“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?”
These words are spoken by Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor in Genesis of the Daleks, a much-celebrated 1975 arc in which The Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan are sent to the war-torn planet of Skaro in order to derail the chain of events which will lead to the titular genesis of the Daleks, those screeching death machines that have served as Doctor Who’s most iconic villains for its entire 50-year run. At the point in the episode where this speech occurs, the Time Lord finds himself in position to complete this task. By merely touching two wires together, he boasts the ability to wipe out the Daleks and subsequently save the lives of generations of innocent beings who will be caught in their warpath. But, he wonders, does he have the right to play God? Considering The Doctor’s intense sense of morality, the answer is ultimately “no,” but it’s not a stretch to theorize that there have been subsequent times when he has regretted taking the high road.
Incidentally, the clip of this Genesis monologue is played halfway through
“The Magician’s Apprentice” and for good reason—the whole episode’s conceit centers on one inalienable fact: The Doctor decides not to save someone who he knows will cause immeasurable harm. On initial blush, the being in question looks to be a scared young boy trapped on a battlefield and surrounded by ominous hands ready to pull him to his death. Unfortunately, in this case, this helpless soul will later become the maniacal Davros, a mad scientist whose experiments will culminate in the creation of the Daleks. The Doctor’s decision to abandon the boy upon learning his name raises a serious question—would Davros still have become the Davros we know if The Doctor had rescued him, or did he become a monster precisely because some mysterious man gave him hope for rescue only to then abandon him to die? Because Doctor Who has always played a bit loose with its time travel rules, there’s a bit of a chicken-or-an-egg style to this line of questioning. Nevertheless, given that The Doctor ponders aloud about how “how scared must you be to seal every one of your own kind inside a tank?” it’s a question Moffat and Co. want us to be asking. “If Davros made the Daleks, who made Davros?” he continues, knowing that the answer might hit closer to home than he cares to admit.
Following the encounter between The Doctor and the young Davros, we find a hooded figure named Sariff searching for The Doctor on behalf of an ailing Davros. “Davros remembers,” he repeats, a refrain that seems to chill The Doctor to the bone. Meanwhile, we meet Clara Oswald back on modern-day Earth. Whilst in the middle of a school lesson, she notices that an airplane has stopped in the middle of the sky. Sure enough, all around the world, thousands of planes have done the exact same—as if they were frozen in time. UNIT quickly intervenes and the culprit is soon revealed to be Missy, apparently very much alive after the events of “Death in Heaven.” The Time Lady informs Clara she’s lost contact with The Doctor and she fears for his safety. What’s more, she comes equipped with a confessional device that The Doctor has entrusted her with. Its contents can only be revealed at the time of his death, which—based on his behavior—might very well be soon. Lest we think she’s grown soft, however, Missy quickly re-affirms her bloodlust by disintegrating several UNIT guards on a whim. Michelle Gomez is an absolute joy here, and I’m very thankful we didn’t have to wait several years to again witness Missy’s personalized brand of psychotic glee.
On another note, the existence of the confessional device sets up a very familiar Steven Moffat trope: the notion that the season is leading towards The Doctor’s demise. The fifth season saw him being erased from existence, the sixth season had him investigating his seemingly inevitable assassination and the seventh found him traveling towards his final resting place in Trenzalore. At this point, the convention has become a bit rote, but the episode benefits from this aspect being merely one cog of a very complex plot machine.
Imminent death aside, one cannot deny that when Clara and Missy end up locating The Doctor, he’s not living out his life in serious style. Indeed, he’s partying it up in the 12th century, disregarding any notion of anachronisms by bringing a tank to an axe fight and going all Eddie Van Halen on an electric guitar (a nice nod to Peter Capaldi’s well-documented past as a punk rocker). No sooner have Clara and The Doctor had their charming reunion—The Doctor summons the riff from “Pretty Woman”—than Sariff, the hooded figure, reveals that he used Missy and Clara to track down The Doctor. What’s more, he apparently has the ability to transport himself into a bevy of snakes and threatens to harm the two unless The Doctor accompanies him to a special space station to meet Davros, his dying archenemy (nice subtle bit of business—Missy’s hurt feelings that her fellow Time Lord has given Davros this title as opposed to her).
And so, we get the long-awaited return of Julian Bleach’s Davros and his malevolent, mechanical snarl. Though not given as much to do as Missy, Bleach makes the best of his scenes, giving a restrained performance that only makes him seem all the more menacing. While The Doctor and Davros play catch-up, Clara and Missy begin exploring their cell. Missy quickly surmises that the space station is merely an illusion and that they are actually on an invisible planet. Right on cue, the world emerges into focus. Both The Doctor and Missy simultaneously make the horrifying realization of where they are being kept—a reconstructed Skaro, the planet where the Daleks originated.
Clara and Missy quickly find themselves being held hostage by a platoon of Daleks (who have also commandeered the TARDIS). Of course, the Daleks are not fans of taking hostages. As such, The Doctor must watch helplessly as his enemies exterminate both his companions and demolish his TARDIS. Driven to desperation, The Doctor realizes there is only one way to correct his mistake. We flash-forward to a later time when The Doctor appears to have reacquired the ability to travel back in time. He returns to the Skaro battlefield and aims a Dalek weapon at the young Davros. “Exterminate,” he states coldly as he readies to fire.
As with most of Moffat’s season premieres, there’s a lot to unpack here. First and foremost, the showunner looks to be continuing his trend of leaning towards the dark edge of the Who universe. In the course of the episode’s 45 or so minute runtime, civilians are killed in cold blood, The Doctor abandons a child and several main characters seemingly bit the dust. Moffat’s pushing down on the proverbial gas pedal hard and fast—the question remains if he can manage to keep the vehicle going at this pace without crashing and burning. Based on the trailers that have made the rounds, we know this is not the last we’re seeing of Clara, so it remains to be seen how The Doctor will save her and, moreover, how this incident will set the path the rest of the season.
On that note, if there’s any inherent problem in “The Magician’s Apprentice,” it lies in its status as part one of a two-part story. Even by “Part One” standards, it doesn’t feel like a fully complete episode of television. This is an entry consisting almost entirely of set-up, with the shocking return of Davros and scattered other bits of well-placed fan service going a long way to help alleviate these limitations (besides UNIT, we also get the first appearance of The Shadow Proclamation in seven years). Of course, given that the remainder of Series Nine appears to be almost exclusively composed of two-parters, this is a dynamic viewers must get used to for the next few weeks. In any case, the episode is a bold and ballsy reintroduction to the show that throws you right into the deep end and leaves you flailing for some sort of stability.
In so many ways, this installment feels more akin to the penultimate episode of a season rather than the premiere entry. This either means that shit’s going to get even crazier from here, or that it’s all downhill from this point. For now, I’m putting my money safely on the latter.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.