The Magician's Apprentice / The Witch's Familiar - Special OmnibusBookmark and Share

Thursday, 1 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Credit: BBC
Written by Steven Moffat, Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez,
Julian Bleach, Jemma Redgrave, Clare Higgins
Transmitted BBC One 27th September 2015

A very enjoyable and assured beginning to the 2015 Doctor Who run hit UK screens in two extra-length instalments earlier this month, but most notably we had a special feature length 'omnibus', which is a rarity for this show on the BBC. Some significant stories of the past have had their edited outings, be they involving Sea Devils, Metabelis Spiders, or Kaleds, Thals and Mutos. 

If you are wondering how different this plays out as an omnibus, the answer is 'not all that much'. The story is strong enough to hold the attention in one sitting, and there is no real need to edit scenes around. Hence we get The Magician's Nephew in the opening credits, and later a caption saying Part 2 - The Witch's Familiar before the next sections play out.

As pointed out by my colleague, this new story works a treat as a sequel to the wonderfully composed introduction to Davros (then played by the late Michael Wisher) and his battle of wits with the Fourth Doctor, i.e. Genesis of the Daleks.

As a follow-up, much inspiration is found in the original and compounded. Macabre Imagery and unsettling themes permeate the onscreen-narrative. Once again Steven Moffat comes up with a wonderfully gruesome idea via the hand mines (a literal device that destroys all humanoid life). But the most disturbing image is the idea of the Doctor being visibly ashamed of his decision to abandon an innocent child, because he knows far too much as an unlimited Time traveller.

The Doctor is given a lot of good line - few better than his rousing recommendation to overcome the 1 in 1000 odds by focusing on the 'one'. Yet Missy is still stealing scenes left and right, sometimes with the help of witty lines but not necessarily always - and played just the right side of stagey - by the very assured Michelle Gomez. And surely it would be more fun to have a Time Lady around anyway? I will unequivocally now declare her as the best Master of the last 35 years. It is also pleasing to have an explanation for her survival from last year's finale, even if that undermines the poignancy of a changed Brigadier saving the Doctor from killing his long-lost friend/worst enemy. 

I admire the episodes' intent to give us three key villains/monsters, if perhaps not the most epic or cosmos threatening main story. Of course some upgraded Daleks are no good, but maybe there is a force other than the Time Lords that may arise to oppose Daleks. If we don't see them torture and kill innocents, it becomes somewhat an abstract concept. Yet this two-parter's ability to bring proper exploration of the Doctor/Davros relationship is very good and acted by a par of expert hands to the best of their ability.

            The whole mystery/mystique over what and who made Davros the normal boy into a genocidal maniac is at the heart of this story, inasmuch as the Doctor wonders just what that period was like so as to made a huge change to one individual. Some of us know of the I Davros audio series and I wonder if showrunner Moffat is letting it link in or not, but perhaps that should not be a big issue when we have a Time War and various timelines left, right and centre these days.

There is some irony though with Davros surviving time and again when a sworn enemy of the Doctor, but only now is that precedent set; the eventual rescue of the boy in order to ensure that mercy is indeed part of the Dalek make-up, no matter how deeply hidden in practice.

As to how well he stands up with having the same actor from 7 years ago. I can firmly say that Julian Bleach is even better this time round with a more thoughtful script for him. He could rant jarringly every other screen moment he had in Journey's End. It may also help he has such a chilling henchman in Colony Sarff to do his bidding, and so he feels he has many cards to play apart from his own Dalek creation.

We do have a lot of location hopping, but it's really the combination of two renegade Time Lords and one amoral genius from a brutally war-torn world that really makes this feel justified as an extended pair of episodes. I also think as an adult fan it is a good thing to make children audience  think of character and themes as much as whacky ideas and flashy spectacle.

Sound and repeated words help generate some real atmosphere in this story: the repeated cries of 'Help Me' to a mentally paralysed Doctor, both back then in early Skaro history, and now in the present narrative, and also 'Davros knows, Davros remember'.  Those catchphrases not only resonated with a Doctor who deep down cares despite a brusque exterior, but surely also many sympathetic viewers. The re-use of classic Dalek sound effects is also never a tired thing, as they evoke all sorts of feelings of foreboding and trouble.

There is plenty of continuity with classic and modern Doctor Who, and it is mostly done in an elegant and non-indulgent manner. It is a nice surprise to have the Shadow Proclamation back after so long (if very briefly once more). Elsewhere we see Karn once again and how it is now revisited in a transmitted main channel episode (The Night of the Doctor was a brief return for Paul McGann's incarnation as he regenerated with help from the Sisterhood).

But this paying homage to the past would not count for much if we did not have a reliable strong storytelling process which yields an engaging narrative. There is some clever suspense over how the Tardis has become hidden in both parts of this feature. We worry but know essentially that the Doctor always would know his ship and how to call on it when needing it most. Rather more unexpectedly for our grey-haired hero, the reveal of where exactly he has agreed to meet Davros is done beautifully, with Murray Gold's music really selling the shock for the Doctor.

Using Skaro in both past and present is the main anchor for the very busy first part. Of course lots of galaxy-trotting is nothing new in this era but can still be a jolt, and even more so when including the material of the online prequels. The re-use of old style Dalek arches is such a great idea, and I would think any black and white Dr Who followers - who recall the eerie menace of the original Daleks - will be happy. Less impressive to my mind is the re-occurrence of having seemingly all the Dalek versions without any sense of hierachy and so adds little to that conceit brought in from 'Asylum Of The Daleks'.

Cheeky humour is never far away despite overall dark core to this story. Peter Capaldi on guitar is a wonderful moment, and a nice way for the real-life actor to stamp a bit more of himself on this constantly evolving Doctor. Few past regenerations have been very musical, but the Second Doctor was one type to  play more than a few notes on his recorder.

Also funny and avoiding tastelesness is a brief joke over 'did Clara kiss Jane Austen'. It works as a nicely ambiguous character detail as she has not found another boyfriend, and may still be grieving Danny.  And there is a clever  gimmick with planes stopping and being potential bombs. Rather than played for high stakes, it comes off as amusing and typical of the show's frequent irreverance. It is a neat link into  Missy confirming her return in a laidback and fearless way; much like when she first burst onto screen in early episodes of Series 8.

Some elements of the feature are perhaps more vital than others. I liked having Kate Stewart back on-screen (however minus the presence of the real Osgood, who remains officially dead as of now). But really there  is not much for UNIT to do other than have agents killed off by Missy. Also the limited time means little opportunity for character development for Kate. The upcoming story with the Zygons will be a much better sign of where the show wll take this long-established component of the Doctor Who mythos. 

Michelle Gomez as Missy in The Magician's Apprentice (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)A few other nitpicks must be admitted before I round off. Early on we have the young Davros with no idea as to what his planet called. Maybe he is just too young, or schools are non-existent in this world. But still one would have thought astronomy would exist to a degree given all that we are told in Genesis? Regardless, if Davros had early aspirations to being a great scientist, it certainly didn't happen before he first met the Doctor in his long life.  

As for the withered version of the Dalek creator that we all know (and love to hate), I did not really care much for the way he opens his eyes. For me it seemed a bit of a cheat. It may have been a bold idea on paper, but seems to defy the very clear precedent that he long ago lost his normal vision and so needed an artificial eye-piece. Thus he created the Daleks to have one themselves. Maybe they are fake eyes, as he tampers with himself genetically once again (c.f.The Stolen Earth's display of his body). I just feel, unlike the prolonged laugh with the Doctor, that it was a slightly mistaken breaking of ground.

But overall this is a very strong edition of brand New Who, and a marked improvement both on Series 8's opener. and on its singular story to feature the Daleks. With more multi-parters to come immediately, this could end up being a very different series, but one that consolidates last year's solid return to form for Steven Moffat and all his diligent cast and crew.