Tonight’s Doctor Who season premiere is all about two of the show’s most iconic villains. We (and the Doctor) see them in a new light, and it’s enough to make you wonder if the show’s endless battle against evil is actually something more complicated. And if so, what does that mean for our hero, the Doctor?
“The Magician’s Apprentice” is the first half of a two-parter, in which the Doctor gets a whole new perspective on Davros, the creator of the Daleks. And then we get a startling new perspective on his oldest enemy, Missy (the Time Lady formerly known as The Master.)
The Doctor meets Davros as a scared little boy, in the middle of a warzone, surrounded by deadly genetically engineered “hand mines.” And the Doctor is about to save the boy, until he realizes who it is—and then he just takes off in the TARDIS instead. (Leaving his sonic screwdriver, which a scientist of Davros’ caliber ought to be able to reverse-engineer.)
Not only does the Doctor not save Kid Davros, he also commits a worse sin—dangling the possibility of radical optimism and ingenuity in front of the kid and then just leaving with the promise unfulfilled. The Doctor seems to be almost in the process of turning Kid Davros into one of his companions, until he realizes who this is, and he offers the notion that even if you only have a one-in-a-thousand chance of survival, that one chance is all you need. It’s almost crueler to introduce hope and then take it away, than never to offer it in the first place.
The Doctor feels deeply ashamed of his refusal to help Kid Davros, and now he seems to wonder if this is the reason why Davros created the Daleks in the first place. After 1,000 years of war between two humanoid races, Davros decided to turn his own people into the ultimate warriors, who would never stop fighting, and sealed them all inside tanks. (“Davros made the Daleks,” the Doctor says, but “who made Davros?”)
And when the Doctor hears that the adult Davros is looking for him, because “Davros remembers,” he freaks out. He goes off the grid, so his friends can’t find him, and then gives the Sisterhood of Karn his “confession dial,” a kind of Time Lord Will and Testament. Then the Doctor throws himself a huge three-week party in early Rennaissance England, before surrendering himself to Davros’ minion, the surprisingly un-Dalek-y Colony Sarff (basically a dude made out of snakes.)
Then the Doctor gets taken by Colony Sarff to Skaro, the homeworld of the Daleks (which is invisible, for a minute or so, leading to an extended gag where they think they’re on a space station but it’s actually a planet’s surface). The Daleks have somehow rebuilt their home planet after it was destroyed (back in 1988’s “Remembrance of the Daleks”) and now they have the Doctor, Clara and Missy at their mercy.
Davros is dying, and just wants to talk to the Doctor one last time—and he deliberately brings up the thing the Doctor said way back in 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks”, about whether it would be right to kill a child that you knew would grow up to be an evil dictator. (Because Davros and the Doctor now both know that the Doctor faced that exact dilemma with Davros as a child.)
Davros ‘ real agenda seems to be to make the Doctor say that compassion is wrong. Just once, he wants the Doctor to admit that caring for others is a terrible mistake.
Unlike Davros, whom the Doctor meets as a child by accident, Missy gets involved in this story because the Doctor drags her into it. Even though Missy supposedly died at the end of “Death in Heaven,” the Doctor assumes she’s alive and trusts the Sisterhood of Karn to find her and give her his confession dial.
But instead of just sitting around waiting to find out the Doctor has actually gone to his death (at which point the confession dial would open), Missy goes looking for him to try and save him. (Or at least make sure she’s the one who gets to kill him, maybe.) As the Master once said a long time ago, “a cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about.”
When Missy can’t find the Doctor, she does a whole elaborate thing involving freezing airplanes in time, to get Clara’s attention. (And her stunt also gets the paramilitary organization UNIT involved, but they don’t really do anything in this story, so let’s skip over them.) And then... Missy and Clara team up, first to find the Doctor and then (maybe) to save him from his own death wish.
Why does the Doctor give his confession dial to Missy, instead of to River Song, or Madame Vastra, or Clara, or Captain Jack, or any of a few dozen others? Missy says that it’s because she and the Doctor are friends, real friends, with a relationship more ancient and complex than human civilization. The fact that they keep trying to kill each other, and Missy is an evil psycho, doesn’t change that fact.
If it were just a matter of Missy claiming that she and the Doctor are “bezzie mates,” as Clara puts it, then this could be just more of Missy’s delusions—like last year, when she kept calling the Doctor her boyfriend. But the Doctor seems to agree, given that he trusts her with his last will and testament. And he knows that giving this to Missy will only make her get involved in whatever mess he’s in.
So Clara and Missy track the Doctor down in late Medieval-early Renaissance England, where he’s playing an electric guitar on top of a tank in a devil-may-care disregard for the integrity of history. But Colony Sarff (who’s already looked for the Doctor in a Star Wars cantina, in the Shadow Proclamation from back in season four, and on Karn) also tracks him down and captures him, along with Missy and Clara.
The Doctor very much does not want Missy and Clara to come with him on his suicidal visit to Davros. But they insist, and Colony Sarff winds up agreeing. (The Daleks also capture the TARDIS, because the main Renaissance guy was actually a Dalek agent.)
So in the end, Missy seems genuinely concerned that the Doctor is willingly going to his death—and she and Clara are both taken aback by the look of shame on the Doctor’s face when he admits that he no longer has a sonic screwdriver. And it’s Clara who decides that both she and Missy should go along with the Doctor to see Davros.
(And Clara calls the Doctor on the fact that he knew Missy was alive all along but pretended to think she was dead—but Clara just uses this as a way to motivate the Doctor to stay alive, so he can “make it up to” her, in a nice scene.)
So the Doctor decides that his shame over having abandoned Kid Davros is so great, that he has to go see the elderly Davros and atone. With his life, if necessary. But because Clara and Missy go along, they wind up wandering into danger just as the Doctor and Davros are settling in for a jolly chat about old times and whether the Daleks were ultimately a force for good in the universe or not.
Clara and Missy wind up being taken into the Dalek control room, where the Daleks have captured the TARDIS—and the Doctor watches in horror as Missy tries to manipulate the Daleks, an effort they both know will fail. Missy gets exterminated. And then the Daleks wait until Clara makes a run for it, then they exterminate her, too. At last, they destroy the Doctor’s TARDIS.
The Doctor is apparently left bereft and without hope, on the planet of the Daleks. And that’s when Davros says the thing about compassion being a mistake. At the end of the episode, we see the Doctor going back to where Kid Davros is still stuck in the field of “hand mines,” because the Doctor has decided to do the only thing he can “to save my friend.” Meaning, apparently, kill Davros as a child.
(And I’m left wondering: Why wasn’t Skaro’s past blocked off somehow during the Time War? Given how ruthless that conflict apparently became, you’d expect Kid Davros to be attacked by swarms of Time Lord agents, unless the Daleks managed to protect their own past somehow. It seems odd that the Doctor’s able to just waltz into Skaro’s history, without even meaning to.)
In any case, this episode shows us not just a new side to Missy and Davros, but the Doctor as well. His remorse over choosing not to save Davros—in fact, over throwing away the chance to make a difference—makes him unable to be his usual cunning self. In spite of the whole “throwing a medieval party” thing, he’s weirdly vulnerable and miserable, something that Peter Capaldi conveys with a lot of genuine pathos. And the bit where the Doctor gets on his knees to beg Davros to save Clara, on a second watch, is actually quite powerful.
That said, a lot of this episode feels like it could have been skipped over—the time-frozen planes, the random “greatest hits” tour with UNIT and the Sisterhood and the Shadow Proclamation, the whole “Skaro is disguised as a space station” thing. And the device of the Doctor throwing himself a huge historical party before going to his death feels like something we saw Matt Smith’s Doctor do a few times already. (Except with more naked paintings.)
This episode has an interesting hook—maybe the Doctor’s biggest weakness isn’t hubris or whatever, but instead, it’s any situation where his natural inclination to be a savior is overridden by his old hatreds. But it’s too busy throwing ideas at the wall (“snake guy!” “frozen planes!”) to really get to the meat of the story. Even as the first part of a two-part story, it’s rather slight. Luckily, I can reveal without getting into spoilers that next week’s second half, “The Witch’s Familiar,” is somewhat more substantial.