Warning: spoilers ahead.
Oh, Moffat. Miffie. Stevie-babes. Why do we let you out? You’ve just gone and created the ultimate fan-pleasing story. Did you hear that strange high-pitched wailing noise as you were watching this? That was the sound of fans everywhere squeeing for dear life in perfect unison. We knew this would happen one day. Ever since we saw William Hartnell’s mug five times over the course of Series 5. Steven Moffat is an über-fan, and this is a script only an über-fan could have written. And it’s magnificent. As a series opener, it’s perfection; exactly the way to start a new, hotly-anticipated series of Doctor Who (and a late one, no less) — not with a pathetic whimper, as we were too often offered in Russell T Davies’ era (*cough* New Earth *cough* Partners in Crime *cough*), but with a resounding, earth-shaking roar, the roar of an electric guitar being rocked by—who else?—the Doctor.
We’re hit with a pretty huge bombshell within minutes of the episode’s opening as the Doctor discovers a little boy trapped on a battlefield amidst a field of hand mines, who, we learn shortly, is a young Davros. The Doctor helpfully conveys how thunderstruck we feel in his own stunned expression. It’s a staggering way to begin this opening two-parter; the breath has been wrenched from our lungs before the thing has even got started. It couldn’t portend more effectively that this series opener is going to be big. And this is really well conveyed by the following sequences. A shadowy, hissing figure who refers to himself in the plural searches the universe for the Doctor. Missy, who makes an absolutely brilliant entrance, freezes the skies of Earth just to get Clara’s attention because she can’t find the Doctor either. “Where is the Doctor?” the episode asks. What could possibly make the Doctor hide himself away like this? And why has the Doctor made a Time Lord will and testament?
It all very effectively conveys the impression of there being a greater narrative at work here, lending the episode a sense of scale and moment that makes it feel more like an epic series finale than an opener. The impression is, if anything, reinforced by the, frankly awesome, scenes of the Doctor throwing himself an outrageous party in medieval England. The Doctor’s entrance was jaw-droppingly amazing (the message: “Doctor Who is BACK, baby!”), but the sight of the Doctor acting so preposterously out-of-character makes acute the feeling that something is very wrong. Indeed, the whole thing feels very different from what we’re used to in Doctor Who, even for a two-parter. The weight of a large-scale narrative lends, at least to the first part, a flow and form that almost makes it feel like long-form serialised drama, like Game of Thrones. The very heavy invocation of the show’s continuity and history, the sense of strong connection to past events, and progression of an ongoing story, only reinforces that impression. Those who’ve commented that this story, The Magician’s Apprentice in particular, doesn’t feel like a Doctor Who story are right — it’s composed very differently from what we’re used to. Some don’t like that, but I really do. I think it’s at least good that the show is experimenting and trying to break out of the standard, tried-and-tested formulas it’s employed since 2005, and doing something different.
As an indication of the sweeping scale of this story, it churns through so many compelling and brilliant ideas, one after another, many of which could easily be the seeds of potentially fantastic stories of their own. The disappearance of the Doctor, for example. The story had great fun while it was playing with that particularly gripping idea. The hand mines — a wonderfully scary, well-conceived new monster. The relationship between the Doctor and the Master, “A friendship older than your civilisation, and infinitely more complex.” The question the Doctor posed to himself, “Who made Davros?” The apparent extermination of Clara and Missy at the mid-point cliffhanger, and the terrifying lengths to which the Doctor would go, either to bring them back, or to exact revenge. I could go on. This all sounds very messy, but the writing is tight. The script indulges itself momentarily in the various ideas it brims with, but doesn’t get sidetracked. It all forms a very coherent and engaging whole, as a story, apparently, about the Doctor and Davros’s final meeting.
Davros has called the Doctor to his side on the eve of his death, for reasons that don’t become clear until the second episode. Steven Moffat has said that part of the inspiration for this story was his desire to write a prolonged “face-off” between the Doctor and Davros, lamenting that all the scenes between the two over the show’s history have been electric, but that all were far too brief and cursory. Accordingly, the Doctor and Davros duly receive a proper chance to talk, for once, and Davros is served better than he’s ever been. It’s not just that the character is profoundly chilling and macabre, even at the point of death (my highest praise to Julian Bleach), the character of Davros is taken to entirely new territory. It’s captivating watching Davros weeping over the news of the salvation of Gallifrey, doubting his own life and morality, coming very close, like a dying penitent to a priest, to asking the Doctor for absolution, even sharing a joke with the Doctor. In short, Davros totally convinced as an ancient creature near death. Sensitive, emotionally intelligent and bewitching, as it was, it was some of the best writing Steven Moffat has ever produced for the show. And both Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi gave utterly magisterial, mesmerising performances.
And then it was revealed to be all a trick. All a ruse, exploiting the Doctor’s compassion to deceive him into employing his regeneration energy into reviving Davros and “renewing” the Daleks on Skaro (whatever that entails). I hate to say it, but I was a bit annoyed when this happened. I so, so wanted Davros’s apparent catharsis to be genuine, even if Davros ultimately lived. It would have made us see the character in a radically different light, a creature we once thought to be irredeemably evil, perhaps at least capable of redemption after all. And maybe it was time that something radically different was done with the character of Davros? If Davros were ultimately to repent for his own creations, it would open up exciting narrative possibilities for the future. That was ultimately what I was hoping for when I saw the “next-time” trailer in which the footage of Davros apparently offering the Doctor the opportunity to commit genocide against the Daleks was deceptively shown. I thought The Witch’s Familiar would involve Davros finally seeing the Daleks for the evil creations they are, and allying with the Doctor to destroy them. That would have been so much more bold and exciting than what we got, i.e. just Davros, the psychopathic evil scientist, up to his old tricks again. Nothing new to see here.
But I have to be fair. What we did get was still superb and amazing. Maybe I’m disappointed that the story squandered an exciting opportunity to do something truly audacious and interesting. Maybe I regret, in the spirit of the Tenth Doctor, that this story could have been so much more. But, considering the story on its own merits, for what it was rather than for what it could have been, it’s still the best thing Steven Moffat has written since the Series 5 finale in 2010. It’s still, to my mind, an instant classic, and one of the best Dalek stories ever; certainly the best Davros story ever. And considering the story in context, as a series opener, raises it even higher. It’s just the perfect story to usher in a new series of Doctor Who: grand, bold, extravagant, visually stunning, with an irresistibly seductive swagger. It makes you excited about Doctor Who again, and excited to see what the rest of the new series brings. Like The Eleventh Hour, this story is ideal for what it’s trying to do. The Eleventh Hour involved a fairly insubstantial plot, but, for an episode introducing a whole new era of Doctor Who, it was perfection. Likewise, this episode is just the perfect way to kick off a new year of Doctor Who, and I can forgive it its shortcomings to that end.
Some final thoughts. As good as this story was as a whole, I think my favourite thing about it was Missy (and Clara). I have to admit that I was somewhat ambivalent towards Missy in Series 8, but, after watching this story, I think I’m in love (figuratively speaking). Missy absolutely steals the show; it’s obvious Michelle Gomez is having delightful fun playing the bonkers, unhinged, comical she-Master, and it genuinely shows. There are so many brilliant scenes. Missy’s entrance alone was a total hoot, and the budding (and more than a little abusive) relationship between Missy and Clara was just a joy to watch. Gomez completely nails every line, from “No, I’ve not turned good!” to “Get in” (which was just pure comic genius). At the same time, Missy retains all the unsettling psychopathy and unpredictability of the character, as when she vaporises two soldiers in the plaza in response to a casual remark from Clara about her turning “good”, and when she attempts to trick the Doctor into killing Clara. She’s great fun, Missy, but she’s definitely not to be trusted. In any case, she’s firmly established herself as my favourite Master, surpassing John Simm by bounds. She can’t return soon enough.
Finally, I love this story as a Dalek story, as much as a Davros story. There were chilling sequences that made the Daleks a genuinely scary villain again. The cliffhanger scene, where the Daleks’ primal urge to kill was, if possible, palpably visible, was as suspenseful and frightening as anything in a Dalek story. Portraying the Daleks as predators, driven by an overpowering animalistic urge to hunt and kill, really injected, I think, the fear factor back into the Daleks. As well as this, the portrayal of the Daleks as channelling emotion through their guns was a fascinating, and chilling, insight into the way the Daleks work. It’s fascinating, albeit horrifying, to realise that emotion, any emotion, even love, is ammunition for the Daleks’ gun, is converted into lethal energy harnessed to kill. It’s a gruesome, horrific thought that, as much as it repulses me, actually also makes me feel for the Daleks as well.
Overall, an exceptional start to Series 9, and an undoubted classic to boot.