So…he’s back – and he’s not hiding from his enemies. If anything, he’s doing the exact opposite and trying to provoke them: cavorting around the universe like his own private playground, having a blast and taking on his fiercest foes with a brash confidence and an almost complete absence of f**ks to give. I am, of course, talking about Steven Moffat, who brings us his fifth season opener, the first part of a two parter and with “The Magician’s Apprentice” he’s taking no prisoners.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. I don’t like everything he’s done but for me his follies are far outweighed by his triumphs and I’m in no hurry for him to quite. If you’re a died-in-the-wool Moffat hater, then you might read this while grinding your teeth, but I absolutely loved this episode.
Granted, it has a big dose of benefit of the doubt because some aspects which seemed random or disconnected might be redeemed in the second part but there’s simply so much to enjoy and savour that I can leave any loose ends or dead ends for next week’s review.
Capaldi is absolutely killing it as the Doctor. The slightly forced grumpiness is gone, replaced by a more measured and authentic curmudgeonly attitude, interspersed by flashes of wild enthusiasm and giddy wisdom that we know and love throughout the Doctor’s incarnations. Here, he gets to play the Doctor through all his moods as he confronts a (recently created) dark secret regret involving none other than Davros, the creator of the Daleks.
From the “Star Wars”-esque opening, as the wonderful throwaway character Colony Sarff (a name that sounds like it was coined by Danny Dyer to describe Corydon), the episode crams in so much that for a while you barely notice the Doctor is absent for much of it. One of the aspects of the recent run I’ve not cared for much is the over-edification of Clara, a character who Moffat seems to be in love with as much as RTD was in love with the Doctor himself towards the end of his run. The ongoing theme of making Clara and The Doctor interchangeable returns a little in the opening minutes as she is summoned from Coal Hill School to UNIT HQ and by this point she’s pretty much become the Emma Peel to The Doctor’s Steed. Thankfully, Moffat has an ace up his sleeve: Missy is back.
Michelle Gomez has cranked up the unpredictable crazy to eleven and is so lethally playful here that she comes close to stealing the entire show. The moment when she places Clara’s status into context using an elderly couple walking their dog is not only hilariously cutting, it’s deeply satisfying and a much needed reality check for Ms Oswald. The resultant dynamic for the rest of the episode makes me hope against hope that Missy will somehow join the TARDIS crew as a new companion. Can we start a petition or something to make that happen? Between them, Gomez and Moffat have managed to make Missy a deliciously enjoyable character despite her tendency to kill people on a whim.
There’s a ton of continuity to enjoy (or hate), including lovely call-backs to the Doctor’s previous encounters with Davros and even some cameos from Daleks of old, including fan favourite the Special Weapons Dalek. In amongst the call-backs to the past, Moffat finds room to reference a whole range of movies from “Pan’s Labyrinth” to a marvellously Whovian homage to “Mad Max: Fury Road” as a guitar-wielding Doctor rides into an arena atop a tank.
As to the plot, that’s the hardest to judge thanks to it being a two parter. Surely nobody was fooled for a second that Missy or Clara were really exterminated by the Daleks (the biggest clue was the absence of bodies as Dalek weaponry tends not to disintegrate)? But their fate was just a sideshow and all the fluff and nonsense with the planes paused unconvincingly in the sky was mere window dressing to the deeply intriguing moral dilemma which has trapped the Doctor. It’s a twisted revisitation of the Fourth Doctor’s ‘Do I have the right?’ moment, placing the Doctor in an impossible position to choose between killing a child or allowing him to live and fulfil his destiny. It’s a timey-wimey conundrum of the kind Moffat loves to tease the audience with and I wouldn’t put it past him to not finally resolve it until the end of series 9.
I can’t wait for next week to see how it all shakes out. I’m perfectly okay with the prospect that the second part might not stick the landing and that it will all end up being a unholy mess but for now I’m enjoying the ambition and the execution of a heady cocktail blending classic and Nu Who together into a Skaro-based Dalek adventure where Davros’ mortality at both the beginning and end of his life hangs in the balance.