Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, Julian Bleach, Jemma Redgrave, Clare Higgins
Transmitted BBC One 19th September 2015
This review contains plot spoilers.
And he’s back in the room. After nearly nine months off our screens, here he is, look what the cat dragged in - The Oncoming Storm, currently AWOL, at the end of a three week long, very silly party…
And how he’s changed. Missing in action, once he’s tracked down, the change is startling. He seems to have lightened up somewhat. The dress code has relaxed. The hair’s gone quite, quite mad, he hugs, he cracks bad puns, he’s developed a tendency to rock out, welcoming Clara with the riff from Pretty Woman, he’s taken to wearing ray-bans. The Doctor’s become a sort of funny uncle ……or has he?
The Magician’s Apprentice is startlingly different for a series opener, it’s not for part timers. It’s not a sequel to Deep Breath, to Death in Heaven…..it’s a belated sequel to Genesis of the Daleks. It knows its audience, and dares to open on war-torn Skaro, during that endless war of attrition, as the Doctor bouncily tries to save a child from a grisly end whilst giving a classic cocky-Doctor pep talk. Those hand-mines, reaching gruesomely from the earth are the stuff of nightmares, and the murky battlefield on Skaro is perfectly grim. And then, his world caves in as that child innocently says his name, and the spooked Doctor walks away, leaving young Davros to his terrible fate.
Cut to one Clara Oswald, making teaching look a bit too easy, dropping a saucy reference to Jane Austen, hopping on her motorbike, and breezily heading off to save the day. Planes are hanging, frozen in the sky, and UNIT, in the Doctor’s absence, are on the phone.
Clara pluckily heads off to deal take care of business, but is soon cut down to size. She's good, but this time, she’s ever so slightly out of her depth - starting off confident but increasingly thrown off and wrong-footed by events that she can't control. Clara's good, but she's not the Doctor. She's learned a lot, but one thing that keeps coming back as that her shared history with the Doctor doesn't mean she can always predict his actions.
The theme of shared history doesn't stop there, or with those moody scenes of Colony Sarff stalking the Doctor through the alien cantina, the HQ of the Shadow Proclamation and the eerie wastes of Karn. It doesn't stop with UNIT and a slightly wasted Kate Stewart, or Missy's parlour trick with the planes where she reprises The Time Monster either.
Ah yes, Missy. Not dead, not sure why. Those planes frozen in the sky are but a calling card, a sample from the Master's Greatest Hits, but they're another layer of references the 'Not-We' are unlikely to clock as they leave the telly on after Strictly Come Dancing.
Certain quarters of fandom unsure or unhappy about the Master's gender alignment are unlikely to be cheered up by Missy's return. Not this fan. Michelle Gomez takes ownership of this episode the second she arrives. She's brilliant fun, but even more shockingly, casually vicious than before, indiscriminately killing in that Mediterranean square with eight snipers trained on her, without a care in the world. This sets the tone, as she oscillates between sweetly smiling and snarling menace. She's utterly lined up as the other woman against Clara, even if, as Missy points out in one of many memorable barbs, it's nothing so crude as human relationships. No, this is all about friendship.
Clara's rightly put out that the Confession Dial went to Missy and not her. Even if the Doctor and Missy are frenemies and go way back, it irks Clara that she's not the BFF the Doctor would have her believe she is, just as Missy senses this and milks it. Trying to kill each other is like texting to Missy and the Doctor, and it becomes apparent to Clara trying to save him throughout his entire history clearly doesn't hold a candle to centuries of trying to kill him using increasingly insane schemes. No-one knows the Doctor better, and Missy uses that to taunt Clara. (Just imagine the cut dialogue: "I was turning feral on a Cat Planet when you were potty-training, dear”). They head off to find him together, and it's a bumpy ride. But it's not long before this odd couple is reunited with their man.
Clara knows something is off, she brings up the changes in the Doctor as if she’s reviewing this for us. Just what exactly is he running from? What is the Doctor’s confession, if it’s not the revelation that he made Davros, and is therefore responsible for centuries of Dalek slaughter, what is it? It must be pretty awful, whatever he’s confessing. Mysteries for another day, no doubt.
It’s all beautifully woven together in Steven Moffat’s best script in a long time, epic storytelling, intricately spun, both mythic and character-driven. Visually, it’s stunning, returning Director Hettie MacDonald gives us big, moody, and cinematic. (Where’s she been hiding since Blink?)
Moffat also gives us his best new villain in some time. Colony Sarff's baleful, hissing presence is a strong hook, and he's a memorable supporting villain. The revelation of his true nature (He's a snake man, made of snakes!) is a masterstroke - but like the planes, UNIT, Kate, and the Doctor's rock-out in Medieval Essex ("Dude!"), he's so much window-dressing. Even the scenes between Clara and Missy are a sideshow to the main event, the reunion of the Doctor and Davros.
It's startling drama, as two men who've been waiting for forty years for a proper reason for a rematch finally get that reason. Julian Bleach, last seen ranting furiously in Journey's End is a quieter, more manipulative presence here - slumped and diminished-looking in his chair, dying, but perking up a little as his arch-enemy is delivered to him on Skaro. These men are most decidedly not friends, but their exchanges take on the air of old men discussing war stories in a private members club.
The squaring of the circle with Genesis is brought home spectacularly, by Davros playing the Doctor their ‘best bits’, unlimited rice pudding and all. The camera lingers on the clip of the Fourth Doctor holding those wires and asking “Have I the right?” just as Davros punctures the Doctor’s whole argument of the last forty years with one devastating bit of logic. Davros knows. And so does the Doctor. And he can’t run from that.
Peter Capaldi is a revelation, playing a Doctor who still hates this man, but now with that added shade of deep shame at actions recent for him, but centuries ago for Davros. He prowls the room and circles his enemy with the absolute conviction of a man who's been waiting for this meeting for decades. Moffat rewards him with the meeting his Doctor deserves. This is arguably the best material Capaldi's had so far, his full range from comic bravado to rage to fear is on show, and his Doctor is beside himself when he sees the full retro glory of Skaro.
And beautifully done it is too, the faithful update of the Dalek City, those Ray Cusick arches, the array of Daleks of different vintage on show in the TV21-inspired control room - taking the idea of Asylum of the Daleks to its logical conclusion. Ok, the Daleks are relatively static, especially the Supreme, but they look amazing, and when that gleaming Dead Planet model swoops across the sand to capture Clara and Missy, it's joyous.
We leave on a cliffhanger where the Doctor's left trapped, alone, and defenseless, his friends apparently exterminated, and at the end of his rope. He reappears, somehow, on that ancient battlefield - apparently so desperate that he's training a Dalek gun at the child Davros. And with that, Doctor Who brings back two more old friends - the killer cliffhanger, accompanied by the return of the 'sting', leaving you with your heart in your mouth until next week.