SPOILERS FOR THE MAGICIAN'S APPRENTICE ALL THE WAY THROUGH.
You have been warned.
If you’re going to set out a stall, set it out in bright pink neon with a fluorescent sign on the top saying ‘THIS IS MY STALL – AND I LIKE IT!’
That’s what I say, more often than you might think, and fair play to them, Steven Moffat and the Production Team do just that with the pre-credits sequence of The Magician’s Apprentice. Boom – a war zone with mixed technology. Older fans will have got the prickle up the back of the neck from the bow and arrow moment, because they know one big war that went that way, from advanced technology to primitivism. And through the creepiest minefield in the history of television to the moment when the boy’s name is revealed, the creeping sensation continues. But with that name, and the Doctor’s reaction to it, the Series 9 opener sets out its big, bold, fairly grim stall, and straps you in. Davros as a boy! The Doctor refusing to help an innocent! Alllrighty then – and off we go.
Back in our time, we get the delicious sense that ‘the planes have stopped’ was a story idea that was strangled at birth, and it’s just been hanging about in Steven Moffat’s brain for a few years, waiting for something to do.
The tiniest hint that Clara kissed Jane Austen and she liked it and we’re off to the races, with UNIT used purely as rocket fuel to get Clara and Missy together. The writing for Gomez feels stronger and sharper in The Magician’s Apprentice than it did in Series 8 – not necessarily less whimsical, but you can pick more of the older Masters up in her performance and what she’s called upon to do here. While they’re obviously light years apart in style, there’s a certain Delgado quality to moments like Missy checking the position of snipers in her compact, as though the whimsicality at all times conceals the hearts of a ruthless, demented psychopath.
Back in the past, and the Twelfth Doctor has changed a bit since we left him. He feels less like an ascetic, grumpy beanpole, and more like a rock and roll ball of unpredictable disgracefulness – given that in the Hartnell era, he gave the Meddling Monk a good old going over for introducing gramophones to Twelfth Century England (and, y’know, the Viking thing, fine!), and that just a little later in 1215, the Fifth Doctor would prove to be a proper pain in the butt to the Master’s plans to interfere with Magna Carta, he’s a bit of a liability here, with his electric guitar, his ‘Dude!’, his visitor centre, shades and…there was something else – oh yeah, the freakin’ tank! But in terms of pure style, it’s irresistible. It’s like that uptight friend you have from the office suddenly calling you at 3AM one Saturday morning, to come and bail them out of jail after a cross-town bender that ended with them getting blind drunk and molesting a potted plant at the mall. It’s so very different, we both love it and fear it simultaneously.
Minisode-scenes with Colony Sarff popping to Karn, to the Shadow Proclamation and to what might as well be the Star Wars cantina (you spotted the Ood, right? Everybody spotted the Ood, and shouted “Ood!” at the screen) are moderately unnecessary, but they do at least set up Sarff as a bit of a badass, an impression confirmed when he/it/they do their ‘Seriously, I’m the Mara in 21st century Who’ thing and set about traumatizing the kiddies, but before that, check out the character dynamics between the Doctor and Missy. Here more than ever before is the case made that they really are good friends, who just have slightly different takes on how to go through the universe. It’s slightly disconcerting, because even with the Tennant-Simm versions, the previous holders of the ‘Most Matey Doctor-Master Combo’ award for blurring the boundaries, you never really believed they wouldn’t stop each other given half a chance. Maybe, once or twice in the Pertwee-Delgado days, but never really. With these two you’re not entirely sure they dislike each other enough to actually put an end to each other’s jackanapery, a shifting of the ground to this idea of their friendship being ‘infinitely complex’ rather than actually a thing that’s turned to enmity.
If the writing’s better for Missy this time out, then what to say about Julian Bleach’s Davros? In The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, he was required to do much of the heavy lifting in terms of the story’s psychotic ranting, and what we ended up with was a Davros quite far removed from the original, as written by Terry Nation and played by Michael Wisher. But check out Bleach here for a whole host of reasons he was chosen for the role in the first place – he brings an age, a twisted version of wisdom (as from the child of endless war and the doctrine of racial purity), an exhaustion, a hopelessness that – without getting too disrespectful – will be familiar to anyone who’s visited a relative in an old folk’s home. The exhaustion and the nearness of Davros’ death in Bleach’s performance mean for the first time in the character’s history, you get a sense of the smell of Davros coming off the screen – the chemicals that regulate his organic body perhaps breaking down so close to the end.
Once Skaro is revealed of course, the real meat of the episode stands clear. Missy tries to take control of the Daleks, and there’s a glorious resonance to the last time the very first Master was seen on screen, Roger Delgado leaving the Doctor with some ‘old friends.’ The Master and the Daleks have never appeared in scenes together since (except in Moffat’s Comic Relief special, Curse of the Fatal Death – see the slightly cringeworthy mention of the ‘dog’s unmentionables’ as Missy fondles one of the Daleks’ bumps), so there’s a nod to the Pertwee past before she’s exterminated. The Daleks kill Clara and we get an advancement in Davros’ understanding of his relationship to his creations. ‘I gave the Daleks life – I do not control them.’ A very big leap forward for the man who spent most of the seventies and eighties demanding his creations treat him as their god.
More than anything, there’s a grim and wonderful joy about getting the Doctor and Davros together in a room, simply to talk. Moffat is on record as saying that those were always his favourite bits of the Davros stories – and there’s a glorious nod to them in the multi-Doctoring on the screens – but that they were always too short. What we get in The Magician’s Apprentice, and what we’re promised in The Witch’s Familiar – is more time with these two simply talking about all their similarities and differences, an extra-sensitive topic given the game-changing beginning of this episode, where the Doctor leaves a young and helpless Davros alone in the minefield to die, and especially given the shocking, horrifying ending of the episode. What happens next?
Capaldi has said that this year his Doctor is having the time of his life, but running from something. The question he’s asked several times throughout The Magician’s Apprentice surely dogs both him and us at the very end. Oh Doctor – what have you done?
The pace of The Magician’s Apprentice is largely thumping – though it could have been faster without some of the Colony Sarff minisode scenes. The scale of the dilemma makes sense of all those spoiler-free headlines about the episode feeling like it was a season finale, rather than a season opener – in fact, it has the same kind of climactic power as The Stolen Earth, while adding a darker, grimmer note of hopelessness and a more realistic, conversational Davros. The question, surely, is whether The Witch’s Familiar can possibly match it for scale and punch, and whether there are in fact more conversations to have between the last Kaled in the universe and the Doctor, or whether, through his close association with Missy, he’s finally gone too far.
Tune in next time, and let’s find out.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk