Oh yes. To this day, I have no idea how they managed to keep Davros’s return so quiet. I was working when this first aired, so it was even more remarkable that I somehow avoided the spoiler until I’d got home. I remember gasping with shock and joy when the little boy identified himself, and it still made me grin from ear to ear this time. I love this story so much.
There’s so much going on at the start – a big bunch of snakes on a tour of the universe, planes stopping dead in the sky, Clara being summoned to UNIT by Kate – but it’s all just window-dressing for the main feature. The latter two also serve to reintroduce Missy, after a tiny gap of only one episode, but it’s a very welcome return. She’s on great form: mocking Clara for having a dead boyfriend, suggesting the Doctor may have once been a girl, being jealous about the Doctor having another arch enemy, and of course needlessly killing people for fun.
She works alarmingly well as a goodie too. It’s not the first time The Master’s been temporarily working with the Doctor and/or his companions, but it’s possibly the best example of him or her being able to do so without compromising their modus operandi. She’s still ruthless, murderous and untrustworthy, it’s just that she’s channelling it in the right direction for once. You can still have Clara tied up, threatened with a pointy stick and thrown down a twenty foot hole, which prevents Missy from ever feeling like she’s safe to be around.
(Sidenote – pronouns are a bloody nightmare when you’re trying to talk about multiple incarnations of the same Gallifreyan. It’s only going to get more confusing after this coming Christmas, but it’s a small price to pay.)
Meanwhile, the Doctor has changed too. He plays guitar now, which I very much approve of, and he’s capable of accepting hugs, and of being nice to Clara. It’s clearly a deliberate development from Capaldi’s first series – not so much that all the edges have been softened, but just a chance for him to show more aspects of his character. He’s just as cocky and full of swagger as the rest of the modern Doctors when he wants to be.
Not that this story wasn’t serious business. We’re on Skaro, with ALL the Daleks, and the first episode (seemingly) ends with Missy and Clara exterminated, the TARDIS destroyed, and the Doctor pointing a Dalek gun at a child. Yep, high stakes indeed. It doesn’t matter that all of these were later revealed to be deliberately misleading, as they made for a hugely impactful cliffhanger, plus we haven’t even got on to the main meat of the episode yet.
It’s all about the Doctor and Davros having a big old chat, and there a few things more appealing, especially when it’s Capaldi’s Doctor and Julian Bleach’s utterly superb Davros. This is an exercise in taking the hypothetical situations mentioned in Genesis, and testing the Doctor’s resolve when they’re suddenly less hypothetical. I was thinking about the “could you then kill that child?” question right from the start, but I wasn’t expecting the Tom footage to be played in. Davros seemingly records all his conversations with the Doctor, the big stalker.
The Doctor is also given the opportunity to play God, and to wipe the Daleks out completely, but of course he chooses not to – he still doesn’t have the right. Compassion is always the way, even with Davros, and the quiet, heartfelt moments between the two of them are among the best Davros scenes ever. He cries and he laughs. He opens his eyes. He asks if he’s a good man. It’s incredible drama.
Of course, it turns out to all be a trap. It’s slightly having your cake and eating it to play out the scenario of a humble, humanised Davros, and then reveal that he was faking it, but I don’t really care – I love those scenes anyway, and the fact that the Doctor was wise to it all along seems to save it, in some sort of double negative situation. And there’s so much brilliant stuff that I’ve not mentioned – the Doctor nicking Davros’s chair, the sewers, the in-universe explanation for why the Daleks say “exterminate” over and over. A phenomenal start to the series.
One last thing to note, as it illustrates just how long this project’s been going. This episode hadn’t aired when I started, and so when I came to write up the Daleks’ first appearance in the second serial, I speculated that a companion getting inside an empty Dalek casing is something that would never happen these days. As Paul Hayes pointed out in the comments after this aired: how wrong I was.