Review of The Magician's Apprentice
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.
I think most fans can agree by now that, like him or not, Moffat has a pretty distinctive style. When you go into a Moffat episode, you have certain expectations. No one should be surprised, then, to discover that in the Series Nine opener, he's up to his same old tricks.
The first, and perhaps most notable, of these tricks is giving us an (at least mostly) enjoyable Part One in a two-part story. Moffat excels at set-up, giving rich scenes and hints at things to come that get our fannish hearts pumping with that lifeblood of our breed, speculation. Time will tell how it all pans out, but experience suggests that the conclusion of the tale is unlikely to live up to the promise of its beginnings.
One thing we know Moffat can do well, though, is creating creepy "monsters" (at least the first time he uses them). The opening scene on the unknown battlefield provides that in spades with the "hand mines," even though I'm still trying to decide whether I think they're more or less frightening after finally seeing one tripped. The mix of this advanced weaponry with more archaic kinds (biplanes, bow and arrow) gives us—in retrospect—visual clues to go with the spoken ones about which war it is (especially for those viewers familiar with Tom Baker's run). Yet, it's still a bombshell when the boy's identity is revealed and the opening credits roll.
When we return to the story, we follow Colony Sarff (a creature that I found blasé, but was no doubt hide-behind-the-couch-worthy for those with even a touch of ophidophobia) into the Maldovarium (a hangout that evoked the cantina from Star Wars with its eclectic clientele), the Shadow Proclamation, and the planet Karn.
Given the previous roles of both the Shadow Proclamation and Karn in recent plot arcs (Series Four and the lead-up to the Anniversary Special, respectively), I'm fully expecting one or all of them to become important by the end of the series (though not until the finale). After all, it's one of Moffat's hallmarks to seed clues that only become apparent when a series is viewed in the aggregate. Regardless, we learn that Davros is now searching, so far fruitlessly, for the Doctor. But when Colony Sarff reports its failure, Davros is unconcerned; he knows he can get to the Doctor through the Doctor's friends.