On his way to a bookshop, The Doctor accidentally finds himself in the middle of an alien battlefield where a young boy’s life is in jeopardy. In a bid to help him, The Doctor encourages the boy to be brave and seize upon the chance to survive, but when he asks for the boy’s name the answer is terrible enough to make The Doctor abandon him…
You’ve got to wonder why the New Who team hadn’t thought of this before; starting a brand new series with a two-part story that feels like the epic finale as opposed to the beginning of a new run of stories? It’s so simple, so obvious and yet this is a genuine first for the show. And what a way to kick off a series!
Before the opening credits have even begun, we are thrown head first into a war that is being fought in very unconventional ways, introduced to the peril and creepy visual of “hand mines”, introduced to a child victim of this conflict and his potential saviour in the form of The Doctor, only to then be as horrified as our lead character to learn that this little kid is actually the creator of the Daleks, dark lord of Skaro, Davros. As openings go, it’s a belter.
After the credits, the first half of “The Magician’s Apprentice” is basically a hunt for The Doctor, both by his friends and his enemies. He’s busy running away from something that he knows he has to do, a fairly familiar theme in The Doctor’s life, and he’s intent on enjoying every minute of not doing what he’s supposed to. When Missy and Clara track him down to twelfth century Essex and he makes his grand entrance playing electric guitar on the back of a tank, it’s hilarious and exactly the kind of fun and antics I love to see in the show. Capaldi himself is on great form throughout the episode, showing off his range and leaping between silliness, rumination and desperation with ease.
Michelle Gomez is great as Missy. Her version of The Master is still high as a kite, batshit crazy but there’s a menace added to the mix that was seriously lacking in her last outing. Here she manages to really make you believe that she’s capable of anything and that you can’t trust her for a minute. Even in the final minutes of the episode, where The Doctor is pleading with Davros and Clara is about to seemingly be killed, Missy is still trying to switch sides to her own benefit. Of course, both she and Clara are exterminated (or are they?) and the TARDIS itself is destoryed, leaving The Doctor in the clutches of the creatures who hate him most in the galaxy. One hell of a cliffhanger, eh?!
And then…it all falls apart in “The Witch’s Familiar”.
You see, the problem with Steven Moffat as a writer is that he won’t tell a good story if he’s too busy explaining how and why things happen. And this only happens because he sets up so many ideas and scenarios that he must then later pay off that he can’t really ignore them. Less is more and that’s a lesson which Moffat still hasn’t learned based on this two-parter. Instead of throwing in as many ideas as he possibly can, why doesn’t he focus on one cool idea and explore it to its full potential? Because he’s already proven with past stories like “Blink” that he can deliver gold when he takes this very approach! It’s frustrating as a fan of both the show and the man’s writing that I have to find myself in a position where I can’t really defend the work; “The Witch’s Familiar” is a mess, with too many ideas thrown in that can’t then be explored fully and so are reduced to a checklist of plot points that need to be explained so they can all be ticked off before the end credits roll.
Kudos though to both Peter Capaldi and the returning Julian Bleach as Davros for delivering incredible performances throughout the two parts. Honestly, I would’ve settled for “The Witch’s Familiar” basically being just one long conversation between The Doctor and his old enemy, cutting out the whole Dalek Clara stuff entirely. True, the scenes where she and Missy are in the Dalek “sewers” do perfectly set up the twist for the end of the story but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, that twist doesn’t get used to its full potential anyway. So yes, the real meat and potatoes of this episode is the dialogue between Davros and The Doctor, where they reminisce and argue and insult one another, basically playing out their entire relationship in one conversation whilst still leaving enough room for some pathos and even a spot of humour.
Which leads me to my biggest problem with “The Witch’s Familiar”; the resolution. It’s not really a surprise that Davros was playing The Doctor all along in order to use him, but the drama of that is ruined by the all too convenient twist that The Doctor knew all along what was going on. How much more dramatically satisfying would it have been for The Doctor NOT to have known, for Davros to be foiled by his own arrogance instead? He’s given no thought to the mass of evil dwelling beneath his city and hasn’t even considered the possibility that his plan to use The Doctor’s regenerative energy to revive both himself and the Daleks will backfire and empower the lurking Dalek Goo, which will then turn against him and his creations. But no, we have to make The Doctor look awesome so of course he was in on it the whole time, leading to an incredibly boring wrap up to the story.
This, more than anything else about the story, represents a massively missed opportunity and pretty much undoes all of the great character moments between the two old enemies that make up the backbone of the second half of the story. This could’ve been classic but instead it stumbles at the finishing line as Moffat races to wrap up all of the ideas he’s introduced, to the detriment of the overall story.
Still, the line about where The Doctor got the cup of tea from was pretty funny.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” represents a fun and interesting build-up to an exciting cliffhanger. A shame then that “The Witch’s Familiar” represents constant explaining of plot points and little in the way of story and atmosphere. All the exceptional character work being performed by Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi is quickly undone with a last minute “I knew all along” twist and anything that might have gotten the audience invested is suddenly jettisoned in favour of an easy wrap-up. Enjoyable? Sure, but this is one two-parter that will always feel like a missed opportunity for me. Part one alone scores highly but part two drags the overall score down to a 6/10 when this could have easily been a 10. Disappointing.
Written and edited by Richey Hackett