Warning: This review contains spoilers.
You may wish to watch the Dr Who episodes The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar before reading this review.
After a mostly dull series 8, I did not have great hopes for the 9th season of Dr Who but Steven Moffat certainly delivered a pretty strong season opener.
The Frozen Sky
Whilst the first half of The Magician’s Apprentice felt like a bit of a filler to pad out the two-parter, it had plenty of action to keep the viewer entertained and a brief but welcome return of UNIT.
Leaving aside quite why a snake would have eye and a mouth on its belly, new baddy Colony Sarff was both well-conceived and brilliantly portrayed by Jami Reid-Quarrell.
In an unexpected nod to the Russell T Davies era, there were some delightful cameos ranging from the Shadow Architect to a Judoon and a few Ood.
The Doctor’s Going Away Party
Undoubtedly the weakest part of the entire story was the silly jaunt into the past. It seemed very undoctorish to risk corrupting history with a misplaced tank and electric guitar, the latter shoehorned into the story to presumably fulfil some long-held fantasy of the writer.
Dr Who has always worked well as a family show, written for adults and children to enjoy at different levels, but here it seemed like Steven Moffat thought he was writing for the pre-school age, contrasting sharply with the later brief flash of adult humour as Missy flirted with a Dalek.
No, I’ve Not Turned Good
One of the long-established principles in many of the best stories is to split up the Doctor and the companion. This plot device was well used in these episodes and also removed any temptation to waste screen time with the bickering that spoiled some of last year’s adventures.
The pairing of Clara and Missy was highly entertaining, creating a richer story laced with humour epitomised in the wry comment: Every miner needs a canary.
The “some of us can afford the upgrade” line was clearly put in to tease those doubtful about the prospect of a Time Lord becoming a Time Lady. With Michelle Gomez’s fantastic performance being arguably the best portrayal of the Doctor’s (apparently) vice-archenemy – second only to subtle and charming performance for which original actor Roger Delgado will always be remembered – that for many those doubts will have been put to rest.
Given the iPlayer prologue reference to a long-term foe, the much-trailed Daleks, Steven Moffat’s interview comment about returning to a planet that had not often been visited and the mix of old & new technology in the opening scenes, it was blindingly obvious from the start to anyone who had seen Genesis of the Daleks that this was Skaro and the child was Davros.
That said, this story was rewarding for long-termDr Who fans. One of the most memorable scenes in the show’s entire history was the 4th Doctor agonising over whether he could destroy the entire Dalek race: “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?”
The Witch’s Familiar revisits that question and rewards the viewer with a definitive answer.
Davros and the Doctor
Just as unexplained as Missy’s return after her apparent demise last year, was how Davros had survived his previous ordeal – was the writer just to lazy to think of a reason? At least when Davros came back last time, Russell T Davies went to the effort of explaining how he escaped the Time War.
That said, of the greatest strengths of this story was the dialogue between Davros and the Doctor, with Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach managing to capture the intensity and intelligence not seen since the fourth Doctor’s original encounter with the creator of the Daleks.
At some points you could have been forgiven for thinking that these were not mortal enemies who had fought for centuries but the Doctor visiting an old friend on his deathbed.
Here We Go Again
Once thing that was very noticeable was quite significant recycling of ideas from previous stories. Leaving aside the references to Genesis of the Daleks, attempting steal the Doctor’s regeneration energy was already tried in Mawdryn Undead and this is not first time someone’s climbed inside a Dalek. It also was not quite clear where all the slime went to that had just trickling out of Dalek in the previous shot.
Despite a few flaws, these two episodes were very enjoyable and got season 9 off to a good start. But season 8 also started off well and quickly went downhill. So, only time will tell whether Steven Moffat & co can produce a consistently good series of adventures for our favourite Time Lord this year.