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The Magician’s Apprentice

Review by Paul Bowler

[Contains Spoilers]

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Doctor Who series 9 begins with the blockbusting premier episode The Magician’s Apprentice, where the skies of Earth have succumbed to a strange alien power as a desperate cry for help echoes from the past, and Clara Oswald needs to find her old friend the Doctor. But the Time Lord has gone missing, is this really the Doctor’s final night, and what terrible event could have driven the Doctor into hiding? Clara must join forces with the most unlikely ally of all if she is to find the Doctor, dark secrets from the past return, old foes will be confronted, and soon the Doctor will have to face the most impossible challenge of all …

The Magician’s Apprentice is about as epic and cinematic a series premier as Doctor Who has ever had, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald (director of the highly acclaimed 2007 episode Blink), the opening moments alone quickly establish what we can expect from this the dark and ominous two-part story – and indeed the new series itself.

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A blanket of fog swirls over a battlefield on a distant world as a child of fate runs though a mud-strewn land covered in Hand Mines… But what is the secret shame of this awful place that has made the Doctor take to the shadows, and who is the mysterious cloaked figure – Colony Sarff – that has been searching for the Doctor? When a bizarre alien force strikes the Earth, freezing passenger jets in the skies, not even Clara, Kate Stewart, and UNIT can locate the Doctor. So, when the Doctor’s old enemy Missy inexplicably reappears in a foreign locale, with a Confession Dial that holds the Doctor’s last will and testament, Clara must form an uneasy alliance with Missy to find the missing Time Lord. Their journey will take them across space and time, but the Doctor is already proceeding along a dark path of destiny, one that will soon lead him into the most terrible danger of all and a confrontation with his deadliest foes – the Daleks!

Peter Capaldi’s performance in the Magician’s Apprentice is little sort of superb, Capaldi seems completely at ease now in his role as the 12th Doctor, and his commanding presence permeates though every aspect of the episode. His incarnation of the Doctor is clearly not afraid of making difficult decisions either – or accepting the consequences of his actions. Jenna Coleman is also on fine form as Clara Oswald, and the erstwhile Impossible Girl once again proves she is as confident and resourceful as ever. Michelle Gomez returns as the new gender-swapped incarnation of the Master, Missy, to meddle in the Doctor’s and Clara’s lives again – while gleefully glossing over her apparent demise in the Series 8 finale Death in Heaven (2014) – and Gomez excels herself here as the Doctor’s wickedly evil nemesis. It’s also good to see Jemma Redgrave returning as Kate Stewart, along with UNIT, to deal with the crisis Missy has engineered to get their attention.

Missy

The Magician’s Apprentice is a big, bold adventure, set on a grand scale, and the pace doesn’t slow for a moment as time ladies Clara and Missy team-up to find the Doctor just as he is about to face his greatest moral dilemma and most ruthless adversary. The story travels between numerous locations in time and space: including a grim battlefield in the past, an alien bar, the grand fortress of the Shadow Proclamation, the planet Karn, an outlandish medieval tournament in Essex 1138 AD, and a very familiar looking city on the Daleks original home planet of Skaro…

The character of Ohila (Claire Higgins) from The Night of the Doctor (2013) also returns along with the Sisterhood of Karn (Last seen in the 1976 story The Brain of Morbius), and Ohila’s tense scenes with Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarell) resonate powerfully with her appearance in the 1st online prequel for Series 9. Jami Reid-Quarell is also very menacing as the snake-like Colony Sarff, a strange creature with a message for the Doctor, whose quest has taken him to the Maldovarium, the planet Karn to address the Sisterhood of Karn, and even the mighty Shadow Proclamation, but nobody seems to know where the Doctor is. The Magician’s Apprentice weaves a complex path through Doctor Who’s mythology – past and present – juggling extensive nods to the past and a wealth of continuity references, with some perhaps far more pertinent than others, along with a few surprise voices from the Doctor’s own past as well!

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It seems the mad man in the blue box has really disappeared this time, because even the Daleks are looking for him! Yes, the Daleks are back with a vengeance in The Magician’s Apprentice. Daleks from throughout all of time have assembled to wreak havoc on the Doctor in a story that harkens right back to their origins. Nearly every type of Dalek that you can think of is here for this ultimate Dalek team-up! Seeing the original classic 1963/64 slivery-grey Dead Planet style Daleks, a black domed guard from Evil of the Daleks (1967), along with a grey Renegade and the Special Weapons Dales from Remembrance of the Daleks (1988), in the same scenes as gold / bronze modern era Daleks, a Dalek Sec style Black Dalek, overseen by the gleaming red and gold Supreme Dalek from The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End (2008) and its like all our fan-boy dreams have leapt from the pages of the old TV Century 21 comics to unleash maximum extermination on TV!

The Dalek city in The Magician’s Apprentice has been beautifully realised on screen in this episode, a clear homage to the original 1963 Dalek city on Skaro designed by the late Raymond Cusick, and its been reimagined here in exquisite detail. The design of the Daleks control room in this episode – whilst containing nods to Cusick’s designs – also provides a delightful throwback to the Peter Cushing Doctor Who films, Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion of Earth 2550 AD (1966). Even the 12th Doctor’s revised costume has a hint of 60’s era of Doctor Who about it, especially the Hartnell style check trousers.

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Ok, here we go. BIG SPOILER ALERT! The Daleks are back, Missy is back, but there’s one more old adversary vying for the title of the Doctor’s arch-enemy – much to Missy’s consternation – in this episode, Davros! Yes, the creator of the Daleks, the Dark Lord of Skaro, is dying, and he has sent Colony Sarff to bring the Doctor to his chamber on board a medical space station. Julian Bleach reprises his role from 2008’s The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End, giving a blood-chilling performance, and the malevolent creator of the Daleks certainly has a few nasty surprises for the Doctor! The lines between past and present blur constantly as the young boy Davros, played by Joey Price, cries for help ring out across time to haunt the Doctor, and I can’t think of one instance in the history of Doctor Who where sound of the TARDIS dematerialising has ever sounded so cruel…

The Magician’s Apprentice is a great start to the new series. In fact, there’s so much going on in this first episode of the opening two-part series premier that it actually feels more like a series finale! Steven Moffat has gone for big spectacle, high drama, and full timey-wimey overload for The Magician’s Apprentice. Drawing heavily on the programmes past, the intricate plot is dark, intense, and even the 4th Doctor’s iconic “If someone who knew the future, pointed out a child to you, and told you that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives… could you then kill that child?” speech from 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks takes on a whole new perspective in the context of the Doctor’s actions in The Magician‘s Apprentice – setting up some interesting themes that will no doubt impact on the ongoing narrative of new series. There are moments of wry humour too, particularly when Missy and Clara are working together, the way Missy compares the Daleks plan to destroy the TARDIS with a certain part of a Dalek casing is another standout moment, and it’s clear that the Doctor’s bond with Clara is now even stronger than ever.

Exciting, if initially a little bewildering, The Magician’s Apprentice, while somewhat grim at times, also has a great sense of adventure and fun – especially when the Doctor makes a surprise – if somewhat superfluous – rock and roll entrance with an electric guitar! It’s a story that probably needs multiple viewing to fully appreciate every nuance of the storyline, even the Sonic Screwdriver has an unexpectedly significant role to play, but despite the slight overloading of the script there is still a lot to enjoy here. Once all the characters have been drawn together, a space station that isn‘t quite what it seems leads to a fittingly epic face-off between the Doctor and Davros, and the build up to that first glimpse of the Dalek city and then the Daleks themselves are both breathtaking moments.

Daleks

Minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this first episode, and thought it got the new series off to a fantastic start. The Magician’s Apprentice races towards an incredibly exciting cliff-hanger, the stakes get raised impossibly high as the full horror of the Daleks plan actually sends the Doctor to his knees, and you will be left wondering how those nerve-jangling final moments can possibly be resolved in the conclusion of this two-part story – The Witch’s Familiar.

Images Belong: BBC