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Doctor Who Series 9 recap: The Magician's Apprentice

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Fear makes companions of us all.

After nine long months, the Doctor is back on our television screens for more adventures across time and space inside his magical blue box, the TARDIS. As always, we can expect a healthy dose of paradoxical events — meaning the order in which this story takes place which will not always be chronologically correct. Time travel can be pretty confusing, but there’s a lot to unpack here at the start of the season, which traditionally has consequences for subsequent stories. So watch along in the player above, and then join us in the comments below to discuss your thoughts.

If you get confused at any point, that's ok too. We'll talk it out.

THE DOCTOR’S APPRENTICE

A war rages on an unidentified battlefield as soldiers run from attacking aircraft, using primitive weaponry to defend themselves against laser equipped bi-planes. Among this chaos is a young boy, running in the opposite direction — a survivor of war. A long-running war, based upon the mix of primitive and advanced technology being used in the conflict.

As the boy runs for safety, one of the soldiers, Kanzo, gives chase in order to ostensibly protect him. It's not long however before they're both surrounded by Handmines, weaponised mutants that tunnel beneath the earth and pull their victims below to their deaths. As Kanzo is pulled beneath the ground the boy begins to cry out for help across the eerie silence of the battlefield.

A sonic screwdriver flies through the air, and lands at the boy's feet. It's the Doctor's, and he's come to save the day once again. Just as he always does.

While attempting to convince the boy to trust him, the Doctor offers him a choice. To decide that he's going to survive is just a choice — one in a thousand, he estimates, and implores him to ignore the thousand and focus on the one. Aware of the fear the boy faces, the Doctor tells the child to have faith in the future and asks for his name.

This is the Thousand Year War, and the planet Skaro, home planet of the Dalek race.

The boy’s name is Davros, creator of the Daleks.

GENESIS OF THE DALEKS

As a series opener, beginning with such an explosive, tense moment isn’t new territory for Doctor Who. In the sixth series, a future version of the Eleventh Doctor found himself facing down the barrel of a gun, resigned to his fate at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut. It was a shocking moment, and one which was resolved in the usual "wibbly-wobbly timey wimey" way that showrunner Steven Moffat often falls back to after writing himself into a corner.

It makes a change then, that, perhaps for the first time in the history of the show, we see the Doctor dangle a thread of hope to a young, then-innocent boy inside an impossible situation, before unexpectedly taking that same hope away. It’s almost cruel, in fact, and gives you pause to think whether the apprentice referenced in the title of the story is actually a veiled reference to the man whom Davros will become.

The Doctor is the magician with his wonderful, magical box that’s bigger on the inside who can do almost anything. Davros is his apprentice, learning how to survive on his own thanks to the apparently cruel nature of a man who abandoned him on the battlefield as a child.

The Doctor doesn’t often abandon people though. Sure, he’s left some of his former companions in the wrong time and place after a regeneration, but he prides himself on saving people and entire worlds in seemingly no-win scenarios. When you consider that he lands the TARDIS in response to the young Davros’s cry for help you have to wonder whether he felt he was doing the universe a favor by leaving the once and future Dark Lord of Skaro to die before he could create the Daleks.

"Compassion is wrong"

The molding of a person to be a force for good or evil through the events of their childhood appears to be a callback to last year's standout story "Listen," a clear parallel to the Doctor’s childhood where Clara helps forge the man the Doctor will become in an old barn on Gallifrey. You can even look back to the 2009 special "The End of Time" where The Master's madness was seen to have been influenced in a large way by his own people, the Time Lords. All of the key supporting players in this drama, all the way back to Amy Pond, River Song and even Clara's dead boyfriend Danny Pink were forged by the same circumstance.

They all met the Doctor as children, for good and for bad, falling in the spaces between the spectrum of Davros and the Time Lord.

The Doctor and Davros have a long, complicated history with one another and this is just another turn in that unusual relationship. Davros imploring his rival to admit that "compassion...is...wrong" seems like an unusual end goal for the master of the Daleks, so it'll be interesting then to see where this all leads. Taking the ending of this episode into account, perhaps we'll see Davros trying to get the Doctor to change history for the better by saving his life as a child, or by even ending his life.

Wouldn't that be a twist?

WHERE IS THE DOCTOR?

At the interplanetary space outpost the Maldovarium, a cloaked figure effortlessly glides through the corridors asking the whereabouts of the Time Lord. Unable to get the information they crave, Colony Sarff turns to the Shadow Proclamation and finally the Sisterhood of Karn for the information it seeks. It turns out that this cloaked figure is actually a living collective of snakes, a democracy voiced by a larger, individual serpent. It's also a servant of Davros, and after being unsuccessful in its attempts it turns to the Doctor's friends to lead the way from the shadows.

While planet Earth was caught in the midst of an apparent alien attack, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce (U.N.I.T.) also attempts to reach the Time Lord, except this time it's for assistance. Unable to get a response from the Doctor they call in his friend and companion Clara Oswald to assist, however they're surprised to find that Missy — the Time-Lady formerly known as The Master — has survived her apparent death at the hands of a converted Cyberman in last year's series finale, "Death in Heaven".

I mean, given her history of cheating death, did you really think Missy would be dead forever? It turns out that the frozen planes in the sky were simply Missy trying to get the attention of the Doctor, and failing that, Clara. The last time they met Missy was during the finale, where it was implied that she was responsible for turning Clara's dead boyfriend, Danny Pink, into a Cyberman. The glare that Clara gives Missy knowingly tells us that she hasn't forgiven her for past actions, and the knife is twisted even further when she's asked if "the boyfriend" is still dead. Missy isn't on the good-aligned, or even chaotic-neutral scale. She's evil, and that's never going to change.

Both of them track the Doctor down through a careful analysis of where he might choose to spend his light night before he died. The Doctor — being the aloof, strange alien that he is — ends up in England in 1138 where he decides to spend three weeks having a party before he's found by Colony Sarff and taken to meet his nemesis.

Let's be clear, Michelle Gomez is probably the most exciting part of this episode, giving a performance that just kills. Not only are we still in love with the now-canon fact that Time Lords can change their gender during the regeneration process, but that they can become incredibly richer characters when they're able to leave old character beats (and terrible goatees) in the past. The Master was an interesting character, nobody is denying that, but when you have an actor of Gomez's stature chewing the scenery it becomes a delight to enjoy. Perhaps one day we'll see a Time-Lady Doctor face off against Missy, a possibility which was alluded to in the episode when she teased "I remember [the Doctor] as a little girl."

It might have been a lie, but given that Clara didn't choose to challenge it, it was a good move for Moffatt. He might have gotten it so very wrong in the past with his representation of women in Doctor Who, but the more recent attempts to turn both Clara and Missy into strong characters is to be applauded.

To a point, that is. Both Clara and Missy appear to be dead at the hand of the Daleks by the end of the story to set up a problem for the Doctor to resolve, and that's a stark reminder that the lives of women — even mad Time-Ladies — in the Doctor Who universe are still just plot devices, even if things are improving somewhat.

Ultimately this series of Doctor Who looks to be about personal choices. The Doctor has the choice to be a good man, or to be a monster and take the life of a child to save those of his friends in the future. Whatever happens on that front, it's going to be an interesting character study on how to justify the choice to seemingly kill a child to save trillions — and your friends — over the next 13 weeks.

NEXT TIME

  • The Doctor is back to wearing his older style of outfit from the last series it seems. Or is this maybe an earlier version of the Doctor? Are we doing that story beat from Series 6 again?

  • "Imagine - to hold in your hand the heartbeat of every Dalek" - Davros is alluding to the fact that the Doctor had the chance to erase the possibility of Daleks ever existing, yet failed to act on that impulse. The teaser implies we're going to see him try and remedy that with a Dalek weapon.

  • "Genocide in a moment" - Presumably this would be a side effect of killing Davros, resulting in wiping out the entire Dalek race. The Doctor has had this chance before many times, and chosen not to do so. What makes this time any different?

  • "All praise Davros!" The Daleks are praising the one they despise and keep locked away - but why?

I guess we'll find out where this is going in five days.