Written by Liz Dircks
Can you recall a time in your life when you couldn’t shake an impending sense of dread? A high school test you never studied for, a friend doing a risky thing on your watch, or a particularly intimidating job interview? Have I successfully unsettled you? Good. Because that’s what it’s like watching Doctor Who’s Series 9 opener.
The theme of “The Magician’s Apprentice” is undoubtedly blasts from the past. UNIT, the Daleks, and the return of the incomparable Missy all blend together to make a veritable cocktail of orderly chaos, beginning with thousands of planes mysteriously freezing in mid-air and ending with a staggering cliffhanger that plays on our perception of the Twelfth Doctor’s supposed inner darkness. Early on, we learn he’s gone from Earth indefinitely — Missy boasts that she’s been sent his will, and Clara is forced to team up with the self-professed “bananas” Time Lady to find him. But no sooner are the three reunited before they’re whisked away, summoned by the surprise baddie of the episode: Davros, creator of the Daleks.
Yes, it was no secret that the Daleks would return this series, but if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers, Davros’ appearance may have been quite a shock. The magnificently creepy Julian Bleach reprises the role, last seen wielding a reality bomb in “Journey’s End,” with one alteration: he is dying, and vividly remembers a certain incident from his childhood (seen in the teaser) where the Doctor neglected to save him from a battlefield after learning his name. Davros wants the Doctor to face one last quandary of his own concoction, to level the playing field and prove his longtime enemy actually lacks the moral superiority he often flaunts in his foes’ faces.
It seems the question of whether or not the Doctor is a “good man” is still open-ended, and Peter Capaldi drives this idea home with ease, skillfully oscillating between revelry and sobriety. It’s remarkable to watch him, now with a full series under his belt, begin to sidle away from the mild grumpiness that defined his Doctor’s early days and embrace his inherent silliness. In a sequence that’s sure to be an instant classic, Missy and Clara find him shredding on an electric guitar to a crowd of medieval peasants and teaching them the word “dude” several centuries early. There remains, however, a spark of belligerence, notably seen in his interactions with Davros. Where the Tenth Doctor merely writhed in agony as the mad scientist laid bare his sins, the Twelfth Doctor bites back, not afraid to give off the appearance that he’s moved beyond all the death and destruction he’s caused.
Jenna Coleman, as usual, has my deepest respect and admiration — Clara’s relationship with the Doctor has come leaps and bounds from her initial hostility in “Deep Breath,” and Coleman plainly demonstrates her devotion to him when she volunteers to accompany him into the belly of the beast. Clara has also matured significantly since her days galavanting with the Eleventh Doctor, and was even graced with a stellar character arc last series where she began to echo the Doctor’s own traits. Coleman has the unenviable task of being the character who changes, the character to whom the audience most relates, and she’s pulled it off without a hitch. Case in point: The Doctor now seems to come to her for hugs, and if that doesn’t melt your heart, you’ve clearly been converted into a Cyberman.
But the runaway hit of “The Magician’s Apprentice” was the scene-stealing Michelle Gomez as Missy. When it comes to lethal snark, Gomez is queen, injecting a great deal of humor into her interpretation of the Doctor’s nemesis to make her both unpredictable and hilarious. She’s on her A-game here, spouting many a cheeky quip to help maintain a balanced tone. As always, however, she’s not to be trusted; a mischievous glint in Missy’s eye is enough to put the fear of God into any Whovian’s heart. Historically, the Master has been a fair weather friend to the Doctor, often resorting to extremes when the two don’t see eye-to-eye (which is almost always). Continuing this tradition, Missy appears to have a few tricks up her demure Victorian sleeve, and may even be playing a long game that could have devastating consequences for Our Plucky Heroes.
Series 9 is being advertised as the “glory days” of Clara and The Doctor, and it seems we’re off to a rousing start with a story that feels epic in scope but also pays homage to the classic era with our first real look at Skaro since the show was rebooted in 2005. With the level of artistry going into these episodes, it’s no wonder Doctor Who’s popularity has grown immeasurably in recent years. I can’t remember being this fixated since David Tennant’s era, and look forward to the creative minds behind it shaking things up in the coming weeks.