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Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice / The Witch's Familiar ★★★★★

When best friends and archenemies collide. Missy returns and the Doctor encounters Davros as a child and on his dying day

Published: Saturday, 26th September 2015 at 7:35 pm
A star rating of 5 out of 5.

Story 254


Series 9 – Episodes 1 & 2

On Skaro, the Doctor encounters Davros as a boy lost in a warzone of deadly hand-mines. Can he resist his plea for help? On Earth, Unit enlists Clara when hundreds of planes are frozen in the skies. It’s the calling card of Missy who has received the Doctor’s confession dial (his last will and testament), but he seems to have disappeared from all time and space. She and Clara locate him enjoying his final days in medieval Essex, but Colony Sarff, a serpentine agent of Davros, gets there too and all are relocated to Skaro. The Doctor must face the creator of the Daleks one last time, and it’s down to Missy and Clara to rescue him…

First UK broadcasts
Saturday 19 September 2015
Saturday 26 September 2015

The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara Oswald – Jenna Coleman
Missy – Michelle Gomez
Davros – Julian Bleach
Boy Davros – Joey Price
Kate Stewart – Jemma Redgrave
Colony Sarff– Jami Reid-Quarrell
Jac – Jaye Griffiths
Mike – Harki Bhambra
Bors – Daniel Hoffmann-Gill
Kanzo – Benjamin Cawley
Mr Dunlop – Aaron Neil
Ohila – Clare Higgins
Voice of the Daleks – Nicholas Briggs
Shadow Architect – Kelly Hunter
Alison – India Ria Amarteifio
Ryan – Dasharn Anderson
Newsreaders – Stefan Adegbola, Shin-Fei Chen, Lucy Newman-Williams
Schoolgirl – Demi Papaminas
Daleks – Barnaby Edwards Nicholas Pegg
Soldier – Jonathan Ojinnaka

Writer – Steven Moffat
Director – Hettie Macdonald
Producer – Peter Bennett
Music – Murray Gold
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

The Magician's Apprentice blog (first published 19 September 2015)

★★★★★ 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.

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.

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.

The Witch's Familiar blog (first published 26 September 2015)

★★★★★ Last week I said that explanations often bore. Well, sometimes they annoy. After the unconvincing “maximum extermination” of Clara and Missy at the end of the previous episode, Missy does now explain to Clara (and to the audience) how they’ve just evaded death (and how she has pulled it off before). It’s dealt with swiftly with some predictable blather about vortex manipulators, but the digression into some escapade of the Doctor, goofing about on a stone staircase assailed by “50 invisible, indestructible android assassins all programmed to kill him”, is frankly a waste of everyone’s time and reinforces a sense that no one is ever in jeopardy.

That is my only gripe with The Witch’s Familiar, which is otherwise a shining example of how to do pared-down Doctor Who while maintaining a grand scale.

The drama unfolds in only a handful of settings and with a minimal cast – a quartet of excellent actors handed protracted dialogue scenes that test their mettle and demand audience attention. It’s also underpinned by emotional intelligence – something Steven Moffat is accomplished at but rarely credited for.

He depicts the Doctor and Davros as never before: not just the horrible image of Davros’s dethroned, twitching torso and Peter Capaldi living a fan-man’s dream, wheeling about in Davros’s Daleky base (“Admit it,” he tells the Daleks. “You’ve all had this exact nightmare… Anyone for dodgems?”), but as two ancient opponents with so much shared history.

There’s a palpable sense of their characters reaching back, not just over the 40 years of their TV association, which Capaldi and Moffat know in their bones, but the millennia during which the Doctor and Davros have fought and lost millions of their own kind. Although each is trying to hoodwink the other and has a cunning plan, genuine empathy emerges during their exchanges.

Davros weeps. Davros laughs. Davros is happy for the Doctor that Gallifrey also survived the Time War. Capaldi and Julian Bleach are superb in these moments. There’s a coup de théâtre when, for the first time, the wizened Davros opens his eyes. We’d always assumed he had none. No one but Steven Moffat would have thought to do this.

The action cuts between these two grim fossils and the unlikely, amusing and, yes, sexy pairing of Missy and Clara. The Time Lady ties the companion upside down, shoves her down a sewer and inside a Dalek casing, taunts her and, because she’s a woman, can patronise Clara in a way that the Doctor never now could. Sometimes Clara is allowed to solve problems by herself but it’s a miracle that Jenna Coleman manages to stop her looking totally stupid.

Michelle Gomez is screen magic: her angular features, her terpsichorean agility, her precise diction even as the accent jumps from Glaswegian to Texan broad to prim English schoolmarm. She reminds me of a young Maggie Smith, able to make any line funny or stinging at a whim.

The Daleks dazzle in this production; the mishmash of designs (with the notable absence of the loathed 2010 Paradigm Daleks) works beautifully, and Ray Cusick’s 52-year-old Dalek City designs impress, afforded a lot more space and money. If you’ve watched the original serial from 1963 The Daleks, it’s extraordinary to see Capaldi and Gomez walking in those cramped corridors with lopsided arches.

The crux of the piece is the Doctor’s overriding compassion. Davros tells him: “It grows strong and fierce in you like a cancer. It will kill you in the end.” “I wouldn’t die of anything else,” says the Time Lord. Davros believes it’s a weakness; the Doctor realises it’s a strength.

The resolution reconnects with the end of Genesis of the Daleks and the moment Davros realised his folly as his creations gunned down their kindred Kaleds. To quote from 1975 – Davros: “Let them live. Have pity!” Dalek: “Pi–ty? I have no understanding of the word.” In 2015, Steven Moffat eschews the awkward term “pity” and opts for “compassion” and “mercy”.

Just as I was doubting that the narrative would ever spool back to the boy Davros and the cliffhanger where the Doctor seemed about to kill him… bang, we’re back! And at last, in a small but significant way, the Time Lord does affect the Daleks’ creation.

At this crucial point, he chooses to save the boy and instils into him a life-changing sensitivity: “I’m not sure any of that matters – friends, enemies – so long as there’s mercy. Always mercy.” The child takes the adult’s hand and they walk off into the mists of time. This is grown-up Doctor Who.


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


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