DOCTOR WHO: “The Magician’s Apprentice”

The Doctor returns to the home of his greatest enemy in a premiere that may leave newbies utterly baffled.

Survival is a choice. Choose it now.

–The Doctor

Last season, showrunner Stephen Moffat was working off the thesis of “Is the Doctor a good man?”, which portended a run of episodes where Number 12 would threaten to give into his most selfish desires only to save the day at the last moment. Even when he crossed certain moral boundaries (like when he dropped the android leader off the airship in “Deep Breath,” or gave an unsatisfying explanation for rescuing the passengers of the Orient Express), it seemed to always be in service of a larger good, which as far as we were concerned answered the question in the affirmative. His care for Clara, certainly, and his attempts to save her boyfriend Danny Pink (though that didn’t quite work out) are proof of that.

And yet, just as things are going along swimmingly and Jenna Coleman has signed up for one last season traversing space and time, he reaches a long-destined moment in his timeline that threatens to undo it all. I’m talking, of course, about the decision to leave a young boy to die on a war-scarred planet because of what that boy will become.

In Season 6’s “Let’s Kill Hitler,” an episode which despite its title was largely a romp, the Eleventh Doctor reasoned that the dictator couldn’t be killed by a time traveler; that he made up one of the Universe’s many “fixed points” that had too much of an impact to be undone, like the eruption at Pompeii or the destruction of the astronaut base in “The Waters of Mars.” The Doctor turns and leaves this boy — Davros — on Skaro, besieged by “hand mines,” while unsure whether it would be his action that eventually leads to the creation of the Daleks, or rather his inaction. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as his urge to intervene without even checking his map has backfired once again. Centuries later, Davros is what he has always been, the Doctor’s archenemy (don’t tell Missy), only now we know he has kept the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver all this time, and the Doctor’s shame is absolute.

Davros, Skaro, Daleks — “The Magicians’s Apprentice” was chock-full of callbacks and shibboleths from stories all along Who‘s timeline. For the uninitiated, it must have been rather disorienting, as it’s well past the halfway point of the episode that the Doctor explains to Clara what we already know about Davros, and why her tagging along as the Doctor goes to his likely doom is a very bad idea. And well before that scene, we get cameo appearances from the Shadow Architect, the Ood, and Judoon — relics of the Russell T. Davies era that have been all but forgotten in the last several years. At the Doctor’s showdown in Davros’s quarters, we see old clips of previous Doctors: Baker, Tennant, even Davison. In short, this was an atypical premiere in that it was definitely not an episode for new fans.

All that said, there were some cool ideas here. Because Season 9 will have more two-part episodes than ever before, Moffat has the opportunity to dig deeper into the stories and manage the pacing better than in seasons past. (I say that as a big fan of the last one.) On the down side, first halves are invariably unsatisfying on their own. I can’t make any judgment on whether bringing back Davros works at all until I see how it plays out — that’ll be a familiar refrain as I rotate recaps with Chase and Rachel again — but as far as individual moments go, for every one that verged on cheese (Missy’s head popping out of the screen at UNIT did not work at all), there were two or three that felt thrillingly like the Who I know so well.

Photo : Copyright © Simon Ridgway, 2015 / +44 (0)7973 442527 / / / 12.02.15 : Doctor Who Series 9 Block 2.

The hour’s biggest triumph is undoubtedly Michelle Gomez, returning as Missy after turning Danny into a Cyberman and having her last world-dominating scheme foiled. Gomez is a delight to watch; her idiosyncratic line readings and sharp physical comedy ensure that her incarnation of the Master never devolves into cartoon villainy. She’s insane, but charismatically so. (Chase calls her “the Loki of the Who-verse,” and he’s not wrong.) And in “The Magician’s Apprentice,” she very nearly walks away with the whole episode, whether she’s cavalierly incinerating UNIT officers or singing and dancing in her holding cell. When the Doctor calls on his 14th-century audience to hiss at her appearance, she revels in it.

Her relationship with the Doctor is as fascinating to us as it is utterly confounding to Clara: “How can you and the Doctor be friends?” she asks. “You spend all your time fighting.” Missy doesn’t miss a beat before her breezy reply: “Exactly!” As the only other known Gallifreyan in the Universe, there’s a thousand-year-old connection between her and the Doctor that Clara can never understand. Sure, they may always be trying to kill each other, but they’d never actually succeed. The eternal feuding is too much fun.

And, as it turns out, Missy may be the only one clever enough to get the three of them out of their current pickle on Skaro. (What? You can’t seriously think she and Clara are exterminated. Remember the vortex manipulators?) While the Doctor confronts the demons of his past (again), the Master is doing what he/she has always done: taking control of the situation, and having a grand time doing it.

Clara may be hurting to have to ally with the Time Lady who made her boyfriend “tremendously dead,” but she saves all her fire for the Doctor and his latest end-of-life crisis. (How many more times can Who dangle that one in front of us? “Journey’s End,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” Trenzalore, and now this?) Clara’s pissed because the Doctor sent his “Confession Dial” (a new, somewhat foggy concept) to Missy instead of her, and is frittering away his supposed final hours by introducing electric guitar and the word “dude” to the Medieval audience. (“A-nach-ro-nisms,” Missy sighs.) But while Clara is happy to play to the crowd, she rounds on him later on Skaro: “Don’t apologize. Make it up to me,” she seethes. If the Doctor had a nickel every time he heard that from one of his companions, he could buy everyone in Mos Eisley Maldovarium a drink.

How Davros knew to choose this moment to send Weird Snake Man to collect the Doctor is anyone’s guess. Kid Davros barely got a look at the Doctor all those years ago, but he’d been holding that betrayal like a trump card ever since, and by sheer coincidence the Doctor has only just realized what he’s done as Davros finally prepares to die himself? As usual with Moffat and Who, it’s best not to think about it too hard, but it’s a clever reveal all the same. There are only so many ways the show can wring new meanings out of old stories before it drowns in its own mythology, but this one works in principle if it’s a little muddy in execution.

Even the episode’s final cliffhanger is bizarre, because it’s more of a teaser for next week than an actual pause in the story. The Doctor can’t go back into the past until he gets away from Davros and retrieves his TARDIS. But the moral quandary it leaves him in — kill an innocent boy in cold blood, even if he becomes Dalek Hitler later? — is undeniably effective. “Compassion has always been your greatest indulgence,” Old Davros taunts him. Let’s see if that’s still true.

Timey-Wimey Stuff:

  • I have to talk about the Hand Mines. It’s great to know that Doctor Who can still deploy a truly unsettling image, and those were strong enough to support their own episode, not just a prologue. Now they’re just another one of Skaro’s many mysteries. That whole opening scene was terrific, actually: “I was looking for a bookshop — how do you think I’m doing?”
  • Speaking of Things That Didn’t Turn Out To Be Important (Yet), Missy’s “parlor trick” of freezing passenger jets in time seems like the kind of thing that would have broader real-world consequences, but this is Missy and Who, after all. I know I could make use of that app or whatever she was using to create her instant shade.
  • “Jane Austen…strictly between us, a phenomenal kisser.” Well okay, Clara.
  • The Doctor’s arena fight (or whatever it was) was reminiscent of A Knight’s Tale, and I mean that fondly. Definitely one of his most memorable entrances. And yes, that was really Capaldi playing guitar.
  • Wait, just who is “The Magician’s Apprentice?” In the ten-minute prequel episode that aired last night, the Doctor’s 14th-Century buddy (the one who was tragically revealed to be a Dalek hybrid) called him a Magician. But the word never came up in the episode proper. Seems odd.
  • Speaking of odd, the redesigned, larger Daleks are back for the first time since Season 5, I think? I figured the reason we hadn’t seen them since is because everyone more or less hated them. At least the bright primary colors are still out.
  • “You should never believe a man about a vehicle.”

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