I have not always been kind about recent seasons of Doctor Who.
I have found the series, under show-runner Stephen Moffat, has sometimes been too taken up with the importance of its own story arcs and too clever for its own good. And I have complained (in this post for Amazing Stories) that the Doctor’s companions have occasionally seemed poised to take over the series.
So it is a pleasure to report that I thought the first story of the new series was the best Doctor Who I have seen in a long time.
Series nine (or series 35, if you started counting in 1963) began with a two-parter in which Moffat judged almost everything right.
It’s impossible to discuss the story without disclosing some spoilers. So if you haven’t seen it, you’d be well-advised to stop reading here. And please do come back when you’ve caught up.
I thought the first episode, The Magician’s Apprentice, was onto something special from the opening scene, in which a boy is seen standing in a desolate, muddy field, surrounded by a something deadly: “hand mines”. These are revealed to be hands protruding from the earth, which will grab and destroy anyone who gets within their reach.
Just as I was imagining the nightmares this scene might inspire in younger viewers, and wondering how the Doctor was going to rescue the boy, Moffat delivered a twist. He revealed the boy’s name. Davros.
Yes, this was to be a Dalek story. And whereas the Daleks’ appearances on the show are usually heavily promoted in advance, this one had been successfully kept under wraps, making that pre-credits moment all the more chilling.
Davros then disappeared from the story for quite a while as we were reintroduced to Clara and Missy (aka The Master) as they forged an uneasy alliance to find the Doctor at the behest of the secret service UNIT. The Doctor himself had, it turned out, been away partying like a rock star for some time and seemed to be anticipating his own death when a mysterious humanoid made out of snakes came to summon him to meet Davros.
It turned out that the Dalek planet of Skaro had been rebuilt, and that Davros was close to death and keen to see the Doctor once more.
One of my complaints about Moffat’s tenure on the show has been that his stories sometimes offer us a great premise, but then fail to deliver on it.
The Pandorica Opens, in 2010, had all the Doctor’s most feared enemies being drawn together to destroy him, but then failed to deliver on the potential of that idea. Asylum of the Daleks in 2012 promised us a planet full of Daleks so deranged that even other Daleks decided they should be banished; but that great idea, too, somehow got lost in an over-complicated plot.
In The Magician’s Apprentice and its concluding episode, The Witch’s Familiar, however, Moffat delivered what he promised. This was an episode with plenty of Daleks, some deeply scary moments and, most excitingly, an extended meeting with Davros.
The Doctor’s exchanges with Davros, the Hitlerian creator of the Daleks, were among the most thrilling scenes in the 1975 classic Genesis of the Daleks, and Moffat honoured the spirit of the classic show here. In his dying hours, Davros was keen to be reunited with the only foe whose intellect he apparently thought comparable with his own. And in an age when scene changes on TV usually have to be frequent and frenetic, Moffat and director Hettie MacDonald were bold enough to let these confrontations run, much as they did in the 1970s, and to allow the dialogue and the acting convey the drama. Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach as the protagonists duly delivered.
The episodes had plenty of Moffat cleverness, but it was there to enrich the story and give the viewer something to mull over later; it was never allowed to overwhelm the emotional drama and the sheer scariness.
A brief clip of Tom Baker’s Doctor served to remind us that for all its 21st century production values, this was a story whose heart was in the show’s classic era. Indeed, its central moral dilemma (would it be right to allow the child Davros to die?) was straight out of Genesis of the Daleks itself.
If the series manages to carry on in this vein, the best of Who may lie in the near future.