Read our spoiler-free review of the previous episode, “The Magician’s Apprentice,” here.
Do you want the good news, or the so-good-I’m-still-grinning-about-it news?
The good news is that the second part of the series nine opener doesn’t let down the first. The really good news? It’s even better.
Considerably so. Without the need to set the stage and assemble the players, there’s nothing in the way of the action. Not a drop of the momentum built in the final third of “The Magician’s Apprentice” is wasted.
Nor is much else. By limiting the locations to a handful on a single planet and focusing on similarly few characters, due prominence is given to the performances and writing, which are at their adaptable best. If the exteriors weren’t so cinematic in scale, you might liken much of it to a play: two actors, one stage, and big ideas.
Not that it feels underpopulated. The locations are few, but they’re distinct and high in contrast. There’s a sense of serious cash having been spent here, not least on the impressive CGI providing the required sci-fi scope.
Plot-wise, “The Witch’s Familiar” is classic and simple—there’s a prisoner, an enemy stronghold, and a rescue attempt. What Steven Moffat and Hettie Macdonald do inside that frame is characteristically clever and ideas-led without feeling overcrowded. Perhaps one new character is lost in the mix, but that’s an acceptable casualty of the leads being given this much space to breathe.
The story digs into a bit of Who history, both modern and classic, giving fresh insight into old enemies. An unsolved question is answered, and a couple of tantalizing new mysteries are set up.
Unarguably, this is Capaldi’s episode, forty-three minutes of the Doctor winning, losing, and everything in between. He may have let his hair down in the first half of this two-parter, but the Doctor’s back to gravitas here, aided in no small part by a remarkable guest turn. Capaldi’s terrific, flitting convincingly between genius and humility, imperiousness and compassion as the script requires. One scene sees him go from madman with a box to Time Lord Victorious to battle-scarred veteran all inside a few lines.
Now that the Doctor’s returned from his holiday in funtown, the balance of power in the series has been satisfyingly restored. He’s back running circles around the competition, stumbling in and out of traps as he does so. Clara’s so much more engaging as his clever, brave, outsourced conscience than she is effortlessly calling the shots.
If Capaldi’s scenes are where the pathos and drama lie, the jokes are in the capable stewardship of Michelle Gomez. Missy accents this cleverly assembled episode with sour and sharp notes. She’s rapidly proving to be the secret sauce of series nine.
All told, “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” are a great advert for the Doctor Who two-parter. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about them is that they have the momentous feel of a season finale without the accompanying wait for a new series. A whole line of adventures and a Christmas Special is queued up right behind them ready to go. It’s like getting pudding before dinner. No wonder I’m still grinning.
Simon Brew will be back on Who duties when it returns to BBC One…
“The Magician’s Apprentice” airs on BBC One at 7.40pm on Saturday the 19th of December. “The Witch’s Familiar” follows on Saturday the 26th of September.