Summary : Doctor Who returns to top form in a season premiere that rewrites all of the show's history and poses a serious moral quandary.
O. M. G. That is my reaction to Doctor Who‘s ninth series premiere (of the modern run), “The Magician’s Apprentice,” which aired last night on BBC America. A fan of the franchise, old and new, I’ve had my share of complaints about the series this past year and a half, as regular readers of this column may know. Those complaints are nowhere to be found in this premiere, though, which is excellent! It ties the old Who into the new, answers a very old question, and provides for plenty of surprises, all while posing the most massive moral dilemma that The Doctor has ever faced – and that’s saying something!
First, a quick recap of events. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) sees a boy trapped by hand mines (which are literally what they sound like). Back to the present, all the airplanes freeze in the sky over Earth. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and UNIT can’t find The Doctor, and so call Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman) for help. Clara has no answers, but proposes they solve things on their own, which proves a bit complicated when the problem turns out to be Missy (Michelle Gomez). Nope, The Doctor’s Time Lord foe is not dead, but no time for that now; The Doctor believes he is about to die. Missy and Clara rush to his rescue, and all three fall into a trap laid by Davros (Julian Bleach, last appearing in 2008), the creator of the Daleks. The Daleks execute Missy, Clara, AND the Tardis, and now The Doctor is back with the child, who it turns out is Davros. Can The Doctor murder him and restore everyone he cares about?
That’s a lot, and there’s plenty to dissect. Let’s get started.
First, it is awesome to see Kate again, and I love the idea that UNIT is going to face a crisis on their own. Obviously, they probably do this all the time, but to see them bravely go up against Missy is thrilling. It’s heart-wrenching when they watch her kill two of their men and can’t kill her in return, but it makes sense, she being the key to finding The Doctor, who will likely be needed to save the entire world again in the future. Basically, this whole showdown gives me major thrills, and is moving as it compelling. I want more of UNIT please.
Second, Clara has dropped all pretense of her secret Earth identity. When the planes freeze in the sky, she recruits her class to help investigate. Then, Kate calls her at work, and Clara has no problem telling her boss she needs time off and rushing away, offering no excuses. It has been said in the press that this season finds Clara losing her connection to her planet and identity, and in “The Magician’s Apprentice,” she’s starting already pretty isolated.
Third, I love the idea that Missy, often known as The Master, is The Doctor’s best friend. Companions come and go over the years, but she is constant. They may try to kill one another, but in Missy’s twisted brain, that doesn’t take away from their deep connection. I do want to get back to why Missy is alive and still in this form, but I can wait for a future episode to find out. The current stakes are high enough to ask the audience to wait for an explanation, and witnessing Missy and The Doctor’s interchange is justification enough to bring her back.
Then, we lose Missy, Clara, and the Tardis. I’m not going to lie, I wouldn’t miss Clara if she died here. I’ve made no secret that I don’t like the character, and while it’s not entirely because of her, Doctor Who has been weaker ever since she became the companion (not counting her first appearance and initial Christmas episode). But issues with Clara aside, to make The Doctor bear witness to all this very personal loss is gut-wrenching. Davros could not strike a worse blow against his foe and he knows it. It’s his final offensive before his own death, and it’s super effective.
Getting the bit with the boy, whom The Doctor could rescue but abandons instead, rewrites all of Doctor Who history, in a good way. The Daleks show up extremely early in the original show, and have plagued The Doctor for years. They are the ones that destroy his people (well, with help from The Doctor himself), and they have always been a bit obsessed with The Doctor. Now we know why and it all makes sense. It feels really good to learn something that forces a change in perspective for fifty-plus years of television, and it’s brilliant to bring it up now. Plus, the glimpses of past doctors and a poignant line from Tom Baker’s version make this exchange extremely memorable.
But will The Doctor kill the boy, and what would that mean? The Doctor has been able to bring himself to murder an entire race before, so we know he has the dark capacity to kill. But having to stare a little boy in the face and pull the trigger could be another matter completely, no matter what’s at stake. It’s like asking someone to assassinate Hitler as a youth, great in theory, but hard to carry out in the moment for most of us. The boy hasn’t done anything yet. Can The Doctor really condemn him to death?
And what if The Doctor does kill him? That is the only logical way to bring Missy, Clara, and the Tardis back, the latter of which cannot possibly be left dead. But by slaying young Davros, what will that do to The Doctor’s history? What will it change? There’s no telling ahead of time because of the timey-wimey nature of time travel and this series. It could provider great story fodder for years to come.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” is awesome for all of these things and more. It makes one think, it provides a beautiful character moment for our lead, and it pays tribute to rich history. Doctor Who is an intricate series, with the twelve Doctors all interwoven, and never more so than right now. By beginning the season with such an important, seminal story that means so much, the series has proven it is worth watching again and deserving of its popularity. Waiting a week to see the resolution of this cliffhanger will be challenging, indeed.
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