Now that's how you do a cold open! Not only did it follow on seamlessly from 'The Doctor Meditates', it complemented the opening ambiance of 'Genesis of the Daleks' perfectly, and dropped a gasp-inducing D-bomb on our shuddering craniums. The mastermind behind the Daleks is back -- looking as ill as ever. Who'd have thought he'd be such a handsome looking kid? That Skaro air must really mess with your complexion... not to mention your hair follicles.
For a season opener, 'The Magician's Apprentice' did just about everything right. It reunited the good guys, introduced the antagonists early on, explained the stakes, and then raised more questions than Davros has wrinkles. It's traditionally hard to opine on the first instalment of a two-parter -- if the second part stinks, it naturally effects the success of the build-up -- but so far I'm encouraged. This felt like an episode with its roots firmly spanning the show's history, taking inspiration from Terry Nation's 'Genesis', tipping its fez to 'Robin Bland's' 'The Brain of Morbius', and drawing deeply from the Russell T. Davies well: from its ball groping Ood, to the Judoon, to the unrealistic doom-laden news bulletins informing us that weirdness abounds.
The brief inclusion of Tennant, the two Bakers, McCoy's 'Unlimited Rice Pudding' line, and Peter Davison's voice, against a backdrop of Skaro and a shed-load of Daleks, ranging from the classic silver and blue, to Russell's Supreme Dalek, right up to the Special Weapons Dalek from 'Remembrance', felt like a real feast for the geeky eye. And basing the whole shebang around what must be the Fourth Doctor's most complex moral dilemma -- whether it's permissible to kill a child who'll grow up to be a ruthless dictator -- felt like the perfect homage to one of the show's most highly regarded serials.
This was also an episode where both 'Prologue' and 'The Doctor Meditates' -- the official prequel minisodes -- felt like almost mandatory viewing. Both gave a sobering insight into the Doctor's melancholy mindset prior to meeting Davros, providing a bridge between last year's unmannered history teacher and this year's crowd-pleasing gag-meister. Without them, his axe-wielding shenanigans would've seemed hopelessly out of whack. We were also introduced to medieval sidekick Bors, learned that the Doctor can't meditate for shit, and discovered that building a well isn't as easy as you may think.
They also gave us a glimpse of the Doctor requesting Ohila pass on his confession dial to Missy. Forget for a moment that Jenna wasn't even supposed to be in this episode -- who better to entrust his will to than a Time Lady and long term `chum`? I suspect Missy's 'bezzie mates' spiel was more a product of her deranged imagination than anything resembling truth, but the Doctor did introduce Missy as his friend... right before calling her the wicked step-mother. I'm not sure what transpired between 'Death in Heaven' and now (whenever now even is), but it seems possible that there may be more to the story than we're currently privy to. The Doctor obviously knew that Missy wasn't dead, but how? Did the Brigadier miss? Did the Doctor manage to shoot first after all? Or was it simply tired intuition? Clara clearly has reason to be suspicious, but what is the full extent of the Doctor's deceit? There's surely more behind the suspension of hostilities than simple (and by 'simple' I mean incredibly fucked-up) friendship.
Julian Bleach's return as the dark lord of Skaro was just as memorable as his stint in 'Journey's End', except this time he was gifted a story worthy of his efforts. Gone was the ranting Davros of season four, replaced by a more calculated, ailing creature, whose dying wish was to see the Doctor proved wrong. That he used his continued existence as evidence for the inefficacy of compassion seemed deliciously twisted. Had the Doctor rescued him on war-torn Skaro, would things have been any different? Would the Dalek threat never have materialised? Or were the conditions ripe for such a solution anyway, and the architect irrelevant? Who's to say an even crueller megalomaniac wouldn't have taken charge and engineered an even grizzlier solution? Feckin' time travel... amirite?
Moffat obviously loves Michelle Gomez, and if you've seen her work before, it's easy to understand why. She knows how to deliver a funny line, and the script was packed to the rafters full of one-liners and snide remarks. I particularly enjoyed her mentioning the 'dog's unmentionables', before tickling a Dalek's 'bumps'. Clearly, Gomez was having a ball as she spat out accent after accent, occasionally breaking into dance, as she chewed up the scenery like a hungry hamster in a toilet roll insert factory. Yet compared to 'Death in Heaven', this was a restrained performance. For my money, Missy's at her best when she treads the line between humour and menace. I just hope they don't screw it up next week by giving her some over-the-top Simm-esque dialogue to bark out.
On face value, the cliffhanger seemed utterly catastrophic. With Clara and Missy seemingly dead, the TARDIS destroyed, and the Doctor about to shoot the face off a young Davros, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a season finale instead of a première. They're obviously determined to go big this season, and you don't get much bigger than binning half your cast. Obviously, Clara, Missy and the TARDIS will survive, but you have to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of Moffat's ambition, not to mention the grittiness of this opening salvo. This wasn't a feel-good episode by any stretch of the imagination. Missy did try to lighten proceedings by mocking Clara's dead boyfriend, but even humorously killing off a handful of UNIT operatives failed to elevate the atmosphere above the grim. Here's hoping the second half of the tale is equally as messed up.
Bits and Pieces:
-- I couldn't help but laugh at Clara's typing chops. When are drama classes going to instil into their students that thrashing a keyboard to death at a million miles an hour does not in any way look realistic?
-- I know 'The Magician's Apprentice' is a book by Trudi Canavan (in fact I've read it), but what relevance does it have to the episode? Is it simply an artefact of a older script originally intended to introduce a new companion?
-- Awesome axe work by Capaldi. The guitar wasn't even plugged in yet he still sounded great.
-- I thought skating cenobite Colony Sarff made for an effective evil minion. His face splitting into snakes looked marvellous, although his full-on serpent look did come across a tad sock-puppet-esque.
-- Obviously I'm far too young to remember Play School, so I didn't understand the square window reference at all.
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Doctor: "Tell me the name of the boy who isn't going to die today."
Clara: "Right, now where was I? Jane Austen. Amazing writer, brilliant comic observer, and strictly among ourselves, a phenomenal kisser."
Clara: "Kate, we can't just phone the Doctor and bleat... he'll go Scottish."
Doctor: "Davros is my arch enemy. Why would I want to talk to him?"
Missy: "Wait, hang on a minute... Davros is your arch enemy now? I'll scratch his eye out."
Doctor: "How scared must you be, to seal every one of your own kind inside a tank?"
Davros: "Where does an old man come to die but with his children."
Paul Kelly is the proud owner of the 17th most impressive Pantaloon collection in Yorkshire. He also appeared as one of the children offered for sacrifice in the 1979 Doctor Who serial "The Horns of Nimon."
For moor peaces eye rote, sea hear.