So this is what Doctor Who looks like when the dial gets turned all the way up to 11.
Or, in this case, 12.
‘The Magician’s Apprentice’s feels like Steven Moffat’s own ‘guitar solo on a tank’ moment: a surprising, swaggering return to our Saturday nights. When the man decides to show off, he really pops on the shades and goes for it; giving us a season opener executed with such flair – and with so many shocks and knowing references – that you can’t help but drop your guard. And your TV remote. And your axe. There is so much to love that it’s disarming.
Never before has there been an opener of such space-hopping scope and energy. One packed with enough ideas and enemies to have made 4 or 5 episodes, never mind 45 minutes.
In the first ten minutes alone we’ve already crossed off half a dozen familiar alien species (nice to see you again, Sycorax/Judoon/Ood), visited just as many planets or floaty places in outer space (lovely to see the Shadow Proclamation again – and they’ve redecorated! I don’t like it…), met a serpentine new villain, and had one whacking great bombshell dropped on us, in the pre-titles sequence to end all pre-title sequences…
Yes. Davros. As we’ve never seen him before.
In the thrilling nostalgia of the Kaled/Thaal War, and among the nightmarish but pun-tastic ‘Hand Mines’ – weapons which could have had an episode to themselves – The Doctor encounters young Davros.
Pre-wheelchair, pre-eye in the forehead, pre-pubescent. And suddenly he’s forced to answer a question he managed to avoid answering exactly forty years ago during ‘Genesis of the Daleks’: ‘If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives… could you then kill that child?’
He runs off rather than answers it. But you know Doctor Who by now: you can only run from a question for so long. Eventually the party has to end, dudes.
There’s a final meeting to be had between the arch-nemeses. The Doctor facing his death isn’t exactly uncharted in Moffat’s tenure, but it’s so magnificently well dolled-up here with snake men and tanks and frozen skies that it feels new. Especially as there’s no Tesselecta to pull his irons out of the fire this time.
Now ‘Present Davros’ (and it is so good to have Julian Bleach back!) is dying on Skaro, which is a significant health upgrade from the ‘smithereening’ he endured in ‘Journey’s End’.
Or did ‘Victory of the Daleks’ make it canon that the Dalek Invasion of Earth in 2008 was swallowed up by ‘The Crack’? Yes? But then we see Doctor Ten being all teeth n’ hair on Davros’ Guilt-O-Scope, which means it did happen? No? Yes? This is what we have a comments section for, people. Theorise away! God, we’ve missed the rampant theorising.
Regardless of what has or hasn’t happened, the pace that ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ runs at gives us no time to quibble over resurrections, and nor does it suggest you should give it much thought afterward. If anything it embraces the unkillable absurdity of the show’s legacy characters and just gets on with telling a story. Just as we have to accept, unblinkingly, that Davros is back, so do we have to do the same for the so-fine Missy.
Davros may be the big surprise, but Michelle Gomez is still the one to keep all eyestalks on. In a good vs evil episode, Missy is the chaotic element; the ricocheting bullet. It takes a lot of work to make a performance seem so laissez-faire, so spontaneous, but there she is, eating up the screen as she gropes a Dalek’s unmentionables and enjoys the kind of intellectual to-and-fro with the Doctor that we haven’t seen since the Pertwee/Delgado era.
They’re the best of frenemies; intellectual equals and competitive pals in a way that the pantomimic ‘Ha-HA!’ of Simm & Tennant never fully communicated.
If Missy is the same glorious cackle we remember from last year, Capaldi’s Doctor seems a little changed. He’s had the shaper edges sanded off, even got a less severe haircut. The grumpy old grandfather clock has become a more emotionally open figure: no longer against hugging, and keen to embrace a more upbeat demeanour.
Clara too seems different, improved. A million parsecs away from the woman juggling two men last season. Now she’s an independent Clara who can unravel mysteries and hold her own against a Time Lady. Frankly, she should really be working for UNIT rather than moonlighting on invasions in between double English and lunch. She’s so competent, so grown-up, that you can’t help but feel she’s close to outgrowing the life of a companion.
That said, she can still do ‘wide-eyed terror’, as she, Missy and the Doctor end up on Skaro. They’ve had the decorators in since Season 7 and wow, it looks great. A stylish slayground for Daleks of all ages to trundle around while being all shouty. That is, unless you’re a Paradigm Dalek. Judging by their absence they were all melted down to make Davros’s hospital suite, the setting for a terrific confrontation between two arch-nemeses, as Davros brings The Doctor to his knees.
Of course Missy and Clara can’t really be dead, but it’s still a whopping cliffhanger, as the Doctor is forced to answer that 40-year-old question and we’re faced with the shock image of our teatime hero pointing a weapon at a child. Child Davros, but still, a child. As old as many of the show’s viewers.
Could he? Will he? Who knows?
The first 45 minutes of Season 9 have been so ambitious and surprising that it’d be mad to try outguessing the next 45.
What we can be certain of is that this is a tour de force return for the show. An opener brimming with personality and pan-galactic shenanigans. Unashamedly fun, unmistakeably Doctor Who and, like its guitar-playing protagonist, hitting all the right notes.
Aired at 7.40pm on Saturday 19 September 2015 on BBC One.
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