“Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?” This question drives the two-part opening of “Doctor Who” season 9. In a manner perfectly suited to the show’s timey-wimey nature, these episodes provide a splendid example of how sci-fi can explore deep questions rather than just showcase explosions and mayhem (cough, Star Trek: Into Darkness, cough).
So anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen Part 1, “The Magician’s Apprentice,” the rest of this review will contain spoilers, though we promise to avoid spoilers for Part 2, “The Witch’s Familiar” (well, for the most part). But this paragraph is safe, so before you stop reading let us tell you what you need to know. Unlike the beige Nicolas Cage of similar name, “The Magician’s Apprentice” possesses the magic its title suggests. It is definitely worth watching. The superb acting of Peter Capaldi (the Doctor) and the actor playing the main villain more than compensates for any failings of the plot.. This opening season is second only to those of Matt Smith’s era; if the rest of season 9 sticks to this standard, then we certainly have something to look forward to.
The new season of Doctor Who opens with a shot of a gray and hazy battlefield as a group of soldiers, bows and arrows strapped to their uniforms, flee before the laser fire of a 1920’s biplane. Once the plane flies off, a soldier spots a young boy running through the haze, and soon both are trapped in a deadly field of “hand mines” which abruptly kill the soldier and leave the boy stranded. Enter the Doctor, who tosses his sonic to the child and asks: “Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.”
“Davros, my name is Davros.”
At this point, we’re like HOLY SONIC, the Doctor has just been given the choice of rescuing a child who will grow up to be the diabolic, megalomaniacal creator of the Daleks, a species that has terrorized countless civilizations and committed myriad atrocities including the war that led to the apparent destruction of the Doctor’s homeworld and every other member of his species. If you’re hardcore, classic Whovians, like us, this is one of the best episode openers in the history of Doctor Who. That if is critical though. The reaction of our friend who casually watches Nu Who was more “Who’s Davros? Oh, you mean that ridiculously wrinkled old dude from that one David Tennant episode? What’s the big deal?”
And here’s the problem: referencing characters familiar to we Classic Who fans can be confusing to those who have only seen Nu Who. Both Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat (the writer of the season 9 opener and the producer of Doctor Who) grew up watching Classic Who, so it’s not too surprising they sometimes have trouble speaking to both audiences. For the most part, they strike a good balance. After all they do remind the audience who Davros is, granted they wait 30 minutes to do so. The best references are ones that will crack up fans who get them, but won’t even be noticed by those who don’t.
Despite the fantastic main ideas behind these episodes—namely, the Doctor’s involvement in Davros’s beginnings, and the blurring of friend and enemy—both plots suffer from unnecessary diversions that distract the viewer from the primary plot and from the substantive character development that takes place. After the dramatic scene of young Davros on the battlefield, much of the first act follows Colony Sarff, Davros’s head of personal security as he searches for the Doctor on far-flung worlds from prior episodes. As cool as Sarff is (a democratic colony of snakes with a unified personality), we don’t need to watch his entire journey to get that he’s looking really hard. Besides belaboring the point, this series of scenes, combined with about 15 minutes of Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Missy (Michelle Gomez) threatening each other in their parallel search for the Doctor, delays the “real” plot until about halfway through the episode. Some might see this deferral as building tension. We just found it distracting.
Similarly, at one point a minor character named Bors, from medieval England, turns out to be a Dalek apparently for the sole purpose of discovering the TARDIS and alerting the other Daleks to its location. This feels like an afterthought thrown in to explain how the TARDIS later ends up on Scaro, much like Missy’s toy stick at the beginning of Part 2 feels like a device to fill time (and intimidate Clara). Towards the end of Part 1, we watch Daleks shoot Missy and Clara as the Doctor looks on, in what is apparently intended to be a moment of great drama. Whovians, however, realize that the show would never kill off two central characters so easily, so instead of gripping our attention this scene rings artificial.
Hidden in these plot diversions, however, is a surprising bit of character development. In the early exchange between Missy and Clara, we learn with Clara that Missy’s relationship with the Doctor goes far beyond the playful enmity that fills prior episodes, that Missy even considers the Doctor to be her friend. At the same time, though, Missy assures Clara that she has most certainly not “turned good” by vaporizing a series of security officers. It turns out Missy has a complex personality that continues to develop as she both helps Clara to save the Doctor and threatens to stab her in the back at every turn.
These episodes also further develop Davros’s character. Though we were expecting Part 2 to focus more on young Davros (based on the ending of Part 1), the fact that it doesn’t isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Julian Bleach’s performance as the older Davros is phenomenal. Davros was created in 1975 with the goal of giving the rather laconic, impersonal Daleks a face and a voice. Bleach does this in a way no previous actor has. He pays homage to the Davros of the Classic series while adding a completely new dimension to the character. We’ve seen nearly every episode ever made with Davros and never before have we felt the slightest tinge of pity for him, yet Bleach’s performance not only brought tears to the eyes of Davros—it nearly brought them to ours. The moment he turns off his electronic eye, to look at the Doctor (and the audience) with his own eyes, recalls the iconic scene in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader removes his mask to gaze at his son. He instantly transforms from a demonic monster to a poor, old man trapped in a robotic suit, and one cannot help but feel sorry for him.
Capaldi perfectly complements Bleach’s performance, embodying the unintentional sympathy we feel for Davros. Capaldi’s brief speech on compassion is particularly moving. No doubt these scenes will go down in Whostory as some of Capaldi’s defining moments as the Doctor. Unfortunately, because the Doctor and Davros are both manipulating each other, it is difficult to tell exactly how much of these scenes are genuine, which is a shame given the superb acting. However, in light of the passion of their performances, it is clear that at least some of it was heartfelt.
After Part 2 ended, we, at first, felt it had avoided the question posed by Part 1: “If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil . . . could you then kill that child?”, But upon further reflection we realize that Part 2 does offer us an answer. Throughout the episode we see a new side to Davros, one of the most iconic Doctor Who villains, a character often compared to Hitler. At the end of the episode Missy says, “The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend. Everyone’s a bit of both.” That is “The Witch’s Familiar”’s answer to the question asked by “The Magician’s Apprentice”: the question itself is flawed. No child grows up to be totally evil because no adult is totally evil. Within everyone is the capability to be a Doctor or a Davros. In short, good and evil aren’t the polar opposites they seem to be. Even ruthless dictators are capable of mercy and worthy of compassion. But it does it make them any less destructive in the end?
The shortcomings of both plot and pacing are more than compensated for by the engrossing character development and powerful acting—a brilliant return to form for Doctor Who.