Doctor Who – “The Magician’s Apprentice” – review

Picture the scene: you’re running across a World War One-type battlefield, being chased by biplanes. Only these biplanes are armed with lasers. And the soldiers trying to shoot them down only have bows and arrows, which you don’t have to be a weapons expert to see would put them at a serious disadvantage. A young boy runs through the mist, and when one of the soldiers tries to rescue him, he ends up being pulled to a muddy death by “hand mines”, which are, well, hands with eyes in them. The boy seems doomed – until a small, cylindrical device lands at his feet, a device anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Doctor Who will recognise as a sonic screwdriver. A familiar nasal Scottish voice – its owner crouching a few feet away, by a police box – tells the boy to run (“You have a one in a thousand chance to live – concentrate on the one”), but then the young lad makes the mistake of telling this stranger his name, and the Doctor – for it is he – disappears, apparently leaving the kid to his fate. Why such terrible callousness, from a man renowned for his compassion? Because the boy’s name is… Davros.

Davros, of course, will grow up to be the mad scientist who creates the Daleks, and so the Doctor cannot save him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Davros doesn’t forget this early slight – and so the new series of Doctor Who began on BBC One yesterday evening, with a cliffhanger episode written by Steven Moffat, which had all the strengths and weaknesses this particular reviewer has come to expect from the show, and from Moffat’s writing / script editing in particular.

So, these are my impressions (and I think at this point I should mention there are some plot spoilers, for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet):

The episode opened promisingly, with a hooded and cloaked creature called Sarff – who looks like he’s fallen asleep on a hot grill – haunting various alien outposts demanding to know where the Doctor is. These scenes were genuinely strange and unsettling – everything one wants from Doctor Who – but pretty soon we’re brought back to Earth, and Clara “Why is she still in this?” Oswald is teaching a group of teenagers who act nothing like teenagers do in real life, and making jokes about Jane Austen being a good kisser (is this stuff supposed to be edgy? Coming from a middle-aged male writer, it just sounds creepy).

Anyway, Clara soon notices that a plane outside has apparently frozen in mid-air, and so of course she tells her class to tweet about it, just like they don’t tell you to do in all those MI5 manuals. Almost immediately, she’s summoned to UNIT headquarters, which, with horrible inevitability, are in the Tower of London (this kind of one-eye-on-the-international-market stuff really makes me groan – isn’t it a bit condescending to viewers in America, say, or Japan, to put in a really famous British landmark, just in case they don’t think the show is “British” enough? What next, a cameo from the Duchess of Cambridge?).

The actors get to spout a lot of nonsense that Moffat seems to think amounts to convincing techno-speak (“Algorithms, blah… psychic projection, blah…”) before Missy turns up, sitting in what looks like an Italian piazza. She tells Clara that she has frozen the planes in order to get UNIT’s attention, because she has discovered the Doctor’s last will and testament (in the shape of a small gold disc called a “confession dial”) and that can only mean one thing – he is about to die.

At this point things get silly again, as Missy and Clara are transported back to a “Ye Olde England” version of the Twelfth Century, where the Doctor has been entertaining the locals by teaching them the word “dude” (they looked ridiculously grateful – I guess there wasn’t much else to do in the 1100’s) and generally mucking about. But then Sarff (is his surname “London” by the way? Sorry, that’s a terrible joke) reappears, and the Doctor, Missy and Clara are whisked off to meet with Davros, who’s feeling a bit sorry for himself (you can tell that because he’s got his head in his hands – blimey, Davros has never looked so glum), on account of being nearly dead. But then it turns out that the space station they all thought they were on is not floating in space after all, but is actually… well, I won’t spoil the surprise, in case you haven’t seen it, and you forgot to read my spoiler alert earlier.

By the time we get to the – genuinely pretty exciting – denouement, two major characters have apparently been killed, and the Doctor looks like he’s about to murder a child. So Moffat redeems himself by injecting some genuine darkness at the end, and a properly gripping cliffhanger. But I’m still not sure that excuses lines like “Gravity is a little bit sexy” (Missy), or the Doctor playing the electric guitar (a joke which went on for about ten minutes too long).

Nevertheless, when he’s on song, and really gives his actors something to work with, Moffat’s writing is superb: when the Doctor says that hugging is “a good way to hide your face”, for example, or when Davros taunts him to admit that, sometimes, “compassion is wrong”. Scenes like these reveal the dark heart(s) beneath the Doctor’s constant playacting.

A solid start, then, to the new series – Peter Capaldi, I think, just gets better and better, and credit to the technical team for some nicely understated effects work, and an unobtrusive soundtrack.

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