under the mud. A would-be rescuer falls victim to a hand mine demonstrating just how much peril the boy is in.
Lucky for him the Doctor has arrived, having taken a wrong turn on the way to a bookshop. The Doctor fills the boy with confidence, convincing the audience as well that he’ll get this child out of this dire situation.
Things are turned on the head when the boy reveals that he is Davros.
This is Skaro and the Doctor has just promised he is going to save his arch-enemy. The Doctor is frozen as the opening titles begin and we are left with the question whether the Doctor will respect the sanctity of time by saving the creator of the Daleks or make the choice he failed to make in his 4th incarnation.
Making a semi-sequel to ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is probably the best decision of this episode. Last season we had a comparison between the Doctor and the Daleks but this episode dives right into the issues of that classic story to look at how the Time Lord has parallels with Davros.
In ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ the Doctor gives Davros the benefit of his knowledge of the future. He warns Davros about the evil the Daleks will bring and urges him to reconsider. Davros refuses because he believes that good will come from them, that they will end war.
In the same story the Doctor has an opportunity to end the Daleks before they begin by touching two wires together. Knowing everything he does he still hesitates. Does he have the right to change history when some things might be better with them? While he later changes his mind his hesitation allows the Daleks to exist and it could be argued partly his responsibility.
Both men knew the outcome of their actions, both refused to change events.
These ideas are explored again here, putting the Doctor face to face with the hypothetical situation he proposed to Sarah Jane Smith. Last series appeared to address the question of whether the 12th Doctor was a good man but once again we see that isn’t such an easy thing to answer.
For much of ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ the Doctor is hiding, ashamed of his decision of Skaro with the young Davros. Summoned before Davros by his agent, Colony Sarff, the truth is revealed.
The Doctor fled, leaving the child to his fate. Whether the Doctor had decided not to interfere in history or believed that the boy would die is left up to debate but the consequence is that Davros is now dying and he remembers that fateful encounter (shades of Kazran Sardick remembering the 11th Doctor’s alterations to his past after they happen in ‘A Christmas Carol’.)
Believing that he’ll die if he goes the Doctor nonetheless agrees to the meeting, to answer for his crimes. The scenes between the Doctor and Davros are the highlight of the episode.
Peter Capaldi conveys the Doctor’s shame and Julian Bleach weariness as Davros’ death approaches. Both are tired and near the end, reminiscing about the past and where it all went so wrong. The sense of history is underlined using audio clips from previous Doctors and playing archive footage from ‘Genesis of the Daleks’.
Cheekily Davros believes the Doctor looks like him in his current incarnation. Is this the answer to the question raised in ‘Deep Breath’ around his new appearance? Was that the message he was trying to send himself?
In many ways the Daleks are the children of both men. They allowed them to come into existence and shaped who they became. Neither has any control over them. Due to the decisions they made the Doctor watches his friends and time machine destroyed in front of him.
The episode concludes with Davros demanding the Doctor admit that compassion is wrong. We return to war-torn Skaro where the young Davros is once again face to face with the 12th Doctor apparently from the future armed with a Dalek gun, preparing to exterminate his mistake.
This plot thread is the saving grace of the episode and demonstrates how effective the classic serial format was, leaving us with an exciting cliff-hanger. Unfortunately the episode is filled with a lot of padding.
Michelle Gomez returns as Missy and is fantastic as always. Her character is nuanced, crazy and thoroughly evil. Although she now declares her friendship to the Doctor she readily kills innocent UNIT agents, knowing full well they have families, just to prove she hasn’t become good.
She almost takes the Doctor’s place in the story, with Clara as her companion. It is she that whisks Clara through time, delivers the exposition and engineers their (momentary) escape from captivity. The actress has expressed her desire to play the role for a long time, something I fully support.
Jenna Coleman is back as Clara, who is just as insufferable as she became last series (the character not the actress). In order to make Clara exciting and special now the mystery of the impossible girl has been solved she has become a leather jacket wearing, motorbike riding school teacher and part-time expert on the Doctor for UNIT.
In one of many cringe-worthy scenes Clara upstages the UNIT scientific boffins trying to work out why planes have frozen in midair. Her confidence comes across as arrogance and makes everyone else look stupid.
Colony Sarff, played by Jami Reid-Quarrell, is an interesting creation, gliding around in his robes searching for the Doctor on Davros’ behalf. The reveal that he was actually a mass of snakes coiled together in humanoid form was nicely done.
His existence is just one of many questionable things about the story. It isn’t like Davros to make use of non-Dalek henchmen. Later episodes might reveal why the democratic group of snakes are working for him but it doesn’t seem likely.
Colony Sarff’s method of searching also doesn’t seem very effective. While it was nice to see some of the locations the Doctor has been (The Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation and Karn) it doesn’t seem a very good way to find someone would could literally be anywhere and anywhen. It is miracle that he happened to be on Karn the same time as the Doctor at all.
Presumably Colony Sarff ship can travel in time (unless he visited all those locations during the Middle age) but that just gives him more places and moments to search and yell the Doctor’s name.
There is a continued sense that all of space-time in the Doctor Who universe isn’t that big after all. UNIT can apparently know use a computer program to work out where the Doctor is in history at any moment. So much for the Time Lord’s attempts to remove his presence from history.
Not that the 12th Doctor is making it hard for people, riding tanks while playing electric guitars in the Middle Ages. The Doctor might be partying for 3 weeks before his ‘death’ but these anachronistic introductions to the web of time seem very out of character. It is hard to imagine his earlier incarnations behaving in a similar manner, let alone allowing someone else to do so. We must also question how and why he took the tank to the middle ages in the first place.
The Doctor seems to support Missy’s claim that they are friends. His tolerance of someone so evil and who kills whenever she pleases is very disturbing but not out of character given his friendship with Madam Vastra discussed here. It is just another indication that the moral centre of the Doctor has become very questionable.
Making Skaro invisible is a neat idea but has little impact. The presence of the Daleks is hardly a surprise and raises questions about when this is taking place. The implication from Missy is that the planet was hidden because it was the home of the Daleks which makes sense during the Time War but ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ begins on a visible Skaro. It could be this is after the planet was supposed to be destroyed in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and they were hiding the fact it survived. We don’t have enough information to guess because we don’t know if Colony Sarff ship moved in time (they only refer to coming out of hyperspace).
Also as they approached the ‘hospital’ containing Davros it is clearly rotating. This doesn’t make sense if it isn’t in space unless this was also an illusion.
Surrounded by a nice mix of Daleks Missy offers to give them the secrets of the TARDIS, suggesting that this would give them more worlds to conquer. This is treated as a big deal despite the fact that the Daleks have long had the power to time travel so I don’t know why this would have any weight.
Similarly the extermination of Missy and Clara has no impact because we know that Missy doesn’t need an explanation to return from the dead. The cliff hanger also implies that all of this could be undone by changing the past.
What makes all this tolerable, aside from its strong central idea, is the direction of Hetti MacDonald. She makes everything look cinematic, with some striking images and screenwipes that recall ‘Star Wars’ (particularly apt for the cantina scene.)
In conclusion I enjoyed the majority of the episode but I just wish I didn’t seem to be giving more thought to how this all makes sense than the writer of the show. If you can overlook the inconsistencies and not take it too seriously ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ is a confident, self-assured series opener celebrating the history of the central character.