This week on Doctor Who …
Imagine an opening to a television program about time-travel for which you have been waiting. There have been hints as to what to expect but, given the nature of Doctor Who, it never starts the way you think it will. “The Prologue” actually wasn’t part of this episode, but its own minisode leading to “The Magician’s Apprentice.”
There is a plane up ahead that wouldn’t be out of place in World War I. There is also a man with a bow and arrow. You wonder if this is going to start on some other world or time: with Vikings on spaceships or something to that effect. Well, you got the first two parts right. It does take place in another space and time. Then you see a child. At first you think it might be Maisie Williams showing us her new role. But it isn’t Maisie Williams. It is a boy: a young, dirty, terrified boy.
It is at this point, if you’ve been following the rumours about the opening two-part story arc of Season Nine, that you know. You just know who it is.
This child is surrounded by what seems to be Handmines: most likely genetically engineered creatures created to drag people underground to their deaths. You’d be forgiven if you mistook them for your typical Weeping Angel fare. You know: the ones that like to hide under snow or dirt and grab you: stealing away the moments of your life. But no: these Handmines seem to just plain outright kill you.
It’s a good thing that The Doctor came to rescue this poor, scared child from these monsters that just dragged the archer soldier to his death, right? Only …
Think about your Whoniverse lore. Think about a world where archaic weaponry exists side by side with generations of different technology. Think about a world that has been at war for a thousand years. It’d be easy to make the mistake of not recognizing this world after so long and seeing how it — and its denizens — were portrayed in the Fourth Doctor’s run. I mean, they are all supposed to be heartless, evil, Spencerian fascists right? Certainly not ones that would take the time to save a child.
The Doctor asks the child what world this is, and the child doesn’t understand. As far as he knows, this is the only world in existence. The Kaled people, along with their enemies the Thals thought they were basically the centre of the universe before, millennia later, the First Doctor came and disabused their descendants of that notion.
But the code that unlocks the first level of this game is just one word. Just one name.
It’s hard to recognize him. He’s young. He still has his eyes, his arms, and his legs. There is no cunning or twistedness in him: just fear, and The Doctor’s imperative.
He must survive.
Of course, The Doctor realizes the implications of this and he stands there, in horror, trying to decide what he will do.
Now we go forward. Colony Sarff, a being made of multiple snakes, is searching for The Doctor on behalf of Davros. I mean, why wouldn’t he use Daleks or Dalek agents and this strange composite snake person instead might be beyond all of us, but there the dramatic effect to consider. As it turns out, Davros is dying. I mean, since the last time you saw Davros in “Journey’s End”:
But hey: when has death stopped Doctor Who villains in a mythological struggle with their nemesis anyway? But no. It seems legitimate. Davros has seen better days … ages and ages ago, but he does seem pretty physically ill. He knows the best way to find The Doctor is to get to his friends.
The Doctor has a funny notion of friendship. I mean, aside from Missy — who, blithely makes us aware of the obvious that she isn’t dead either (again, when do Doctor Who villains actually permanently die) — there’s also Clara and her priorities to consider. But one thing at a time.
All ships freeze above the Earth: threatening to fall on nuclear power plants. Is this Davros’ work? No. It’s too crude and almost insane. Actually it is insane and we all know who likes to be insane. UNIT contacts Clara because they can’t get to The Doctor. However, they do have a Doctor channel that he has forgotten about and … someone is contacting them through it.
Hmm … Someone has knowledge of UNIT having a Doctor channel. Who has dealt with UNIT before? Who knows the Gallifreyan calculations to access it? Who has been both an ally and captive of UNIT? Who is insane?
Honestly, here is the part in a Doctor Who episode when what I like to call the Shut Up Clara Mini-Game comes into play. I mean, here she is contacted by UNIT to find The Doctor but instead has to meet Missy. Usually, what I like to call the Shut Up Clara Mini-Game happens when Clara berates The Doctor for something petty, has a temper-tantrum, has no idea what’s going on, and generally makes the situation all about her. But strangely Clara is rather subdued in this scene with Missy: probably because Missy is threatening to kill people, is killing people, cost Danny Pink his life a second time, and she’s kind of flabbergasted as to why The Doctor would send that strange disk — that turns out to be his last will and testament — from “The Prologue” to Missy instead of her.
I’m not going to lie: having Missy compare Clara to a pet was pretty much the sickest burn rivaling the holocausts that she was threatening over the Earth. But together they figure out where The Doctor is: leading to a Vortex manipulator of Missy’s and the next scene.
And what an absolutely bad ass scene it is. The Doctor is in medieval times and facing a long-suffering warrior on an empty tank and with a guitar. No one in the battling arena of that time seems to actually care about that, as per a lack of a Temporal Prime Directive or a stereotypical “It’s a Demon!” response. And hey: it’s one of the few times we see Mr. Cantankerous actually having fun.
Of course the two women were being followed and Colony Sarff tracks them down. It’s funny. What do you think would truly disturb The Doctor? A threat from a monster made of snakes? Seeing Missy again? Knowing that Davros and the Daleks are probably coming for him?
No. What disturbs The Doctor is a sonic screwdriver: an ancient one handed to him by Colony Sarff.
It might have registered even before this what just happened between a young boy named Davros and a flabbergasted Twelfth Doctor. Of course, The Doctor wasn’t going to kill a poor defenseless child: even if one day he’d grow up to be an omnicidal psychopath. But he also knows that if he helped him survive the Handmines, he would go on to fulfill his future of horror and genocide. So what does The Doctor do?
He does what he does best. After initially telling Davros what amounts to the idea that he must survive at all costs, and then realizing who he is dealing with … The Doctor runs. The Doctor abandons a small, scared little boy — not unlike himself at that age if he had grown up in a Thousand Year War — to his own devices: with the screwdriver he threw to him to help communicate with him … before he knew he was talking to a boy who would become a monster.
“Hey Davros. Actually, there are worse things than death. See you later … or rather, I hope I won’t.”
Imagine what that does to someone who had already grown up in a multi-generational war. Imagine what seeing a soldier trying to reassure and rescue you being dragged down to his death would do to you. Imagine someone who promises to save you and then leaves you to die: telling you beforehand to survive at all costs.
Suddenly, all the books that dealt with Davros’ past are swept away: leaving us with his new dynamic with The Doctor. Davros made the Daleks and, as Davros likes to point out, The Doctor made his Companions. But now we see that The Doctor essentially made Davros as well.
Remember how the First Doctor was basically responsible for releasing the Daleks on the Universe by his insatiable curiosity: essentially causing them to come across the Time Lords and eventually start the Last Great Time War? Well now we really know that The Doctor screwed up. A lot.
The ending of “The Magician’s Apprentice” pulls even less punches than the beginning. It doesn’t fuck around. We do get one Shut Up Clara Mini-Game: where she berates him for lying to her about knowing Missy wasn’t dead — and considering her his best friend over her — but it’s kind of halfhearted and she does have something of a point, only offset by hoping to continue their conversation and therefore let The Doctor survive.
But Davros has no intention of killing The Doctor. No. It’s unclear why Davros forgot about having a sonic screwdriver or seeing a mysterious man disappear in front of him. Perhaps dying makes him remember things. If so, he should probably recall his whole existence as Davros has died. A lot. And he’s supposed to be a genius level scientist who created an entire advanced race and he can’t clone himself a new body?
Potential plot-holes aside, such as Missy having trouble dying and always having a crazy backup plan, let’s play that game I promised you at the beginning.
Imagine you are a child left to die thousands of years ago and grew up in war. You see how fallible everyone is who vows to protect you or help save you. You are crippled and twisted during this war. You begin to think that people would safer in tanks and without the illusions of weak emotions such as love or compassion. One day, you encounter your worst enemy and he defeats you time and again: until you remember he was the one that left you to die at the very beginning.
The replaying the time of when he was the Fourth Doctor on Skaro is delicious enough. So what do you do when you realize you are now, finally, dying?
You kidnap The Doctor’s friends. You get The Doctor to you. You make him watch as your Daleks kill the person who is jealous over you being his arch-nemesis, the Impossible Girl that he’ll now never be able to play Shut Up Clara with again and … worse … Your Daleks kill his oldest companion.
You destroy the TARDIS. You kill Sexy.
So, what do you do now? Do you kill The Doctor in his moment of despair? Do you kill him before you die? Oh no. No, see, that is too easy. Instead, you give him a choice. You offer to let him play a game. You are already dying. Your creations have already rendered you obsolete. You have taken everything from The Doctor now. You give him an offer.
You see, The Doctor always prides himself on his sense of compassion. You always saw that as his undoing. Now, you have made him see that. Or perhaps deep down you are punishing him for what you think is cowardice that day on Skaro. You offer him a way to change the fate of his friends. Your replayed conversation with him for all those years ago, from “Genesis of the Daleks” is no accident. You make sure he hears his words to Sarah Jane Smith from so long ago.
You already know he feels guilty for abandoning you to the Handmines and to time. What a better revenge than to make your old self-righteous nemesis betray and destroy his own ideals to kill a child in order to save those he loves. You’ve methodically taken away his best enemy, his Companion, and his TARDIS. He has already given up on his sonic screwdriver. Slowly and carefully, you are attempting to obliterate everything that The Doctor is: to prepare him for this last warped mission that is your revenge. The fact is, either way, you win. And either way, The Doctor loses.
You thought that your final victory was the destruction of reality itself. But, truthfully, it is the obliteration of your enemy’s own reality — his thoughts and beliefs — by his own hand that is a triumph greater than any monster you have ever created.
Like “Deep Breath” last season, “The Magician’s Apprentice” doesn’t pull any punches. We will just have to see if it can continue its own sense of momentum next time in “The Witch’s Familiar.”