Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 1 – The Magician’s Apprentice

“Davros made the Daleks. But who made Davros?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After a divisive first season for Peter Capaldi’s abrasive, sometimes hard to like Twelfth Doctor, Doctor Who was back this week with a busy episode that was an obvious fan pleaser. Continuity references abounded, even outside a main plot that featured Davros, the Daleks, Missy and UNIT. Being a fan, I enjoyed it hugely. Trouble is, will the casual viewer even understand what all this is about?

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As ever with the first part of a two parter, it’s hard to make a judgement overall as yet. But there was a lot of substance here, as Steven Moffat again plumbed the depths of the show’s history to present us with a startling retcon idea – what if Davros was meant to die before he even thought of the Daleks, and it was the Doctor who saved him?

Last year saw the Doctor wrestling repeatedly with his morality, trying to ascertain if he was “a good man”. Along the way, he was presented with moral dilemma after moral dilemma (some more successful than others dramatically). He also had to face the truth, as pointed out by Clara, that his unwillingness to kill the Master/Missy in the past meant the blood of her victims was equally on his hands.

In Doctor Who terms, the acknowledged classic of moral dilemmas was that faced by Tom Baker in Genesis of the Daleks – should he wipe out the Daleks completely, and become guilty of genocide directly, or in refusing to do so become at least partly responsible for all the carnage they would cause? I was reminded of this choice several times last season, but now it seems Moffat has gone right back to the source to put the Doctor in virtually the same unenviable position.

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The ep actually directly pointed this out, courtesy of a clip from Genesis played as a memory of Davros (let’s ignore the fact that he wasn’t present for that part of the story). “If someone pointed out a child to you,” agonised the Fourth Doctor, “and told you that that child would grow up to be totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives – could you then kill that child?”

Back then, this was of course a metaphor. But the smartly done prologue to this ep put the Doctor in a position where the choice was literal; with the same potential consequences as the last time. Director Hettie MacDonald effectively realised the battle-ravaged landscape of Skaro, and Moffat’s script gave clever hints as to where exactly we were. Observing the soldiers firing bows and arrows at laser-equipped biplanes, the Doctor himself commented on the war’s length being indicated by the mixture of old and new technology – virtually the same comment he made in Genesis. But even suspecting all that, I was still surprised at the wholly unexpected reveal that the child he was about to save was the young Davros.

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Whatever else you may think of Moffat, he’s a master at playing the show’s pre-publicity in a way Russell T Davies never was. I wasn’t expecting the season opener to feature Davros and the Daleks, but I had been surprised at the open admission that Missy was to reappear. In hindsight, it’s a very clever piece of misdirection – let the fans know an old enemy’s coming back, to divert attention away from the fact that, this time, she isn’t actually the enemy.

She was certainly a scene stealer though. Michelle Gomez was as “bananas” as ever as the latest incarnation of the Doctor’s old friend turned enemy, freezing every plane on Earth in midair just as a means to get Clara’s attention. Batshit insane she may be, but her discussion with Clara about the nature of her ‘friendship’ with the Doctor was revealing and interesting, describing their repeated attempts to kill each other as “our version of texting”. And it’s clear that their complicated love/hate relationship isn’t one-sided – if Missy is to be believed, she is the ‘closest friend’ to whom the Doctor bequeathed his “Confession Disk”.

Of course the Master has worked with the Doctor before – sometimes honestly, sometimes as part of a larger deception. This too may turn out to be another lie (and won’t some people be very upset if it turns out the lie she told Clara wasn’t the one about the Doctor having been “a little girl”?). For the moment though, it’s a wild ride having this impulsive, unpredictable psychopath actually on the side of the angels, and Michelle Gomez plays the uncertainty brilliantly.

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Capaldi too was superb, and seems to have mellowed his performance somewhat. But then it’s hard to tell – as Clara pointed out witnessing his ‘farewell party’ in 12th century Essex, “He never acts like this”. Still, his showstopping entrance on a tank, wearing shades and playing the electric guitar like a 70s rock idol, was one of the ep’s genuinely funny moments (“I thought you wanted an axe fight?”). It is rather hard to imagine the self-flagellating, stern Doctor of last year being this much fun – but then, his final realisation that he’s just “an idiot with a box” might have lightened him up a little.

But he was still capable of playing it dark when required, which it plainly was during his discussion with the ailing Davros. Julian Bleach played the Dalek creator with more subtlety here than the last time, all sibilant quiet with none of Davros’ trademark ranting (perhaps that’s coming next week). As ever with Moffat’s ‘timey-wimey’ plots, it’s not yet clear to what extent the Doctor’s meddling has changed the timeline; Davros still possesses the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, and the repeated refrain “Davros remembers” presumably referred to the incident when he was a child.

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Logically, he must always have been there to save Davros as a child, and yet surely Davros would have realised whenever he finally saw the sonic screwdriver that it was his arch-foe who saved him. If so, though, how come he’s never mentioned it before? And why was it treated like a new addition to the timeline?

Perhaps we’ll have an explanation for the paradox next week; perhaps not. Either way, their head to head discussion was plainly a tribute to similar moments in the past, which must have been a joy for old fanboy Capaldi. As must the appearance of the Daleks; more so than the much-vaunted Asylum of the Daleks, here we clearly saw the post-2005 Daleks accompanied by many of their classic series brethren; in fact the first one we saw was a 1960s design. It made sense, with the reappearance of Skaro, but the one notably absent Dalek type was the chubby, rainbow coloured ‘iDaleks’ introduced in Victory. Perhaps even Moffat has realised nobody liked them.

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With Capaldi, Gomez and Bleach chewing up the scenery, Jenna Coleman managed to just about make her mark as Clara, helped by the fact that the Doctor was missing for about half the ep. She held her own well with Jemma Redgrave, making a welcome return as Kate Stewart, and worked surprisingly effectively as a sparring partner for Missy. Again with the publicity, it was surely no coincidence that the press release of her imminent departure from the show came so close to the new series – it gives a real sense of jeopardy to the proceedings knowing that she’s about to leave. Mind you, I think only an idiot would genuinely believe she and Missy are going to stay exterminated.

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The ep was full of Moffat’s trademark “imaginative ideas that don’t get developed much”. The Skarosian ‘hand mines’ were inventive, as was the Voldemort-alike figure of Colony Sarff, a man literally made of snakes. I was reminded of the similar abundance of ideas from the far less coherent A Good Man Goes to War, which also featured a pre-credits search for one of the main characters throughout a Star Wars-inspired galaxy of aliens. Here they came ready made; in yet more fan-pleasing gestures, we saw the Shadow Proclamation with its attendant Judoon, and a cantina full of Ood, Hath and Sycorax. The “created by” acknowledgements in the credits were very long this week.

That an episode this busy managed to stay coherent was something of a minor miracle, but coherent it was, and with some real dramatic heft. There’s always a risk when throwing so many fan favourite elements into the mix that the story will come off rather like the fan fiction written by ten year olds, in which the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Zarbi team up with the Rani and the Master to fight the Doctor, UNIT and all the Time Lords. To his credit, I think Moffat here managed to pull that off, arguably better than Russell T Davies did with his Dalek/Cyberman mashup at the end of David Tennant’s first series.

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This was a cracking season opener, with enough spectacle and fan-pleasing references to seem more like a season finale. I think it’s still enjoyable for the casual viewer without encyclopaedic knowledge of the classic show; after all, Missy was only seen last year, and the Daleks are never entirely absent. Davros may not have been seen since 2008, but he’s been in the revived series at least. Fan pleasing gags like the reference to “at least three different versions of Atlantis” may have sailed over the casual viewer’s head, but then they were hardly crucial to the plot.

It was a storming, imaginative season opener for sure, and a start this frenetic surely means the show will have to dial down the pace a bit after next week’s conclusion. If I have one real criticism, it’s that, thematically, it felt a teeny bit familiar – the Doctor going into hiding on learning of his apparently imminent demise was the scene-setter for Matt Smith’s second, overly convoluted series. But the specifics here are very different, and the moral dilemma far more real than in nonsense like Kill the Moon. On this basis, I’m really looking forward to this year’s series.

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