When the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) finally makes his big entrance in the second act of “The Magician’s Apprentice,” he gives Doctor Who‘s series-nine premiere its second-biggest moment. Sure, the Time Lord rides a tank into a medieval arena while wearing sunglasses, shredding on an electric guitar, and introducing the word “dude” a few centuries early. Yet it was the Doctor’s brief cameo in a short, tense opening scene that set the tone. In the midst of a foggy, muddy war zone on an unfamiliar planet, the Doctor shows up just in time to help a young boy (Joey Price) stuck in a mine field. Everything seems to be going fine, but when the boy reveals his name, it takes the titular hero (and anyone familiar with the original series) by surprise. Why? Because the boy’s name is Davros, and he will presumably become one of the greatest villains in Doctor Who‘s 52-year history. Davros happens to be the man who created the Daleks, a murderous race of biomechanical beings.
Moments like these have come to define showrunner and head writer Steven Moffat’s approach to Doctor Who. That is, using big spectacles to showcase the Doctor’s pomposity (i.e. tank, shades, guitar, “dude”) to delight the audience, but always throwing in a major moral dilemma (i.e. abandoning a young boy to his presumed death) to shock the crap out of viewers. Moffat revels in such twists, which is why so many of the episodes he writes are considered some of the series’ best. These include “Blink,” the nearly Doctor-less episode in the fourth series that introduced the dreaded Weeping Angels, another one of the Doctor’s most-feared foes.
It’s telling that Moffat worked again with “Blink” director Hettie Macdonald on “Magician’s Apprentice.” It doesn’t feel like another of the action set piece-heavy episodes that have come to define the series in recent years. The Eleventh Doctor’s (Matt Smith) annual reemergence often began and ended with a bang. (Quite literally in the series-five finale, “The Big Bang.”) However, the Twelfth Doctor’s adventures have so far emphasized what older Whovians have always loved the show for — big science fiction ideas that play out via concise storytelling. No explosions. No action-heavy cliffhangers. Just the Doctor, his brain, and the occasional use of his sonic screwdriver. Except, of course, when he is nowhere to be found.
The Doctor is in hiding as the episode starts and, aside from his brief appearance at the beginning, staying out of. His human accomplices are left to fend for themselves when a crisis strikes — the world’s airplanes have become frozen mid-flight. Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), director of a government organization called U.N.I.T., brainstorm solutions on their own. This puts them in direct touch with Missy (Michelle Gomez), otherwise known as the Master — another Time Lord, and an old enemy of the Doctor. She claims responsibility for the frozen planes, but says she only pulled the stunt to get their attention. She needs help finding the Doctor.
They uncover him hiding in medieval England, where he is suffering a “mid-life crisis” of sorts — entertaining locals with sights and sounds that won’t exist for hundreds of years. Unlike the curmudgeonly Doctor fans have grown to know and love, he has become silent and contemplative. Even sad, to the point that the man who doesn’t do hugging gives Clara a big one. It’s touching, especially because the hug harks back to Capaldi’s first moments as the Doctor, when the character was still getting the hang of his new regenerated form. At the end of the series-eight premiere, “Deep Breath,” Clara gave the Doctor a big hug despite his complaints: “I don’t think that I’m a hugging person now.”
The third act is where “Magician’s Apprentice” begins to falter, becoming less an example of Moffat at his best and more yet another sign of the showrunner’s predictability. A snaky messenger brings the Doctor, Clara and Missy to a mysterious base in deep space where an elderly, dying Davros (Julian Bleach) tells the Doctor he “knows” and “remembers” being abandoned by him as a child. Meanwhile, Clara and Missy are imprisoned in a cell from which they can easily escape. Once they do, the pair discovers that Davros’ base is actually on the planet Skaro, the Daleks’ home world.
What is supposed to be a major reveal feels more like a predictable plot point. The episode ends on a cliffhanger (albeit an action-less one) that puts the Doctor in a perilous position not unlike the one he found himself in earlier. However, the perilousness of this cliffhanger seems pretty questionable (especially for Whovians familiar Dalek weaponry), lowering the episode’s stakes. Maybe next week’s “Witch’s Familiar” will make up for this — it is a two-parter, after all. Still, it would have been nice if this episode had stood up better on its own.