“The Magician’s Apprentice” casts an immediate spell. Anyone versed in the classic Tom Baker serial “Genesis of the Daleks” was surely mesmerized within seconds. The misty battleground/rock quarry; a war fought with a mishmash of weaponry from different eras of time — this was all set up back in 1975 by Terry Nation. But just as quickly, Steven starts Moffating by unveiling the handmines, an eerie, unsettling aspect of this particular warfare (we’ll hopefully learn more about them next week). And then, of course, he wickedly thrusts a child into the middle of it all, followed with an obscured-by-clouds Doctor (Peter Capaldi), attempting to assist. Then BOOM! Davros. The kid’s name is Davros. You needn’t have seen “Genesis” to appreciate that revelation.
Post-credits, the action shifts to the freakishly serpentine alien Colony Sarff, hunting for the missing Doctor in some of his previous haunts - the Maldovarium, then to the Shadow Proclamation, and finally Karn (where a briefly seen Doctor hides from his stalker). Unlike some other season premieres, “Apprentice” has little interest in being accessible to newbies. It assumes viewers now know the show’s minutiae and iconography. Given that this is the ninth season of Who redux, why not? With so many places to easily access the series, what’s the point of constantly trying to find new avenues through which to lure or entice new viewers? If someone wants to start watching Doctor Who, they’ll start with “Rose” or “The Eleventh Hour” or “An Unearthly Child” or wherever their friend or an article on the internet advises them to begin. This storyline is for those of us who’ve lived with the series for years.
The reintroduction of Missy is heralded by the mystery of over 4,000 airplanes frozen in the sky, and investigated by Clara Oswald and Kate Stewart and UNIT. The climax/resolution of it all — the scene in the Spanish town square — is a thing of twisted beauty. On my initial viewing, most everything about Missy in this episode felt too much, and out of step with the tone of the rest of the piece. On a second viewing that still seemed the case, only the episode was all the better for it. Missy here works in ways she couldn’t in last season’s finale, which was too bombastic for any serious character development. But here Moffat starts peeling back some layers by showcasing the deep feelings this female incarnation is in touch with where the Doctor is concerned.
And how about, “No, I’ve not turned good!!!”? Criminy! What a moment for the Master. Can we still call her that? Moffat isn’t calling her the Mistress. We should be able to call her the Master. She should be able to call herself the Master. She used Missy as part of her ruse last season, but now that the cat’s out of the bag, must she continue calling herself that? Imagine if the Doctor suddenly started going by Dave or Dorothy. In any case, when Michelle Gomez says she wants to play the role for years to come, I am of the feeling that she should. There’s loads of potential to be mined from this Master.
And yet, as pitch-perfect as Missy’s introduction is, the Doctor one-ups her (as he should). Capaldi in shades and grinding away at that guitar while standing atop a flipping tank is definitive. It’s the first time Missy and Clara have seen him in a while, and we view it through their eyes (and hear it through their ears). It’s very probably the most dazzling, captivating moment this Doctor has yet had, and one we’ll all talk about and reference for years to come. And when it can’t possibly feel any more iconic, he shreds “Pretty Woman” at Clara.
There are Daleks in this episode, and some nostalgically retro-looking ones at that. However, as has nearly always been the case with this series, once you introduce Davros into the mix, his creations end up playing second fiddle. This is fine, though, because Davros is endlessly fascinating in ways the Daleks rarely are.
Davros is said to be dying, and the listless, despondent figure presented here (once again portrayed by Julian Bleach) is a far cry from the goading, ranting, manipulative madman of days gone by. This seems more a reaction to his childhood remembrance than any fear of death, though. The idea that the Doctor inadvertently created Davros through his own revulsion is a twisted one, but of course we must wait a week to see exactly where we’re being taken. It feels as if with this knowledge Davros has lost his individuality, and therefore lost his purpose.
Thematically “The Magician’s Apprentice” is a riff on a riff on the old proposition, “If you met Hitler (or some other dictator) as a child, could or should you kill him?” Terry Nation exploited this in “Genesis,” and “Apprentice” spoon-feeds a lengthy clip from the serial in which Tom Baker lays it all out (alongside a slew of other clips and soundbites). Much as I love Baker and “Genesis” and that iconic scene, it’s a meta moment that jarred me out of the episode — the villain playing all the greatest hits for the Doctor. It put far too fine a point on it all.
The Daleks destroy Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS each so efficiently and without dramatic fanfare, of course they’ll all be back next week. It’d be a hell of a way to kill the season before it begins if they weren’t. In the final moments, the Doctor returns to the scene of his own crime, intent on committing another: the extermination of Davros as a child (an image that again echoes the past; see Fifth Doctor Peter Davison and Davros in 1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks”).
Rare is the season of Doctor Who that begins with this much confidence. These characters all feel extremely well developed and the dynamic among this group of actors is one of the best the series has seen. I raved about “Deep Breath” last year, but this thing is the sort of stuff fanboy and -girl dreams are made of, and yet … it’s only half of the story.
The bulk of season nine will be comprised of two-parters, and Moffat has a history of not always delivering on the promises of his set-ups. Look no further than last year’s two-part finale for evidence of this. That assertion, assuming you agree with it, makes the ninth season a dicey proposition. Countless fans have begged for longer storylines since the new series began (if for no other reason than to exploit the classic cliffhanger angle, which worked marvelously here). This could be one of the most rewarding seasons of Doctor Who, or it could end up a series of misfires. So as brilliant and perfect as “The Magician’s Apprentice” is, ultimately some proof will also need to be in next week’s pudding.
Odds and ends
- Serious props to the mad skills of director Hettie MacDonald, who, prior to this, helmed only one other Doctor Who episode, and it was all the way back in the third season: “Blink.” You might remember it. Baffling that she never returned to the series until now, isn’t it? She had quite the legacy to live up to, and she delivered on several levels (she’s holding the reins next week, too). Track down MacDonald’s debut feature film, “Beautiful Thing” (1996). It’s well worth your time.
- Ace bits: Missy’s spacewalk and the subsequent operatic revelation of Skaro; Clara’s knowledge that Jane Austen was a “phenomenal kisser”; the cynical, on-point observations Davros made about his children; Missy’s line, “How’s your boyfriend? Still tremendously dead, I expect?”
- Who is the magician and who is the apprentice? I believe the Doctor and Davros, respectively, but I’d like to hear what other folks think.
- I didn’t say enough about Clara, who is so unflappable, so collected, so observant of every little detail. Nothing gets past her here. It’s a measured, restrained portrayal on the part of Jenna Coleman. Clara’s no longer someone in search of answers; she’s the one with the answers. She is indispensible to the Doctor at this point. Her impending exit will surely tear him apart.
- Naff bits: What was the whole point of the Doctor’s last will and testament? It felt like the story went an element too far, and an unnecessary throwback to the end of season seven. What was up with the dog-walkers wandering around the town square? Wouldn’t UNIT have sectioned off the area?
- Colony Sarff was an inspired creation, and, all CGI considered, pretty chillingly brought to life. Fannishly, I wish it had been revealed that he was an aspect or agent of the Mara. What would such a fanfiction-y episode have to lose by that point? (See “Kinda” and “Snakedance” from the classic series.)
- The line about “three possible versions of Atlantis” is a nod to the fact that in some form or fashion, the classic series destroyed the fabled underwater city on three separate occasions.
- Between now and next Saturday, you should watch “Genesis of the Daleks.” You might have seen or DVRed it on BBC America this morning, as it kicked off their Tom Baker–fest (Dear BBC America — thank you for not stretching the image to 16x9!). You can also stream it on Hulu. Buy it on DVD in a special-feature-laden edition, or on the recently released set simply called “The Daleks,” a collection of new series Dalek episodes from each Doctor that includes the entirety of the six-part serial as a bonus feature. Also on that set is the two-part David Tennant–starrer that reintroduced Davros to the series. (I recently saw this DVD at Walmart for $10.)