Doctor Who The Magician’s Apprentice review – Steven Moffat plays new games with very old toys

When archenemies and best friends collide... Warning: spoilers ahead!

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★★★★★ Steven Moffat promised us a season opener that feels like a finale and, boy, does he deliver. In fact he delivers boy. Boy Davros. A brilliant idea – just waiting for someone to have it. 

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Perhaps it was inevitable, though. There was a boy Doctor in last year’s Listen and way back in 2007 we glimpsed a boy Master in The Sound of Drums. Showing us in 2015 the Dalek creator as a child reads to me like a deliberate 40th-anniversary homage to Genesis of the Daleks (the fan favourite from 1975) – except that Mr Moffat assures me: “It’s coincidence, I’m afraid.”

But The Magician’s Apprentice does have Genesis in its DNA. It opens with an aerial shot of a gas-choked, bullet-ridden war zone. Soldiers flee for their lives. Already it conjures up the bleak beginning of Genesis, which had TV watchdog Mary Whitehouse frothing in her girdle back in the spring of 75. And then, among the horrible “hand mines” grasping through the mud, the focus rests upon a lost boy (winningly played by Joey Price). 

A child in danger, especially a young boy, is a recurring Moffat theme – evidently a persistent nightmare for a father of two sons. But, as the trope wears thin, what we seem to have here is the Doctor for once abandoning the mantle of saviour and coming back at the end of the episode, armed with a Dalek gun, determined to exterminate the boy. 

Time spools back to 1975 as Moffat cleverly picks up on one line of dialogue, a moral quandary posited by Tom Baker’s Doctor, and makes it a reality for Peter Capaldi’s. In case of any doubt, Baker’s words are replayed in full: “If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?” It’s a sickening thrill for long-term fans who, like me, watched that moment back in the day. 

A Davros rematch is long overdue. In my childhood, it seemed eons between his debut in Genesis of the Daleks and his (ultimately disappointing) return in 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks. That was only a four-year interval. Today’s young fans have waited seven years since his appearance in the David Tennant episodes, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Thankfully, the role of the older, scarred Davros is re-created by the excellent Julian Bleach, and in Moffat’s hands gains a warped sense of humour – at Capaldi’s expense. “I approve of your new face, Doctor. So much more like mine.”

We’re now in the ninth series in 11 years since Doctor Who’s revival, and it shows no sign of fatigue. The first episode rattles along with barely a bum note – hardly surprising, given that Hettie Macdonald has returned to the Who director’s chair for the first time since Blink (the RT readers’ favourite). Moffat remains the father of invention, or in this case re-invention – blithely mashing up past and present, playing new games with some very old toys. 

The Magician’s Apprentice has numerous touchstones in bygone eras. Fleetingly, the Doctor returns to Karn, setting for the 1976 Tom Baker classic, The Brain of Morbius and Paul McGann’s regeneration into John Hurt in 2013. Clare Higgins returns as Sisterhood of Karn leader Ohila. (I wish we’d seen more of her; Higgins is a truly great actress, a triple Olivier winner.) There’s a scene in a seedy, monster-stuffed bar in the Maldovarium, last visited in Matt Smith’s days. The banter between Missy, the Doctor and Clara recalls the first Master, third Doctor and Jo Grant c1972. And representing the 1980s – admittedly, at a stretch – is “snake nest in a dress” Colony Sarff, who rears up as a large serpent and calls to mind the Mara from two Peter Davison stories (Kinda and Snakedance). 

Much here also revisits the Russell T Davies era. Judoon and Ood get cameos, as does the pasty Shadow Architect (Nancy Hunter) last seen seven years ago. And when Capaldi makes his second big entrance, as a Rock Star Doc in Essex AD 1138 (“What’s the matter with him?” says Clara. “He’s never like this”), he’s in David Tennant mode, swaggering if less cocksure. 

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In that moment I’m even reminded of 1960s Doctor Who. A time traveller in a hoodie, introducing anachronisms (a tank, electric guitar, the word “Dude!”) into medieval England… Anyone else picture the Meddling Monk, the recurring ne’er-do-well from the William Hartnell period?

As if to cement the vibe of past meets present, when finally the Daleks surge onto the screen, there’s a mishmash of designs and liveries from across the decades. Pointedly, the first Dalek we see is a lovely blue-and-silver model of 1963 vintage. (Only a cynic would suggest their ranks are simply being swollen by all the display models sitting idle at the Doctor Who Experience a few yards down the road from Roath Lock Studios.)

And we’re back on Skaro. Just the mention of that name can deliver a shiver. Skaro! The first alien world ever visited in Doctor Who in 1963. The Dalek planet. An expressive name for a world scarred by war. (In the 60s, writer Terry Nation gave nearly all his planets overtly descriptive names: Marinus, Aridius, Mechanus, Desperus, Mira…)

The gradual reveal of Skaro is beautifully realised in CGI as Missy and Clara step out into the void. There’s also an admirably retro look to the Dalek city, which mirrors the imagination and plastic-pot resources of 60s BBC designer Ray Cusick. The Dalek control room is vast, a triumph for designer Michael Pickwoad, but also paying homage to Cusick’s gleaming surfaces, kinked archways and sliding doors from 1963.

“Why would anybody hide a whole planet?” asks Clara. “That would rather depend on the planet, dear,” says Missy. The Daleks and Skaro, the Time Lords and Gallifrey… all supposedly met their end in the Time War, but all have stealthily come out of hiding. Anything can be undone and unwritten in Doctor Who, sometimes without even the hint of an explanation. A strength and a weakness.

Steven Moffat told me in RT last December: “The Master is never dead, no matter what happens to him or her. She’s entirely unzappable!” Thus Michelle Gomez is back as the Time Lord’s best “frenemy”, with the flippant line: “OK, cutting to the chase. Not dead. Back. Big surprise. Never mind.” Works for me; plausible explanations tend to bore. And isn’t she’s fabulous? Missy gets the best lines, and I love it when she’s vexed and turns up the Glaswegian: “Noo, I’ve not turned gooood,” she says, before turning Unit agents into zapper fodder.

Moffat has much sport blurring the distinction between what constitutes a best friend and an archenemy. “Hang on a minute. Davros is your archenemy now? I’ll scratch his eye out.” Missy also tells Clara: “You see that couple over there? You’re the puppy.” It’s amusing, and telling, and takes us back to the roots of the Doctor/Master relationship when Jon Pertwee sparred amiably with Roger Delgado. When Missy speaks of a “friendship older than your civilisation, and infinitely more complex”, it’s persuasive.

But if there’s any failing in the fiction, it’s that there’s no real sense of jeopardy when Clara, Missy and the Tardis undergo “maximum extermination”. In a universe where everything is now “unzappable”, surely only the most naive viewer will be fretting between episodes.

In this new push for cliffhanger Who, what is more intriguing is the Doctor’s face-off with the boy Davros, and the Time Lord’s lingering question: “Davros made the Daleks – but who made Davros?” I can’t wait to see the conclusion of what is, at least in part, the genesis of Genesis of the Daleks. 

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[Photographed exclusively for Radio Times by Richard Grassie. Copyright Radio Times. Art direction by Tristan Hopkins and Stuart Manning]

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Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide