A Doctor Who series opener is a tricky thing to nail. Do you go for an all-out comedy like 2008’s Partners in Crime, or a talky and thoughtful affair like last year’s Deep Breath? Something full of exposition and set-up like 2005’s Rose, or defiantly jumping into the new like 2011’s The Impossible Astronaut?
This year, Steven Moffat’s decision has been to go big – not in terms of length (The Magician’s Apprentice sticks to 45 minutes, not rivalling Deep Breath’s 1 hr 20 running time) but in scale, with the whole episode feeling more on a par with 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor than your average series introduction. From start to finish, the episode feels massive and cinematic – even if not that much is actually going on plot-wise sometimes. But we’ll get to that.
The very first scene in particular feels like a uniquely epic start for NuWho, opening on a fog-wreathed future battlefield that holds a terrible secret as ill-equipped soldiers struggle in the mud. Why are we here? And what about this place could send the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) off into hiding?
You see, as hinted in the episode trailer released earlier this week this is where we find the Doctor in the series opener – lost. He’s disappeared just as it’s been predicted that he might meet a sticky end, and with no way to reach him Clara (Jenna Coleman) must turn to a surprising ally. That’s right, it’s Missy, last seen evaporating in series 8 finale Death in Heaven. Did you miss her?
Happily, Michelle Gomez’ turn as the gender-swapped Master is as brilliantly demented as ever (watch out for a great crack about her and the Doctor’s shared past), but this time around she’s on the side of the angels – at least for the time being. So together she and Clara endeavour to track down the Time Lord (with some fun team-up scenes), just as he’s facing his toughest moral dilemma (and enemy) yet. Time ladies, unite!
And they don’t have an easy search. Over the course of the episode viewers are jetted from one spacey-wacey location to another, whether it’s the fortress of intergalactic police the Shadow Proclamation, Dark Ages England, a skeevy alien dive bar or the desolate plains of Karn. Full points to anyone who spots all the callbacks to previous stories in these locations, by the way – this is a very self-referential Doctor Who episode, sometimes to a fault.
The multiple locations make for a pleasingly wide canvas to open the series on, but also leave this opening instalment without much time for the plot, even after the Doctor is found and takes charge of the action once again. There are a few canon-shifting revelations (that we won’t spoil) and surprise characters turning up, sure, but when it comes down to it not that much happens in The Magician’s Apprentice. Boiled down to its essence you’re watching lots of conversations, sometimes even with tea, against a series of different backgrounds.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though – the joy of series nine’s new reliance on two-parters is that each story can shake up the pace a bit, and hopefully episode two (The Witch’s Familiar) will have enough action to pay off the first’s slow build of anticipation. I don’t think it’s even that much of a problem that this episode’s final cliffhanger is a little unconvincing (we see characters put in jeopardy that doesn’t seem that jeopardous, considering shots we’ve seen of them later in the series. Trailers spoil everything) – I left the episode still convinced of the adventures that would be had in the next instalment.
No, the real head-scratcher is how this episode will appeal to the series’ casual viewers, those not versed in Whovian history and lore but who tuned in for a bit of blue phonebox action anyway. Hell, I write about Doctor Who for a living and some of this episode’s references back to previous adventures (and stories from the classic series) went over my head. While die-hard fans will absolutely love the nods to the series’ past and backstory-redefining plot points, I think it could prove a little alienating to someone who just tuned in for a bit of Saturday-evening fun.
That said, I’d probably recommend they tune in anyway. Even with its flaws the Magician’s Apprentice is Doctor Who at its most ambitious, epic and imaginative, and it’s worth scratching your head a bit for. It’s sometimes confusing, sure – but it’s a little bit magic at the same time.
Then again, if the magic emotional thing doesn’t do it for you there are also lots of Daleks in it, and they totally screech and do cool Dalek things. So you know, something for everyone.
Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice will air on BBC1 on Saturday 19th September