Once upon a time there was a man whom, being a Lord of Time, was not truly a man. He named himself The Doctor and with that name he made a promise. “Never be cowardly or cruel. Never give in. Never give up.”
For over 2000 years he traveled the whole of time and space, freeing the enslaved and protecting the defenseless. Until one tragic and horrible day. The day when The Doctor made a choice that broke his promise in spirit if not in action. And then, in realizing what he had done, he ran away and prepared to die.
Even now (and, in some places, then), the minions of an mysterious power stalk the universe, searching The Doctor’s old haunts for any sign of him. But no one knows where or when The Doctor may be found! Not schoolteacher Clara Oswald, who was The Doctor’s most recent traveling companion. Nor the Time Lady known as Missy – formerly the Time Lord known as The Master – who has been entrusted with The Doctor’s Last Will And Testament.
Thus is forged a reluctant alliance. For something that could shake The Doctor so badly could shake the very foundations of the universe itself! Perhaps even destroy it completely…
The Magician’s Apprentice proves a welcome return to form for both Doctor Who in general and writer/producer Steven Moffat in particular. At his best, Moffat tells tales like The Empty Child, Blink and The Girl In The Fireplace which blend childish fears and novel ideas into magical modern-day fairy tales. At his worst, Moffat loses sight of the forest for the trees and becomes so focused on showing off his cleverness and making a point that he forgets to engage the audience, as in Asylum Of The Daleks and The Wedding of River Song.
Thankfully The Magician’s Apprentice lacks such pretentiousness. From the horrific opening scene to the final chilling cliffhanger, this episode proves Steven Moffat still has it. There is fear in a handful of dust, yet there is also hilarity and The Grand Moff finds the perfect balance of emotional humors throughout.
The show’s main cast also fires forth on all cylinders. Peter Capaldi perfectly captures both sides of The Doctor, playing both the manic mad scientist and the thoughtful man of compassion with equal aplomb. Jenna Coleman is largely stuck playing the straight woman to both The Doctor and Missy as Clara, but she gets a few moments to be her brilliant, cheeky self early on. And, once again, Michelle Gomez steals the whole episode as Missy.
In the end, the only real problem with The Magician’s Apprentice is its inaccessibility to new viewers. With a story built on the mythology of the classic series and a number of shot-outs, this is not an episode for winning over any non-Whovians who need to be convinced as to the glory of Doctor Who. Ironic given that the Moffat’s first episode as the series’ show-runner, The Eleventh Hour, remains perhaps the single greatest introduction to the character of The Doctor in the show’s long history. That being said, The Magician’s Apprentice is just the jump-start that long-time fans have been waiting for.