Warning: Here be spoilers. Proceed with caution
I have been, of course, anticipating the return of Doctor Who since the conclusion of Season 8 last fall. I couldn’t help but agree with a lot of people at the conclusion of last year’s series that Season 8 was fairly hit-and-miss. While episodes like Mummy on the Orient Express and Time Heist were excellent, installments the likes of Dark Water/Death in Heaven and In the Forest of the Night bordered on the mediocre or just dull. So, what would Season 9 bring? Well, for one a season two-part opener written by showrunner Steven Moffat which saw the return of the Doctor’s arch enemy the Master (now known as the Mistress or Missy) and, of course, the most famous Doctor Who monster of them all…the Daleks. So, let’s dive in right in with The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.
What I loved about the two-parter was its tone. From the start of The Magician’s Apprentice, we could tell that this was going to be a darker story. Even before the opening credits run, we’ve been introduced to the story’s central moral dilemma with the Doctor wrestling with his conscious concerning the young Davros. The hand mines which were introduced herein, reaching through the mud of a battlefield with eyeballs affixed to their palms is a nightmarish vision. I also really liked how this dark tone was carried through The Witch’s Familiar. All too often Doctor Who two-parters switch their tone from episode-to-episode, but this two-parter actually felt like one continuous entity. The only difference between part one and part two is the fact that The Witch’s Familiar is far more character driven than the first. The central points of the second episode are the scenes between the Doctor and Davros.
I think that it would be safe to say that the story is far more slowly paced in its second half than it is in the first. The Magician’s Apprentice is one of the most jammed-pack Doctor Who scripts ever written and I think it’s safe to say that if one more element had been thrown into the mix, the script for The Magician’s Apprentice would have been dangerously close to being overstuffed.
Carrying the script, the principle cast did an excellent job, so let us tackle the Twelfth Doctor right away. Peter Capaldi is excellent – as always. The scene in The Magician’s Apprentice which finds the Doctor riding into a medieval arena atop a tank playing a guitar is without doubt one of the greatest scene in Doctor Who’s history. Go ahead, accuse me of hyperbole, but I loved it. Later, Capaldi handled the Doctor’s darker scenes too and I loved how he interacted with Julian Bleach’s Davros during the second part. I think it’s safe to say that Capaldi is one of the finest actors to play the Doctor and his emotional line readings are brilliant. As the companion, Clara, Jenna Coleman was rather more sidelined than usual in these two stories. I like Clara – she has garnered a lot of negative attention from Doctor Who fans, but Jenna’s a great actor and she does a great job with what she is given. However, I am sort of happy that Clara isn’t as prominent this season so far. If anything, Clara took center stage far too often last season when Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor should have given more prominence.
The villains of the piece are just as interesting. Julian Bleach is by far the best of the actors in the episodes and every time Bleach’s Davros was on screen he was simply brilliant. I was gullible enough to fall for Davros’ plan believing him to actually be reconsidering his life as an old, dying man. When the truth came flowing forth I was utterly taken aback and loved it. Just when I thought that Moffat had overstepped his boundaries (once more) and made one of the Doctor’s oldest enemies an old softy, I saw that I had become completely shammed. The other villain of the piece is Michelle Gomez’s Missy and…well…what do I say? I really go back and forth about Missy. At times Gomez is great and she really exudes a really evil vibe. The scene where she tries to convince the Doctor to kill Clara trapped inside a Dalek casing is amazing, and it’s during times like these when I’m reminded of my initial reaction to the character when I likened her to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. But, at the same time there were times when Missy was simply too over-the-top and it felt really out of character especially for a character who is, at heart(s) the Master.
While the performances and tone were great, the script was curious. Looking back on it, The Magician’s Apprentice, despite its abundance of plot points, was pretty light on plot, and quite a bit of the second half felt light on plot too. And that is without doubt the weakest element of the story on a whole. The character driven moments were great, but at the end of the day I wonder if there wasn’t too much padding throughout this two-parter.
But in all, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar was a strong opening to a new series of Doctor Who. Despite the two parts were low on plot, the character moments were great. The performances were excellent and I loved the look of the two-parter. I give the two-parter 4 out of 5 possible stars.