Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar (2015) Review

Doctor Who The Magician's Apprentice Ax Fight

For its ninth season, Doctor Who once again decides to shake up its usual formula. In Series 7, the show produced a whole season of standalone episodes that were meant to be forty-five minute blockbusters. And for Series 9, the show produced a whole season of two-part stories as a throwback to the classic series, which was comprised entirely of multi-part serials. 2015 was another anniversary year for the franchise – the revived series had been on the air for ten years at that point – so Series 9 is filmed to the brim with continuity nods for long-time fans to catch. In the first ten minutes of “The Magician’s Apprentice” alone, we get quick trips to the Maldovarium (from Series 5 and 6), the Shadow Proclamation (from Series 4), and the planet Karn (from the Series 7 specials).

“The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar” is the annual Dalek episode that’s traditional in most seasons of Doctor Who (positioned once again at the beginning of the year, like “Victory Of The Daleks“, “Asylum Of The Daleks” and “Into The Dalek“), and it’s noteworthy for being the last proper Dalek story of the Moffat era. They’ll still make a few cameos after this, in episodes like “The Pilot” and “Twice Upon A Time”, but this is their last major appearance during the Steven Moffat years, and it’s probably the best one of the bunch. It’s also the most ambitious season premiere we’ve had since “The Impossible Astronaut / Day Of The Moon” in Series 6. Like “The Impossible Astronaut”, “The Magician’s Apprentice” has a well-established cast and it doesn’t need to introduce any new characters, so it can just focus on sending our leads on a grand adventure to open the season and establish a new status quo.

“The Magician’s Apprentice” asks the question of whether or not it’s ethical to let a tyrant perish while they’re still young, before they can cause the deaths of millions – a topic that was previously explored in “A Good Man Goes To War / Let’s Kill Hitler“. In this case, “The Magician’s Apprentice” serves as a follow-up story to “Genesis Of The Daleks”, one of the most iconic serials from the classic series that revealed the origin story of the Daleks and their history with Davros, their mad creator. For the most part, this is a pretty entertaining two-parter, though I do have to say it has one of the most fangless cliffhangers in the entirety of NuWho. This cliffhanger lacks a good amount of bite, because it’s built entirely around things the audience knows would never happen – like the Daleks successfully killing off Clara, Missy and the TARDIS, or the Doctor seemingly trying to shoot Davros as a child (which would be way too out-of-character for him).

Doctor Who The Magician's Apprentice Battlefield Rescue

In “The Magician’s Apprentice”, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) meets a young Davros on a battlefield, a long long time ago, surrounded by certain death. And once he discovers who he is, he promptly swans off and leaves him there to die. He feels immensely guilty about it afterwards, because not only was that a pretty awful thing to do in general, it also goes against his personal credo. And as it turns out, getting mixed up in Davros’ personal timeline like that has consequences: since present day Davros remembers him and decides to seek him out so they can have a nice little chat. The Doctor knows it’s only a matter of time before Davros comes for him, and he knows he won’t put up much of a fight when he does, so he decides to throw himself a three week going-away party with a bunch of 12th century villagers.

We soon discover the Doctor has taken up playing the guitar now, because he’s a man who’s always full of surprises. Much like Matt Smith’s talent with a soccer ball, shredding a guitar is a skill that Peter Capaldi actually possesses which was later worked into his character. Twelve was already a philosopher from space, and now he’s a rocker grandpa too. He also decided to teach a bunch of medieval villagers how to say the word ‘dude’, and I’m not gonna lie, that’s one of the most cringe-worthy things that the Doctor has done in a while. When Davros’ servant, Colony Sarff, forces him to go with him to Skaro, the Doctor surrenders himself to his trap very easily, because he still feels ashamed of himself and he knows he needs to face up to the consequences of his actions. A part of him worries that his betrayal might have helped to shape the person Davros grew up to be, and played a part in all the evil he and the Daleks would go on to commit.

During his time as Davros’ prisoner, the mad scientist tries his best to break him and crush his spirit so he can tempt him to betray his core principles, and Twelve is tempted a few times, but he ultimately sticks to his guns and refuses to stray from his path in life. As the two men start to lower their defenses, Twelve starts to see a different side of Davros, now that he’s reaching the end of his life, and he starts to take pity on him. He feels a need to help him fulfil his dying wish, even if he is his arch-enemy, and his kindness proves to be his undoing. Except that’s not actually what happens. The Doctor is many things, but he’s not a fool: in fact, he’s a master manipulator, just like Davros is. He saw his obvious betrayal coming from a mile away, and he let it play out so Davros could reap the rewards of his scheming – which is always delicious to see.

Afterwards, the Doctor decides to go back in time and save the younger Davros. He shows a little kindness and mercy to someone would grow up to be one of the worst men in history, and Davros unwittingly passes along the concept to the Daleks many many years later, which eventually saves Clara’s life in a stable time loop. The Doctor worried he might have played a part in making Davros a monster, but he actually had a positive impact on him, even if it was only a tiny, miniscule one. Additionally, the Doctor and Clara also start to show signs of growing a bit too attached to each other in this episode. Clara at one point tries to guilt-trip him into returning to her, safe and unharmed, in a manner that seems a bit unhinged, while the Doctor threatens to go supernova on a bunch of Daleks when he thinks Clara might have died. These are small signs of something that will become a much bigger deal later this year, along with the Doctor’s confession dial and a prophecy about a certain hybrid that Davros brings up.

Doctor Who The Magician's Apprentice UNIT Headquarters 2

When a crisis arises on Earth, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is called in to work with UNIT in the Doctor’s absence, giving Kate Stewart and her men some helpful advice. By this point, Clara’s confidence as an adventurer has grown to the point where this kind of leadership role comes naturally to her, putting her razor-sharp deductive reasoning skills to good use. When they discover Missy is the cause of it all, Clara has to try to negotiate with her. As you’ll recall, the last time they met, Missy tortured Clara’s boyfriend by turning him into a Cyberman, which eventually led to his demise, and Clara in return tried to have her executed for revenge – so there’s a lot of bad blood between them. “Last Christmas” gave Clara some much-needed closure for Danny’s death, so her rage has died down by now, but she still doesn’t enjoy reaching out to Missy in the slightest.

As charming as she may seem, Missy is an unstable, murderous psychopath, so someone would have to have nerves of steel to try to work with her – and after several years of traveling in the TARDIS, Clara does indeed possess those nerves. She quickly finds they have a common interest: the Doctor is in some kind of grave danger and he needs the help of his friends right now, even if he might not want it, so they set out together to find him. Along the way, Clara learns a lot more about Missy’s history with the Doctor on Gallifrey and repeatedly tries to understand her, so they can find some more common ground in their tentative alliance. From Missy, she learns things about the Doctor that she never knew and she starts to see him in a different light as well, which reminds me a lot of Series 7B, when Clara was still fairly green as a companion and was always eager to learn more about her new friend’s background.

After her character development in Series 8, Clara continues to follow in the Doctor’s footsteps and is getting better at what she does – honing her skills as a leader and an escape artist. However, the lesson she receives from Missy plants an idea in her head that the Doctor always wins and he always manages to survive, by being clever enough to find a way out of every tight spot that he finds himself in. That is really not true – the Doctor has lost many battles over the years, and sometimes he loses so badly that he basically dies and needs to regenerate – and Clara thinking that it is true really lands her in some hot water later in “Face The Raven”, when her luck finally runs out.

The title of this two-parter refers to Clara: how she’s usually the Doctor’s companion, but she’s riding with Missy today. In “The Witch’s Familiar”, Clara keeps trusting Missy and following her lead, and she keeps getting betrayed for her troubles. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if the Master had a sidekick, this episode makes it clear there would be a whole lot of bullying, abuse and betrayal as Missy enjoys finding new ways to push Clara around. Eventually, Missy convinces her to hide inside an empty Dalek shell (a sly little callback for the viewers to Jenna’s first episode, “Asylum Of The Daleks”) and then tries to trick the Doctor into shooting her. The confrontation that follows is extremely messed-up, and a very close shave, but if only one good thing came out of it, it’s that the Doctor and Clara’s bond is once again reaffirmed after two whole episodes of Missy looking down on it. Missy might call herself the Doctor’s best friend, but it’s pretty clear by the end of this two-parter that Clara is his true friend.

Doctor Who The Magician's Apprentice Negotiation 2

At the end of “Death In Heaven“, Missy (Michelle Gomez) supposedly died when the Brigadier shot her. Of course, nobody in the audience believed it for a second. The Master is a notorious escape artist who has cheated death many, many times before in this franchise (a bit like the Joker, someone who the Master’s characterization takes a lot of inspiration from in NuWho). We all knew she’d be back again next season, and sure enough, she was only gone for two episodes. Having received word from the Doctor that he’s nearing the end of his life, Missy gets Clara and UNIT’s attention, because she needs their help to find the Doctor. Heroes and villains being forced to team up to work towards a common goal is one of my favorite tropes, so I’m completely onboard with this turn of events, and as you would imagine, it proves to be a very, very uneasy alliance.

Missy is a very charismatic and fun-loving character, but she’s also completely mad and unrepentantly evil – which is made abundantly clear when she decides to start slaughtering some government agents, just to prove a point to Clara. She has all of the Doctor’s intelligence and none of his values: so if she needs to kill someone to achieve her goals, or toss one of her allies under the bus to save herself or gain an advantage over her foes, she’ll do it in an instant. She’s a notoriously two-faced character who’s really only loyal to herself and maybe the Doctor, on a very, very, very good day, so she’s an unpredictable wild card throughout this entire story. She plays every side at once and backstabs everyone (friend and foe alike) at some point, to try to get what she wants. Honestly, she would fit in incredibly well in a pirate movie, where everyone is out for themselves at all costs.

Missy likes to think of herself as being the Doctor’s oldest and truest friend, in spite of their differences and the fact that they’ve tried to bump each other off numerous times (what’s a little attempted murder between friends, after all?). The Doctor sending her his confession dial, as a rite of passage between two time lords who share a very close bond, only confirms that to her. By comparison, she looks down on his human friends as mere pets that he adopts from time to time to amuse himself, because that’s the way she’s always seen humanity. As a result, Missy has a very warped dynamic with Clara. In some aspects, she takes her under her wing and tries to pass along some wisdom to her, from one time traveler to another, and in other aspects, she really enjoys pushing Clara around and toying with her head, indulging her sadistic streak with her.

She goes on a killing spree in front of Clara, drops her down a twenty-foot hole without a care as to whether or not she would survive, uses her as live bait to catch a Dalek, tries to use her as a bargaining chip to control the Doctor, and eventually tries to have the Doctor shoot her in a fit of rage. As you’ll recall from her last appearance, Missy wants to drag the Doctor down to her level and convince him they’re the same at their core. It would seem she decided that tricking him into killing his favorite human pet would be a good way to break his spirit. Plus, the last time they met, Clara tried her best to have her executed, so Missy was more than happy to return the favor. Ultimately, the only thing her constant backstabbing succeeds in doing is turning everyone against her. Once she’s broken their alliance, she’s left behind on Skaro to fend for herself, so she’ll have try again to reconnect with the Doctor on another day.

Doctor Who The Witch's Familiar Questioning 3

I really appreciate the fact that, unlike his children, Davros (Julian Bleach) is a villain who’s used sparingly in this series. He’s only turned up twice in the revived series so far (with his previous antagonistic role being in “The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End“), which makes both of those appearances feel more special. Davros was born in wartime on his home world. His childhood was a living hell and survival was his first and only priority during the formative years of his life. He eventually took that mentality with him into adulthood, and it (along with his arrogance and his lust for power) led him to create the Daleks – his super soldiers, his children, and his masterpiece – to try to help his race achieve total supremacy over the rest of the universe.

The way the Daleks treat Davros can vary a lot from story to story. In some episodes, they respect him as their creator, and in other ones, they look down on him as a decrepit relic of their past and would kill him in an instant once he was no longer of any use to him. But even when they resented him, Davros always felt proud of his children. In “The Magician’s Apprentice”, the Daleks remain loyal to him. They help him try to survive his illness, and in return, he helps them try to grow stronger – they scratch his back and he scratches theirs. Davros is currently dying of old age, and he decides he would like to have a word with the Doctor, once he realizes he’s encountered the time lord’s newest face before, a long long time ago in his past. He sends his serpent servant Colony Sarff to find the Doctor, and when his disciple fails to bring back any results, the two of them decide to follow the Doctor’s friends straight to him.

Once the Doctor is imprisoned on Skaro, Davros tries to kill his friends and emotionally break him, so he can prove to him that his principles are wrong – as always, a war of clashing ideologies lies at the heart of their feud, with Davros’ pride on the line. He tries to tempt him to betray his morals, in a multitude of ways, and fails every time. Eventually, the two men seem to decide upon a ceasefire. They’ve been enemies all their lives, but for once, they decide to pay their respects to each other. Part of the reason why Davros wants to prove the Doctor’s life choices wrong so badly is because he’s starting to have doubts himself about whether or not his worldview that he’s stubbornly clung to for centuries is correct, or if he’s wasted his life like a fool. It would seem that old age is finally starting to give him a bit of clarity and self-awareness.

Of course, his self-doubt is a complete and total charade. He’s trying to take advantage of the Doctor’s kindness and compassion by playing up the dying old man routine to tug on his heartstrings. In reality, he’s trying to steal the Doctor’s regeneration energy so he can unlock the secrets of the time lords and make himself and his children even stronger – but the Doctor outsmarts him. You see, the Daleks are so callous and so heartless that they leave their own kind to rot, fully conscious, underneath Skaro when they’re too old to be of any use anymore – and their lack of empathy comes back to bite them in the backsides when Davros unwittingly makes all the dying Daleks strong enough to take their revenge. “The Witch’s Familiar” is filled with characters trying to analyze the Doctor, because they think they’ve got a good read on him, but in truth, none of them understand the time lord as well as they think they do – not Clara, not Missy, and especially not Davros.

Doctor Who The Witch's Familiar Hijacking 4

“The Magician’s Apprentice” is directed by Hettie MacDonald, who previously worked on “Blink” in Series 3. “Blink” was one of the more visually distinctive episodes of that season, despite also being one of the more low budget productions of that year: a testament to how Hettie could make a lot with a little. In “The Magician’s Apprentice”, she’s given a lot more resources to work with, and the end results are quite beautiful. She gives us a lot of truly engrossing establishing shots throughout these two episodes – like the opening scenes of the thousand year war, Clara and Missy stepping out onto an invisible planet in space, or thousands of Daleks flying around their metal city, like an angry swarm of bees. Location shooting for the desert surface of Skaro was done in the Canary Islands in Spain, a region of the world that Doctor Who had previously filmed in last season, in “Kill The Moon“.

Like Series 7, Series 9 has some consistently high production values when it comes to the show’s set design, so the scenes set inside the Daleks’ capital city are quite visually appealing while also being appropriately minimalistic. As you would expect from a season premiere, Murray Gold’s score is very big and grandiose this week, to set the tone for Series 9. He puts the brass instruments in his orchestra to good use with some truly beautiful, triumphant renditions of “A Good Man” in pieces like “The One In A Thousand“, “A Message From Missy” and “Finding The Doctor“, while other tracks like “Davros Remembers“, “Meeting In The Square“, “What Have You Done” and “Davros Approaches” lean more on tense strings and ominous vocals. He also brings back “The Dark Endless Dalek Night” from the Series 4 finale, one of his most iconic Dalek themes, as well as music from the Series 7 premiere like “They Are Everywhere” and “The Terrible Truth“.

With “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar”, Series 9 gets off to a promising start by making it clear the show will be doing a lot of different things with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor this year (now that he’s grown from his character arc last season), while also planting a few Chekov’s guns that will be quite important down the line.

Rating: 9/10.

Side-Notes:

Doctor Who The Magician's Apprentice Riding To Skaro 13

* “Your chances of survival are about one in a thousand. So here’s what you do. You forget the thousand, and you concentrate on the one!”

* Like the Headless Monks from “A Good Man Goes To War”, Colony Sarff is another Doctor Who villain who gives off some major Sith Lord vibes to me. I think it’s the robes.

* “Kate, we can’t just phone the Doctor and bleat, he’ll go Scottish”.

* “How come you’re still alive?” “Death is for other people, dear”.

* “You see that couple over there? You’re the puppy” Hot damn.

* “Oi, you, sweaty one, on your knees. Let’s have a goodbye selfie for your kids!”

* Steven Moffat always did enjoy writing dark humor, so it’s no surprise that a lot of Missy’s dialogue is right up his alley.

* “There he is. Do not go gentle into that good night” “You go, girl!

* “You want to know how dangerous I am? Davros sent you. You know how stupid you are? You came!”

* “No, wait, hang on a minute. Davros is your arch-enemy now? I’ll scratch his eye out”.

* “What are you doing now?” “Voting. We are a democracy”.

* “Davros made the Daleks, but who made Davros?”

* The comedic highlight of this episode is Missy’s incredibly tone-deaf singing on the way to Skaro, and the look on Clara’s face when she has to listen to it.

* “I approve of your new face, Doctor. So much more like mine” Oof, not even Davros is above making catty comments about the Doctor’s new wrinkles.

* “You flatter me” “A pity. I intended to accuse”.

* “This is the planet of the Daleks” “Correct!” And it was then that Clara and Missy both knew they were screwed.

* “Did the Doctor tell you that? Because you should never believe a man about a vehicle”.

* At one point, Missy tries to sell everyone out by offering up the TARDIS to the Daleks, so they can conquer the universe. It’s left ambiguous whether this was a genuine offer to save her own skin, or if she was just trying to goad the Daleks into shooting her so she could make her escape. Knowing Missy, it really could have been either one.

* “See how they play with her. See how they toy. They want her to run. They need her to run. Do you feel their need, Doctor? Their blood is screaming kill, kill, kill! Hunter and prey, held in the ecstasy of crisis. Is this not life at its purest?”

* “So the androids think he’s dead and the Doctor escapes” “No, he’s the Doctor. He fell into a nest of vampire monkeys. But that’s another story!”

* “Why does the Doctor always survive?” “Because he’s clever” “Yes, but there’s lots of clever dead people. I love killing clever clogs, they make the best faces”.

* “He’s trapped at the heart of the Dalek empire. He’s a prisoner of the creatures who hate him most in the universe. Between us and him is everything the deadliest race in all of history can throw at us. We, on the other hand, have a pointy stick”.

* “Can I have a stick too?” “Make your own stick”.

* I feel like if you hate Clara, you would probably really enjoy this two-parter. Because she spends most of her screentime in this story getting bullied around by Missy, which eventually culminates in Missy trying to have her shot.

* “Admit it, you’ve all had this exact nightmare!”

* The Doctor riding around in Davros’ chair looks so cursed, in all the best ways.

* “Of course, the real question is, where did I get the cup of tea? Answer? I’m the Doctor. Just accept it”.

* “What are you doing?!” “Murdering a Dalek. I’m a Time Lady, it’s our golf”.

* I love the way the Doctor’s face drops as soon as he wakes up from his ‘nap’ and sees Davros. There’s so much scorn and disgust packed into a single expression from Peter Capaldi.

* “I hope you are grateful. It wasn’t easy to procure, and very nearly unique, of course. You should feel privileged. The only other chair on Skaro”.

* “I am dying, Doctor” “You keep saying that, and you keep not dying. Can you give it some welly?”

* “Genocide in a moment. Such slaughter, not in self-defense. Not as a simple act of war. Genocide as a choice. Are you ready, Doctor? So many backs with a single knife. Are you ready to be a god?”

* During his talk with Davros, the Doctor states that he’s fine with his compassion getting him killed someday, because he wouldn’t die of anything else. Having seen “The Doctor Falls” from Series 10, I can safely say that Twelve got his wish.

* “Is it still the same old Supreme Dalek these days? I fought him once on the slopes of the Never Vault. Tell him the bitch is back”.

* This episode is apparently the first time Davros and the Master have met each other onscreen, and Missy quickly makes good on her promise to stab him in the eye.

* “Clara’s dead, Doctor. This is the one that killed her” Top ten anime betrayals.

* “Oh, yeah, I’m over screwdrivers. They spoil the lining of your jacket. These days, I’m all about wearable technology” Twelve looks so, so proud of those glasses.

* “What is happening?” “Oh, same old, same old. Just the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS!”

* After all that backstabbing that Missy did in this episode, it’s so very satisfying to see that the Doctor and Clara left her on Skaro to die.

* “I’m not sure that any of that matters. Friends, enemies. So long as there’s mercy. Always mercy”.

Further Reading:

Doctor Who The Witch's Familiar Questioning 12

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3 Responses to Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar (2015) Review

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who: Under The Lake / Before The Flood (2015) Review | The Cool Kat's Reviews

  2. Pingback: Doctor Who: Time Heist (2014) Review | The Cool Kat's Reviews

  3. Pingback: Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion (2015) Review | The Cool Kat's Reviews

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