I’m a little surprised to say that I rather enjoyed “The Magician’s Apprentice.” It’s a very Moffat episode, which isn’t surprising since it was written by the show runner, but it manages to not be awful. That said, I feel like this should be a kind of good news/bad news sort of review.
The good news is that Missy is back, and she’s as delightful as ever. It’s really obvious that Michelle Gomez is having a ball with this role. The bad news is that Missy’s return doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and her antics become grating after the first five minutes or so before she–in a fit of pique–does something evil enough that it’s no longer possible to classify her behavior as “antics” at all.
The good news is that Clara seems to be doing alright. She’s still teaching, and it’s nice to see that she didn’t have any inexplicable career change, and she’s apparently also working for UNIT, although it’s not clear exactly what her role there is, and it’s, frankly, not clear why UNIT appears in this episode at all. The bad news is that, with the introduction of Missy into the mix, Clara has basically nothing to do because Steven Moffat seems to be incapable of writing parts for two women in the same episode. Mostly, Clara spends the episode making disapproving faces about stuff that Missy does.
Another bit of good news about Clara, though, is that this entire episode passed by without a single instance of the Doctor commenting on her face, body, or age in a demeaning manner. The bad news is that Clara and the Doctor barely interacted at all, and none of it was memorable or interesting.
More good news? Clara might be canonically bisexual! Bad news? You could have blinked and missed her line about Jane Austen being a good kisser–which, by the way, would be a totally bizarre thing for a teacher to just say to a room full of twelve-year-olds who don’t know their teacher is a time traveler.
The thing is, this was a pretty okay episode. It’s not great, and it’s got a lot of the regular Moffat nonsense going on, but I enjoyed it more than I did any of last season’s episodes except maybe “Robot of Sherwood” (not because it was good but because I love Robin Hood). I think this episode might be more exciting for those who are more familiar with Classic Who than I am; I know my partner, who grew up watching the show, was much more excited than I was, although I at least remembered who Davros was.
The biggest problem I’m already sensing with Season 9–admittedly judging just from this episode and the titles and descriptions of the rest of the season–is that Moffat still seems obsessed with having the Doctor facing his “darkest hour” at least two or three times a year. At the end of “The Magician’s Apprentice” the Doctor is left without his screwdriver, his TARDIS, or his friends, but it just feels a bit ho-hum when we already know that this is just the first of several anticlimaxes to come.
The best news I’ve seen about this episode so far? Apparently, Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner isn’t just wearing thin with mean old feminists like myself. Viewership for this episode was down by almost a third (from 6.8 to 4.6 million viewers) from the first episode of last season. People have been suggesting for years that Moffat is going to run Doctor Who into the ground, and these numbers don’t seem promising. Maybe this means that Moffat’s time with the show will be coming to an end sooner rather than later, and maybe that would clear the way for someone new to come in and make the show really good again. I’d love to have something better to say about it than “it wasn’t the worst.”