Airs (UK): 19 September 2015, BBC1
The best single word to sum up The Magician’s Apprentice is: unexpected.
If you are a long-term Doctor Who fan and have stayed spoiler-free for this series, then you will be rewarded as the opening minutes start to resonate, revisiting in a most unexpected style one of the original show’s most infamous ethical dilemmas. Showrunner Steven Moffat has talked of opening the season with a story as big as the season finales usually are: he wasn’t kidding.
Following a genuinely teasing pre-titles teaser, things settle into a sequence of galaxy spanning scenes as someone (or something) searches for the Doctor, including a visit to an alien creature-packed galactic cantina. This sequence recalls the opening section of A Good Man Goes to War, and makes good use of existing new series assets.
Much of the episode is a dramatically satisfying two-hander between Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald and Michelle Gomez’s Missy. When they are eventually reunited, the relationship between Clara and the Doctor has moved on from the last series. They’re much more like old pals, chumming around the universe battling foes…
And what foes. Apart from Missy, the episode boasts a major villain who looks set to give Capaldi’s Doctor his first really major test. In the space of 45 minutes or so, Capaldi gets to show a range in his Doctor that perhaps wasn’t as evident in his debut series. He’s exuberant, thoughtful, conflicted, humorous, and dangerous—sometimes all in the same scene.
That’s also true of the episode’s tone: it veers from the very silly to the desperately serious, but a unity of vision in the writing (Steven Moffat) and direction (Hettie MacDonald) holds things together, just about. It packs a lot into just 45 minutes, and then ends things on a series of devastating cliffhangers.
As well as tackling some Doctor Who sacred cows in The Magician’s Apprentice, Steven Moffat has resurrected the cliffhanger in spectacular style by doing something many have toyed with in the past, but only the McGann TV movie really attempted (badly). How it’s resolved in The Witch’s Familiar will reveal whether this is a triumph or a travesty.
Verdict: After 50 years, Doctor Who still offers a fresh take on the familiar… 8/10
Brian J. Robb