Well, Doctor Who is back! The season began with showrunner Steven Moffat’s The Magician’s Apprentice, an uneven but overall strong episode that definitely got me excited for the next 11 weeks of television.
The episode has a fantastic opening: a war on a foggy landscape, being fought with a mixture of archaic and advanced technology. Sure, it might bring Skaro–the Dalek homeworld–to mind for long-time viewers of the show, but there’s plenty of times we’ve seen stuff in the new series that reminded us of things from the old that turned out to just be coincidence. So the revelation that the young, scared child threatened by the creepy “hand mines” is actually Davros came as a real shocker. The audience is just as torn as the Doctor – what will he do? Will he save or abandon the young innocent child who will someday go on to create the worst scourge the universe has known?
The scene clearly calls back a moment from Genesis of the Daleks (indeed, this moment later appears in a flashback) where the Doctor wrestles with whether to destroy the Daleks before they are created. To help his then companion, Sarah Jane Smith, understand his dilemma, he poses this very question to her: if you were confronted with a child that you knew was going to grow up to be a destructive dictator, could you then kill that child? What a great hook to build an episode around–with the Doctor himself being the one to struggle with it. It makes for a killer ending to the episode–really, one of the best cliffhangers (at least in terms of concept) that the series has ever had.
But then the episode is not all about this dilemma, is it? In fact, it takes up comparatively little screen time. A lot of the story, and I really mean a lot, is focused on the return of Missy. There is no explanation given for this aside from glib lines like “Dying is for other people,” (which is itself a bit of an in-joke due to the sheer number of times that the Master has escaped doom without divulging how). Michelle Gomez continues to do a good job in characterizing the psychopath, and I understand she’s quite popular, but I find her presence kind of annoying. It bugs me how she’s sort of unstoppable, and all the normal people are kind of helpless against her. But then, I realized, this is how the series also characterizes the Doctor. He barrels into situations without a plan, and yet is able to respond to nearly every situation so perfectly and achieve his goals. Missy, I guess, has the evil version of the same Time Lord “superpower”.
I also found the extended scenes of the Doctor in 1138 rocking out on the electric guitar to be a bit tiresome…but later reflection kind of redeemed that as well. I realized that it helped to show something of the Doctor-Missy dynamic as well, although I don’t know if it was intentional. If these two are old friends, old schoolmates, than the Doctor was apparently the utterly cool kid who was popular and the life of the party. Missy, on the other hand, was a bit of a class weirdo, who dances awkwardly and is always singing to herself, not really fitting in with everyone else. This is not how these two have always been characterized in the past (see Peter Davison vs. Anthony Ainley, for example, or just try imagining Matt Smith playing “the cool kid”) but it works here.
Missy’s prominence does diminish the strength of Clara’s presence a little, although Jenna Coleman’s still given some good stuff to do. How shocking, though, when this turned out to be her last episode and she was killed off! I mean, we’ve heard that Jenna Coleman was leaving the series, but who thought it would be so quickly?!! OK, just kidding…I assume she’ll be back next week. And I”m wondering how – is she (and MIssy) not really dead, or will their death be undone in some way by the Doctor’s actions? Maybe she’s in the Nethersphere and next week we’ll get a surprise visit by Danny Pink!
Another repeat presence in the episode is UNIT and Kate Stewart, who is really merely functional in the story. Airplanes freezing is a big deal and so we need a way to help us see the global scope of it all. And this time around, UNIT is having one of their more useless days on the job, with Kate doing nothing but yelling at people not to shoot Missy even though she’s just killing people willy nilly. I would have found it sort of satisfying (although of course this would never happen) if she had instead ordered her snipers to open fire the second the planes were moving again.
I was a bit worried about Missy returning so quickly, after featuring so prominently last year, but she still works. I just think the series had better be careful – modern Doctor Who has had a lot of fun recurring characters who sort of outlived their welcome (I’m looking at you, Madame Vastra and Captain Jack). I realize that’s not everyone’s opinion, but I find I quickly get tired of the series depending too strongly on “classic” or recurring concepts. I enjoy the series taking me someplace new. This story, with its use of Missy, the Daleks, Davros, Skaro, UNIT, Kate Stewart, Karn, the Shadow Proclamation, the space cantina place, and flashbacks to 5 other Doctors probably has more familiar faces jammed into it then about any other non-anniversary story I’ve ever seen (unless this is all part of the revival show’s tenth anniversary). Yet somehow, it still works, because it manages to blend all that nostalgia together in a fresh way. (And to be fair, it also introduced a super-creepy guy who is made up of snakes, so there was that).
So, good stuff, Steven Moffat, Peter Capaldi and Doctor Who — keep it coming.
(Incidentally, what’s up with the title of the story? I assume the Doctor is the “Magician.” Who is the apprentice? Clara? Missy? Young Davros? Nothing in the episode supports any of those ideas. My best hope is that it’ll make more sense with next week’s The Witch’s Familiar, when I’m assuming that Missy will more closely be “the Witch” and we’ll see clearly that both titles are really just another way to see the parallels that the characters of the Doctor and Missy have with each other.)