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One Chance in a Thousand. Doctor Who: “The Magician’s Apprentice”

It’s Doctor Who season nine! The Doctor and Clara are back! And so are a slew of familiar faces, so we best get this shindig underway….


Summary

The episode begins during a war on an alien planet. A soldier discovers a boy on the battlefield and attempts to rescue him. The ground moves, and the soldier scans for “hand mines.” When he looks down, there is a hand coming out of the ground, holding his leg. A moment later he is dragged under, leaving the boy alone with countless hands protruding up from the ground, searching for him. The sonic screwdriver flies through the air and lands at the boy’s feet. The Doctor is on the other side of the field, telling the boy that he has one chance in a thousand of surviving and encouraging him to do so. He asks the boy his named, and the boy answers—Davros.

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice
A strange, snake-like alien is searching the universe for the Doctor, stopping by the Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation, and the Sisterhood of Karn. He is a servant of Davros and has a message for the Doctor: that Davros remembers, and he is dying, and that the Doctor must come to him.

Back on Earth, Clara is in the middle of teaching class when she notices that planes have stopped moving in midair. She is called in by UNIT and they try to puzzle out why anyone would want to halt all air travel. Clara realizes that it’s a message of some sort, trying to get their attention. A signal comes through on the Doctor’s old UNIT channel… Oh Missy, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind….

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice
Clara meets Missy in a town square with eight UNIT snipers and a few guards in tow. Missy claims she has no idea how she survived (getting vaporized at the end of last season), but she has the Doctor’s will on hand, to be given to his best friend directly before his death. Clara tries to pick it up, but it zaps her; the will only opens after the Doctor is dead, and the will was sent to Missy, not Clara. Clara has a hard time believing that Missy is the Doctor’s friend when she spends half her time trying to kill him, but Missy points out an elderly couple walking a dog and insists that in the scheme of relationships, she and the Doctor are the couple and Clara is their puppy. Clara can’t understand why Missy would “turn good,” which prompts Missy to kill a few UNIT agents to prove just the opposite. Clara asks her to prove that she’s worried about the Doctor by releasing the planes and refraining from murdering anyone else. Missy acquiesces.

They figure that the Doctor would want to spend his last day of life of Earth, and use UNIT tech to pinpoint all the important eras and places where the Doctor made a lot of noise on Earth. Clara figures it would be a place without a crisis going on, which narrows down the field handily, and they wind up in Essex in the 12th century. There’s an ax battle about to go down, and the Doctor arrives on a modern tank playing an electric guitar (you know, an ax). He sees that Clara and Missy have arrived and seems quite pleased to see them, but also very off and emotional.

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice

Then the snaky agent of Davros shows up and drops an old sonic screwdriver at his feet. Clara realizes that the Doctor is ashamed of something he’s done. A flashback of Davros as the child on that battlefield shows that once the Doctor realized who he was, he dematerialized the TARDIS and vanished. The Doctor gives himself up to Davros, but Clara insists that she and Missy are coming along, and they’re all teleported to a space station. Once they’ve gone, one of the peasants (a Dalek in disguise) finds the TARDIS and brings it along for the ride. The Doctor is brought before Davros, but not before mentioning the word “gravity” to Missy as he leaves their holding cell—to which she replies, “I knooooow.”

The Doctor talks with Davros about their age-old conflict as clips from their former encounters play on in the background. Davros insists that he was right to create the Daleks despite what the Doctor thinks. When the Doctor points out that this disagreement of theirs ultimately led to the Time War, Davros points out that this conflict has survived the Time War. In the holding cell, Missy mentions that the gravity on the space station feels a lot like normal planet gravity. She threatens to open the airlock on Clara, but when she does, they don’t get sucked out into vacuum. Missy steps out into space, but claims that there’s ground beneath her feet, and Clara follows. Soon the specter vanishes and they see the planet that was hidden from them—it’s Skaro, home of the Daleks.

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice
The Doctor can now see the planet too, and he’s mortified. He watches as Clara and Missy are caught by Daleks and brought to another building housing the TARDIS. The Daleks plan to destroy it, which makes Clara scoff, since she knows they can’t. Missy is all-too-keen to correct her on that one. She proposes a counter-plan: that the Daleks use the TARDIS to their advantage and go wherever they want to kill whomever they want. All they need is her. The Dalek opt to kill her instead. Then they turn on Clara. The Doctor asks why he bothered to save Davros’ life, and Davros insists that it was compassion, his greatest weakness. As the Daleks prepare to kill Clara, he wants the Doctor to admit that compassion is wrong. Clara runs, and the Daleks gun her down. Then they destroy the TARDIS.

We get another flashback of young Davros. He turns around and finds the Doctor right behind him. He tells Davros that he’s there from the future because he has to save his friends—and he pulls the weapon of a Dalek on him. TO BE CONTINUED….

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice

Commentary

So you’re all, oh, a creepy war on an alien planet, this is cool. Hand mines are scary. Hey, the Doctor’s going to save that kid! Awesome! Who are you, kid? You’re. You’re Davros. You’re Davros? Oh. Oh no.

It’s funny because this episode does a lot of things that are Moffat hallmarks by now, starting with what seems to be his favorite: “The Doctor is going to die shortly, so we best be ready for that one.” But the episode is a solid one all the same, and that’s largely due to the performances, and also due to the fact that plenty of other hallmarks go unused. Sure, snake-guy is new (and when he calls Davros a “Dark Lord” I’m suddenly wondering when Davros started reading Harry Potter and decided to assume Voldemort’s schtick and become the Heir of Slytherin), but rather than introduce us to seven unknown, “important” locations with characters we’ve never met before, we finally get the kind of continuity-building that Who was structured to take. We see places we’ve been to previously—the Sisterhood of Karn, the Shadow Proclamation (there’s a Judoon!)—even as we get a cool new alien bar to add to the list. The ’verse feels cohesive, the nods to the past are earned, undistracting, and clever. It’s a better long game set up than the sort we got in “A Good Man Goes to War,” for example. It would be great to get more openers that so seamlessly integrate different eras of the show together.

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice

We get Clara in her classroom, absently telling her students that she’s made out with Jane Austen, which ultimately leaves us with a big Austen-shaped hole in Doctor Who that we could have remained blissfully unaware of were it not for that cruel line. Now I’ll just be spending my waking hours grousing over the fact that I never saw the episode where Clara and the Doctor hung out with Jane and her family. But then Clara gets called out of school on government business, and at least we get to imagine what her students gossip about her after she’s gone. “I heard Ms Oswald is an assassin for MI-6 during the holidays…”

Missy is back in the game right quick (of course she’s calling the Doctor’s UNIT hotline, she’s probably one of the few people who remembers it exists at this point), and Michelle Gomez is a vision in violet all over again. I feel like I’m getting a slew of birthday presents all at once, personally, because half of this episode is Missy explaining the complexities of her relationship with the Doctor and it’s everything I ever wanted and wrote about online and in fan fiction. Companions are puppies. Missy gets the Doctor’s will because of course he knows she’s alive, and of course she’s the one he would send it to. Fighting and trying to murder someone does not mean that you don’t love each other. Traps are for flirting! And then we get the introduction the Doctor gives her in the arena, calling her “The Wicked Stepmother” and telling everyone to hiss while she bows. They play parts opposite each other.

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice

Clara and Missy arrive in 1138 and the Doctor is shredding his electric guitar atop a tank (I had hoped they’d use Capaldi’s rock background at some point during his run), and then has one of the best pun-versations to ever grace a screen of any size. And he’s taught everyone the word “dude” years ahead of schedule, which is questionable but hard to fault given the circumstances of his visit. You know, I’d have been game for an entire episode of the three weeks he spent in Essex. Less sentimental than the Tenth’s Doctor’s farewell tour, but too good to pass up. Of course, once he’s done punning about fish, he catches a glimpse of Clara and Missy, and his Time Lady pal makes eyebrows at him, and he starts playing the opening of “Pretty Woman” and JUST STOP IT, YOU TWO, ARE YOU KIDDING ME.

Clara knows that something’s off about the Doctor, and their hug makes it all the more disconcerting for her. In fact, Clara spends this entire episode killing it, just being generally sharper and sparklier than everyone. And she teams so well with Missy that I find myself praying that the entire season will be like this. Can we have a whole season of this trio? Please? Pretty please? It would be hilarious and so good for intrigue. You’d never know when Missy was going to sell them out. (Though I was amused that the Doctor was so devastated over her offer to partner with the Daleks by the end of the episode; it’s nothing she hasn’t done before, plus it would have been a great time-waster if they’d bought it.)

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice

At the heart of the episode, we have the long-standing conflict between Davros and the Doctor. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the guy, which makes his resurgence exciting, and having those clips playing in the background featuring all their former battles really brings the point of this opposition to the forefront. (Plus, any chance to have clips of multiple incarnations of the Doctor is always a plus.) But perhaps more interesting is how true to form this face-off is: His showdown with the Doctor in this episode is entirely a battle of philosophy, which was always what made Davros one of more unique and complex Who villains. Getting into the head of a guy who created a race of genocidal monsters is rough work, but it plays perfectly opposite Capaldi’s Doctor. Even Davros makes note of how well they are matched up.

When the reboot of Who started, the big guns were always reserved for finales: the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master, Davros, they were all waiting in the shadows for the big ka-bang at the end of the season arc. Moffat turned that on its head when the Daleks showed up at the start of season seven, but too many new rules and reset buttons made that opening too desperate to function in the show’s overall narrative. Bringing Davros in for a season opener is a gutsy move here, and so far, it seems to really work, which is more impressive than anything. It’s hard to guess what the end game for this two-parter is, but I’m optimistic with what we’ve already been given. I suppose the real question is, are all these two-parters self-contained stories? Or will there be a season arc playing to play out that begins here?

Doctor Who, season 9, The Magician's Apprentice
I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that despite the cliffhanger, the Doctor will not be killing tiny Davros. I’d initially assumed that the title of the episode—“The Magician’s Apprentice”—was going to pertain to Clara and her journey to become more of her own Doctor, as we saw last season. But it seems more likely now that the apprentice in question is Davros, and that the Doctor’s journey is going to be teaching him the value of compassion. Because as we know, the Doctor will never say it’s wrong.

Emily Asher-Perrin just really needs Missy to be a companion this season. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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