Doctor Who: 901 “The Magician’s Apprentice” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
If there’s one thing that Steven Moffat excels at it’s creating a grand opening. “The Magician’s Apprentice” certainly held the appearance of a series finale in terms of its content, danger level and sheer brilliance. To have this as an opener means we have certainly raised the bar in terms of content this series. That can be considered both a good and bad thing. The bad side is that the next episode could be considered less exciting if it doesn’t hold up to the standards of the opener. This happened with Series 6 with ‘The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon’ overshadowing ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ because it wasn’t riddled with the same scale and performance. The next story must impress otherwise it will also be overshadowed by this whopper of an opening.
Onto the narrative. I will admit that I didn’t predict the ‘big baddie’ being Davros. I heard rumours of his return, which sadly gave me reason to predict certain aspects of the narrative (namely the opening scene), but I didn’t believe them. Every year we have silly rumours foreshadowing the return of a classic villain and these all turn out to be false. So you can imagine my surprise to see Davros on the screen once more.
Davros has always been a fascinating character and an extension of the Daleks. I’ve never fully liked him taking charge of a Dalek episode because I felt it undermined them and their greatness (with the exception of Genesis and Revelation). But, in terms of being an opposite to the Doctor I find him most welcoming. This is why, like the Master, he’s such a great enemy because he can really test the Doctor and become his equal. His way of thinking has always been a test for the Doctor, ever since their first encounter together in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. It’s nice to see Moffat bringing that old battle back into play.
Another thing that took me by surprise was the return of Julian Bleach. How the BBC snuck him in for recording sessions I don’t know. It’s great that he reprised the role, having been off our screens since 2008’s ‘The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End’. As if he hadn’t been away he returned to the role with precision. It was really strange seeing him back to be honest, but in a good way. I almost couldn’t believe it at first. Once he came face to face with Peter Capaldi his performance really kicked off. I felt his connection with David Tennant didn’t quite fit. Perhaps because the Tenth Doctor was a lighter incarnation, similar to the Fifth Doctor who again didn’t sit right playing against Davros.
Capaldi played against him well and it was great to see clips shown from the Doctor’s previous encounters with Davros, especially his first which still holds great significance to this very day. Despite the fact that Davros was now frail and dying, he still held a leash around the Doctor and mentally dominated him. What made matters worse was he wasn’t in control, merely forcing the Doctor to watch his defeat unfold from afar. This resulted in the Doctor, for the very first time, begging Davros for mercy. For the Doctor to fall so far meant the situation was most dire and Davros was in control. His final night could very well be the Doctor’s darkest hour with the Daleks creator.
The return of Missy was at first unappreciated by me because I despised her character upon her first major encounter with the Doctor last year in ‘Dark Water/Death in Heaven’. However, after having time to consider the fact of the Master now being female I have come to terms with it. I can’t say I’m fully happy about it but I’m more open to it and appreciate Michelle Gomez’s unique performance. It’s fair to say she is one with the character and really brings a new twisted side to the Master’s character.
What I love the most about this new take is Moffat’s writing. He really wants to bring back the notion of the Doctor and the Master being old friends, something Russell T Davies also tried to do. They aren’t just enemies, they are childhood friends who are caught in the middle of a simple friendship squabble. One enjoys saving the universe whilst the other enjoys destroying it. They don’t hate each other as people, they simply hate each other’s decisions and want nothing more than the other to admit they like themselves.
Missy’s interactions with Clara was a real centre piece for the middle section of the episode. Missy needed Clara to help her find the Doctor but of course Clara wanted to kill her for what she had done to Danny. Of course, in a typical Missy fashion, she teased Clara about Danny’s death and later went on a killing spree to prove that she hadn’t turned good and was still bonkers. Clara has to be given credit where it’s due to be able to tolerate such a person and to be able to cooperate and work together with them.
It’s worth noting that I didn’t enjoy UNIT’s presence at all. I found they were there just for the sake of helping the narrative move along. Kate Stewart was very much misused and felt lacking. She didn’t seem to be in control and her new scientific advisor did most of the talking for her. It was as if Kate had no idea what she was doing and appeared helpless, and incompetent because of this. I hope that Jemma Redgrave is given better material during the rest of her appearances in Series Nine because she is a fine actress and her character deserves better.
As for the Doctor’s triumphant late entrance, well, it was fantastic. I never thought in a trillion years I would ever get to see the Doctor ride a tank into a medieval castle whilst playing an electric guitar. I would say the Doctor is suffering a mid-life crisis but we all know that started a long time ago and is still happening. Fair play to Moffat for having the Doctor return in such fashion despite the urgency of the episode’s situation. He always knows how to balance out the serious and the comedy, which I love. The Doctor has never been able to tackle a serious situation without behaving like a child. His famous line, “There’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes,” really does reflect his attitude towards facing his worst days. Twice before when he was summoned to his demise the Doctor chose to run away and avoid it.
Though the Daleks don’t appear until right near the end they certainly steal the screen and show off their menace. But, there was some complaints about their appearance. Firstly, ‘Into the Dalek’ seemed like a wasted episode considering this current Dalek episode has already been a better encounter for the Twelfth Doctor and should’ve therefore been his first encounter with them. And secondly, I hate the fact that every single Dalek story in Moffat’s era either changes the design of their bases or the way the Dalek Empire operates. First it was implied through other mediums that the Paradigm were the new dominate Daleks, then they were shifted to being merely members of the Dalek Parliament and the bronze Daleks took centre stage once again (one step forward, two steps back), then the Paradigm disappeared from the face of reality before finally having a Dalek Empire derived from every single Dalek in history.
I appreciate the appearance of Classic Daleks. Not only does it look impressive, it also gives the Daleks a sense of diversity and history. But, their appearance seems confusing, or for the sake of it. Their promised appearance in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ made more sense. Also the reappearance of Skaro is baffling. It was destroyed in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and then was reconfirmed destroyed by Dalek Caan in ‘Daleks in Manhattan’. Now we are being told it has been restored, with the Dalek city made to look like the original one no less, despite the Eleventh Doctor previously standing on its remains at the beginning of ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. I think I just need a little bit of information as to these recent developments because continuity is important and like I mentioned above the Daleks don’t have any in Moffat’s era.
Another negative point about ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ is its resemblance to previous story-arcs. The entire arc of Series 6 was about the Doctor’s date with destiny as the Silence attempted to once and for all silence him due to terrible events from a different point in his timeline. This was a massive event in the Doctor’s life and now, once again, the Doctor has been summoned to his apparent demise and he has prepared for his death once more but not before fooling around beforehand. This little incident seems insignificant in comparison and I have yet seen why it has been fussed over on such a large scale. Perhaps I will be enlightened by the second part, but for now it does lead me wondering if Moffat has anything better to do of late than rehashing old ideas or relying on Classic villains to generate stories.
Some may question my verdict, but I couldn’t give this opener full marks because I simply didn’t think it was perfect and held too many flaws, which I hope are addressed next week. I will also admit that I’m not hundred percent sure where Moffat is going with Davros’ origins. I hope it pays off. It would be interesting to see how the Doctor’s actions caused Davros to go from being an innocent child to the inevitable creator of the universe’s greatest evil. A lot of my overall rating will be determined by ‘The Witch’s Familiar’. Sadly it could fall apart if Moffat doesn’t handle the conclusion correctly and of course handle the explanation of Missy and Clara’s outcome during this week’s cliff-hanger with care. Either way I remain open minded and can’t wait to see where next week takes us.