Sunday 20 September 2015

Reviews in Time & Space: The Magician's Apprentice

Doctor Who 09x01 - The Magician's Apprentice

Doctor Who is back for it's ninth modern-era season, and I don't think you could boast a much bigger premiere than The Magician's Apprentice. As if seeing the Doctor and Clara again after a year wasn't enough, this episode also marks the return of the Master (still under the guise of Missy, played by the ever wonderful Michelle Gomez), the Daleks and even a few other surprises. In the age of the internet where it's so hard to be surprised by anything, some of the best episodes of Doctor Who always turn out to be the ones where they've managed to keep something big under wraps. So if you haven't seen the episode yet, be sure to stop reading about it and go check it out as soon as possible. If you have seen it however, read on in the first of what should hopefully be another great year of weekly episode reviews.

Young Davros
A rather unexpected child

The Doctor is nowhere to be found. Missy arrives back on Earth with a confession dial, the last will and testament of the Doctor. Claiming that the Doctor only has one day left to live (which is when the dial will open), she teams up with Clara to locate her oldest friend. Travelling back to medieval England, they find the Doctor spending his final weeks partying. However soon he is also found by Colony Sarff, who has been searching across the cosmos for the Doctor on behalf of his employer - Davros.

The creator of the Daleks is dying, and has requested one final meeting with his greatest adversary. The Doctor complies, taking Missy and Clara in tow. However this time the Doctor's history with Davros goes much further back than the creation of the Daleks, and wherever Davros is you can be sure that his children aren't too far behind.

The return of Davros
Davros having seen better days

The Magician's Apprentice bursts on screen with an extremely strong opening, presenting a child trying to escape the wastelands of a war torn planet. As the Doctor arrives on the scene, he soon realises he's on Skaro and the child he's trying to save is none other than Davros himself. This jaw-dropping reveal goes on to form the basis of the whole episode, as a dying Davros seems to finally remember this encounter (which neatly ties up any questions it rises) and summons the Doctor one last time. Julian Bleach returns to role once again, offering a suitable weariness to the dying despot. His exchanges with Capaldi's Doctor seem much more natural than the dynamic he previously had with David Tennant's Doctor in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, and with the tension between them plays well on the pair's previous encounters. "That" scene in Genesis in the Daleks constantly comes up each time the pair face off again, but here we see the message of it turned on its head as the Twelfth Doctor again shows his darker elements. The only weak link in this fine return for Davros was some of the dialogue. After The Stolen Earth made some of his lines feel like a pastiche of Emperor Palpatine, this time it was Voldemort's turn. "Dark Lord of Skaro" is a really ill-fitting title.

You so fine.

Also showing up again is Missy, who when we last saw her in Death in Heaven seemed to meet a rather grizzly end. But if you were expecting an explanation better than "Not dead. Back. Big surprise." you'll be sorely disappointed - but it is a wonderful homage to how Anthony Ainley's Master used to cheat certain death on a monthly basis back in the 80s. And while she's just as crazy as ever, this episode really stripped back the zany Mary Poppins antics to bring the twisted relationship the two Timelords have to the forefront. Missy receiving the Doctor's will felt like a nice callback to the Doctor taking the Master's ashes at the beginning of the 1996 TV movie, and her explanation of their friendship transcending how humans can perceive their relation fits the situation much better than her arrival in the previous season. My initial worry was that her appearance here would negate the threat of Davros/the Daleks (much like how the Cybermen suffered), but she wasn't overbearing in the slightest.

The story wasn't all doom and gloom though, with the Doctor's medieval "party" showing off that sillier side of the character that's become much less apparent with this new incarnation. Showing up to a duel playing electric guitar and riding a tank? As far as entrances go that has to be up there someone. Though some of the Doctor's best comedic moments are usually due to some impending doom (we didn't see it much, but think back to the Tenth Doctor going wild just before The End of Time), that doesn't make them any less fun to watch.

A multitude of Dalek variants
Daleks through the ages

Finally we have the return of the Daleks, who once again seem to be calling upon their ranks throughout time. After an incredibly lacklustre return of the classic style Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks, The Magician's Apprentice brought them back in a more impressive, if a little illogical fashion. Among the returning variants were the original 1963 version, the Special Weapons and renegade drones from Remembrance of the Daleks, and even the black and red Supreme models from the newer series. Why exactly all these variants have come together doesn't make a whole lot of sense (especially since there were OPPOSING versions), but hey - in terms of spectacle it definitely worked. And coming straight after the return of Skaro and before that jaw-dropping cliffhanger, this episode really ended with a bang. Even if said bangs don't quite have the desired effect when you remember that this is only the first episode.

There have been a fair few great season premieres for Doctor Who. Last year's Deep Breath was excellent stuff, and despite it's flaws Rose was one of the biggest moments in the show's 50+ year history. But The Magician's Apprentice is a definite contender for one of the best, hitting the ground running with a barrage of surprises, twists and just good old plain suspense. If the whole season can keep up this level of quality, it's going to be one hell of a year.

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