Forty years ago — or maybe a millennium ago, for the Doctor, or maybe, for Davros, somewhere down the line — a Time Lord in a long scarf held up the ends of two wires and questioned whether he had the right to let them touch. “If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil — to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives — could you then kill that child?” he asked. That question just became literal. It’s foreshadowing four decades in the making. It’s Doctor Who.
And it’s back! From the minute the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver flies through the air and lands at the feet of a child yet to be named, “The Magician’s Apprentice” feels like coming home. Home is, of course, where this child would like to be, but he’s stuck in a battlefield that’s littered with hand mines. (Get it? They’re hands with eyes in them, and they’re here to pull you into the mud and/or haunt your nightmares.) The boy — who just watched a soldier meet his end — is afraid. “Your chances of survival are about one in a thousand,” calls the Doctor. “So here’s what you do: You forget the thousand, and you concentrate on the one.” I’ve missed him.
The boy is still afraid, so the Doctor offers more encouragement: “Come on, faith in the future. Introduce yourself. Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.” I’ve really missed him.
Right. So this cute, freckle-faced kid in a torn sweater grows up to create the Daleks and lead an endless war on the Doctor’s people. Good to know.
Hundreds of years later — or maybe the next day — Clara interrupts her own lecture on “phenomenal kisser” Jane Austen when she notices a plane hanging motionless in the sky. All 4,165 planes airborne across the globe are seemingly frozen in time. Clara consults with UNIT; they’ve tried the Doctor, but he won’t answer. She keeps insisting that it’s too soon to call him in, but why are she and the Doctor even apart in the first place? Her need to stay grounded in real life made sense last year, but after they got their second chance, I thought she was all in. Not that Clara can’t take time for herself — it just feels like an unexpected loss of momentum for a pair so bent on seeing it all.
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The Doctor, on the other hand, can’t stop moving; he’s been running ever since he left Davros in that field (call it the Scottish goodbye), because he’s convinced that the next day they meet will be his last. We’ve done the whole “the Doctor believes that he’s about to die” thing recently, so that story has lost its shine, but it at least brings Missy into the fray. She has the Doctor’s confession dial — his Last Will and Testament, to be opened only by his “closest friend” upon his death. He didn’t send it to Clara; he sent it to Missy, even though she’s supposed to be dead. (“Death is for other people, dear.”) Clara is understandably not okay with this, but there’s more than one kind of friend. There are the friends you like, and then there are the friends who know what to do when a golden disc marked in circular Gallifreyan turns up in the mail.
The planes are Missy’s cry for attention; now that she’s got the confession dial, she’s looking for the Doctor, and she thinks Clara can help. Clara agrees on the condition that Missy stop killing everyone in a 50-foot radius. Using Clara’s personal insights and the Time Lady’s vortex manipulator, they track the Doctor to medieval times, where he’s throwing himself one heck of a going-away party. (“I have been here all day, and it’s been a great day.” “You’ve been here for three weeks.”) He’s wearing plaid pants and a t-shirt that looks like it’s straight out of Ben Wyatt’s unemployment collection. He’s playing an electric guitar on a tank. He’s living all of his lives at once.
NEXT: Hugs are cool
The Doctor spots Clara and calls her before the crowd to the tune of “Pretty Woman.” He charms her, both because it’s a distraction and because he means it, then wraps her in a swift hug when she calls him out on his behavior. Look who’s a hugging person now. (“Well, you know what they say: Hugging is a great way to hide your face.”) Their reunion is interrupted by Colony Sarff, a literal nest of snakes who take humanoid form and act as Davros’ security detail and Voldemort is so jealous right now. The colony has been tracking the Doctor across the universe to send a message: Davros remembers, and he’s dying. Sarff drops the Doctor’s sonic at his feet.
The Doctor, all shame, agrees to go see Davros, even as Missy insists that it’s a trap. She and Clara volunteer themselves for imprisonment, joining the Doctor on a trip to what seems to be a kind of roving space hospital. Spoilers: It’s not roving. It’s very much grounded on a planet, as Missy figures out from the hospital’s not-sexy gravity. The planet looks at first to be invisible, but it’s just camouflaged; once you step into the atmosphere, it all materializes. And it’s Skaro — or maybe Skaro 2.0. The Daleks rebuilt their home planet. Basically, the Time War accomplished nothing.
This discovery comes right in the middle of the Doctor’s philosophical debate with Davros, who still thinks emotion is a form of weakness. They’ve been at this argument for so long that Davros can project it on the walls of his chamber, memories of Doctors past yelling about unlimited rice pudding and holding up two wires. Just as his speech from “Genesis of the Daleks” starts to look prophetic, the Daleks escort Missy and Clara into a nearby chamber. As the Doctor watches, Missy tries to strike a deal with their captors: With the TARDIS, they can be more powerful than ever, and she’ll show them how to work it. They exterminate her anyway.
The Doctor gets down on his knees to beg for Clara’s life (I’m fine), but Davros claims not to have any control over his creations. Even if he did, he likes watching them hunt. Surrounded, Clara weighs her options but eventually makes a break for the door. The Daleks zap her, too, and the Doctor starts to break. He wonders why he’s ever let Davros live. “Compassion, Doctor,” his enemy replies. “It has always been your greatest indulgence. Let this be my final victory. Let me hear you say it, just once: Compassion is wrong.”
As the Daleks turn their attention to destroying the TARDIS, the Doctor — at some point in his future — returns to Davros in the battlefield. This time, he’s got a Dalek’s gun. Davros asks if he’s here to help, but the Doctor says he’s here to save his friend. He aims the gun: “Exterminate.” Forty years ago, the Doctor decided that wiping out the Daleks would make him no better than they are. If compassion is what sets him apart, he may be about to cross that line. Then again, two regenerations back, it took a version of the Doctor that was part human to kill the Daleks. Maybe this Doctor is less human, but maybe he’s more.