Nine months on from Christmas, Doctor Who Christmas is upon us. Okay, I’m not sure what a Doctor Who fan would consider to be the biggest event of the year but it’s my review so I’m going to say it’s the season premiere. With no new characters to introduce, we instead get reacquainted with a couple of The Doctor’s old nemeses. What good is a hero without an equally strong villain, after all.
Spoiler Alert: Because it’s a new season, I’ll give you a quick reminder of my policy. I will be discussing this episode in the review. However, there will be no discussion of spoilers from future episodes nor will any in the comments be tolerated.
Magician’s Apprentice is a change in the format of the season premiere. This is the ninth season of Doctor Who in the current revived incarnation. In all but Season 6 (and really Season 7 but they were starting to establish Clara before she came in full-time), the season premiere was used to introduce a new Doctor or companion.
So while we’re used to seeing the season premieres being used to introduce new characters, we didn’t get that here. Instead, we’re jumping right into the season with the Daleks and their creator/leader Davros. In writing this review, it really hit me how hard the showrunners (Davies and Moffat) have worked to quickly and repeatedly establish characters into the existing universe in order to keep the show ticking as it has for the last 52 years.
I was really unsure where to start this review until we got to Davros’ final speech about The Doctor’s compassion being his greatest weakness. It struck me as the most noteworthy piece of dialogue in the whole episode because it’s a massive one-eighty from last season.
Last year, when Twelve met his first Dalek, he was told that he would make a good Dalek. The recurring theme of the season was whether The Doctor was really as good a man as everyone thought he was. Danny kept questioning him. Missy gave him an army because that’s what he really wanted to save the universe. It was pointed out that he used people as a means to his end, even if he saw his end as the greatest good.
Davros is already trying to establish the exact opposite. While last season was about The Doctor not being as white hat a hero as we’ve been led to believe over the last fifty years, this year is starting off with the idea that The Doctor is too pure a white hat hero for the benefit of time and space. Davros basically says that if The Doctor had a more villainous streak, he could have stopped Davros when he had a chance when the creator of the Daleks was just a child.
I’m interested to see if this alternate view of The Doctor is only going to be brought up in these first two episodes as a result of The Doctor and Davros’ history or if The Doctor’s compassion will be a theme of this season.
If there’s one thing that Moffat likes, it’s a bit of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fun. In this instance, we see the Twelfth Doctor encounter Davros as a child in the midst of the war on Skaro and gave him a chance to live. It’s something that was explored in the Fourth Doctor story Genesis of the Daleks in which the Timelords task The Doctor with destroying the Daleks before they’re created and saving space and time as a result.
The problem is that this episode only really makes that obvious from the start to long-time Doctor Who fans who knew what the name Davros meant before the opening credits rolled. For new fans, or those unfamiliar with the history of the Daleks, I can see this whole episode being a bit flat. If you didn’t grasp the big reveal at the start, you may not have really understood the meaning of it until the end when we got the big Dalek reveal.
The highlight of the episode was the return of Michelle Gomez as Missy. The Master returning is one of those constants that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who. In continuing the ongoing Moffat theme of questioning if The Doctor is a good man or not, exploring the love/hate relationship between The Doctor and The Master is going to be one of the more interesting subplots of the season. The Doctor and Davros really don’t have that near symbiotic relationship that The Doctor and The Master have which is what makes their encounters pop off the screen.
The reason why this works is because Gomez is so damn good at what she does. She commands every scene that she’s in regardless of who else is there or what is happening in the scene. Missy’s chaotic evil streak could end up being Joffrey-esque in making her a supervillain but Gomez does it in such a way that I find it thoroughly entertaining without wanting to see her get killed off… again.
As for Jenna Coleman… None of my Doctor Who watching acquaintances were heartbroken that Clara was exterminated. In fact, one was hopeful that Clara might actually be dead. If she last to the end of the season (and I don’t see why not), she’ll be the longest-lasting companion since the show was revived. It should worry Moffat that you’ve hung your reputation on a companion that isn’t overly beloved and whose best source of dramatic fodder seems to be when she’s bailing on the show.
While a lot of people really liked this episode, I thought it was a middle-of-the-road episode. I think there was a fair bit of fan service in this episode which I always appreciate. I just didn’t find there to be too much tension to this episode. It felt like we were just casually floating along without pushing towards any sort of action or climax. I suppose the best way of putting it is that this episode felt like the first part of a two-part story rather than pushing towards a conclusion.
Other random points of note:
- Despite an episode having a billed 50-minute run time put into a 65-minute block on Space, I found the commercial breaks to be too long and too frequent for the episode to really establish any rhythm for the first half or two-thirds.
- Peter Capaldi was the frontman of an 80s punk band called Dreamboys. So did he actually play any of the guitar used in the episode? The audio probably wasn’t him on set but I wouldn’t be shocked if what he did on set wouldn’t have been too bad if you hooked him up to an amp.
- Hand mines are really creepy. So simple and yet so completely Moffat.
Next week, the season premiere two-parter concludes as The Doctor is forced to face Davros and the Daleks by himself. With the TARDIS destroyed and Clara and Missy dead, it may not be a matter of victory but survival on Skaro. We find out how The Doctor can manage in The Witch’s Familiar.