It’s autumn again, which can only mean one thing: Doctor Who is set to return on out screens. Having had a year to settle in with a new Doctor, I get the feeling that this year will truly test the Doctor and Clara as never before. It was with a great deal of excitement that I settled in to watch this opener. Was I about to be disappointed? Let’s find out.
“Where is the Doctor?” When the skies of Earth are frozen by a mysterious alien force, Clara needs her friend. But where is the Doctor, and what is he hiding from? As past deeds come back to haunt him, old enemies will come face-to-face, and for the Doctor and Clara survival seems impossible.
I have always been upfront about my respect and admiration for Steven Moffat as both a writer and showrunner. I may not always agree with some decisions – such as splitting a year’s episodes in two – but I respect the thought that has gone into such choices. The mere fact that Moffat is willing to mix things up rather than maintain a tried and tested formula makes him a perfect producer for a television programme like Doctor Who. This is a show that should always be trying new ideas – both in the stories it tells and the manner it tells them. Doctor Who should look to the future much more than it harkens back to past glories.
Why this off-topic monologue? Well – The Magician’s Apprentice is a story that if not breaks the mold, certainly cracks it. Since the programme returned to our screens, season openers have tended to be very introductory in nature. A new Doctor or Companion is introduced – usually in a contemporary or familiar setting and a fun romp ensues. What Moffat has decided to do this year is to start with a story that wouldn’t be out of place in a cinema.
The Magician’s Apprentice is a series opener that feels like a finale. It’s a blockbuster, large-scale event that maintains a very character-focussed story. It opens with an action sequence that director Hettie MacDonald (who previously directed Blink) pulls off magnificently. The feeling of cinematic scale stays throughout the episode as the tension built in the pre-titles segment stays at the forefront throughout its run time. Looking back, I am actually surprised that the action was somewhat limited in the episode as the momentum carried through as if from action sequence to action sequence. It’s to the tribute of all involved that the more character focussed parts of the episode maintained and carried that tension.
I mentioned at the start of this review that Doctor Who should look to the future more than to the past. Well, The Magician’s Apprentice has itself firmly planted in the look-back category. Returning friends and foes are prevalent and there are references to stories almost as far back as the series itself. Yet it works brilliantly. I was on the edge of my seat throughout.
Speaking of returning characters – it was a great joy to see Michelle Gomez and Jenna Coleman share so much screen time. This story does a little to re-dress my “issues” with the handling of The Master since Utopia. While Gomez maintains a certain level of crazy in her performance (there is in particular a rather unnecessary “tickling” incident), I got a much better sense of the cold genius of the Master here. Admittedly, much of this came from Gomez’ performance.
For an episode with such a blockbuster feel, there is a relatively small cast of speaking characters. Most will be familiar to those who have seen the programme before and every one of these returning actors and actresses bring their a-game to their respective parts. There’s some great moments as The Doctor is faced with the consequences of his actions. Those consequences being directly tied to the episode’s villain.
As a fan – and a long term one at that – I had no problem with the content of the episode. However, if I were to have a criticism of The Magician’s Apprentice it is that it is perhaps not absolute new-comer friendly. Moffat manages (although I accept I am saying this with a head full of background) to provide just enough information for anyone who hasn’t seen the show before to get by, but I can imagine a few furrowed and confused brows making an appearance across the nation. On top of this, much of the tension I felt from the episode came from my knowledge of the programme – from its earliest episodes right through to today as well as from the excellent performances and direction.
I absolutely loved this episode. It’s a brilliant opener. I really enjoyed the blockbuster-finale feel to the occasion and found it a very refreshing change to the normal standalone and – I not predictable, then familiar – nature of a series opener. Of course, I do now have a few weeks to wait to see how the story ends … Which is a bit of a downer!