'Doctor Who' series 9: 'The Magician's Apprentice' has a lot of thrills up its sleeve (review)

Peter Capaldi is in top form in this high-stakes opener to series 9, but new viewers may be alienated by the alien adventure. Here's our spoiler-free review.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman return in the BBC's "Doctor Who". David Venni/BBC

"Where is the Doctor?" "Where he always is: right behind you... and one step ahead."

"Doctor Who" bursts back onto our TV screens today -- and the show's not messing around. "The Magician's Apprentice," the first episode of season 9 of the revived show, is one of the most idea-packed and high-stakes episodes I can remember. The premiere feels more like a pedal-to-the-metal season finale or big screen movie version. While certainly a treat for longtime fans of the show, newcomers are likely to be left feeling alienated by the alien adventures.

For Peter Capaldi it's his second year in the title role, and he's absolutely grabbed the part of the wandering Time Lord by the scruff of the neck. Capaldi throws himself with absolute conviction into the extremes of the character from a hilarious entrance to heart-wrenching drama.

He's ably assisted once again by Jenna Coleman as the Doctor's companion, Clara. Plus the episode sees the return of last season's silver-tongued main villain Missy, played with lip-smacking glee by Michelle Gomez. Those wondering how she can be back after being vaporized last season should prepare to have that question completely ignored. In fact, "The Magician's Apprentice" throws in another huge villain that left me thinking, "Wait, weren't they destroyed the last time?"

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Current "Who" showrunner Steven Moffat has often pulled this kind of shenanigan, playing fast and loose with continuity while glossing over stuff he doesn't like with a handwave and a wisecrack. In this episode at least I'd say he gets away with this by dialing his other familiar traits up to 11. There's lashings of snappy dialogue, a super-creepy opening scene that taps into basic primal fears, more than one horrifying bad guy and loads of high-concept sci-fi. All of this wrapped up in even more snappy dialogue.

From an absolute cracker of an opening scene, the stakes are set to the highest possible level with the ideas coming thick and fast. A time-freezing crisis drawing Clara into the story could easily have been a whole episode if the producers were so inclined, but here it's dispatched as a mere plot point moving the story to an even bigger crisis.

Another of Moffat's traits is seen in full force: his absolute love for the show, all 50-odd years of it. "Doctor Who" returned to our screens a decade ago but actually began in 1963. Where the revived show originally shied away from recalling the old stories in order to establish a new audience, it has over the years increasingly embraced its past. And "The Magician's Apprentice" is possibly one of the most indebted to the show's history, even more so than the recent 50th anniversary special.

In fact, while harking back to the second ever story from the original show in 1963, "The Magician's Apprentice" plays out like a direct sequel to a story often voted as one of the best "Who" adventures ever, "Genesis of the Daleks".

All this history is of course absolutely thrilling if you're a fan. But less so if you're a casual or new viewer who's dropped in to see what the fuss is about.

Still, "The Magician's Apprentice" is a blistering opening to the series, setting the stakes exhilaratingly high for the season to come. The season opener is on iPlayer now if you're in the UK, premieres for US audiences on BBC America Saturday at 9 p.m. ET and in Australia Sunday at 7:40 p.m. on ABC.