The Magician’s Apprentice is a whirlwind extravaganza through the Who universe. In its entirety it feels like an ambitious attempt to sum up Doctor Who in 46 minutes. It is for once as promised: a blockbuster beginning with very strong performances and a surprising new storyline, albeit with some very old friends.
The episode opens with a dusty, war torn planet, soldiers using primitive weapons against technology (this was a major clue for any classic Who fans with remarkable memories). The imagery here is classic Doctor Who remastered; re-watching it the second time, this is so striking that it’s surprisingly obvious in hindsight what planet this is. This continues through the episode, a perfect replica of a bygone era of Doctor Who. ‘The Genesis of the Daleks’, the episode referred to and probably paying homage to (as coincidentally it has been 40 years since the episode aired) is visible in each set design. In fact the whole episode is constantly referencing past seasons and Doctors, the main theme itself is based on a rhetorical question once posed by Tom Baker’s Doctor: “If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?” Playing that back during the Doctor and Davros’ loaded confrontation is chilling and effective.
Doctor Who fans can be forgiven if sometimes our eternal optimism fails us – after over 50 years it’s difficult not to feel some weariness when storylines are rehashed and branded as new. This is exactly that, probably one of the most well known and overused storylines in the show now reimagined and placed before us once again. Cut to boy Davros, this is not a new theme as in the past we have seen child versions of both The Doctor and The Master. Somehow it remains surprising, a fantastic idea that in its simplicity leaves the audience saying ‘wow’, then, ‘why hasn’t this been done before?’ Saturday’s regeneration of the Daleks and Davros blew away the cobwebs and the viewers at home, breathing new life into a story that was wearing thin.
Capaldi’s performance was magnificent, thankfully it looks as though this season he will be given the full spotlight and boy is he making the most of it! A rock star guitar solo on a tank finished off with some top quality Christmas cracker style jokes. What more could you ask for? He seems to have made the role his own and the pace of this episode really showcased his versatility as an actor.
It was an episode of very strong performances all round: Michele Gomez absolute shone as Missy, a similar character to that played previously of Green Wing’s Sue White, and she is the perfect mix of playful insanity whose charm seems able to disarm everyone including the Doctor. Missy and the Doctor’s relationship has very quickly been established – “Older than the universe and infinitely more complex” – ruling out any romantic entanglement in the first episode yet marking their relationship as important. More so than the Doctor’s relationship with Clara, as their friendship appears to be dismissed and reaffirmed throughout the episode without any consistency.
The Doctor’s assistant is a role that has changed considerably from the leather bikinied screaming of the past to something that celebrates strong intelligent women, as well it should. However, it is also the ‘way in’ to Doctor Who. The assistant is the relatable person for the audience who reacts to things as a human experiencing an alien way of life. Clara however, talks and acts like the Doctor, her character is increasingly made to seem more intelligent and more important though the point of this seems unclear. In this episode it was a detriment to the returning Jemma Redgrave who plays Kate Stewart. The idea that the finest brains in the UK government dealing with extraterrestrial activity should be rendered completely clueless in order to highlight Clara’s brilliance is pointless and unnecessary. At this point I do have to mention the line ‘pardon my sci-fi’ which is so bad it made me cringe. Thankfully the Magician’s Apprentice as opposed to season eight has a good balance of characters and is for the most part very well written.
The wonderful thing about the way this episode has been constructed is that it has a really strong underlying theme that just about holds everything together. It’s mirrored perfectly as the Doctor
returns to the boy Davros with the implied intention of killing him. This is in fact all the cliff hanger that was required, Clara and Missy’s ‘deaths’ seemed a pointless waste of airtime. No self respecting Whovian is going to get the slightest bit anxious about their welfare. Otherwise it’s a great ending to a hugely cinematic, exciting episode and certainly raises the bar for the rest of season nine.
The Witch’s Familiar will air at 7:45pm on Saturday the 26th of October, BBC one.
All images are copyright BBC.