Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 2 – The Witch’s Familiar

“Imagine. To hold in your hand, the heartbeat of every Dalek on Skaro. They send me life. Is it beyond the wit of a Time Lord to send them death?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

I’ll admit, last week I was a trifle surprised to find that Steven Moffat had the chutzpah to open the new series of Doctor Who by writing, effectively, a sequel to Genesis of the Daleks – a story regularly voted the best the show ever did. Yet for me, he pulled it off surprisingly well, building cleverly on the themes, characterisation and philosophy espoused by both the Doctor and Davros in that first meeting.

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I do know, though, that it’s been a divisive episode; precisely because, while it’s faithful to its inspiration, it’s still very much in the style of Steven Moffat. It’s predicated on a time paradox, and features lots of fan pleasing characters and locations, whipped through at breakneck speed. Yes, to be honest, that first part could have worked equally well without a whistle stop tour of the Maldovarium, the Sisterhood of Karn, the Shadow Proclamation and UNIT. It was fun to see them, but I totally see the point of fans who found them self-indulgent and unnecessary.

However, this is a two-parter – as it seems most of this year’s series will be – and it’s hard to properly assess it without seeing both parts. It’s very common for the second part not to live up the promise of the first, but here I think it did, in a very different, and far more focused episode than part one.

There’s been some debate about the significance of each episode’s title, and I think there’s some deliberate ambiguity. The Magician, of course, is the Doctor. The Witch, of course, is Missy. But is Clara both the Apprentice and the Familiar, or is it the darker interpretation – that the Apprentice, taught by the Doctor, is none other than Davros?

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That question from last week – “Davros made the Daleks, but who made Davros?” – was returned to in what turned out to be one of two virtually separate plot threads this week. If it was sci-fi action you wanted, you got it in spades, with the unlikely pairing of Missy and Clara determinedly infiltrating the Dalek city to rescue the Doctor. But for me, the heart of the episode was the extended verbal sparring between the Doctor and Davros. Always a highlight of their previous matchups, here it was given virtually half the episode, and despite a degree of stagy theatricality, it worked brilliantly to shed light on both their characters.

We know, from last year, that the Twelfth Doctor is plagued by self-doubt, and Capaldi continued to play that well; though his newly softer personality made him easier to root for. Julian Bleach, though, was simply sensational as Davros, showing us the depths of the Dalek creator’s very soul, and even, unwillingly, bringing out your sympathy for him.

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I was reminded very much of the movie Downfall, which humanised Davros’ real-world equivalent, Adolf Hitler, by showing us the person behind the monster. It’s a very tricky tightrope to walk for a writer, because however much you start to understand the person, you should never forget the monster. I think Moffat pulled that off here, even before we found out the whole thing was a massive deception on both characters’ parts.

So we got to see a Davros who (ostensibly) had real regrets, hopes and despair, who could conceivably consider his oldest foe the closest thing he has to a friend. Bleach gave a performance of incredible range, given that he was shrouded under a rubber mask; fortunately it was more flexible than the equally estimable Michael Wisher’s original, allowing us to see Davros smile, laugh and even cry.

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We also learned that he can actually open his eyes (which causes you to wonder why he prefers the cybernetic one), and that in itself gave Bleach’s performance a real charge. He was matched well by Capaldi, showing us a Doctor still insecure in his morality – I really liked the line, “on a good day, if I try really hard, I’m not just an old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.”

As ever, much of this was achieved by the tried and trusted We’re Not So Different gambit, effectively showing us that, though we’d never have believed it before, Davros is wracked by just the same self-doubt. It may have been a little on the nose for him to turn the tables by asking the Doctor, “Am I a good man?”, but the look on Capaldi’s face sold the moment.

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While all this was going on, of course, we had Missy and her unwilling Familiar Clara trying to get into the city and help – insofar as Missy’s idea of help would be beneficial. Michelle Gomez was again sensational this week, and Jenna Coleman worked well as a sparring partner for her. Missy is fast becoming my favourite incarnation of the Master; she’s witty, capricious and bonkers (and gets all the best lines), but she never lets you forget that this person is really, really dangerous, and absolutely not to be trusted. Her cavalier treatment of Clara underlined that nicely – I actually laughed out loud when she blithely shoved Clara into the sewer to see how deep it was.

Even as Moffat’s script revealed new depths to Davros, he also took the time to come up with a lot of interesting additions to the Dalek mythology. The rotting Kaled mutants in the sewers were a nice touch, and as the Doctor amusingly put it, “Dalek Supreme, your sewers are revolting”. Yes they were – basically because the decomposing but still living mutants actually did look like sewage.

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The most revealing moments, though, were when Clara was reluctantly placed inside a Dalek casing, which surely must have been a tribute to Ian Chesterton doing the same in the very first Dalek story. Unlike that occasion, here we learned that whatever the occupant of the casing is trying to say, it will always come out as Dalek ideology; and that their channelled emotion (hatred, presumably) will always be expressed as the word “exterminate”, while also charging their guns. That’s a rather neat explanation of why they so frequently stand around repeatedly shouting “exterminate!” rather than just actually getting on with the extermination.

It also led neatly up to the moment of Missy’s ultimate betrayal, in trying to persuade the Doctor to kill what she said was the Dalek that had killed Clara. His moment of realisation – prompted by the Dalek expressing the concept of mercy – was a good way to tie the whole story up, finally returning to last week’s cliffhanger at the very end to provide a resolution that would cause the young Davros to have more than just hate in his soul. We have, of course, seen a Dalek crying for mercy before, confronted by the vengeful River Song. The Doctor, however, wasn’t there to witness that; and with the constant retconning of the universe’s timelines since then, who knows if it even happened?

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That was also the point where a seemingly throwaway remark from Missy neatly summed up one of the story’s major themes – “That’s why I gave her to you. To make you see the friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend”. Aside from building on her reflection on her friendship with the Doctor last week, that also played very much into the scenes with the Doctor and Davros. They may have been lying to each other, but the lies were surely underlaid by truths; and the Doctor too may think of this old acquaintance as close to a friend. His motive for coming was very revealing – “I came because you were sick and you asked”.

There was a lot of substance here, and some very effective drama, but it wasn’t a perfect ep. I’m very happy to see the all-powerful sonic screwdriver being given a rest, but not at all sure I like it being replaced by, in effect, magic sunglasses. The use of the TARDIS HADS system too smacked a little too conveniently of magic; previously the D in HADS stood for Displacement, not Dispersal. Retconning that so the TARDIS could reassemble around our heroes was a mite too easy.

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This is an aspect of Moffat’s writing that I can understand people having a problem with, summed up with a degree of self-awareness when the Doctor was occupying Davros’ chair – “the real question is, where did I get the cup of tea? Answer: I’m the Doctor. Just accept it”. Sorry, Mr Moffat, however you want to thumb your nose at people who object to that, it is just a bit lazy.

Other than that, though, this was a hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking bit of drama. I have a feeling that the blurred line between friend and enemy may be a recurring theme this year, possibly playing into Clara’s ultimate exit. There’s also the enigma of the Confession Dial, and Davros’ hints about the Doctor’s real reason for running from Gallifrey. We’ve been there before of course, with Andrew Cartmel’s hints about Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor; I’m not sure adding yet more complexity to the mythos would be a good idea at this point though.

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Missy, I’m sure, will be back, possibly this year – did anyone else notice how her accent went a bit Cockney as she virtually quoted the last line from The Italian Job (“hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea. Er…”)? She’s too good a villain to throw away, and at least she isn’t definitively dead this time, only to reappear with a throwaway excuse like Anthony Ainley always did in the 80s.

This was an impressive, assured start to the series, and may well win back some of the doubters put off by last year (I’ll admit, I was one myself). Capaldi’s Doctor is much easier to like this time, and will even be getting a less dour new look later in the series (I’ll confess, I’ve already purchased a replica of his new maroon velvet coat). The fact that almost every story this year will be a two-parter is an interesting change of tack from last year, which had only one; it means that stories will feel less rushed, but with the caveat that they may also be overly padded. Still, if the first story of the season manages to pull off being a sequel to Genesis of the Daleks, I’m cautiously optimistic.

 

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