The cold open is eerily effective, the puntastic hand mines as creepy as anything Moffat has produced across his writing and showrunning work. The idea of a world shrouded in the fog of war, with little to no chance of survival, immediately gives the episode a murky morality, one which is further compounded by the Doctor arriving to save the boy. Although I was aware Davros would be in this series, I'd missed any reference to him in this episode and remained largely spoiler free (a somewhat momentous achievement in this day and age). The boy telling the Doctor his name during the rescue was a great shock, giving way to the lesser one of the TARDIS leaving, one of those heart-in-your-mouth moments that seemed to ring out throughout the opening credits.
This kind of opportunity to change time, supposedly for the better, is something that has cropped up before throughout New Who, particularly back in the haunting Fires of Pompeii episode (coincidentally, the one that Capaldi guest-starred in). There, we learn that Vesuvius' eruption is a fixed point in time. It cannot be changed, no matter how hard Donna attempts to convince the Doctor otherwise. As mentioned in The Magician's Apprentice itself, it's been previous concern of the Doctor about whether it is morally right to stop a child before he goes on to become a heinous adult. It was used for comic effect in Moffat's earlier season opener, Let's Kill Hitler, but nothing is more deadly serious here.
The episode lends great weight to the Doctor's decision to leave the boy Davros without hammering it home; Colony Sarff (great name) searching for the Doctor across the galaxy and amongst his known associates offered a neat touch. Not only does it allow us to check in with some faces we've not seen for a while, it also works to build the tension for the episode. It also helps that Colony Sarff is as creepy as anything. I'm with Indy: why did it have to be snakes? Missy's introduction, comical as it is, doesn't really shatter that tension either. Michelle Gomez treads a fine line between sinister and outlandish all the way through the episode, but it never crosses into pantomime. And past history dictates that the Master wanting to help out the Doctor is a pretty big deal.
When the Doctor finally gets his entrance (and what an entrance - Rock Star Capaldi needs to be a thing more often), Capaldi gets to shine because this is his episode. We've all seen the Doctor make the tough decisions and (not) destroying Gallifrey still stands at the heart of that; Davros becomes a representation of all of those tough decisions. Everything could have changed if that little boy had been lost to the hand mine. Instead, the Doctor is left with the responsibility that his inaction has led to everything that Davros became; the destruction of everything the Doctor holds dear. The end of the episode, the apparent destruction of Missy, Clara and the TARDIS, hammers that point home. Is this, like so many things he holds himself accountable for, the Doctor's fault?
And with that, we're back on the turrbulent road that is Doctor Who. After the last series possibly restored the faith of some and further alienated others, The Magician's Apprentice is going to do pretty much the exact same thing. It's dense, emotional and entirely character driven and for that, I loved it.
As ever, we will be reviewing alternate episodes across the series so Jen will be with you next week for the wonderfully named The Witch's Familiar (I am loving the episode titles for this series).
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