Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 1, “The Magician’s Apprentice”
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on BBC America
After a nine month hiatus, Doctor Who comes roaring back with “The Magician’s Apprentice”, enticing new viewers with the stark visuals of its opening scene and grabbing perhaps skeptical long-term viewers with one word, “Davros”. Unfortunately, after a fantastic setup, the season nine premiere squanders the goodwill it’s built over much of the hour by falling prey to a tired, and long overdue to be retired, genre cliché: the series-breaking cliffhanger. This is nothing new for Doctor Who, which at various points in its 50+ year run has embraced the trope as a familiar and enjoyable structural element; The Doctor is constantly working his way into untenable situations just in time for, “To Be Continued” to pop up on-screen, then barely escaping in the opening moments of the next episode. The difference here is that unlike the more comedic or heightened examples of this in the show’s history—Sylvester McCoy clinging for dear life to his question mark umbrella in “Dragonfire” episode one’s literal cliffhanger is a particular campy favorite—“The Magician’s Apprentice” wants viewers to believe the ridiculous premise it’s peddling and treats it dramatically. Missy is dead, this episode would have the audience believe. Clara is dead, the TARDIS has been destroyed, and the only way The Doctor can save them is to kill a child. How will he get outta this one?
The trouble is, this is Doctor Who, and everyone watching knows it. Doctor Who can be many different things; its tonal flexibility is one of its greatest strengths. But one of the few things it can’t be is a show about a man who shoots children, even BabySpaceHitler, in the face. It would break the series, betraying the very core of what makes Doctor Who the show it is, and current showrunner and writer of this episode Steven Moffat knows that. And everyone watching knows that he knows that. The series also isn’t going to permanently kill The Doctor, regardless of how often Moffat returns to the idea, and it isn’t going to kill a Companion* (and in a season premiere, no less) or permanently destroy The TARDIS. Then there’s Missy (formerly The Master), who has successfully faked her death frequently enough throughout the series’ long run that this premiere lampshades the idea. The final portion of this episode lies to the audience, and that’s fine. But what isn’t okay is treating viewers like we’re not in on it, asking us to invest in a series of events that will inevitably be swept away with one of Moffat’s trademark twist reveals (perhaps another literal reset button, as in “Journey to the Center of The TARDIS”), to hold our breath and speculate over whether killing a future genocidal maniac is morally acceptable, to save our beloved Clara and TARDIS. It’s disingenuous, it’s lazy, and perhaps worst of all, it brings this energetic and interesting premiere, and the forward momentum of the season, screeching to a halt.
*Yes, Companions have been killed in the past. But not in NuWho, and only incredibly rarely in the Classic series. It’s a thing the show just doesn’t do anymore.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” starts off well, with evocative imagery and direction from returnee Hettie MacDonald drawing in viewers and the corny concept of hand mines given surprising weight by the creepy eyeballs on the otherwise familiar and zombie-like hands. When The Doctor asks the child stranded on the minefield his name, his reply of, “Davros” sends a jolt of energy through the viewer, Peter Capaldi’s powerful reaction enough to cue in any new viewers unaware of The Doctor’s long history with the creator of The Daleks. Clara is reintroduced in her classroom, a welcome reminder of the good work Moffat has done with the character, now that he’s finally figured her out, and Jenna Coleman shines both as Clara interacts with her students and in her scenes with the always welcome Jemma Redgrave as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. Michelle Gomez is once again game as Missy, though this critic remains more than tired of this latest twist on Moffat’s preferred female character, the fitted blazer-wearing, quippy, violent, unstable, and usually flirtatious antihero. Plus the new alien introduced here, a communal being made up of snakes, is appropriately unsettling and distinctive.
There’s a lot throughout this premiere that feels excitingly new, not the least of which is the fantastic central set piece that sees The Doctor shredding on the guitar, Moffat taking advantage of Capaldi’s years singing and playing guitar in punk band The Dreamboys (along with fellow bandmate, comedian Craig Ferguson). Doctor Who has returned to the same ideas and villains time and again. The Daleks’ overuse in the Russell T. Davies era is a prime example, as is Moffat’s continual repetition of pet themes and tricks (baddies that can’t be seen, clockwork plots trumping character, women as mysteries to be solved), which has robbed the past few seasons of any distinctiveness. This premiere looks to be correcting for this, incorporating familiar and returning characters, yes, but doing so in a unique and entertaining way. But then the masterminds driving the action turn out to just be the Daleks, once again doing their Dalek-y thing, and when under stress, Missy pulls a classic The Master move, the self-serving betrayal (or less in keeping with the character, but more in keeping with Moffat, she may return in the next episode to save the day, her betrayal having been an elaborate ruse). Clearly Moffat does still have new ideas, he can create new situations and new creatures. He just doesn’t seem interested in following through with them. This premiere goes from intriguingly fresh to disappointingly tired in a matter of moments, and given how completely the episode squanders its excellent beginning, it’s hard to get excited about what’s yet to come
- Love seeing The Sisterhood of Karn show up here. Damn straight, “your powers mean nothing here”!
- Also love the fairly seamlessly integrated Classic Who shoutouts, including the three different Whovian Atlantises.
- I did not expect to be so happy to see an Ood in one of the early scenes. It’s been too long, The Ood!
- It has not been too long since The Shadow Proclamation, however. It either needs a full rehaul and salvaging, or let’s all pretend that anti-climactic reveal never happened. Let’s also pretend the human Daleks never happened. Actually, can we just get a moratorium on stories with more than a handful of Daleks of any sort? They are infinitely more effective the fewer there are.
- Just as important as the hand mines’ look is the sound design for them—very effective!
- This season, Moffat and Capaldi seem to be going full Rick (of Rick and Morty fame) with The Doctor, and I wholeheartedly approve. If you’re watching Doctor Who but not watching Rick and Morty, which is wrapping up its fantastic though not kid-friendly second season, you’re missing out.