Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 1 (The Magician’s Apprentice)
Mark Harrison | On 20, Sep 2015
This is a spoiler-free review of Episode 1. If you’ve already seen the episode, read on at the end for spoilers and geeky references for old Who fans.
Aside from Season 8’s two-part finale, Doctor Who has focused more on single adventures over larger series-long arcs, rather than sticking with the regular pairings of the Russell T. Davies era: before Dark Water and Death In Heaven, you have to go back to 2011 to find a story of the week that didn’t wrap up in two sets of 45 minutes.
The ninth season is shaking things up with a run of 12 episodes that will form six two-parters, either loosely connected or more traditionally telling two halves of a story. On the basis of Episode 1, The Magician’s Apprentice, the show has seldom been in ruder health: the cast is superb, the production value is impeccable and there are enough thrills, chills and genuine surprises to say that this is Who in its most fascinating form.
If you’ve avoided spoilers with care, the pre-titles sequence is its own reward – a grim battlefield sequence in which soldiers are dragged into the muddy ground by terrifying disembodied hands and the Doctor comes up against an unexpected dilemma. Before the titles even start, Steven Moffat leaves you gob-smacked.
The Magician’s Apprentice is an unspecific title that seems specifically intended to obfuscate any plot details. Nevertheless, the first half of the episode circles around the universe before coming back to this mini-cliffhanger. It starts when UNIT calls Clara. The sky has frozen, with planes all over the world suspended in mid-air. Somebody’s trying to get her attention.
Meanwhile, a gestalt creature called Colony Sarff has been searching the universe for the Doctor on behalf of his employer, but like just about everybody else, he’s had no luck. He’s hiding from something, apparently in anticipation of his own death. What has the Doctor done that was so terrible?
The answer is eked out over the course of the episode and plenty more questions arise before the stunning climax. If there’s a downside to the gleefully eventful narrative of this episode, it’s that it feels like a series of hugely entertaining vignettes, rather than a consistent story. Moffat’s scripts have the tendency to puppy around the tonal gauntlet like Jools Holland at a particularly surreal Hootenanny and that’s very much in evidence in the first half hour.
What holds it together is the central trio. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is at once lighter and darker than he was in all of last year’s series and funnier in the face of graver circumstances than this incarnation has ever encountered. Jenna Coleman’s Clara also puts in a terrific turn, her character now more than a match for the Doctor – she’s even called upon by UNIT in his absence.
Completing the trio is Missy, with Michelle Gomez returning from the dead, as the Master is so well known for doing. In her second story, she’s already displaying more of her classic series predecessors Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley than in her debut appearance. Like the episode itself, she’s funny, scary and utterly unpredictable, and she comfortably steals the show.
But there’s far more going on in The Magician’s Apprentice than that, including tons of callbacks – more on those below – for fans who have been watching since 2005 and even longer, plus a returning character who drives the sometimes disconnected action throughout and really makes their presence felt in the final third. The episode is book-ended by two of the greatest cliffhangers Doctor Who since the Russell T. Davies era, bringing the two-parter back in style and leaving you desperate to see next week’s concluding part.
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Additional notes and spoilers
– “Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.” “Davros.” And at once, we all yelled “OMG” out loud. Julian Bleach returns as the creator of the Daleks for the first time since Season 4’s Journey’s End and his confrontations with Capaldi are everything you hoped they’d be, with the promise of more to come next week.
– On the whistle-stop tour of locations past, we recognised visits or references to the Shadow Proclamation (The Stolen Earth), the Maldovarium (A Good Man Goes To War), Karn (The Brain of Morbius, The Night of the Doctor), San Martino (The Masque of Mandragora), New York (various stories), “three possible versions of Atlantis” (referring to a continuity error from way back when) and of course, the planet Skaro…
– In an episode full of geeky nods, Davros also apparently has his previous encounters with the Doctor on DVD, replaying dialogue and clips from classic series serials like Resurrection of the Daleks, Revelation of the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks, (“Unlimited rice pudding!”) and most notably, Genesis of the Daleks (“Have I the right?”) to gloat at his current incarnation about his decision to leave a child in mortal danger.
– Last week’s official announcement of Jenna Coleman’s departure from the series was cannily timed: for all we know, this could really be how it ends for Clara. She’s the first companion to be exterminated by the Daleks since the William Hartnell era (the immortal Captain Jack notwithstanding), but it remains to be seen how she’ll get out of it if she does. Missy will probably be alright, though.
– The final shot of Capaldi pointing a Dalek gun at young Davros and yelling “Exterminate” is chilling. Like other cliffhangers of its kind, we might get a wholly different context for this next week (“The Witch’s Familiar”), but the breathless final act of The Magician’s Nephew is instantly the best cliffhanger of the whole Moffat era thus far. Welcome back, two-parters: you’ve been missed.
Photo: Simon Ridgway / BBC