WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Doctor Who tries to replicate 2011’s success with a blockbuster two-part opener, but while the first part builds up the confrontation between the Doctor and Davros nicely, does the second part deliver? …Ehh.
A couple of problems with the episode are evident in the pre-titles teaser. Immediately we’re re-introduced to the very-much-alive duo of Clara and Missy, which I grant is better than dragging it out any further considering how obvious a reveal it is (couldn’t they have put that in last episode? Apparently-killing-off regular characters is becoming boring). Then Missy goes into a rambling anecdote of an unseen adventure, treating us to glimpses of actors in past Doctors’ clothing (a mechanic that’s quickly lost its novelty, joining re-used clip footage and the mention of ‘bow ties and long scarves’) and a near-existentialist discussion of how the Doctor acts under pressure, rounded off by a clumsy attempt at humour by the usually very funny Moffat. Other than that obvious reveal that Clara and Missy survived it feels immensely skippable, and perhaps shows that the decision to make a series exclusively out of multi-part episodes is logistical rather than a decision based in storytelling. The dramatic reveal of Skaro last week felt pretty strange seeing as it was re-introduced fairly clearly in Asylum of the Daleks. And as much as I liked a lot of The Magician’s Apprentice, the sightseeing tour of familiar locations and building up the Doctor’s ‘final day’ (something else appropriated from the 2011 series) isn’t really necessary for this episode. In retrospect it was just treading water until the Daleks arrived.
The story seems to hinge on the scenes between Capaldi and the returning Julian Bleach as Davros. Luckily they’re both on top form. Historically Davros is one of the few characters in Who lore that the Doctor treats as an equal, certainly intellectually. Here, the two even share a couple of genuinely warm moments. So it’s spoiled a bit when it turns out that it was all manipulation by Davros. Rather than the feeling of outrage and betrayal after having let our guard down that Moffat probably intended, the reaction is more a brief sigh of “well of course”. It all feels like a wasted opportunity to do something new with the character after some convincing build up, especially after the implication that it was the Doctor himself who imbedded the obsessive drive to survive in Davros as a child. And not least because the plan that this was all engineered for is a bit rubbish – basically the Daleks become ‘more dangerous than ever before’ (again) without actually demonstrating any new strengths.
The highlights of the episode include a demonstration of Dalek linguistics and the sight of the Doctor whizzing about in Davros’ chair, but they feel like disparate elements that deserved a better story to be in. The reveal that the Doctor pointing a gun at child Davros was just a moment taken out of context was a real disappointment. As, for that matter, was the lack of justification for the appearance of Classic Daleks which seemed (and was confirmed in interviews as) just an apology for keeping them all in shadows in Asylum. At least Missy was so entertaining you don’t realise she doesn’t add much to proceedings that Clara couldn’t in a single-part episode. Oh, and they couldn’t even find a few seconds in a 90 minute total runtime to mention this is the second time a version of her has been encased in a Dalek, which is a pretty major event to be repeated. However there are interesting plot threads promising to unravel themselves across the series, specifically the Doctor’s confession and the reason he left Gallifrey. And that Time Lord prophecy Davros mentioned has to reappear at some stage, else its pointlessness cannot be put into words.
All in all the story feels like a collection of popular elements without much substance behind them, and nothing much achieved by the end other than to introduce something for the series arc. I hope the upcoming multi-part stories are more suited to the format.