The premiere episode of Doctor Who this year, despite ending on a sharp cliffhanger, was better than any of its series finales in recent memory. This is a very good sign.
I've been more excited for series 9 than any other Doctor Who series I've lived through, and last weekend's episode only confirmed my hopes. We may be looking at the best-written, best-conceived set of episodes since the show's revival over ten years ago.
I'd like to start reviewing episodes of this show as they come out, but I'm afraid I can't do that without MAXIMUM SPOILERS. So beware. Also, if you haven't yet, take advantage of the BBC's (perhaps only temporary) generosity and watch the episode online legally for free. No joke.
The tone that this first episode sets for the series is lighter than that of last year's, with strong emphasis on the brilliant chemistry between the three leads: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), and Missy (Michelle Gomez). At the same time, it has a realism and melancholia about it that makes it more effective than most of last year's "dark" series. The episode also does something that characterizes the best Doctor Who stories in that it gracefully balances character, plot, and environment, with spectacular results.
When I was trying to figure out what made this episode seem so fresh and different, I realized that we never see the Doctor inside of the Tardis; in fact, we only get a fleeting glimpse of the Tardis interior at all. For that matter, aside from the cold open, we don't see the titular character until half way through the episode.
These choices do not detract from the episode, rather they are carefully calculated to bring the focus to where it matters: the absence of the Doctor from the lives of his friends (Clara and Missy) who are genuinely worried for his safety.
Clara, who has been promised to live out her golden years this season, is in rare form, managing to remain cold and confident while still being warm and cuddly when necessary. In another departure from last season, we see very little of her life at school—this episode doesn't have time for B stories.
And then there's Missy. She arguably stole the show in series 8, and it looks like she might do the same again. Besides being an absolute pleasure to watch, she gets some of the funniest lines (one of my favorites is when she exasperatedly repeats the word "anachronisms" after hearing an electric guitar in 1138 A.D. Essex). But she isn't just comic relief; she delivers as a positively despicable villain as well. When she and Clara come face-to-face, there is a delightfully Mission: Impossible vibe to the music and mise-en-scène, and an unexpected bit of cruel menace will remind you why Missy is feared across the universe.
Now about that guitar. That particular anachronism comes in during what may be Capaldi's most iconic shot as the Doctor, so far at least, if not for the rest of his run. The reveal is set up so perfectly that I remember having my breath slightly taken away, and thinking: "is that a tank?" Capaldi's performance of his metal rendition of the Doctor Who theme is a nice nod to his own punk-rocker status, and you can't help but smile when he begins to play Oh, Pretty Woman when he spots Missy and Clara from afar (I don't know what I like better about this moment: Clara's reaction, or the fact that you don't know which woman the reference is meant for, if not both).
All this, and I've barely said a word about the plot. I guess it's hard to analyze when I've only seen the first of two parts. At its simplest, the plot has to do with the Doctor's death, or at least what he foresees as his own death, and what it has to do with another one of his oldest enemies.
"The Doctor is dying" has become an all-too-familiar trope (and that's not even counting regeneration drama), and one which I dislike because it never truly delivers. This time, however, the use of it isn't insufferable, because the story never relies on it for its tension.
The focus of the death conceit is meant to reveal how the Doctor would respond to his upcoming demise. Missy describes the way a Time Lord is supposed to die as full of "meditation, repentance, and acceptance ... contemplation of the absolute." This, of course, is exactly what the Doctor cannot achieve. We see his hyper-intelligent ADHD on display in the prequel shorts "Prologue" and "The Doctor's Meditation," in which his constant worrying and procrastination leads him to abandon repentance, and throw an explosive three-week party (Clara aptly references Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night). This party is comparable to the two-hundred year "farewell tour" of series 6, but, despite being on a much smaller scale, I find the former much more effective. The Doctor's eccentricity ("it's my party, and all of me is invited") doesn't alienate us him, it only brings us closer to his humanity, if such a term could be applied to him. When Clara and the Doctor are reunited, it feels real. There's a great shot during their hug of the Doctor's tortured eyes glancing over his sunglasses—if you watch it enough times, it will start to haunt you. When he meets Missy, she too seems like an old friend, despite the fact that he's supposed to think she's dead. The ease into which they slide into buddy banter is perfectly captured.
But the plot must be pushed forward, here by a new monster called Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell), who more evokes Star Wars Sith Lords and Harry Potter Death Eaters than a Doctor Who alien. He leads our trio to his employer, who, as I'm sure you know, is Davros. The events of the cold open, the Doctor's assumed death, and the words of the Fourth Doctor in "Genesis of the Daleks" that we hear again in "The Magician's Apprentice," all of these things are connected, though only implicitly. This ambiguity, this refusal to face the elephant in the room is what creates the tension of the episode. This is what makes the Doctor's shame compelling. We really don't know how bad his "bad thing" was.
Bringing back the Tom Baker-era reference to the question of whether or not the means justifies the end and giving it immediate relevance is a bit of thematic brilliance, even if the coincidence of the cold open is hard to swallow. It's actually rather interesting when you consider the implication that, even if the Doctor avoided such opportunities (killing evil dictators before they become powerful), he would eventually stumble across one, if only by accident, where he would be forced to make a decision. We don't get to find out his decision in this episode, but it will inevitably be the focus of the next.
The second half of the episode has some great nostalgia triggers. Besides the Doctor interacting with Davros (Julian Bleach), and several references to their past dialogues, we get multiple Dalek models, and we revisit their home planet, Skaro (the reveal of the planet involves one of my new favorite bits of technobabble: "syncing with the spectrum"). We get a great idea of the iconic good versus evil relationship of the Doctor and Davros, of the conflict that "survived the time war." Davros gets some deliciously evil, yet still character-rich lines ("Hunter and prey, held in the ecstasy of crisis. Is this not life at its purest?" "Let this be my final victory, let me hear you say it, just once: compassion is wrong.")
I should admit that Missy and Clara's "deaths" had no emotional effect on me, nor, while being emotionally effective, did the Doctor's begging for Clara's life convince me she was actually about to die. No one questions (or so I thought) that these characters will be back for the next episode. I understand that, again, the episode doesn't rely on this tension, but this fake-out trope, similar to the one I mentioned earlier, is tiresome, manipulative, and, honestly, not necessary, given the other great sources of drama in the show. While this is the biggest flaw of "The Magician's Apprentice," I thought the episode was a fantastic start to the series ... though perhaps I'll need to see part two before I can judge it truly.