Doctor Who is a huge monster.
It’s a behemoth of a beast with layers and layers of extraordinary continuity and history. It is an antique and a shiny new gadget all at once. The Magician’s Apprentice (BBC1 19th September at 7.45pm) manages to be all these things in the first fifteen minutes. A planet hopping, continuity fest, Easter egg filled whirlwind that goes from this planet to that station to this planet, all of which we’ve visited before and all of which we’ll recall with a thrill of fanboy squee. You’ll recognise the style from such episodes as The Wedding of River Song with the planet hopping info dump/mystery building scenario as someone trails the Galaxy looking for the Doctor.
And this person isn’t the only one looking for him. Everyone is, it seems! He’s AWOL, and as UNIT deal with frozen planes in the sky and Clara deals with rowdy pupils, things begin to come to a head. Just who is trying to get Clara’s attention, who is looking for the Doctor… and where the heck is he?
The Doctor himself is blissfully unaware of the situation – or is he? Turns out it’s his last day, ever! So he’s taken it off from saving the universe. But this is the Doctor and a last day can timey whimey turn into a three week bender as the Doctor throws himself the blow out of his lives, and the twelfth Doctor we meet here is a lot less grumpy than the one we last met at Christmas. He’s got lots of Ten and Eleven in him this time round. No farewell bash can be complete without the right people, and the surprise arrival of the Doctor’s best friend elevates the carousal level to 11! As least until another show stopping gate crasher ruins the mood!
There’s a mystery which is bringing him, Clara, UNIT and Missy together, and the truth is too terrible to comprehend even for the Doctor – past actions are coming back to haunt him and no one is in the mood to stand around and explain their dastardly plan. The watchword is clear, pure, precise and deadly – Exterminate!
Steven Moffat is the Great Recycler, and this episode is very much a stew of many past episode ideas, tropes and conceits. It asked the questions from Let’s Kill Hitler, takes us to the Rings of Akhaten type worlds and returns us the worst place in the universe – at least if you’re the Doctor. Not only that, but the episode itself apes previous, more classic episodes, and lifts scenes and
dialogue almost directly from them.
There are terrifyingly bonkers ideas in this episode – the handmines, for instance – which while creepy and scary and horrific make no sense on second thinking except to illustrate the insanity of the planet they are from – and the whole thing needs a second episode to allow it to click together. It doesn’t really start to get going until the final act, despite the fanboy thrill of the familiar, and by then the cliffhanger might make one think that there is more to this than meets the eye. It is called The Magician’s Apprentice, and with no noticeable reason for this title.
The main players are back again, of course, in now familiar places. Moffat has managed to reincorporate UNIT with aplomb, and the “family” feel is very in place here. Michelle Gomez’s Missy manages to be bonkers and bad as you’d expect, turning on a heel from ally to enemy, she’s like catching smoke. Jenna Coleman’s Clara is the go-to companion here, almost a sub-Doctor, and takes control of a UNIT meeting in the way her mentor would. And Peter Capaldi is very far removed from the introspective Doctor of s8… no more, “Am I A Good Man?” conceit as he makes an immediate decision he only regrets when his friends are in jeopardy.
There is a phrase ‘What would the Doctor do’? A spin on the original ‘What would Jesus do?’. Usually it’s obvious what the Doctor would do. Well this episode will show you a choice where what he does really will confound you and it eventually leads into a cliff hanger that you won’t believe, there’s no reason to, sometimes stakes are TOO high, particularly for episode one, and you’ll struggle to find a linear progression to the narrative. I’d imagine though that ep 2 will bring in a sense of coherence to the story, and, as I said in my preview, series 9 should really be seen as a whole than as 12 separate episodes.
Time will tell. It always does.