Doctor Who 9.1: “The Magician’s Apprentice” Review

NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of Doctor Who are present in this review


Doctor Who started its ninth series with quite a lot of tension and excitement. The season premiere was a two-parter, and one that actually didn’t feature a proper enemy to fight against per se, at least not yet. Instead, the season began with a statement, and evolved into a surprisingly high-stakes mystery that isn’t seeing its full payoff until next week, but nonetheless felt wholly satisfying, and a fantastic way to kick off the new season of the show!

Starting things off is a prologue sequence of sorts, on a mysterious planet that’s fighting a war with a mysterious blend of new and old technology, for reasons unknown, between forces unknown. As we see human soldiers pulled underground by muddy hands with creepy eyes, a young boy ends up surrounded by the hands, and is tossed a very familiar-looking Sonic Screwdriver. The Doctor has come to save the boy, attempting to console him by trying to find out his name. It’s all a very familiar, reliable setup for a new season of Doctor Who, and one that doesn’t waste time getting to the exciting bits.

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Then, the show delivers you a punch to the gut that comes out of positively nowhere, to great effect! Apparently, The Doctor has traveled to the distant past, and the look of confusion and horror on his face is one to be remembered, when the boy identifies himself as, “Davros.” Yes, that Davros. The Davros that goes on to become one of The Doctor’s greatest enemies. The Davros that invented the Daleks, the most dangerous, bloodthirsty race in the entire universe! Oh dear.

We don’t see the aftermath of this exchange right away however, as the intro plays out, and an unsavoury looking fellow starts poking around alien bar, The Maldovarium (remember it from “The Pandorica Opens” of Series Five?), desperately seeking The Doctor. That same unsavoury fellow even shows up at Karn, which Whovians may again recognize as a key setting from short, “Night of the Doctor” (or, if they’re Classic Who aficionados, the setting from 1976’s “The Brain of Morbius”), where the Eighth Doctor used dark magic to become the War Doctor. Finally, The Shadow Proclamation gets crashed, which is yet another familiar Doctor Who location, complete with fan-favourite space thugs, the Judoon making a brief cameo. Sure, it just amounts to a lot of, “Hey, look!” sequences to tickle fans for the season premiere, but the references are cool nonetheless, without seeming obnoxious to newer viewers who might not be able to place them.

When we finally cut to Clara, who is conducting business as usual teaching her English class, she soon spots that a series of planes have become suspended in the sky. The incident gets reported on worldwide, and it’s not long before UNIT ropes Clara into a briefing. Originally, this is believed to be an attack, but the evidence doesn’t make sense. Soon after, a cryptic message is sent from The Doctor’s private channel (which he apparently forgot about), spelling out that the culprit behind the mysterious event is none other than Missy! But how?!

Doctor Who

In hilarious fashion, Missy waves off cheating death at the end of Series Eight (even the show comically laughs off The Master impossibly surviving certain death so many times, which is quite funny), and lets the planes go on the condition that she can arrange a meeting with Clara, even inviting UNIT snipers to safeguard her. After Clara agrees to meet with Missy, Missy presents Clara with the apparent last will and testament of The Doctor, announcing that he believes will die the following day. Clara tries to take the will, but it rejects her, with Missy then revealing that the will was given to her instead, due to her longstanding friendship with The Doctor that spans eons. Clara is confused at Missy’s apparent change of heart, though Missy handily vaporizes a few UNIT agents, just to prove that she hasn’t, “Gone good”, as it were.

It’s great to see Michelle Gomez back on the series so soon, since she was easily one of the best additions to the show in Series Eight. More than just successfully redefining The Master as a female character, Missy has become one of his (her?) best incarnations on the character’s own merits at this point, which is saying a lot! She’s believably devious without being annoying or improbable, and yet, is very engaging and full of a lot of character. It’s a fantastic mix of danger and charm, and it further benefits from the added novelty of The Master regenerating as a woman.

Moreover, we see that Missy’s concern for The Doctor is quite genuine, and this is another way that “The Magician’s Apprentice” starts Series Nine off on such a superb, memorable note. It’s amazing that New Who has gone so long while barely tapping The Master’s potential in the new series. The character is supposed to be the arch-nemesis of The Doctor in many respects (the episode makes a cute jab at whether it’s truly The Master or Davros), or at least the dark antithesis of him. The entire Ninth and Eleventh incarnations of The Doctor didn’t even encounter The Master at all, and even the Tenth reserved him only for finales, which feels like nothing short of a colossal screw-up. Series Nine looks to be finally trying to rectify this issue, especially after Missy was so positively received in Series Eight. The idea that The Doctor and The Master are still lifelong friends, despite constantly clashing rather aggressively, is something that’s very complex and appealing, especially with the two Time Lords now being of opposing sexes, which adds a weird, and strangely compelling sexual tension to their bond as well.

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Missy having to work with Clara is also a great dynamic, particularly when she zaps Clara to the 12th Century with her, just in time to see The Doctor engage in an axe battle… Sort of. The Doctor is clearly taking the belief of his impending death rather strangely, playing an electric guitar, riding a tank, and doing some rather awful comedy for the crowd, and this is the only point where the episode may get a little too “out there” for some. Yes, The Doctor is grieving, and it makes sense that he would give up caring about maintaining history if he believed he was going to die, especially the harsher Twelfth Doctor, but given the heavy air around the rest of the episode, this moment could come off as tonal whiplash to a point, even if it is justified comic relief.

When the unsavoury individual from before finally makes an appearance, we see that he’s actually a colony of snakes nestled up in a robe. Boy, I don’t even want to think about how Davros could hire someone or something of that nature. The snake colony scares off the crowd, and finally extends the predictable invitation from Davros to The Doctor, who agrees to meet with him one last time. Clara and Missy beg to come along, despite The Doctor’s protests, and all three are taken to Davros’ dwelling, just as it’s revealed that The Doctor’s axe battling opponent has been Dalekised, and is helping the Daleks capture the TARDIS.

As The Doctor is taken to Davros, we now see a course of action that some may predict, but one that is powerful and emotional nonetheless. The Doctor abandons the young Davros to his apparent death, knowing what he becomes in the future, and ironically becoming the catalyst behind Davros’ hatred, and thus, the creation of the Daleks by doing this. Yet again, this was another well-executed twist to an age-old Doctor Who antagonist, one that more deeply ties the ravages of the Daleks into The Doctor’s own inner hatred and bitterness. It’s one of the most successful times that the show justifies its current direction of The Doctor struggling with his inner darkness, even as we learn of Gallifrey surviving the Time War with the 50th Anniversary Special. When we imagine that The Doctor gave in to personal grudges, and inadvertently led to the greatest scourge of the universe in the Daleks by doing so, it effectively shows just how much blood is really on The Doctor’s hands, on account of that one selfish action. It’s a very big moment!

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Meanwhile, Missy figures out that Davros is not actually inside a space station, but an invisible planet, one that is quickly revealed to be none other than Skaro, the rebuilt Dalek homeworld! The Daleks then capture Missy and Clara, both of whom appear to be killed on a video feed (though this is no doubt a fake-out that may possibly explain how Missy cheated death before, since the same effect was used), and The Doctor helplessly watches as the Daleks destroy the TARDIS. This would theoretically create the same universe-threatening cracks of Series Five, which also occurred because some idiots blew up the TARDIS, but I guess we’ll have to see.

The episode isn’t quite done with heart-stopping moments however, as we see The Doctor return from the future (somehow), and talk to the young Davros again, who is still surrounded by the muddy hands. The Doctor says that he will save Davros by exterminating him, and holds up a Dalek laser, right as the episode ends!

Now, New Who constantly pretends like Davros and the Daleks are dead for good, and it always ends up being total bullshit, so I imagine that this instance will be no exception. Davros and the Daleks are among The Doctor’s greatest and most recurring foes, and like The Master, they’ll always find a way to return. Still, this was a very tense moment to end the episode on, and it does leave the viewer on the edge of their seat, eager to see how it all pans out, even if several of the big dramatic moments are bound to be undone as soon as next week, when the second half of this two-parter plays out.

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“The Magician’s Apprentice” was a fantastic episode overall, and one that had Series Nine of New Who hit the ground running, with excellent results. Even ending on a cliffhanger, and being a two-parter, the episode beautifully set up some high stakes for the new season, adding wonderful new dimensions to villains like Missy/The Master, Davros and the Daleks, and making the show feel especially fresh and exciting for its latest return. Hopefully, next week’s offering can keep up this spectacular momentum, as we see The Doctor no doubt damn himself even further.

Doctor Who returned with a bang for the start of Series Nine, presenting an exciting and highly rewarding episode that redefined old foes, brought The Doctor back in style, and set high stakes for what looks to be a very promising new season!
Twelfth Doctor's best story yet
Missy returns, better than ever
The Doctor's greatest foes are redefined to great effect
The axe battle scene veers on being too silly