This review contains spoilers. A LOT of spoilers. So, if you haven't seen the episodes yet, I strongly suggest you don't read any further! It also contains opinions. Mine. If you dislike dissenting opinions, again, this really isn't the place for you. Lastly, it contains swearing. If this bothers you, go and Google some pictures of kittens!
The Magician’s Apprentice opens on a battlefield. War has clearly been raging for centuries, and to hammer this point home, we are presented with soldiers armed with bows and arrows, and laser equipped biplanes (one assumes that The Wright Brothers made a pit stop on Skaro at some point). Amidst the chaos stands a lone child...
Meanwhile, on Earth, all the planes have mysteriously stopped, mid flight. Someone wants our attention. Someone is looking for The Doctor...
UNIT, (who will forever be United NATIONS Intelligence Taskforce, and not the insipid sounding "Unified Intelligence Taskforce) are present, although hopelessly underused. The notion that they would telephone Clara at work seems rather far-fetched, and, as a casual observation, their headquarters seems to be somewhat lacking in the central heating department!
It rapidly transpires that Missy is responsible for the sudden aeronautical anomaly, and she wastes no time in making her presence felt. The scenes with the aircraft seem rather unnecessary, and add little to the story. Surprisingly, at least for me, Missy is on fine form, willing to kill without compunction, and is, at times, reminiscent of the cold, calculating Master(s) of old. I have never been a huge fan of Missy, however, she is starting to grow on me.
Unfortunately, her Master-like qualities are frequently undermined by the over the top, pantomime characterisation. The "look at me, I'm bananas" shtick is wearing thin. This is no reflection on Michelle Gomez; John Simm's overly frenetic portrayal of The Master suffered from the same flaw.
Missy is not alone in her quest for The Doctor. The sinister Colony Sarff also seeks an audience with the titular Time Lord. Or, more specifically, his employer requires a last reckoning with The Doctor. As is quickly established, his employer is none other than Davros...
The concept of Colony Sarff is superb, and is, for the most part, well realised, although the CGI snake was less than spectacular. CGI, over the past few years, has been variable in quality, to say the least, and Sarff's transformation is arguably one of the weaker uses of the technology.
The Doctor's entrance, complete with guitar and, for no apparent reason, a tank, felt rather protracted and unnecessary. Missy comments that seeing the Doctor without a sonic screwdriver is "something new"; one can only assume she has forgotten her encounters with the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors. Similarly, Colony Sarff's search for the Doctor seems rather redundant, given Bors, played beautifully by Daniel Hoffmann-Gill, is a Dalek agent. Whether he has always been so, or whether he was converted by Sarff's snakes is unclear. If the answer is the former, then Sarff's quest for the Doctor is completely inexplicable; if the latter explanation is to be believed, one can only surmise that Daleks have found a way of training snakes in the subtle art of eyestalk installation! As a side note, I've never understood why Dalek agents have eyestalks. The audience is perfectly capable of understanding the concept of treachery, and since human Dalek agents have perfectly functional eyes, the eyestalk seems both silly and superfluous.
Back on Skaro, the Doctor encounters Davros, and this gives Julian Bleach the opportunity to reprise the role, and he does so beautifully. His portrayal of Davros is on a par with Michael Wisher and Terry Molloy, and seeing him face the Twelfth Doctor is a joy. The two bounce dialogue back and forth with a natural, believable conviction.
Equally, the revelation of Skaro's return works surprisingly well, although "the Daleks brought it back" is a rather lazy explanation for its sudden reappearance. Nevertheless, Skaro IS back, and it looks superb. Seemingly, Davros has managed to retain a pile of CCTV tapes, including conversations between the Fourth Doctor, and his companions, Sarah and Harry. Given the episode is clearly shaping up to be a companion piece to Genesis of the Daleks, it makes sense, but ultimately it is fanwank. It is also rather problematic that Davros has had the (a) sonic screwdriver in his possession for the best part of his life, and yet has only just remembered what it is. This is one of the problems with retconning classic stories.
The Magician’s Apprentice is flawed. Deeply flawed. It has laboured scenes which last far longer than are necessary, is full of self referential nonsense, with Moffat retconning his way into the "Classic" timeline yet again. And yet, despite this, the episode (for the most part) works surprisingly well. Tanks and guitars aside, Capaldi is absolutely mesmerising, and Bleach is utterly chilling as Davros.
The Witch’s Familiar opens with the wholly unsurprising revelation that Missy and Clara are still very much alive, and from here, unfortunately (at least for this viewer), it all goes downhill rather rapidly. With the exception of one scene the episode is, frankly, rather dull.
Davros, who "would not survive more than 30 seconds" without his life support system (briefly demonstrated by the Fourth Doctor, in Genesis), nor without his connection to the cables, which, through the Daleks, sustain his life, was unceremoniously plucked from his chair, and thrown to the floor, where he seemed to be surviving just fine, however this felt completely out of character, even for a darker, more sullen Doctor. That the Doc would take a disabled man, no matter how evil, and treat him with such a callous regard felt wrong on every level.
The Doctors appearance with a cup of tea in hand, falls completely flat; "I'm the Doctor, accept it" is the punchline to a bad, unexplained joke. While these moments are intended as humorous, some logic behind the gag should exist, and plucking a cup of tea out of nowhere, with no plausible explanation, adds nothing to the scene. Similarly, the notion that Daleks cannot die, and disappear off to a sewer, only to rear their heads when poked by insane Time Ladies armed with a twig seemed rather silly.
Of all the scenes throughout the two episodes, perhaps the least enjoyable, and most nonsensical, was Clara inside a Dalek. The idea that any attempt at expressing emotion triggers weaponry, particularly when it has already been established that the Daleks have had emotion removed, is perfectly ridiculous. It has been established, repeatedly, that Daleks are perfectly capable of using "positive words" such as "mercy" or "pity"; they simply have no concept of them. In true Moffat revisionist style, however, any attempt to utter words such as "mercy" are now automatically converted into energy for their weaponry. It is also evident from the episode that Daleks are able to use names; the Supreme Dalek refers to Clara, by name, several times, so quite why Clara the Dalek is unable to say her own name, without it being translated into "I am a Dalek", is baffling. At her most "Master-like", Missy's attempt to get the Doctor to kill Clara was, perhaps, one of the highlights of The Witch’s Familiar.
The finest scene, however, comes between the dying Davros, and the Twelfth Doctor. Capaldi and Bleach absolutely nailed it! The dialogue, whilst heavily poached, in places, from Genesis, works very well. I am less than enthusiastic about Davros having real eyes; rather than lending credence to the scene, it smacked off Moffat's revisionism of a classic character, "because he can". Personally, I thought Davros' deception, and the Doctor's anticipation of said deception, let the scene down badly. The concept of an almost repentant Davros was a fascinating avenue to explore, and I was almost sold on his deathbed epiphany.
The non-linear nature of Magician’s Apprentice/Witch’s Familiar certainly won't appeal to everyone. Spanned across two weeks, the format doesn't quite gel for me. Watching the feature length "omnibus" edition makes for a much more pleasurable experience. The denouement is a lazy grandfather paradox, with the Doctor instilling the concept of mercy into a juvenile Davros, to save his friend in the future. It also leaves no doubt that the Doctor had no intentions of killing the young Davros. Of course, we know he wouldn't, or indeed, couldn't, have done so, but the idea of his contemplating it would have been a dilemma worth exploring. As much as I enjoyed Joey Price's portrayal of a frightened, impressionable young Davros, I'm glad his scenes were brief. Davros' backstory has already been covered, extensively and capably, by Big Finish, in the stellar 'I, Davros' audio series. That Moffat chose not to encroach on this was a wise move, particularly given his predilection for revisiting key moments in the Doctor's timeline.
In summary, I rather enjoyed Magician’s Apprentice, despite its flaws. It was a solid start to the ninth series. Sadly, the same cannot be said for The Witch’s Familiar, which, in all honesty, I found rather boring. Overall, there was a distinct absence of a plot, and whilst it wasn't without its moments, after the strong start laid down by The Magician’s Apprentice, it felt tired, self indulgent, lazy and, frankly, rather dull.
The Doctor, UNIT, The Master (Missy), Davros AND Daleks should have all the makings of an epic story. As it stands, it was a story of distinctly mediocre proportions; the first half is certainly stronger than the latter, which, with the exception of the scenes between Twelve and Davros, was devoid of any meaningful plot. The Daleks, in reality, did very little, aside from a great deal of shouting and chanting, nor was there any explanation for the presence of Daleks from differing points in time (or, more specifically, older stories), and above all, c'mon! You have the Special Weapons Dalek.. The most kick-ass bastard imaginable. And what does it do? Bugger all, that's what! He, like the assorted Daleks, was there for one purpose, and one purpose only. More fanwank.
Whilst an assortment of New and Classic era Daleks was fanwank, it was enjoyable fanwank, although ultimately they added very little to the overall story. There were no proper scenes between Davros and his creations, and they killed no one. Quite simply, the Daleks seem to have lost all their menace. This isn't new to Series 9, and is something which has been getting progressively worse since Series 5. Whilst Stolen Earth/Journey's End are quite divisive episodes, I feel they were the last time the Daleks felt truly menacing.
The review wouldn't be complete, of course, without addressing one of the most divisive elements of the story. One thing, above all others, has nearly divided fandom right down the middle. It isn't Missy's use of the word "bitch", or her tickling a Dalek's balls. Nor is it Clara's apparent bisexuality (a crass, throwaway line, which seemed completely pointless, and frankly, rather demeaning). No, the most controversial element can be summed up in two words. Sonic sunglasses. And my reaction can be summed up in two more; the latter of which, is "off"!
I would give The Magician’s Apprentice a solid 8/10, while The Witch’s Familiar favours less well, with a less than satisfactory 5/10. Taken as a whole story, I think 6.5/10 is fair. There was a lot to like, but the lack of plot, unnecessary and often misplaced humour, and the constant need to rehash previous stories, even reusing, sometimes verbatim, pieces of dialogue from previous episodes left me feeling rather short-changed. Lastly, if anyone can tell me WHY the episodes are titled 'The Magician's Apprentice' and 'The Witch's Familiar', please let me know, as I'll be buggered if I can figure them out!