Series premieres have always been a strength for Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat. Moffat rises to the occasion to produce some of his strongest episodes, especially series five’s The Eleventh Hour and series six’s explosive two-parter The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. Peter Capaldi’s first episode as the Doctor, series eight’s Deep Breath, was a solid, if not spectacular start to his tenure. Fortunately, series nine’s starter, The Magician’s Apprentice, is one of the best starts to any series of NuWho. It promises an intense and exciting two-parter to kick off the series..
The episode’s strengths lie in Moffat’s ability to juggle several narrative strands at once. The episode contains the return of several memorable Who characters: the Doctor, Clara, Kate, Missy, and the return of one of the Doctor’s archenemies, Davros. The Magician’s Apprentice starts off in classic Moffat fashion: a series of scattered, seemingly unconnected scenes with a mysterious figure making veiled allusions to the Doctor. Fans everywhere most likely groaned as these scenes are extremely reminiscent of the over-the-top, speed plot that became the calling card of the Matt Smith era. However, it’s impossible not to be pleased as Capaldi finally makes his grand entrance following a few fleeting glimpses at the beginning of the episode. The electric guitar and the tank seemed like a little too much at first, but Capaldi pulls the absurdity of the scene off beautifully.
Perhaps the best aspect of the episode is its ability to balance Moffat’s sense of humor with some of the darkest plotting Who has ever seen. The central conflict, the Doctor’s decision to abandon the young Davros during the war as opposed to either saving him or killing him is moral ground that Who rarely gets close to. Indeed, the episode also makes use of some terrifying imagery: the “hand-mines” at the start and the reveal of Colony Sarff to be a giant group of snakes are bound to frighten even the most seasoned Who viewer. This imagery goes along well with Capaldi’s more tortured and conflicted Doctor. Gone are the feel-good days of Matt Smith dancing around and talking his way out any situation. By the end of the episode, Capaldi is reduced to begging Davros to spare his friends, and is finally pushed over the edge. It’s a great testament to the acting chops of Capaldi that he can manage to balance Twelve’s prickly exterior with a compelling internal battle.
Unfortunately, the usual flaws in Moffat’s writing are more obvious than ever as he enters his fifth series as showrunner (the man has written or co-written over 50 episodes of NuWho, according to IMDB). Moffat has transformed the show into a story that completely revolves around the Doctor. In the past, Doctor Who has been more about the Doctor and his companion exploring the universe and running into various adventures. Under Moffat’s guide, the show has been altered to tell stories about how the Doctor has become the center of the universe. Practically every conversation between any two characters on the show somehow concerns the Doctor. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it allows for a much more nuanced characterization of the Doctor, but it also detracts from the development of the show’s supporting characters.
Moreover, while the episode contains plenty of action, most of it feels like filler. The subplot with Missy freezing the airplanes in time to “get attention,” is quickly cast aside and not mentioned again. While Colony Sarff is certainly a neat character design, he takes up way too much time to accomplish very little (getting the Doctor to Skaro could have been done in a much more time-efficient manner). Although it is nice to see Who take its time with moving the story along, one can’t help but wish that more story or character development could have occurred with the extra time garnered by the two-part episode structure.
Going forward, it’s pretty clear that Series 9 will be a fast-paced season. The Magician’s Apprentice ended on a genuinely shocking cliffhanger, and the return of two-part episodes is bound to give the show more time to tell its stories. Still, Moffat’s familiar tricks and tropes are back, and the show is bound to feel some fatigue as Moffat has been showrunner for five series and must be running out of ideas. One thing is certain though: with the increased focus on the internal struggles of the character, Capaldi has a chance to continue cementing himself as the best Doctor of all time. And space.