Peter Capaldi’s first series as the Doctor was a return to the ‘spooky stories about a spooky man’ template of the classic series and a shift away from the show’s increasing tendency to be primarily about itself. However, the new season’s opener, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, seemed at first to be a move back towards that self-reverence with a character who looked like a cross between a reptile and a Rubik’s cube gliding creepily through established settings like the Shadow Proclamation and, most strikingly, Skaro where an innocent boy introduces himself to the Doctor as Davros.
Capaldi brilliantly embodies all the previous Doctors (Hartnell’s ferocious, occasionally malevolent authoritarianism, Troughton’s loveable scattiness, Pertwee’s elegance, Tom Baker’s weird intensity and so on); Jenna Coleman as Clara has the girlishness of the early assistants, Donna’s irony and Amy Pond’s no-nonsense strength while Michelle Gomez’s Missy is a mix of the more demented of the Master’s incarnations with the Rani’s genius and enjoyment of her feline sensuality. Even the Daleks when we meet them display every model from the very first blue-noduled ones via the one who looks most overtly like a tank to the scarlet Supreme Dalek himself (“You’re my favourite” Missy purrs to him at one point). The show did look a little bit like business as usual; the trailer even has the Doctor saying “Same old, same old”. Uh oh.
Then came part two. If there was any doubt that Steven Moffat is one of the great myth-makers of our time, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ exterminated it. Playing with the history of ‘Doctor Who’, particularly the classic ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, the story sweeps us through big themes of morality, power and responsibility with a lightness that only an established character with dozens of well-known stories behind him can achieve. What in lesser hands could have seemed irritatingly post-modern instead becomes genuinely resonant as the Mekon-like Davros, who has been killed more often than any other character in the show, reaches the end of his life naturally for once and appears to seek some kind of reconciliation. ‘Was I a good man?’ he asks; a surprising question given his barely human appearance. I always thought Davros had been born a mutant but he appears to have been made. Who’s fault was that? Guess…
Humour in this story feels like a correlative for humanity. Missy gets a lot of the best lines, to the extent that even though she is clearly and unapologetically a psychopath we still root for her. In a more subtle gag, Clara hides in a Dalek the way she did when we first met her in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ when Matt Smith was the Doctor; the irony taking a darker turn when we learn that the word ‘love’ translates to ‘exterminate’ when you’re in that metal casing. But it is the scene where Davros calls the Doctor a very bad doctor that really makes us think that Ol’ Blue Eye has finally realised the error of his ways, despite having offered the Doctor a means of exterminating the Daleks just a couple of scenes earlier. The two old enemies laugh together and us with them; hoping that despite the horror there is a possibility of redemption. There is, but this being the Doctor and Davros as imagined by Moffat, it is not the one we expect.
That unpredictability is what I hope will characterise this season. “There is no Doctor,” says the Time Lord near the end, “just a man in a box.” He reinvents himself even as he is reinvented. How’s that for pure SF meta-story? Even though we know these characters well, even though they have all regenerated in one way or another, the creative team and actors in particular have forged something entirely new from well-known and much loved source material.
What a great opener after all, and how bold to have let us wonder. I will always look forward to ‘Doctor Who’, despite the trauma it caused in my very early youth. Perhaps my initial resistance was down to knowing how that boy felt in the strange muddy field surrounded by hands that had eyes embedded in their palms. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there.
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