In classic “Doctor Who” (2005-present) fashion, the ninth season premiere of the BBC’s long-running sci-fi series has left viewers on the edge of their seats. Written by show runner Steven Moffat, the episode, entitled “The Magician’s Apprentice,” aired on Sept. 19.
In contrast to previous season premieres, this one featured minimal introductory fluff, opting instead to jump straight into a very involved plot. Since the writers spent most of season eight establishing Peter Capaldi as the new, highly volatile Twelfth Doctor (with arguable success), it was a welcome change to see the writing tighten up in this first installment of the ninth season. Save for a cringe-worthy sequence in which the aged Doctor shreds on an electric guitar (which emitted sound despite not being plugged into anything) during a medieval “ax duel,” the episode stormed through its 45-minute run time with intriguing plot devices and snappy dialogue.
The episode’s setting shifted constantly, as if restless to reach its final destination. The premiere begins in a war-torn desert, where a young child (Joey Price) is trapped in a field of slimy, eyeballed hands that are reaching out from underground. Of course, the Doctor shows up to save the day, encouraging the boy to focus on his chances of survival rather than the possibility of death. All this is very typical of a Doctor Who episode; just when any fan would likely start to presume that the remainder of the episode will focus on these zombie hands and the war that has torn this desert apart, the writers throw viewers a curveball. The boy reveals his name to the Doctor: Davros.
The look of horror on the Doctor’s face upon learning this information will surely be reflected on those of longtime “Doctor Who” fans who understand precisely what this revelation means: Davros is the creator of the Daleks, the most iconic “Doctor Who” monsters and ruthless killing machines. Thus, within the first few minutes of the episode, viewers are plunged into the moral quandary that the Doctor faces. Knowing what he knew about Davros (the older version of the character is played by Julian Bleach) and the destruction caused by the Daleks, should he let the child die? Or should he be compassionate and save the young boy’s life?
These are lofty questions to tackle, and they reaffirm the complexity of the show. Since the series has been running since the 1960s, it is no easy task to keep the energy and mystery going. Moffat in particular has done an incredible job on this front, creating fascinating storylines that allude to classic “Who” while adding further insight into the Doctor’s character. “The Magician’s Apprentice” is a great example of Moffat’s ability to combine the old and the new, incorporating the familiar Dalek story as well as fresh Moffat innovations. Furthermore, the questions it poses extend far beyond the “Doctor Who” universe and strike a very human chord.
Of course, we know that in at least one timeline, the Doctor chooses to save Davros. After the opening scene, the episode focuses on the consequences of that action in the future, when Davros is dying and commands one of his minions, the Colony of Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell), to find the Doctor. But the Doctor, it seems, has disappeared.
The scene then zones in on Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman), the Doctor’s companion, on Earth. She notices that an airplane is frozen in the sky and figures something is wrong, but she, too, is unable to locate the Doctor. It turns out that this spectacle was just a ploy to get her attention by none other than Missy (Michelle Gomez), the reincarnation of the Doctor’s fellow Time Lord and archrival, the Master. When viewers last saw Missy, she was killed by Cybermen, but that apparently didn’t last long. This point is casually glossed over with nothing more than a snarky quip.
It’s very characteristic of Moffat to do things like this — contradict previous plot points, offer up deus-ex-machina explanations, leave questions unanswered. Though these tendencies annoy some viewers, in the context of this episode at least, Missy’s baffling return can be overlooked.
Her cry for attention was borne out of her concern for the Doctor, whom she claims is actually her closest friend. Naturally, Clara is skeptical but eventually accepts this after Missy shows her the Doctor’s confession dial — his last will — which is typically sent to a Time Lord’s closest friend on the eve of his death. There is a lot of clever dialogue in this scene, especially from Missy, who sasses Clara with insults such as “nano brain.”
Missy and Clara work together to find the Doctor, only to realize that this was part of Davros’ plan all along; they lead the Colony of Sarff right to him.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” leaves off with a moment of high suspense, with the Doctor and his friends abducted to Skaro (the planet of the Daleks), the TARDIS confiscated and a dying Davros demanding that the Doctor admit that compassion is wrong. With such an eventful first episode, this might just shape up to be one of the most exciting “Doctor Who” seasons yet.