• 21st September 2015 • Review by Seb Patrick •
I swear, although I doubt anyone will believe me, that I knew nothing about the content of the series opener when I tweeted this in July:
You know what Doctor Who needs to bring back? Julian Bleach's Davros.
— Seb Patrick (@sebpatrick) July 28, 2015
… but the fact that I did probably gives you a pretty good impression of how this review’s going to go.
In fact, let’s clear the niggles out of the way first, so that we can get on with the exciting stuff. So yes, there’s something a little tiresome about an ominous “The Doctor is going to die, but where is he?” sort of narrative as the opener to a series. It’s not just a retread of “The Impossible Astronaut”, it’s also the kind of story that should have been comprehensively over and done with after “The Time of the Doctor”, a story that really was about the Doctor finally getting old and getting to the very end of his last life and how he coped with it.
But what’s really frustrating about it is that it doesn’t even really need to be part of this story at all. It’s a hook on which to hang the opening scenes (and to give us that medieval interlude, of which more shortly), and a reasonable excuse for the Doctor and Clara to be separated, but it’s not really a necessary one. The true heart of this story could happily exist without it. Perhaps it’s meant to signify “The Doctor’s done something so bad that even he’s decided he can’t live any more”, but if it is, then the story doesn’t really go to enough lengths to make it mean that.
Anyway, that’s the niggle. Oh, and the medieval scene gets a bit silly. It also features several good laughs, but it’s hard to deny it feels a little banana daiquiri at times. It slightly screws with the episode’s pacing, too, and feels like a little bit of a barrier to anyone who hadn’t already watched “The Doctor’s Meditation.”
(And while I know Moffat is very pleased with himself about the “Hey Missy” song, when exactly did the Doctor learn that it had become her own personal theme tune? It’s not like he was there when she killed Osgood, was he? And even if he was, it’s pretty tasteless of him to bring it up. Still, that aside, we can’t quibble too much over the joy of seeing Capaldi playing the guitar, and the axe/tank jokes are pretty tremendous.)
Anyway, those are the niggles. And niggles are what they are, because let’s be clear: “The Magician’s Apprentice” is a spectacularly enjoyable, hugely inventive fifty minutes of Doctor Who that somehow manages to make you not notice that there’s not actually a whole lot of plot in it, because it’s so relentlessly chucking ideas at you. “Hand mines”, planes stopping in mid air, a bloke who’s made up of a load of snakes hunting the Doctor across the universe: any one of these could have made for an episode of their own. Hell, so too could “Missy and Clara have to team up to find the Doctor”, or “the Doctor gets trapped on Skaro and has a chat with Davros, who’s just remembered that his arch-enemy saved his life when he was a child”, or “every Dalek ever! And we know we said that before but this time we’re letting the Special Weapon Dalek and the Sixties Daleks speak and everything”. But no, they’re all in the same story.
(Hell, they’re all in the first half of the same story. Based on the assumption that the second half is usually where the stakes get raised, at this rate I’m half expecting Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon to turn up at the beginning of “The Witch’s Familiar” and then get into a fist fight with the Curator and the Valeyard.)
It should be clear from what I wrote the last time there was a story with a load of Daleks from different eras in it that I love Daleks. Seriously, cannot get enough of them. If Terry Nation had actually managed to get that Daleks-only spinoff going in the 1960s, I’d actually almost rather that be the show that got brought back in 2005 than the one that only has them in it once or twice a year. But you know what I love almost as much as Daleks? Yep: Davros.
So for Moffat to give us a story that doesn’t just happen to have Davros in it (and as much as I enjoyed “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”, that’s really what that was), but which is actually properly about Davros, is something that I can’t help but instantly fall in love with. Especially when it has the character as played by Julian Bleach, an actor who is now a serious contender for the best ever version of the role (because it’s not just that he does a note-perfect take on Wisher’s version, but that he combines it with a note-perfect take on Molloy’s version), getting to face off in angry, philosophical conversation with Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. Seriously, give me an entire episode made up of those scenes, those “I approve of your new face, so much more like mine” scenes, and I would be perfectly happy. “This is the argument we’ve had since we first met.” Seriously, shivers down the spine. An elaborate trap set for the Doctor solely so that Davros can prove with his last breath that in their key ideological difference, he was the one who was right. Amazing.
(Confession: I’d heard a week or so ago the rumours about the child the Doctor meets at the start of the episode being Davros, so that revelation wasn’t quite the shocker it could and should have been. But even after hearing those rumours, it didn’t occur to me for a second that a present-day version of Davros would also turn up. I just figured the whole of the Doctor’s arm of the story would take place on pre-Dalek Skaro. So I genuinely did get one of those fantastic moments of surprise that Doctor Who is still occasionally capable of when he first appeared on screen.)
But of course, if the story were just about the Doctor and Davros, then we wouldn’t have all that stuff with Missy. I called Missy “a complete shift in the parameters of a Doctor Who villain” last year, and what Moffat does here is to push that even further. She’s now a complete shift in the parameters of a companion. I’ve already seen it posited that had the reaction to Gomez last year not been so positive, maybe this story would have had River in her place (vortex manipulator and all) – and you can see that, because take away the casual murdering and almost everything else she does would fit with River’s character and role too (even the plane stopping as an attention grab, when you bear in mind that it doesn’t actually cause any harm to anyone – tell me you can’t envisage the UNIT scene with “HELLO SWEETIE” as the coded message). But it’s hard to see how it would have been anywhere near as much fun.
Maybe not quite enough time has elapsed since “Death in Heaven” (in which the Doctor gave every impression of being willing to kill her, and in which Clara was certainly more than happy to) for their weird, enemy-friendship to have reached the stage it’s at in this story; but I don’t really mind rushing to this stage either, because it’s tremendously enjoyable, and instantly offers a whole new range of story possibilities (such as, for example, Clara being left in the hands of a sort-of Doctor-surrogate figure who she can’t ever trust, but who still goes through all the same motions when discovering their true location that the Doctor would have done had he been there). It’s not a one hundred per cent original idea to have the Master be the Doctor’s companion – hello, unexpected Scream of the Shalka influence – but Missy already feels like the only version of the character so far with whom you can really buy it.
(Of course, she’ll be a straight-up antagonist again by the end of the story. Of course she will. That’s how it works. But for now, let’s enjoy her affrontedness both at the suggestion that she shouldn’t be the Doctor’s friend, and at the suggestion that she’s not his arch-enemy. Not to mention the sheer, unforgivable and hilarious cold-bloodedness of her brief mention of Danny.)
There’s a remarkable sense pervading this story of the shackles being taken off – in a not entirely dissimilar fashion to the last time Moffat had the beginning of a “second series” to contend with and decided to open it with a two-part story that felt more like a series finale. “Freewheeling” is a phrase I’ve used a few times to describe the current showrunner’s era, although it hasn’t always been true of it; it certainly is here.
After giving us a thoughtful, intriguing and experimental first year with this new Doctor – this brilliant, possibly-best-of-all-time Doctor – “The Magician’s Apprentice”, for all it takes a turn into darkness in its final act, is much more like a party (even if it’s a party to which the poor old Paradigm Daleks still haven’t been invited). It’s hard to know exactly how the second half of the story will live up to it – I can only hope that it succeeds slightly better than the Series 6 opener, which somewhat collapsed under its own weight.
But even if “The Witch’s Familiar” does manage to underwhelm – and I really don’t think it will – then it’ll still be the second half of a monumentally enjoyable opening story that leaves me breathlessly excited for the rest of the series.
And no, I’m not just saying that because it has the name of this website in it.