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Doctor Who (Spoilers!) Review: "The Magician's Apprentice"

Well I knew Clara was leaving the show, but I didn’t think they’d kill her off that quickly!

“The Magician’s Apprentice” is a title that recalls the famed Goethe poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the even more famous sequence from Fantasia. That story and this share a theme of ill consequences as well as being darker in tone than is traditional of their respective brands, but the Doctor Who series premiere really pushes it, turning out a stellar first episode of what looks to be a promising ninth series.
As we open the episode, a boy is trapped in a field of hand mines (aka a thousand of those things from Pan’s Labyrinth with the eyes on their palms buried underground) but the Doctor arrives just in time to save him. When the boy says his name is Davros though the Doctor leaves beginning a ripple effect that leads to a bounty hunter searching through time and space for the Doctor as a final request of the now dying megalomaniac. Also searching for him is the alliance of convenience (and maybe hidden motive) of Clara and Missy.
What I love most about this episode is how it recalls and acts as a spiritual sequel to “Genesis of the Daleks” one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time! That episode brought up a moral conundrum that we see here has been plaguing the Doctor ever since. We even see footage of the instance when the Doctor (in his unsurpassed fourth incarnation) had the chance to destroy Davros and the Daleks at their birth. It’s arguably the most important moment in the history of Who and so I’m glad it’s being addressed again and seems to be a good starting point to diving further into the mythos of the show. The appearance of Davros at all is a surprise, one I’ll applaud the writers for keeping secret, and to once again have Julian Bleach in the role is nice. It was obvious from the start that the boy we see is someone we already know, most likely the Doctor or Master. But by making him Davros I think the show threw a great curveball. In the bounty hunter’s search for the Doctor we also get the return of the Sisterhood from Karn, the Shadow Proclamation (complete with Kelly Hunter from 2008’s “The Stolen Earth”), and oddly enough the Cantina scene from Star Wars. Peter Capaldi is still tremendously compelling as the Doctor demonstrating very well the range of conflicting emotions he’s going through in the episode. He also gets to rock out like he’s back in the early 80’s in a punk band with Craig Ferguson (it’s true, look it up!) Michelle Gomez is still devilish, charming, and unpredictable. The script doesn’t give her much chance to show her teeth as the Doctor’s temporary ally and she’s not significant to the overall plot, but seeing her kill random people with no regard for their loved ones just to prove she’s still evil was wonderful. And she gets to pull off the ham a little bit near the end when she tries to instill herself as leader of the Daleks. The Daleks exterminate her probably remembering how poorly it turned out all the other times they allied themselves with her. And the Daleks! It was so great to see all the different designs from over the years! We even got the Special Weapons Dalek, still pretty intimidating decades later! There’s some creativity at work here too with the snake design of the bounty hunter really standing out (though he was obviously just showing off), the return of the Daleks in human disguises was cool, and the invisible planet concept was something clever.
If the episode was lacking it was probably in some of the lead-in to the climax. We got to see UNIT and Kate Stewart which is always welcome but they were purely a device to get Clara to Missy. Clara isn’t particularly well utilized in the episode either. She’s fine, the improvements to her character from the last series still holding, but she certainly can’t compete with the Doctor and Missy and the general plot taking over. And this is one of the better Moffat scripts but it’s still not the sharpest.
But who cares, let’s get to those final minutes. The reveal of Skaro being the planet they were on wasn’t huge. I’d pegged it the moment they realized they were on a planet (and I love how much it looks like the Skaro we first saw in “The Daleks”). The extermination of Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS was interesting but we all know they’ll be back next week somehow. What intrigued me was that final scene where the Doctor has returned to the minefield (somehow without the TARDIS) and is pointing a Dalek gun at the frightened child. It’s a pretty good cliff-hanger when you take into account the Doctor doesn’t kill people! But there was that ambiguous moment at the end of “Deep Breath”…  It really feels like they’re returning to that idea that defined the Twelfth Doctor when he first appeared, that he’s a darker, rasher, and more alien Time Lord. Previous edgy Doctors like the Sixth, Seventh, and particularly Ninth have done things that question the moral character of the Doctor, but none has ever pulled a gun on a child. And while I predict it’s mostly a tease, it’s still a shocking thing to end the episode on. Like “Genesis of the Daleks” “The Magician’s Apprentice” is asking questions which dramatic television at its best should do. It’s the old “would you kill Hitler as a child” rhetoric. Missy may be the Doctor’s nemesis, but Davros is definitely the genocidal pure evil of this universe, and while we thought the Doctor had come to his conclusion years ago, here we see him ready to kill the child Hitler.

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