Doctor Who series 9 review: The Magician’s Apprentice

Spoilers: Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman return for Doctor Who series 9. Here's our review of The Magician's Apprentice.

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

9.1 The Magician’s Apprentice

“Davros. My name is Davros”.

Well, you can’t accuse Doctor Who‘s latest series opener of not trying to get its core audience on side. The return of Julian Bleach as Davros? A reappearance for Skaro? Missy/The Master and the Doctor back bickering again? A whistle-stop tour of previous new-Who tourist attractions? Settle down, grab your Doritos: Doctor Who is very much back.

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It’s a layered opener too, perhaps one less welcoming to Who beginners than some of those before it. But then this year, there’s no major new face to introduce to the show – well, not yet at least – so Steven Moffat dives straight into story, and setting up threads for the next three months.

In that sense, he’s facing a similar test to the one he encountered at the start of series 6, and he attacks it with similar vigour. Back then, The Impossible Astronaut set up a series-long arc that teased the death of the Doctor. With The Magician’s Apprentice, we’re back touching on the Doctor’s mortality, but with plenty more ingredients in the mix.

The opening set the tone quickly, for an episode that skilfully weaved tension, humour, excitement and questions.

At first, a simple re-introduction for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor (who then disappears for the next 20 minutes), it sees him rescuing a small boy from the really rather sinister handmines (another effective Steven Moffat primal fear foe). A tip of the hat to the production team and effects people here, as The Magician’s Apprentice looked strong, and continued to build Doctor Who’s reputation as one of the best-made shows on British television.

But in truth, I wasn’t concentrating on that for long. The Magician’s Apprentice had my absolute attention from the moment the young boy revealed his name. “Davros”. Davros is back for the first time since 2008. And soon, we learn that he’s dying.

The appearance of Davros alone would generally offer enough fuel to fill an episode’s story up. But The Magician’s Apprentice is the first beneficiary from the greater emphasis on two-part episodes in the new series of Doctor Who. Thus, whilst the episode zips around, there’s no galloping to wrap things up with five minutes to go.

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Quite the contrary: there’s time to re-introduce everyone, and set up a dilemma for the Doctor at the end. Albeit one that surely won’t actually resolve with the Doctor shooting a young boy in the face with a Dalek’s gun. Heck, if Doctor Who ever wanted to go really, really dark, that’d be a place to start though. The Daily Mail would have a field day. They love the BBC at the best of times.

The moments with Davros had an underlying, and at times more overt, feel of Genesis Of The Daleks about them. As we discover, it’s no coincidental reference. Instead of Tom Baker holding two wires, though, we have the Doctor having the chance to rid the world of Davros at an early age. That, plus he’s faced with what to do as one of his greatest nemeses reaches his end of days.

The problem is that nobody really expects Capaldi’s Doctor to make a dissimilar decision to Tom Baker’s. But still: were Davros to naturally end up dying (which I don’t think he will), it opens up some potentially interesting future Dalek storylines. Bring back the faction wars of Remembrance, for a start.

“Hang on a minute. Davros is your arch enemy now?”

Capaldi’s absence from most of the episode’s first half allowed others to step forward. The creepy snake man thus had his moment in the spotlight, as he took us on a search for the Doctor, on Davros’ behalf.

Here’s where Steven Moffat’s script took us on a little tour of primarily new Who. So we pop back to the Maldovarium, for the first time since The Time Of The Doctor, before checking in with The Shadow Proclamation (for the first time since The Eleventh Hour). Intergalactic Google Maps also takes in the Sisterhood Of Karn (back after The Night Of The Doctor, although their debut was decades before) as the search continues.

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But snakeman – real name Colony Sarff – should have just asked Clara. She seemed to have the answers for lots of things in this particular episode.

This is a real challenge for Doctor Who series 9. Appreciating that the rumours that were stirring about whether Jenna Coleman would even make it to the Christmas special have been addressed, it’s still a test to try to find new things to make Clara interesting. We spent a long time building up to her potential departure last year, only for the character to stay on. Coming up with another interesting build up with the answer pre-determined is why they pay Mr Moffat the middling bucks (it is the BBC, after all) and not us.

All of this is no slight on Jenna Coleman, whose performance is as good as ever. But here, she’s teaching one minute, at the heart of UNIT the next, tracking down the Doctor after that, and the only person who can negotiate with a deadly foe after that. For now, she lacks the mystery, or the human dilemmas, that have made her so effective thus far. She doesn’t seem to have a chink in her armour right now either.

Not that the returning Missy doesn’t try and find one. In a script not short of humour, it’s Michelle Gomez’s take on The Master that gets the zingers. Gomez is, bluntly, having a ball, switching accents, spitting out lines, dancing, and seizing the screen with a glee that’s hard to resist.

“Not dead. Back. Big surprise. Never mind”

There’s no concession given to those who didn’t like what Michelle Gomez did with the character last year, and I think that’s the right approach. She was one of the absolute highlights of series 8, with more people on her side than not. It’s telling that in an episode that features Davros, Daleks and Snakeface, that it’s Missy that still emerges.

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Even if she is seemingly dead by the end of it. Again.

Steven Moffat once described the Daleks as the most “defeatable” foes the Doctor faces, and there’s an attempt here to add some real brutality to them. The TARDIS is thus blown up, Clara is shot, and Missy is blasted away too. Again though, I don’t buy it, and I doubt anyone else does. In fact, I’m wagering that everyone threatened with death in this episode – the Doctor, Missy, Clara, Davros – will be thoroughly live and kicking by this time next Saturday (which I haven’t seen, in case you think I’m cheating).

It’d be a lovely Hitchcock-esque trick to genuinely kill one of them off, and in turn it’d destabilise expectations going forward. But this is episode one of a 12-installment run (13, including the Christmas special, of course). It’s certainly successfully grabbed my attention, but in turn, it’s posed lots of teasers, and not all of them feel very teasing. Perhaps if this was an episode 11 cliffhanger, it’d feel different.

Likewise, the Doctor throwing himself a farewell party and preparing for his death feels a little like retreading hints that have been addressed more than once in recent years, not least when we visited his tomb at the end of The Name Of The Doctor.

As such, the chat about the Doctor facing the end of his life didn’t really exercise the eyebrows, not that mine hold any substance next to Mr Capaldi’s. When this all came to a head last time, the Doctor got new regenerations at the end of it all, seemingly only with a little more difficulty than replenishing your lives on Candy Crush Saga.

However: what’s different here is the Confession Dial. At first, I can’t say this got me too intrigued. His final confession? Again, Doctor Who teased for a while we’d find out his name, and we never did (not that I’m grumbling there. Tiberius Who would be a rubbish name). However, in much the same way that Russell T Davies once had me screaming at a fob watch, I wonder if that confession dial’s moment is yet to come. It’s too pretty a prop to only surface once.

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I’m being a bit picky here perhaps, but then this is the challenge in coming up with new things to do in such a long running show. That said, The Magician’s Apprentice boasts once of the funniest and most-crowd pleasing moments I’ve seen on TV this year.

For as Missy and Clara go hunting for the Doctor, the advice from the former is simple: “look for anachronisms”. Cue what may be the best entrance Peter Capaldi ever does as the Doctor, strumming a guitar and sitting on a tank. “Tiny anachronisms”, Missy says. Well, there’s one.

“I’ve also introduced the word ‘dude’ several centuries early”

I’ve missed Peter Capaldi. I love his take on the Doctor, and his is the work here of a man with his feet now under the table, and clearing loving playing a role he’s long dreamed of. It’s not just because he has Britain’s finest eyebrows (that is a factor, of course): he’s just fascinating. He feels, 14 full episodes into his tenure, an unpredictable force, and it’s enormous fun watching him.

Bottom line here? I thought The Magician’s Apprentice was a good, solid start to a series, whose true potential will only be realised if The Witch’s Familiar rounds it off strongly. It’s a bit more zipping-around than we got in series 8, and it delivers liberal doses of nerd gold to our TV screens. Plus it leaves us with the tantalising prospect of Skaro returning. That we’re on the home planet of the Daleks, where they’re strongest, most dangerous, and available in lots of different looks (save for the Mighty Morphin’ Power Daleks versions of Victory Of The Daleks, which seem to have been sent to the recycle bin).

Oh, and let’s not forget perhaps the most tantalising line of all: “who made Davros?”. Now that’s a question I wouldn’t mind seeing the answer to. Welcome back, Doctor Who

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