Sunday, 20 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice

A Man Kaled Davros

Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice
UK Airdate: 19th September 2015

Warning: Oh yeah. You bet there are going to be all kinds of spoilers in this one... otherwise there’s not a heck of a lot left to talk about.

Yay! The Daleks are back...

... which, if you’re a regular reader of my Doctor Who reviews over the last five years, is probably not something you would expect to hear me say, given that I always keep banging on about how overused they are in the modern era of Doctor Who. However, for this episode at least, writer Steven Moffat does something fairly special with them....

So, following on from a fairly unremarkable Christmas special, the 2015 season of Doctor Who begins its broadcast with the first of a two part story, this episode being called The Magician’s Apprentice... and it has to be said it’s one of the best episodes I’ve seen in a while in the series. Probably since somewhere in the middle of David Tennant’s last year on the show. Opening with a brilliant and surreal opening hook set on a war torn Skaro, a young boy gets caught in a field of ‘hand mines’ which are hands which come up from under the ground and which can see you with an eye embedded firmly in each palm, grabbing you and pulling you under the surface, presumably to your death. In flies the Peter Capaldi incarnation of The Doctor to give the young boy a hand but, on learning that his name is Davros... he leaves him again to his fate. Which may seem a bit harsh if you’re not a fan of the show and know that the young boy will grow up to become the ruthless creature who mutated the Kaled race and invented the Daleks; a character created approximately 12 years after the Daleks first appeared on the show in 1963, opposite Tom Baker’s Doctor in his first season in the 1975 story Genesis Of The Daleks, before making regular appearances throughout the show’s long history. The eyeballs in hands, of course, now make perfect sense as an inspirational motif for the young evil genius when you realise their similarity to the eye stalks of the Daleks, only translated into humanoid terms.

After the credits, the story continues with Clara Oswald rejoining The Brigadier’s daughter in UNIT as a ‘returned from the dead’ Missy (aka the female incarnation of The Master) gets her attention and then teleports her away to grab The Doctor... who is in the year 1138AD, in a nice little reference to George Lucas’ magic numbers. They are then all transported to Skaro where both Missy and Clara are “Exterminated”... yeah, right... and The Doctor is left on a cliff hanger as he goes back to destroy Davros as a young boy.

Okay, so the story is fairly dark and, more importantly, darkly handled by director Hettie MacDonald, who last directed for the show on my all time favourite episode Blink... so no wonder she does a great job here. It seems the combination of Steven Moffat’s writing and her direction has given us what could, if we’re very lucky and the second part lives up to the set up, be another classic episode of the show. It’s downright creepy and atmospheric and, somehow, the emotional investment conjured up the actors delivering Moffat’s lines for this director seems to really help the audience believe that great things are afoot and... well they kind of are.

I’ve never really liked Davros as a character that much... my only interest in him being a symbol of what he stands for rather than anything any of the actors or dialogue have done for the character in the past four decades. Here though, as a dying creature who has summoned The Doctor for one final meeting, he is absolutely brilliant... seemingly relaxed and at ease on his home planet and, I dunno, just something about the way that Julian Bleach, who last played the character in the two part Tennant story The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, plays him in a much more relaxed manner here that really makes the character work and Moffat ,once again, proves himself as a writer of, at the very least, great starting point stories.

There’s a lot for regular fans of the show to love about this one too, with various Doctor’s who have come across Davros over the years either heard in dialogue clips or seen in video clips... including a major moment for Tom Baker’s Doctor... the famous “Do I have the right” scene opposite Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen is not seen here) as he debates whether he has the moral high ground when considering ending the Daleks before they are even properly unleashed on the universe. Something which this story has big echoes of, of course, with Capaldi’s Doctor being given the choice of saving him, leaving him to die or, perhaps, destroying him (although we know he won’t do that).

There are also some great dialogue references to the Tom Baker and Matt Smith incarnations of The Doctor by Capaldi, who also does some great guitar solos here, including a version of the Doctor Who theme. Music seems to be a key plot device here, in fact, with Missy using a variation of the 1982 chart hit Mickey, by Toni Basil, to grab UNIT's attention. Interestingly, The Doctor also plays a quick version of this on his guitar as a reference to Missy when they meet in this episode although, since he wasn’t around for that scene at the start of the story, one might wonder how he would know that Missy used that to identify herself to UNIT personnel? I’d like to believe it’s a Moffat clue to indicate that The Doctor already knows what’s going on and is one step ahead of the game at this point but... yeah, although he’s done stuff like that before I think it may just be a bit of sloppy writing here in that respect. Time will tell, I guess. Hope he proves me wrong.

Among other nice things for fans of the show is the reappearance of The Sisterhood Of Karn, who were first seen in Doctor Who in the 1976 story The Brain Of Morbius, before returning in a short web based episode prequel to The Day Of The Doctor 50th Anniversary special, giving Paul McGann the power to change into John Hurt’s War Doctor for the purposes of that story. They also reappear in a short web prequel to this episode, released last week. In addition to The Sisterhood and a whole load of other places and creatures from recent Who stories like the Judoon and the Ood, there are some great Daleks from the show’s early history featured in the story, which is great and, better than that, the famous monsters are in no way overused here and seem to be much more of a threat because of their lack of domination of the episode.

My favourite bit, though, was the ambient sound of the chamber in which Davros resides... which is a dead spit of the ambient sound used on the first of the mid 1960s Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies whenever the characters are in the Dalek city and, I’m pretty sure, dates back to the Daleks’ first on screen appearance at the end of 1963. That sound effect made me chuckle to myself when I noticed it.

So, yeah, all in all a well written, well directed and, it almost goes without saying, well acted episode, especially by the three leads Peter Capaldi, Jenna-Louise Coleman and Michelle Gomez, with the latter being little calmer in her delivery of the role (mostly due to the nature of the dialogue, I suspect) and, therefore, a little more lethal like The Master really ought to be. Some nice hits from Murray Gold’s score too with the Capaldi Doctor’s theme getting a little more prominence in the mix, this time around.... although saying that, why they were using it for scenes accompanying Clara rather than using a variant on Clara’s theme is anybody’s guess.

In general, though, The Magician's Apprentice is a truly triumphant season opener and I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that the follow on and, presumably, lingering season long fallout from this episode set up, doesn’t let it down. Unlike The Doctor, I can’t travel in time anyway except very slowly forward, so I’ll have to wait for the answers to those questions but... a really strong opening here and I am looking forward to where the show goes from this, for sure.


  1. Great Review - Although I did think that the comic (guitar and tank) elements a slight more childish than I would have liked - too light for me, as I always favour the dark side ;-)

  2. I actually think a lot of people I know think it's gone too dark. I am so far happy with it but... I'm sure that'll change as the series gets going. Thanks for reading and taking the time to reply.