The Doctor is back! Hang on, he’s gone missing. Again. Which is a pretty big problem, what with Earth’s skies being mysteriously frozen by an unknown force. So where is the Doctor, and what is he hiding from?
Having overcome the dastardly mechanisations of Missy and her Cyber army and survived a Christmas adventure with old Saint Nick himself, Peter Capaldi’s second run as the Doctor began last night with The Magician’s Apprentice, a bold and imaginative two-parter that’s all intrigue and no action.
The start is particularly magnificent, opening on a fog-wreathed future battlefield where young soldiers flee through the sodden mud as laser cannon-mounted Spitfires swoop down from above to pick them off. In amongst all this chaos is where we find the Doctor, doing what he does best by trying to save a frightened boy who is trapped within a hand-mine field. One of Steven Moffat’s most disturbing imaginings, these are literal hands that rise up from the earth, Evil Dead-style, to snatch their victims down into a waiting abyss. But then suddenly, the Doctor is gone, vanishing in the mist upon the very mention of the boy’s name: Davros. Yes, the megalomaniac genius who created the Daleks is back to torment the Time Lord once again.
The Doctor’s disappearance means Clara has to fend for herself when she is called to assist UNIT in solving the mystery of why all of the world’s aircraft have frozen in the sky. Fortunately for her, it turns out to be one of Doctor Who’s easier conundrums, with the culprit swiftly revealed to be Missy (yes she’s back, get over it) as part of an audacious ploy to attract Clara’s attention.
Fans who have been baying for an early return for Michelle Gomez’s gender-swapped Master will be pleased to see she is as devilishly bonkers as ever. Breezing in with a well-stocked supply of killer one-liners and an itchy trigger finger, Missy instantly livens up proceedings with her twisted antics.
Interestingly, this time she’s on the side of the angels as she joins forces with Clara to track down the Doctor after she receives a sign indicating he only has one day left to live. Moffat, who wrote the episode, has lots of fun playing with this Time Lady-team up, writing some crackling dialogue as Clara and Missy bicker which one of them is the Doctor’s true best friend. If Jenna Coleman hadn’t left the show to focus on other projects, I’d be campaigning for these two to star in their very own buddy cop-style spinoff.
It’s not just the Doctor’s friends who are searching for him, however. Also on the Time Lord’s tail is a mysterious cloaked figure who appears to slither along the ground with a disturbing determination. A new creation of Moffat’s, the unidentified tracker is eventually exposed as a giant snake masquerading in human-like form – an effect superbly realised with some impressive special effects – who has been sent to enquire about the Doctor’s whereabouts on behalf of an ailing Davros. The only trouble is no one seems to know where to find him.
All this searching means viewers are treated to a multitude of spacey-wacey locations, from a seedy alien dive bar cheekily reminiscent of the Star Wars cantina, to the fortress of intergalactic space police the Shadow Proclamation, all the way to the desolate plains of Karn. Director Hettie McDonald takes full advantage of this epic scope to deliver some truly jaw-dropping visuals, giving a palpable reality to the alien landscapes. While nothing quite matches the breath-taking opening sequence, the scene where Clara and Missy seemingly walk across the cosmos is both magical and flawless in its use of CGI.
As dazzling as these locations are, the constant planet-hopping does have a negative impact on the plot. Despite attempts to thrill viewers with shock revelations and call-backs to past episodes (this is one of the most self-referential episodes in a long while), not much actually happens in The Magician’s Apprentice. There’s almost no action to speak of, meaning the drama essentially amounts to a series of conversations set against changing backdrops. Even when the Doctor resurfaces, the plot still struggles to gain momentum, with the stakes rarely high enough to raise the tension and the entire thing ultimately feels like a 50-minute setup for next week’s episode.
With so little going on, the characters don’t have much opportunity to make an impact. Capaldi has clearly settled into his role, swapping doubts about his morality for a more reckless cheerfulness, and he even gets to fulfil his self-given ‘Rebel Time Lord’ moniker by riding into a medieval arena atop an armoured tank while shredding his guitar. The Doctor does like to make an entrance, after all. Yet, because we don’t really see him in action here, it’s difficult to gauge just how much he has changed since his first series.
This also affects the Doctor’s relationship with Clara as the friends are kept frustratingly apart for most of the episode. It’s disappointing partly because Capaldi and Coleman have such a fizzing chemistry together, but also because there no longer seems to be any conflict between them, which doesn’t make for an exciting dynamic.
Likewise, the villains here are seriously lacklustre. Davros may be one of the Doctor’s most formidable foes, but he spends all of his time in this episode merely wheezing in his life-support chair waiting for the Time Lord to arrive, which is hardly compelling. Meanwhile, the arrivals of the Daleks is understandably delayed until the final moments, but the fact that they are under the control of an outside party always makes them feel less threatening, even when they do their Daleky-thing to Missy and Clara.
The joy of series nine’s revival of the two-parter format should’ve been the return of big, epic cliff-hangers, but by failing to ramp up the desperation of the Doctor’s predicament, the end of this episode is flat and unconvincing, especially as the promotional trailers reveal Clara almost certainly survives her run in with the Daleks’ vaporising gizmos.
There’s plenty of Moffat magic in the opening half, with the show’s trademark playfulness and McDonald’s stunning visuals particularly impressing, but its promising start quickly dissipates to an underwhelming conclusion. That said, The Magician’s Apprentice is still Doctor Who at its most bold and ambitious, and that makes it more than worthy of your attention. Welcome back, Doctor.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice on BBC iPlayer