The Doctor pauses, a pair of wires in his hands, a whole new level of intensity in Tom Baker’s eternally boggled gaze. If he touches the tips together he consigns his greatest enemy to unborn oblivion – and potentially sacrifices his own soul. But if he spares Davros’ diabolical creation he condemns the universe to untold millennia of invasions, exterminations and migraine-inducing squawky boasting.
You’ll know this scene from 1975’s “Genesis Of The Daleks”. And if you don’t you’ll have glimpsed it in “The Magician’s Apprentice”, playing on the Skaroan equivalent of YouTube (we like to imagine the Daleks take a pathetic delight in trolling the Doctor in the comments section: “U SUCK WE ARE THE SUPERIOR BEINGS”). It’s the most morally provocative moment in the history of Doctor Who and you suspect it must have lodged in the head of a 13-year-old Steven Moffat. It’s probably lurked there for decades, in fact, nagging, badgering, gnawing at his synapses, demanding that one day he place his fingers on the keyboard and wrestle for himself with this deadly, delicious dilemma.
The ghosts of “Genesis” haunt this episode in many ways. The opening scene recreates the No Man’s Land of its ravaged Skaro, all mist and mud, battleground for a surreal war of attrition that pitches bows and arrows against laser-armed bi-planes. It’s here that director Hettie MacDonald delivers the first memorable visual in an episode loaded with striking imagery (uncoiling snake-men! Clara dancing among the stars!). We see “handmines” break through the earth, the eyes in their outstretched palms referencing both the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and the monocular malevolence of the Daleks themselves. It’s a brilliant notion and a startling screen moment as the young Davros stands on a nightmarish plain of clasping hands.
Skaro’s Dalek city has a key place in Doctor Who lore, of course. It was the first alien landscape the TARDIS took us to, after all, and it’s realised beautifully here, the design homaging its ‘60s origins while also adding a glorious hint of steampunk Arabian Nights, the minarets of a storybook Bagdad crossed with a Victorian circuit board. It gets a lovely slow reveal, too, the towers and spires materialising as ominous silhouettes behind Clara. We also have the nostalgia hit of some original Hartnell era Daleks, thankfully more prominent here than the much-hyped, half-glimpsed ones in “Asylum Of The Daleks”.
TIME LORD TRIVIA
It’s a welcome – and long overdue – return to Doctor Who for director Hettie MacDonald. She gave us the magnificent, Hugo Award-winning “Blink” in 2007. Where have you been, Hettie?
Elsewhere Moffat gives us the wonderful conceit of jets pausing in mid-air around the world, the kind of high concept that could power the opening act of a Hollywood movie. Here it’s tossed away as a piece of theatre, a calling card for Michelle Gomez’s resurrected psycho-Poppins. Looking for an explanation as to how Missy survived her apparent disintegration in “Death In Heaven”? Don’t bother. “Ok,” she says. “Cutting to the chase. Not dead. Back. Big surprise.” It’s Moffat at his cheekiest, nodding to all the infamously thin explanations for the Master’s continued existence in ‘80s Doctor Who (“So, you escaped from Castrovalva!”). And Gomez brings oodles of sauce of her own – yes, she really does stroke a Dalek’s balls (sorry, sense-spheres) – while giving us the most casually evil incarnation of the character we’ve ever seen, all itchy zap-finger and waspish callousness (“Would you like to sit in the shade? I know how you humans burn.”)
Ranging from Karn to the Maldovarium, lobbing in an Ood, a Judoon, UNIT and the Shadow Proclamation along the way, “The Magician’s Apprentice” has an epic build, using Doctor Who’s accumulated mythology to escalate the momentousness of it all. So there’s a distinct tonal whiplash when the Doctor finally appears, making the mother of all entrances, riding a tank, cracking dad jokes and rocking out in 12th Century Essex. It’s like Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure crashing headlong into Star Wars, but it works, dude – a brazen, showstopping moment that revels in Doctor Who being at the very heart of Saturday night television. Capaldi’s clearly having a ball but he’s smart enough not to overplay the axe-wielding goonishness. There’s some studied cool going on, in fact, doubtlessly learned in his days in Glasgow punkers The Bastards From Hell. And it’s a front, of course. Later we see the Doctor begging Davros to save Clara and it’s here that Capaldi strips away the character’s skin, exposing the Time Lord at his most distraught and vulnerable.
At the heart of it all is Davros, exerting a malignant gravitational pull on every element of this tale. He’s the most iconic villain in Who’s history – oh, shush, Missy – and he’s been used so sparingly in the last decade that his return genuinely feels like an event. Julian Bleach brings a weary, bitter quality to the father of the Dalek race but also relishes the chance to throw some shade: “I approve of your new face, Doctor. So much more like mine.” Feel the burn! And imagine Peter Capaldi’s brave smile at the script readthrough…
Full of wit and menace, unafraid to take on the show’s museum piece classics, “The Magician’s Apprentice” proves to be a supremely confident series premiere, launching the Twelfth Doctor’s second innings in style. And, in its closing moments, it restates the unique, unbeatable power of the Doctor Who cliffhanger… and how.
Welcome back, Doctor. Saturdays suddenly make sense again.
Clara tells her English class that Jane Austen was “a phenomenal kisser” (now there’s a way to make education come alive…). This must be a recent encounter with the queen of Regency literature. In last year’s episode “The Caretaker” she snittily asked the Doctor “I suppose she was your bezzie mate, was she?”
RETURN TO KARN
We’re back on the craggy, forbidding homeworld of the Sisterhood of Karn, first encountered in 1976 Tom Baker tale “The Brain Of Morbius”. Clare Higgins returns as High Priestess Ohila, the catalyst for the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration in 2013’s online mini-episode “The Time Of The Doctor”.
“HIS CLOSEST FRIEND…”
Clara may be surprised that the Doctor’s last will and testament was sent to Missy but the pair have history when it comes to tidying up each other’s affairs. In the 1996 TV Movie the Seventh Doctor was summoned to Skaro to retrieve the Master’s mortal remains.
THE FATE OF ATLANTIS
We’re told there are “three possible versions of Atlantis”, a knowing nod to the show’s infamously contradictory accounts of the ancient city’s demise in “The Underwater Menace” (1967), “The Daemons” (1971) and “The Time Monster” (1972).
Doctor Who airs on Saturday evenings on BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the US.