Doctor Who has finally recovered from its hitherto vow to contain all stories to a single, forty-five minute block with this week’s series opener The Magician’s Apprentice; first of a two-part story starring the Twelfth Doctor and companion Clara Oswald which announces the rebooted show’s revamped mission statement to offer more multi-episode adventures than ever before. The Doctor is missing; the Master enlists Clara to help find him and there’s a man made of snakes on their trail. Business as usual then; the results succeed by-and-large, though are left somewhat wanting with regards to focus.
As it stands, this is the first two-part opener since 2011’s The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon and, in the beginning, it actually strays a little too close to that story’s narrative hook. But this similarity does not remain (despite sharing shreds of a cliffhanger); and before long we learn that, as is writer/producer Steven Moffat’s M.O, the story we get is very much not the one we were sold.
Trailers promised us another clash with Michelle Gomez’ series-stealing Missy (The Master... The Mistress... call her what you will) and while that sell proves to be considerably disingenuous, Gomez remains on stellar form following a (very) brief holiday away from Who; brutally reintroducing herself in the episode’s most chilling exchange (no mean feat given the surreptitious inclusion of the episode’s true antagonist), Missy is the perfect blackly-comic foil to an otherwise sombre yarn – cheeky, mesmeric, the ultimate incarnation of the Master.
This isn’t purely Gomez’s achievement; despite last year’s fanboyish decries of the gender-swap, Moffat clearly understands the strengths of the character better than most of his predecessors. The Master works best as a delectable side-dish to a story, rather than its main course. This was true of the 1970s Roger Delgado run of the character (sneaking around menacingly in the background while the Doctor dealt with Axons and Sea Devils) and, thankfully, it seems to be true again. She adds an unpredictable level of extra stress to an unrelated threat simply by being there.
With Missy revealed to be more a bonus feature than the central concern, what of the meat of the episode? From its purposely-derivative opening seconds it appears to be a fully-fledged sequel to a popular Tom Baker adventure, taking the Doctor to task for a throwaway comment uttered over forty years ago, and this line is carried through right to the nail-biting final shot. The Doctor’s burden-of-the-week is, while disconcertingly familiar in places, a believably heavy one. His unadvertised foe (not Missy, nor Jami Reid-Quarrell’s Voldermort-esque Colony Sarff) manages to be immeasurably chilling, tragic and demonic without even having to get out of his seat. The Doctor fares just as well; Peter Capaldi solidifies his campaign for the status of Best Doctor This Century, overcoming a jarringly goofy early sequence that needlessly showcases the actor’s well-documented other talent and easing back into the gravitas-lined shoes of this conspicuously grumpy and, at turns, unsettling incarnation. His twilit verbal spars with this episode’s big bad are destined to be played on loop as firm fan favourites. Speaking of that big bad; suffice it to say the episode’s best kept secret shan’t be spoiled here; though it’s a present you’ll be more than glad you opened, and its festering presence serves up a bleak coda to a decades-old grudge match.
Where the central characters are concerned, it is unfortunately Clara who comes up short. Though not a slight on Jenna Coleman’s reliable performance, the character has plateaued after passing through two tremendously heavy story arcs and is now approaching redundancy. There is the regrettable sense that, like the Ponds in their swansong series, Clara is a dead woman walking and the show is just ticking away awaiting her successor. Though Moffat seems reticent to let go of the notion that she is the most important person in his breed of Who, Clara adds little to the story beyond serving as the human maguffin required to get the Doctor back on the scene. It’s no secret that Coleman didn’t originally plan to be around by this series, and in this episode it truly shows.
The Magician’s Apprentice is mostly a successful introduction to a promising run of episodes. Its failings are in the superfluous Clara and, surprisingly, the more generous length. Despite a gorgeous first act which utilises and gives tangibility to myriad eras and locales of the Whoniverse, the story doesn’t truly find focus until well past the halfway point, and we can only for now surmise that the doubled runtime is justified until next Saturday’s follow-up delivers. It is lavish; directed with grim finesse and sprinkled with just the right amount of scares by Blink’s Hettie MacDonald, and it is fan-pleasing to the Nth degree. But it is ultimately the combined, electrifying efforts of Capaldi, Gomez and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Spoiled that make this debut chapter a triumph.