Moffat loves to answer his criticisms by provoking his critics, and The Magician’s Apprentice was no different. Not enough Every Dalek Ever in Asylum of the Daleks? The very first Dalek we see here is the very first Dalek we’ve ever seen, but it’s not long before the Servalan Dalek is ordering “Maximum Exterminations” and it’s pretty incongruous to see all those Daleks rubbing etheric beam locators in the same room. It was fandom’s call for Davros to return that guided the writer’s hand on this occasion; what more provocative way to bring the old devil back than simultaneously on the last night of his (and the Doctor’s, purportedly) life and on the very day he became the man we knew he was going to be. And it was lovely to see Karn again, although no doubt the lack of an eighth Doctor to go with it – as illogical as that might be – will have disappointed some, while others will complain that we always seem to end up in the same places.
There was nothing to disappoint in this episode, though, and perhaps that was the problem – if indeed there was any problem at all. Because as much as the two-part nature of this series opener allowed for considerably more breathing room than we are of late accustomed to, there was very little else that was anything more than superficially surprising; the cliffhanger itself signalled that the author was once again revisiting previous successes, even down to The Curse of Fatal Death and his short story Continuity Errors. So the Doctor is throwing himself a party because he only has one more day to live, so we are introduced into the action by a stranger searching for the missing Time Lord in a series of Star Wars-esque locations, and so the companion is handed a MacGuffin that informs her just how serious things are going to be. So far, so predictable (even the moment the child Davros reveals where he’s seen a hand mine is straight out of The Empty Child, Moffat’s very first ‘proper’ Doctor Who story).
But the success of a familiar story isn’t predicated on its originality, rather in how well it is told – and the most predictable thing of all is how well this is told. Steven Moffat has become a grandmaster at taking the melodies in his song sheet, the ones we are all fully aware reside there, and throwing them together in new and exciting shapes for us to enjoy. And that’s something that will only become tired once Moffat’s imagination runs out of exciting or thought-provoking situations within which to deploy those tunes.
As the curtain-raiser on a new series, it is incumbent upon The Magician’s Apprentice to draw the audience into the story by presenting something familiar enough to engage while novel enough to beguile, and telling the story of an old man who is reflecting back to the moment his life was set upon its overwhelming course, and then making that man Davros, the creator of the Daleks, fulfils that function more spectacularly than any first night story since Doctor Who’s 2005 return (with the possible exception of The Impossible Astronaut). Capaldi’s entrance is grandstandingly inappropriate; having just escaped from one mid-life crisis, to throw him another so quickly is overplaying the solo to a crazy extent, and yet it’s done with such brio and assurance it works magnificently – and after all, the first night of any new series must work to be the most significant and the most sovereign it can be, thereafter to make the audience want to stick around for the rest of the concert.
The one ostensibly incongruous element here is the presence of Missy, an apparent misdirection that – with the second half of this story being The Witch’s Familiar – will no doubt clarify later. But for a seeming loose limb, this latest Master is a commanding presence; Moffat appears to have downsized her ostentatiousness (at least in the earlier scenes; later on she’s as grandstanding as her fellow Time Lord) in response to the accusations that greeted her arrival last year, and there were moments when she was sitting facing Clara that her dialogue could have come straight out of the mouth of Roger Delgado.
That was perhaps the scene that nailed Moffat’s approach this series. Rather than overfilling the dialogue with battling quippery, Missy and Clara seemed whelmed in acceptance, acknowledging developments with unfussy glances as often as they batted one another back with ridicule and ripostes. The acting (from everyone) was superlative; there wasn’t a single dropped note throughout, the three leads – and not forgetting Julian Bleach, the best Davros since Michael Wisher – were each extraordinary, unpredictable and yet assured, surprising and yet authentic. Magnetic, you didn’t want to miss a beat. This was as cogent as Doctor Who gets.
The imagination on display – even now, six years into Steven Moffat’s showrunnership – was immense, even if half the time he’s playing the same chords he always has. The reveal of Skaro, following a moment of breathless wonderment, was flamboyant and stupefying – and yet entirely unsurprising. He knows those notes so well it’s a pleasure to see them played.
Should Steven Moffat be telling the story of how Davros became the man he is? Absolutely he should; you don’t sit in the sandbox and ignore the sand. The question of why is irrevocably tied in with the twelfth Doctor; having found himself thanks to the events of Series 9, Capaldi’s Time Lord is now free to enjoy a life cycle he never expected to get – so what better way to begin this exploration than through a character who is not being afforded the same luxury, and yet whose life mirrors the Doctor’s in many other ways (an “unnaturally” extended lifespan, an escape from the planet of his birth, an inescapable identification with the Daleks) across forty years of the series’ history? Steven Moffat is showing the twelfth Doctor what could have been, mirroring the conclusions of Listen and much of its mechanics too. It is, no doubt in the eyes of many, a potential folly (and doubtless a sacrilegious one too), and we shan’t discover whether that is really the case until next week. But the set-up has been magnificent, Moffat playing to the crowd by bringing out his greatest hits and buffing them till they shine – and there’s nothing wrong with a greatest hits collection when the hits are so spectacular. Whether this will prove to be a worthy prequel and successor to Genesis of the Daleks we’ll find out in due course.