In which I fire up my troll-shield and prepare for abuse on the grounds of not thinking Doctor Who is the best thing since sliced Dalek
Ten years ago now, the writer Russell T Davies took Doctor Who and transformed it from an embarrassing childhood memory into our nation’s proudest broadcasting export. As a result, each new series since then has been hailed as a television event. Last year several eyebrows were raised when the new, twelfth doctor was announced as Peter Capaldi – a proper actor no less, and one knocking on 60, to boot. But with Capaldi now fully established in the role, for this year’s opener current supremo Steven Moffat chose the first episode of the new series to look backwards and re-introduce an old enemy: Davros.
Davros. A name that on its own sends shivers down the spine. To those of us without spellcheck it is a place in Switzerland where they hold the world economic forum and the secret rulers of the world control our lives. But to Doctor Who fans, Davros is the disembodied head on the bumper car who created and commands the Daleks. And in The Magician’s Apprentice, he was back.
We opened on the young Davros, many years ago, pre bumper car, just a boy in fear of his life in a battlefield full of handmines – hands with eyeballs in their palms that collectively looked like a Pink Floyd album cover. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) suddenly appeared, as he is wont to do. He knew who Davros was, and more importantly, what he would become, and so the ethical dilemma, plucked straight from the film The Terminator, was: should he save his life or let a boy die for the good of everyone?
This was left hanging over the episode, and it provided a sturdy narrative frame for some of the bunkum that followed. There are times when Doctor Who is a little like fusion jazz or nouvelle cuisine – as if the scriptwriter is having so much fun performing he almost forgets there’s an audience out there. The scene in which Capaldi appeared on a tank playing electric guitar in sunglasses to an audience of Vikings in 1148 was, I would gently suggest, a fusion jazz moment.
The moment was only really made acceptable thanks to the panache Capaldi gave to it. Rarely has a show been so dependent on the skills of a single actor – and Capaldi is a good one: able to bring just enough emotional depth to a comicbook caper to render it dramatic. His face, like a diagram for different types of glacial erosion, exudes just the right level of world-weariness to temper all the pep he’s given to speak.
As for the rest of the plot in this episode, events scaled up to staggeringly implausible heights, involving the Tardis being destroyed, the Doctor’s companion, Clara, being turned to toast and the end of the world coming extremely nigh.
Part of the great strength of Doctor Who is that owing to the quasi-mythical universe in which it exists, almost anything can happen. Unfortunately this is also a weakness: it means that even seemingly catastrophic events like Clara’s blasting, or indeed the end of life as we know it will probably turn out to be reversible after a little sonic screwdriving or spatio-temporal sleight of hand. The question is, can you really feel engaged with a drama that keeps reminding you you’re not supposed to take it seriously? The jury’s still out.
This Review first appeared in The Telegraph