I was, to put it mildly, highly critical of the last season of Doctor Who. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara, but with rare exceptions, the writing simply wasn’t there. Michelle Gomez was wonderful as The Master, but she spent way too much time as another Moffat background mystery woman and not nearly enough time eating scenery, as is The Master’s true role. “The Magician’s Apprentice” did not let that mistake happen twice, and was all in all one of the great Doctor Who season openers.
It could have been a mess. So much was crammed into one episode. Davros and The Daleks shared top billing for the villain role as do a new terrible thing in the snake man, Colony Sarff, and something called a hand mine that sounds funny and is absolutely bloody terrifying. We visit not only Earth in two time periods but Karn and Skarro as well. Missy assumes a pseudo-companion role, and there’s even an appearance by UNIT, the Judoon, the Ood and the Shadow Proclamation. Hell, the episode even works in a Tom Baker cameo. That is a lot, but somehow it never feels crowded.
Most of that can be attributed to the four main actors driving the episode, Gomez, Coleman, Capaldi and Davros’s portrayer, Julian Bleach. Essentially, “The Magician’s Apprentice” is a spiritual sequel to the classic serial “Genesis of the Daleks.” Here we learn that at the beginning of Davros’s life, the Twelfth Doctor stumbled across him as a young boy in a battlefield. He was set to rescue the boy, but reneged when he learned who he was. The Doctor’s guilt and shame at having left behind the boy in hopes he would be killed echo his previous incarnation’s desire to commit genocide of the Daleks, something he would do later as both the Seventh and War Doctor and Rose would do as Bad Wolf. The Doctor is objectively terrible at genocide. There’s probably a moral in there somewhere.
Woven in through all of this is The Doctor’s weariness. He spends half of the episode playing pop tunes on guitar while standing on a tank in medieval Europe as a farewell party, and the other half facing his fate and ready to be exterminated. Capaldi more than any other Doctor since Eccleston and possibly since Davison is a master of portraying the sheer weight his long life has placed on him.
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The really great moments outside of Capaldi playing guitar belong to the interactions between Clara and Missy. I think this episode should classify Clara among the rare people who count as companions of The Master. Gomez shines brilliantly in both her contempt of life, mankind and small human understanding as well as her deep emotional connection to the Time Lord she has known for so many years. The way she embraces Clara and what she brings to the table is both touching and troublesome. She makes it absolutely clear she has no use for her outside of what she can do to help Missy find The Doctor, and yet is utterly open to her help and insight when opportunities present themselves. It makes you wonder if The Master is evil, or just really, really honest.
The problem with The Master as a villain is that she doesn’t work as a one-shot. That’s one of the reasons Roger Delgado remains so iconic in the role. The Master needs room outside of a two-parter, preferably a whole season. We sort of had that last year, but now Missy is taking up a lot of the space necessary to really establish what The Master can do. Davros is also too complex a character to be confined within the limits that the modern episode format imposes on him. What worked in a serial does not really work now. Yet, by bringing in more two-parters and supporting him within a larger Dalek story, the Davros that came to such brilliant life in the Big Finish audio series really shines through.
The only quibble I had with this episode is, well, it’s been done before and not that long ago. The Doctor facing what he presumes to be his super, unavoidable, totally-for-realsies-this-time-you-guys death was the plot of Season 6, and the payoff in “The Name of The Doctor.” Well done as “Magician’s Apprentice” was, it still shows the lack of new ideas that’s been a problem for a while.
There’s no proper judging of this episode until the whole thing resolves next weekend, but Doctor Who has embraced a whole new format and style of storytelling that is a potent mix of classic and modern sensibilities. Capaldi is all the Doctors in a way that really no one has been since Tom Baker, and even he only had to be four. This was playful, frightening, heartbreaking and hilarious. Truly, it’s a testament to how Doctor Who can be in the future.