Doctor Who's Season 9 premiere, reviewed

Contributed by
Sep 18, 2015, 2:19 PM EDT


Last night BBC America surprised press and Doctor Who fans alike when they debuted not only The Magician's Apprentice, but also The Witch's Familiar. That's two season nine episodes for the price of one!

And while I'd love to tell you everything that happens, spoil you rotten, and ruin everything like the evil, fun-killer I am; I won't. But let's be honest -- you want to know how it was, don't you? Of course you do. Who wouldn't? 

So if you can deal with the very lightest of light spoilers, read on and I'll tell you what I thought. 

Last chance to run for your life. Review beneath the tempting man in the TARDIS.


"Demons run when a good man goes to war." That's how the Doctor Who saying goes, right? But what happens when the man doesn't know if he's good or not? What happens when he finds himself in the middle of a war unending?

And are we even still talking about the Doctor anymore?

The two-part opener for Doctor Who's ninth season, "The Magician's Apprentice" and "The Witch's Familiar," seems on the surface to be about who is good and who is evil, but it's actually about something much more complex. While Doctor Who is often a show of blacks and whites, rights and wrongs, Season 9 takes a very different tactic by embracing defiant ambiguity. How you feel about that will probably tell you whether or not you'll like this latest adventure.

The ambiguity is expressed entirely in who is interacting with whom. On the one hand, we've got Clara and Missy. On the other hand, we've got the Doctor and...well, you'll see soon enough. But throughout both episodes, there is a constant question of whether or not good and evil are simply a matter of perspective.

Don't let all the heady stuff fool you, though -- this is still Moffat writing, so there's a gleeful amount of comedy to be had. Missy's return marks both a familiar tune (oh, Missy, you're so fine), and another popular song that the Doctor plays for Missy, himself, which is equal parts telling and hilarious. The funniest (and most poignant) bits, though, come from the last place you'd ever expect.

After a season of uncertainty, Peter Capaldi seems to have finally settled on who his Doctor is. Season 8 saw a year of glib remarks about Clara's appearence and some surprising coldness towards children and anyone in the military, but if Season 9's opener is anything to go on, those traits may be a thing of the past. While Capaldi's Doc still bristles at even the mere wiff of perceived idiocy, he's much more prone to wear his heart on his sleeve. Think a more cuddly version of Gregory House. He's kinder, but no less prickly.

It's not all good news, though. Clara, despite seeming as though she's at center stage, finds herself relegated to the classic companion role -- the victim. Clara goes from headstrong leader to damsel in distress so quickly it should make your head spin. The damsel role is, sadly, where Clara remains throughout most of both episodes. And if you'd heard that Kate Stewart would be in these episodes, you'll be sad to see that she may as well not have been. After triumphantly striding in to face off against an army of Cybermen last year, Kate and UNIT do little more than exposit this time around. 

There's also a lot of hand-wavery afoot. Missy's non-death from last season gets treated more as comedy than anything else. And there are some classic rules that get redefined in ways that will have long-time fans either very excited or furiously scratching their heads.

Moffat doesn't go short on mysteries either, not all of which get solutions. The real question of whether "The Magician's Apprentice" and "The Witch's Familiar" are new classics or just good fun will come after the rewatch. There's so much tension, so many times where someone could (and maybe does) die, that the first watch is a real nailbiter. But as is so often the question with Moffat episodes -- once you know where the twists are, is the roller coaster ride still fun?

At their best, "The Magician's Apprentice" and "The Witch's Familiar" have the frenetic excitement of Season 6's debut "The Impossible Astronaut" and "Day of the Moon." At their worst, they have more in common with the nonsensical melodrama of the rest of Season 6. Whatever the case, though, I can't wait to see where the rest of this season goes.