“The Magician’s Apprentice” begins the second season for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor with a swaggering production whose confidence is quite remarkable compared with the uncertainty of tone and focus in Capaldi’s first year (particularly the first few episodes). The opening hook is one of the most impressive the series has ever produced: In a bleak, battle-scarred landscape, the Doctor encounters a boy (Joey Price) lost and alone, trapped in a minefield, and prepares to rescue him. But when he learns the boy’s name, Davros, he realizes the child he’s looking at will grow up to become the creator of his greatest enemies, the Daleks.
After that memorable teaser, ending on a close-up of Capaldi’s haunted face, the Doctor is thrust off stage until the episode’s halfway mark. It’s an interesting move by writer and showrunner Steven Moffat, emphasizing the fact that for the first time since 2011, the show is opening with a two-part story. The multi-episode format (which, uniquely for 21st-century Doctor Who, is set to dominate this season) allows a story space to develop at its own pace, taking the scenic route and not always rushing to compress a big idea into 45 minutes. In this case, Moffat is able to spend the first half of the episode showing various friends and enemies searching for the Doctor and gradually converging on his location.
Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) plot to freeze the skies of Earth, halting every plane in mid-flight until Clara (Jenna Coleman) agrees to help her find the Doctor, provides a welcome return for the psychopathic, scenery-chewing female version of the Master who made such an impression last year. (In keeping with the long-standing tradition regarding the Master’s improbable escapes from certain death, Moffat brazenly dismisses the fact that we previously saw her apparently vaporized: “Okay, cutting to the chase…Not dead, back, big surprise, never mind.”) Once again, Gomez is so charismatic in the role that Missy has to be given a couple of hapless security guards to kill to remind us that we’re not supposed to like her. Clara has to struggle to regain some measure of control, and the two of them make a peculiarly fitting team as they track down the Doctor to a castle in Essex in the year 1138.
The Doctor’s barnstorming re-entrance is a hilarious moment of pure absurdity. Where else but in Doctor Who could you expect to see a sci-fi hero pounding out power chords on an electric guitar to a cheering 12th-century crowd, while perched atop a tank and wearing sunglasses? Former punk rocker Capaldi is perfectly suited to playing the Doctor as a graying headliner, playing up to the audience and introducing Clara and Missy (“I’d like you meet a couple of friends of mine”) as if they were his backing group. The ingredient missing from last season has finally been supplied: Previously, this Doctor could be funny, but never looked like he was enjoying it; now, though, he’s capable of actually having fun.
All this fun is revealed to be the Doctor’s way of putting off an unpleasant future. He’s apparently become convinced that he’s due to die shortly, for reasons we don’t yet know (and I suspect this will not be resolved next week, but will be an ongoing thread for most or all of the season). Worse, he realizes he must face Davros again, and come to terms with an act he committed for which he feels deeply ashamed—and so we return to the opening scene, to discover that the Doctor, shockingly, turned away from the trapped boy and left him in the minefield. Moffat here brilliantly twists a passage from 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks,” the story where Davros was introduced. Forty years ago, Tom Baker’s Doctor asked his companions: “If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that child would grow up to be totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives…Could you then kill that child?” For Capaldi’s Doctor, the hypothetical conundrum became painfully real, and he tried to evade the problem by running away, but now Davros—himself near the end of his life—has summoned him back to Skaro, the planet of the Daleks, for a reckoning, and he feels he has no choice but to go. As he muses during the journey, “Davros made the Daleks…Who made Davros?”
Director Hettie MacDonald makes a long overdue return to the series after her triumph with 2007’s deservedly famous “Blink.” As in that episode, she makes the most of the creepy and macabre concepts Moffat has given her to work with, which include “hand-mines” (a field of human hands emerging from the ground, with eyes embedded in their palms—a nightmarish image, in spite of the slightly unconvincing CGI) and Davros’s new henchman, Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell), apparently a humanoid, but actually a huge mass of snakes. Moffat is sometimes guilty of inventing a great creature concept and then not doing anything worthwhile with it, but both of these are used well. The hand mines are an essential part of the critical scene with the young Davros, and Sarff is the main enemy figure until the Doctor actually meets the dying Davros (Julian Bleach), his strange gliding motion perfectly appropriate for an associate of Davros and the Daleks.
As the Doctor looks on, Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS are all apparently destroyed by the Daleks. Of course, while Coleman confirmed last week that this season will be her last, she’s certainly not leaving at this point. Nevertheless, the sight propels the Doctor toward a powerful cliffhanger: Back at the opening scene again, he aims a Dalek gun at the boy. The Doctor has had Davros at his mercy before, but always managed to avoid pulling the trigger. This time, the outcome seems wide open.
Next Week: The second part of the story, in “The Witch’s Familiar.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The original confrontation between the Doctor and Davros—“Genesis of the Daleks”—is a high point of the classic series, and stars one of Doctor Who’s greatest ever TARDIS teams: Tom Baker, with Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter.
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