This review contains spoilers.
It’s very rare for me to personally come on here and review television episodes. The fact is, I don’t really watch a lot of television, and when I do, it’s at my own pace, and not whatever networks or cable channels want me to do.
I would say that makes me a rebel, but really, it’s more a matter of time than anything else.
One of my rare appointment television destinations, however, was “Doctor Who.” Even when it was a bit over-the-top in the Russell T. Davies era, or a bit convoluted like in the Steven Moffat/Matt Smith era, I never wanted to miss an episode, and I couldn’t wait for the next one to air.
But last season changed. Not because I have any issue with Peter Capaldi as The Doctor — in fact, it’s the exact opposite. His Doctor is one of the reasons why I stayed. But because last season was just absolutely silly, to the point where I truly believed that maybe Moffat was fresh out of “Doctor Who” ideas, and instead of moving on to something else like Davies did, he would pull a Brannon Braga and just never leave.
So I walked into “The Magician’s Apprentice” ready to be disappointed. Yes, Michelle Gomez was going to be back — which I was happy about — but I feared they would put her in some ridiculous storyline like we got at the end of last season, and suddenly the world would be protected by trees and Clara Oswald’s class would somehow come and save the day.
But in just the opening minutes, I realized something was very different about this “Doctor Who” than the past season: It was taking itself seriously again. It was remembering that while this is a family show, it is not a kids’ show. And Clara was halfway tolerable in this episode, even if she was thinking too much like The Doctor again.
I haven’t read any spoilers about this season. In fact, I’ve only seen one teaser trailer. But the revelation in the first few minutes that this kid was Davros — to me, this was the best opening to a season since The Doctor was shot and killed in Utah. If you’re confused by that last statement, then why are you reading this again?
And Moffat didn’t let his foot off the pedal after that. We were introduced to new aliens, re-introduced to old foes, and given some really solid laughs through the episode. And you know what? This is what “Doctor Who” is supposed to be. It’s supposed to scare us (the handmines were creepy), it’s supposed to make us think (if you had a chance to help someone you knew would become a mass murderer, would you?), and it made us laugh (thanks to Gomez and a well-written Missy).
I also felt that The Master has received some excellent depth, something that was lacking last season with Missy. The idea that despite being archenemies, The Doctor and The Master could be friends was something I’m sure few people (including me) never really considered before. The entire scene when Missy has The Doctor’s “confession,” and Clara (and the audience) just assumed it must be for his “best friend” Clara was great. It was funny and thought-provoking at the same time (how does The Doctor see Clara, anyway?)
Davros himself also moved from the two-dimensional villain we saw in “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End.” This wasn’t Davros being a villain for the sake of being a villain — there almost was some personality, almost to the point where you almost could empathize with him. And yes, “almost” is the key word there.
But “almost” is the closest I’ve ever been to feeling something for Davros, and seeing him in this state and putting The Doctor in a trap that everyone — including the characters — saw coming, was fascinating. It’s almost as if The Doctor knows something about Davros that no one else does, that maybe Davros really has reflected back on his life, and realized maybe he shouldn’t actually be there.
After I watched the episode, I went back to the beginning and started to watch again. And the moment I did that, I realized something: I can’t even remember the last time a “Doctor Who” episode was so good, I actually immediately restarted it wanting to watch it again.
These are the kind of stories “Doctor Who” fans want. Some deep meaning, without having to resort to “Sherlock Holmes”-like over-cleverness. A story that is not cluttered in strangeness, and not having animals hatch from the Moon.
Maybe I’ve judged Moffat a little too quickly. Maybe there is something left when it comes to the Whoniverse — but he has an entire season where he’ll need to prove it. But “The Magician’s Apprentice” is a very, very good start.
Hettie MacDonald hasn’t directed a “Doctor Who” episode since “Blink.” Maybe that was just the influence Moffat needed to get this franchise back on track.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” was written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie MacDonald.
“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays on BBC, BBC America and Space.