Review: Doctor Who – 9.1 – ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’

Photograph: 'The TARDIS' / Phil Long
Photograph: 'The TARDIS' / Phil Long

Right, I have a confession and I don’t want you to be too annoyed with me. I mean it’s bad, but not so bad as you’re going to stop reading. Like, I’m not going to confess to having done something with a dead pig’s head when I was younger. That would be ridiculous. A grown man, in my position! Poppycock!. Absurd.

I have to say I never clicked with Doctor Who last year. It took me a bottle of Jack Daniels to get through David Tennant’s regeneration (‘Wilf, it was my honour’) and Matt Smith’s old man regenerating was the epitome of the series and was the point where it should have ended. The grumpy, scowling, back to basics with no frilly scarfs was exactly what Doctor Who was not to me. Young body, old soul, joie de vie.

Coupled with this I’d just moved to Spain and was never consistently with the show week in and week out to give it my full snowballing enthusiasm. It came to me in dribs and drabs.

AND, just on the day of turning in to watch the new series on Saturday, my Wi-Fi goes down. So yes, readers, the day I watched the inaugural episode of the new series is the same day I read our illustrious prime minister is accused of being a pig fucker, pardon my French.

So what did I think (of Doctor Who, not Cameron)?

Wow. Thanks for making me embarrassed for calling for the Doctor to go off the air for a while, Mr Moffat. The ‘Magician’s Apprentice’ was an ingenious, cleverly interwoven topsy-turvy tour de force run round Doctor Who canon and back again for tea.

From the outset the winner in this episode is Missy. Never mind her return, it was as predictable as it was necessary given Michelle Gomez’s talent and they waste no time patronising to the ‘how did they do it’ question. The great reveal here is the complexity of the relationship between her and the Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. It’s always been implied that there was more to it than hero and villain, certainly between Roger Delgado and John Pertwee, and more vaguely – but just as intensely – between David Tennant and John Simm. The Master refusing to regenerate to get one over on his childhood friend, coupled with Murray Gold’s music, was deeply emotional.

Here we have the opposite. Plain speaking, as if it was in front of you the whole time. Missy’s utter disbelief that Clara could belief herself to be the Doctor’s best friend was marvellous, as were the pleasantries and fun between Gomez and Capaldi that really felt like both characters were letting their guard down; this is how they were when not putting on the theatrics of trying to kill each other in front of their cosmic playground.

The allusions to their youth were interesting and playful, particularly the idea of the Doctor wreaking havoc as well as being a girl at some stag (although Missy did give an option as to what was true and what was the lie, but who knows).

If there’s a downside to the episode, it’s the Doctor’s impending death. It feels as if it’s been done to, pardon the pun, death. The Trenzalore-arc, begun all the way back in season 6 with the Doctor being murdered, was a perfect send-off for Smith and the idea that he could face his death again after having spent 900 years anticipating it not too long ago (from his perspective and ours – it was only at the end of 2013) is bizarre. As is the unanswered question of where was the Master/Missy and the ‘confession dial’ during his exile (an ingenious new toy, which if anything like the infamous fob watch at the end of ‘Utopia’ – another Master story – could be a lot of fun).

I’m sure at some stage we’ll get to see the backstory of the Doctor making his first (Capaldi wise) appearance in The Day of the Doctor, not least as Missy infers this is how she escaped from Gallifrey. There is more to see, and should be seen, as the dynamic between Capaldi and Missy evidently works and is a joy to watch.

As for Capaldi, well, he clearly appears to be enjoying himself. Perhaps the reason I warmed so much to him in this episode is because his Doctor is highly reminiscent of Smith’s. Hyperactive, playful and restless, they both rejoice in their own power to put on a party and showcase their talents. Riding in on a tank playing guitar – what’s to be said, other than I think only Capaldi could do it because it was so unexpected. Did anyone else clock the fourth-wall smashing, Doctor Who riff being played? Spectacular.

While it was a pleasure to see some of the old Davros and the Doctor footage later on, I half expected a few body doubles of the old incarnations to walk in and out of the background when Capaldi said all his old selves were invited to his send off. Perhaps it was an existential, bringing out their characteristics reference – he did speak of long scarves and bow ties and was even wearing a pair of the Second Doctor’s tartan trousers.

Now to the not so secret reveal: Davros. Expected – because it’s impossible to avoid the tabloid press – but brilliantly executed. There is little to say beyond it was a joyous continuity moment to see Julian Bleach back, but where is it all going? TARDIS seemingly destroyed, Clara and Missy apparently killed – we all know it can’t be true but getting them out of it will be interesting.

What is striking is how much the blasé, fantastical, heroic elements of the Tennant and Smith-era have departed. The tone really has become more stark, more literal, and perhaps that’s why moments of pure, mad ‘Doctor’ – riding the tank, cough– are special and work really well. One moment you have that and the next you have the Doctor wresting with the dilemma to kill and a child, à la the spirit of the ‘Genesis of the Daleks’.

There’s a lot of ground to speak about, and plenty of speculating that can be done before Saturday. I’ve indulged myself enough, but I will say this: Perhaps I prematurely judged that the show had lost its spirit. Perhaps season eight, and the circumstances surrounding me watching it, tainted my judgement about its continuing potential.  The good man question was good, but never risky enough. It seems it might be in the tradition of dodgy first series outings for the new man.

Either way, it seems that the Doctor is back. And just in the nick of time (oh come on! I couldn’t help it!).

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Alastair Stewart 260 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer, journalist, and teacher based in Edinburgh and Almería. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.


He was formerly a press officer at the Scottish Parliament. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations.


Alastair founded DARROW in 2013 to support new and emerging writing talent in Scotland around the world.

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