Review: Doctor Who S9, Ep.1 – ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Hettie McDonald
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez
Hello, Whovians! As inevitable as the currents of time themselves, the 19th of September has come and gone and with it, our beloved Doctor Who has returned to our screens! The first part of two, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ opens the ninth series of the modern era in grandiose style (dramatically so in fact; read on for that). I could go on and on about how excited I am to have Doctor Who back but that’s not what you’re here for so, without further ado, let’s jump right into it!
[SPOILER WARNING: THERE MIGHT BE SOME]
We open to a grim and grey muddy battlefield, soldiers armed with a rather eclectic mix of technology fleeing from pursuing biplanes…that just so happen to be equipped with lasers. Already things seem amiss, though not for the soldiers themselves. Escaping their chase temporarily, one of them notices a child running away across the battlefield and, like any good person would, follows him to try and keep him safe. Unfortunately, the young boy has wandered into a field of quite esoteric landmines, hands that grab those who move around them and pull them underground to a very quick and unmemorable grave. The soldier suffers such a fate in short order, leaving the boy alone, yelling for help. Luckily for him, a certain blue box arrives to save the day, as the Doctor attempts to encourage him to safety in typical fashion.
“Introduce yourself!” The Doctor says almost cheerfully, keeping his spirit up, “Who’s the boy who’s not going to die today?”
The answer is one of the most dramatic opening reveals in the show’s history, and I say that without hyperbole. From such an high-octane open, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ simply does not let up throughout. It’s an extremely busy episode, things are constantly happening throughout. The main plot of the episode revolves around the Doctor seemingly having vanished from the universe, unable to be found. Not a big deal for the Doctor of course, this happens frequently, but this time he’s being hunted as a mysterious and menacing emissary seeks him on behalf of his master. Speaking of ‘Master’, she’s back too of course and she’s also looking for the Doctor, bringing Clara along for the ride. What follows is a journey that leads them to several unexpected destinations, each more unwelcome than the last as per the norm in Doctor Who, but there’s enough surprise along the way that you can never get entirely comfortable in your seat.
As I said above, it’s a busy story. With that in mind, however, the episode takes its time building things up. The switch back to the two-parter format is something that many people (myself among them) have been clamouring for and its benefits are already showing. The story moves along at its own pace, not constrained by the time limit of a single 45-minute episode, and the atmosphere is consequentially quite unlike anything we’ve seen in some time now. Things don’t feel rushed at any point, I found. Writer Steven Moffat takes advantage of the format to gradually tease the story to us piece by piece. He leaves quite a few things unanswered, additionally, ready no doubt to let us speculate over the coming week and address it next Saturday. It’s a rather continuity-heavy story to boot, and fans will no doubt enjoy spotting all of the throwbacks and references to past events and stories (I certainly did) as there are no shortage of them!
With that, we move to the characters and cast. First up of course is Peter Capaldi, now settling into his second year as TV’s favourite Time Lord. The writers and crew have clearly grown more confident about his Doctor, which comes off very naturally in this episode. We see him dealing with several situations that other Doctors have dealt with before, and the way that the Twelfth Doctor handles these things sets him apart as is only proper for such an interesting incarnation. There’s one scene in which he makes an entrance that will go down as one for the ages, I’m certain of it. Capaldi’s acting talents are their usual excellence of course, his notoriously-expressive face providing us with some incredible close-up shots (thanks no doubt to director Hettie McDonald and the camera crew’s very fine work in this story).
Returning for her third and final series as companion is Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, who, it must be said, doesn’t have a lot to do in this story. This, however, is not a fault of her own, but merely a facet of who she’s paired with: the delightfully-psychotic current incarnation of the Master as played tremendously by Michelle Gomez. Coleman’s acting chops remain as good as ever but next to the frightfully-charismatic duo of Capaldi and Gomez, both playing two of the franchise’s most intense incarnations of the franchise’s most intense and rich characters, the focus is not on her at all. The episode pairs Clara and the Master together, which leads to some extremely interesting insight into both the current incarnation of the Doctor’s arch-enemy and her relationship with the Doctor (one speech in particular that she gives to Clara is no doubt going to become a fan favourite). As with her last appearance, Gomez simply dominates every scene she’s in, and to see her and Capaldi interact on-screen is a genuine treat.
However, the villains of the piece deserve a mention as well. First up is the newly-introduced Colony Sarff, played by Jami Reid-Quarrell, a new species to Doctor Who seemingly made up of multiple interconnected snakes who serves as the Doctor’s hunter. He’s a very intimidating presence on the screen, with uncanny movement, interesting alien features (props to the makeup department on this one!) and a low, hissing voice. Also returning are, to the surprise of nobody, the Daleks. This episode does a lot for our favourite omnicidal death machines. Continuing the trend set in Asylum of the Daleks and Into the Dalek, they are a force of power once more, having risen from the ashes again. I suspect that in the next episode they will feature to a much heavier extent, as they only begin to come into play close to the episode’s conclusion, but what we see is tantalising in the extreme. The visuals involving the Daleks take a great deal from their 60’s incarnation in a wonderful throwback, and fans will be delighted to witness certain specifics no doubt (for anyone who knows me, Special Weapons Dalek is my favourite one-off of their kind, so I was thoroughly chuffed).
All in all, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ is an incredible way to kick off a brand-new season of Doctor Who. If anything, the height at which the bar has now been set will no doubt encourage rampant guesswork as to where they can go from here. That’s what we want from the show, after all. Busy, funny, intense and heavy in equal measure, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ hits just about every mark there is to hit. Welcome back, Doctor. It’s good to see you again.
Do join us next week when we sit down to review the second part of the story, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’…