Reviews: Doctor Who - Series Nine Episode One

Chris kicks off series nine of Doctor Who with a great review!

"What do you mean, no Stairway?"
After a far too temporally-stable spring and summer, The Doctor is finally back to make reality a bit more uncertain (and a lot more interesting) this fall. The Magician's Apprentice kicked off the second series (or season, for Americans) to star Peter Capaldi as the twelfth incarnation of the face-changing alien time-traveler – and it gets things off to a fantastic start. Capaldi is in an interesting situation, when it comes to fan responses to his era of Doctor Who. On the one hand, his take on the character has been almost universally praised: he's a wonderfully dark, unpredictable, sometimes morally-ambiguous Doctor, surrounded by a genuine air of mystery. On the other hand, series 8 was probably the most controversial and divisive year of the revived show. It took Doctor Who to some very dark places and did some boldly different things with the show's mythology, and fans were largely split down the middle on whether it was a brilliant year of risks that paid off, or a year that went too far and made mistakes. Personally, I loved it: I thought it was the best series since Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith's first, and its riskier decisions really worked. But all the same, The Magician's Apprentice is in the potentially-awkward position of moving forward in this new direction while also winning back fans who were troubled by the series 8 finale, Dark Water/Death in Heaven. Will it work? I certainly think so. This is a very strong premiere, with some great stuff to offer both new-series and classic-series fans.

For starters, it does something that new Doctor Who almost never does: it launches the series with a two-part story. That was the one thing that I found rather lacking about series 7 and 8: after the overly-convoluted giant story arc that was series 6, they consisted almost solely of stand-alone episodes, with Dark Water/Death in Heaven being the only two-parter in either of them. The Magician's Apprentice uses the extra breathing room of this larger narrative format to weave a fascinating story that really makes use of the mind-bending possibilities of time-travel. It draws quite strongly on the show's mythology, with nods to stories from both original and new Doctor Who that serious fans will appreciate. It reintroduces some familiar faces in some unexpected ways, and it recalls some of the show's deeper philosophical concerns about the ethics and slippery causality of time-travel, reaching all the way back to the Tom Baker era of the original show, and beyond. It even addresses, in subtle ways, some of the issues some fans had with the series 8 finale. But at the same time, it isn't over-reliant on knowledge of past events; having seen series 8 is more or less required, but the rest of it is told in a way that offers deeper enjoyment to serious fans, but fills in newcomers so they won't feel lost or left out.

All in all, the premiere achieves just the sort of fine balance that it really needed to, and offers a story that both those who loved series 8 and those who hated it should be able to equally enjoy. There's no denying at this point that showrunner Steven Moffat is a pretty uneven writer, but when he's good he's still very good, and in this episode his writing is very good indeed. There are still some odd moments of his more self-indulgent bad habits – scenes that try way too hard to pump up the epicness of it all, and one attempt at comic relief that lands oddly in Bill and Ted territory – but they don't dominate. Crucially, Moffat has strong support from a team of artists who are great at their jobs, both in front of and behind the camera. Peter Capaldi is as excellent as ever as The Doctor: a bit warmer and less dark this time around, but no less mysterious and unpredictable. And Jenna Coleman is likewise excellent as his friend and fellow time-traveler, present-day middle-school teacher Clara. After her story arc last series she is stronger than ever: a self-assured and quick-witted equal to The Doctor who has truly come into her own as a lead.

"I have such sights to show you."
Then there's the show's art design and practical effects, which are downright awesome. Even after watching this show for eight years, I still had a huge grin on my face when one of the opening scenes takes us to a place like the cantina on Tatooine or the goblin market from Hellboy II, loaded with unique and eclectic creatures, all of them practical suits and makeup rather than CGI. This show is so good at creating unique planets that are legitimately otherworldly, and then cultivating a genuine sense of wonder at the strangeness that they hold. The episode also introduces a new villain, who looks like he could be a Cenobite from one of the early Hellraiser films. While the original Doctor Who was as known for its campy low-budget effects as it was for its smart storytelling, the revived series remains – and becomes ever more so – one of the best-looking, most visually-unique genre shows currently on TV.

Those who remain skeptical of Moffat as writer will naturally be left in suspense as to whether the second half of this two-parter will make good on part one's potential, but I am confident. The Magician's Apprentice gets series 9 off to a fantastic start: one that runs with series 8's strong points while also delivering a great story that should win back that series' detractors. Peter Capaldi makes an excellent Doctor, and this is exactly the sort of strong episode that he deserves. Check back with us every week as we follow the progress of the season; I'm predicting a very good one.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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