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Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar (Review)

“Of course, the real question is where I got the cup of tea. Answer: I’m the Doctor, just accept it.”

– the Doctor tells it how it is

As is the norm for Moffat-era Dalek episodes, The Witch’s Familiar is a mess… but it is an interesting mess.

The Witch’s Familiar works best as a collection of intersecting character moments than a narrative in its own right. In some respects, The Witch’s Familiar feels like a season premiere in the same way that The Magician’s Apprentice did; it is light and breezy, with more energy devoted to character dynamics than to dramatic stakes. The Witch’s Familiar is quite blatantly set-up; it is all about establishing things that might possibly become more important later on. Davros is revived; the Hybrid is mentioned; Skaro is back in play.

Destiny of the Davros...

Destiny of the Davros…

The plot is all over the place, with Moffat’s script avoiding retreading old thematic ground about “the Oncoming Storm” and justifiable genocide by barely alluding to the moral quandaries that The Magician’s Apprentice set-up. When Davros alludes to the idea of the Doctor wiping out the Daleks through a single act of murder, or harnessing all that power for his own ends, it feels like Davros is just barreling through a check list of cheap shots that any major adversary is expected to land when facing the Doctor. The Dalek Emperor did it more convincingly in The Parting of the Ways.

Still, this familiarity does allow The Witch’s Familiar to lock the Doctor and Davros in a room together for an extended period of time. It affords the pair the chance to trade barbs and to understand one another in a way that no previous story has attempted. One of the more interesting aspects of a season of ninety-minute stories told across multiple episodes in 2015 is that the format is remarkably different than a season of ninety-minute stories told across multiple episodes in 1989. This is a season of serialised stories, but it is not a return to the classic model.

Exterma- wait a minute!

Exterma- wait a minute!

The classic series would never have been able to pull off this sort of quiet and understated interaction between the Doctor and Davros. The nature of a classic Dalek story was to build to a climax of the Doctor and Davros screaming at each other across the room; the pleasure of The Witch’s Familiar is the space that it affords both characters to move past the shouting and to something towards mutual comprehension. It helps that The Witch’s Familiar has two fantastic central performers in Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach.

The Witch’s Familiar might be yet another example of the Moffat era trying and failing to construct an entirely functional Dalek story, but it is quite possibly the single best Davros story ever told. (Give or take a Revelation of the Daleks.)

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

Given the manic energy that he brings to the part and his delight in big showcase moments, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Peter Capaldi is certainly the best actor to play the role of the Doctor since Christopher Eccleston, if not ever. Capaldi is a veteran character actor with decades of experience under his belt. He has crafted all sorts of characters in all sorts of media. Although he clearly relishes that part of being on Doctor Who that introduces him playing an electric guitar while riding a tank, he excels at the smaller moments.

Similarly, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End got extremely lucky when they cast Julian Bleach in the role of Davros. To be fair, the climax of Russell T. Davies’ run required Bleach to do little more than herald “the destruction! of reality! itself!” (Bleach did that extraordinarily well, to the point that it might be the most gloriously hammy moment of the entire revived series.) However, there was a sense that Bleach was capable of so much more than making absurd statements of destructive scale. The Witch’s Familiar capitalises on that.

"Hey! Special Weapons Dalek! I haven't seen you in years, dude!"

“Hey! Special Weapons Dalek! I haven’t seen you in years, dude!”

Davros is an interesting character. Davros effectively completes the Daleks. His introduction in Genesis of the Daleks is quite possibly the last innovation that needed to be made to the pepper pots. Although Robert Holmes heavily reworked the original concept, Genesis of the Daleks was the last story of the original series credited to Terry Nation. At the same time, the concept of Davros never worked particularly well with the Daleks. The two best Davros stories of the classic show are probably the ones least connected to the Daleks – Genesis of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks.

The reasons for this are obvious. The Daleks don’t play well with others. Any story that involves an extended interaction between Davros and the Daleks inevitably features one ordering the other around; it is a relationship that does little to enrich either. Either Davros ends up as a more humanoid variation on the Supreme Dalek or he is reduced to serving as “the Dalek’s pet”, to quote the Tenth Doctor. One of the smarter touches of The Magician’s Apprentice is to delineate the two. “I created the Daleks,” Davros advises the Doctor. “I do not control them.”

Messin' with Missy...

Messin’ with Missy…

So, if Davros is separated from the Daleks and afforded Colony Sarff as his own personal henchman, then what exactly does he do? The Witch’s Familiar suggests that the answer is quite simple. Davros does what Davros always does. Davros talks. Explaining his decision to bring back Davros, Moffat argued, “Davros had already returned within the series…and it occurred to me, and I think this is just true, there isn’t a bad scene between the Doctor and Davros.” That would seem to be the crux around which the rest of The Witch’s Familiar pivots.

The bulk of the episode is essentially the Doctor and Davros talking. Not ranting, not posturing, not raving; talking. Of course, the entirety of the conversation is one long gambit by Davros to trick the Doctor into doing something that is hazily defined and serves purely to push the episode towards its obligatory messy climax. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the conversation is good, and interesting. It serves to tie Davros and the Doctor together in a way that they haven’t really been tied together before; at least not since Tom Baker and Michael Wisher.

"You know, you'd think I'd've gone wireless by now..."

“You know, you’d think I’d’ve gone wireless by now…”

There is something quite charming in this. After all the hype that The Magician’s Apprentice built up around the Doctor’s “shame” and his trip to Skaro, it turns out that the Doctor didn’t really consider this a suicide mission at all. When Davros challenges the Doctor to explain why he would come to visit his mortal enemy, the Doctor’s explanation is both straightforward and perfectly in character. “I came because you’re sick and you asked,” he tells Davros, in a nice touch that harks back to Moffat’s recurring fascination with the Doctor’s chosen name.

(Of course, it is never entirely clear if the Doctor is being honest. While the Doctor’s answer fits quite well with the character as defined by Moffat, it does raise the question of why he recorded his confession disk and sent it to Missy. After all, The Witch’s Familiar gives the impression that the Doctor is never really afraid for his life on Skaro. Similarly, all of Missy’s concern about the Doctor living “without hope” seems somewhat misplaced given that nothing ever threatens to get too far out of control over the course of the episode.)

"This companion thing is overrated..."

“This companion thing is overrated…”

It is tempting to argue that the entire conversation is meaningless, since it is all just a ruse on the part of Davrose to trick Doctor into volunteering some regeneration energy so his arch enemy can create hybrid!Daleks. However, the script is smarter than that. The conversation is staged by Davros, and meticulously crafted, but it is also revealing and insightful. It is a gambit that relies on Davros having an innate understanding of the Doctor, and the Doctor having an innate understanding of Davros.

Of course, it also plays out as a variation of the same joke that Moffat played way back in The Curse of Fatal Death, with two smart people in a room out-witting one another without actually doing anything through a convoluted series of double- and triple-bluffs that ultimately mark the Doctor as the smartest person in the room. Even allowing for that, the moment where Julian Bleach transitions from fake crying to sinister laughing is perhaps one of the greatest Davros moments in the show’s fifty-plus-year history.

"What is the collective noun for a bunch of Daleks? An 'Extermination of Daleks'?"

“What is the collective noun for a bunch of Daleks? An ‘Extermination of Daleks’?”

At the same time, it does make a compelling case for why Davros can claim to be the Doctor’s “arch-nemesis”, despite the fact that he cannot even control his own unruly kids. The Doctor has always been good at using words to set traps, talking his way into and out of trouble. Moffat has emphasised this aspect of the Doctor, positioning him as a trickster with his own control and manipulation of narrative. The Witch’s Familiar finds Davros essentially doing the same thing; trying to defeat the Doctor through words and narrative.

This is an aspect of Davros’ character that was emphasised back in Genesis of the Daleks, when he manipulated both sides in Skaro’s Civil War to serve his own end. Revelation of the Daleks played up this idea by presenting Davros as a corrupting and contaminating force; in many respects the polar opposite of the idea of the Doctor as an inspiration or aspirational figure that runs through the Davies and Moffat eras. In some respects, this is the precedent for the “Davros as Satan” motif that runs through The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

Missy accomplished...

Missy accomplished…

More than that, the ways in which Davros attempts to manipulate the Doctor are quite instructive. Davros cries when he hears that the Doctor has found a way to restore Gallifrey. Davros claims to be genuinely happy for his old enemy. Sure, this is a ruse; it seems highly unlikely that Davros is capable of being genuinely happy about anything. However, his arguments for why this is good news fit quite comfortably with what we know about Davros. “A man should belong,” Davros advises the Doctor. Given that the Daleks are the ultimate conformists, it makes sense.

This is a nice way of underscoring what might be the fundamental difference between the Doctor and Davros, give or take the fact that one of the two enjoys recreational genocide. Even in the final scene, baby!Davros asks the Doctor whether he is “the enemy.” The Doctor insists that it does not matter. Davros is a character defined by boundaries and identity, the Doctor is a man who transcends those very divisions. To Davros, to be one with something and defined in rigid opposition to all else is to give life meaning. To the Doctor, such divisions are pointless.

Master of her domain...

Master of her domain…

This idea is reinforced by the revelation of the Skaro sewer system. Sneaking into the city with Clara, Missy explains that the Daleks are functionally immortal. That is certainly true; they have been with the Doctor since the show’s second story and they refuse to go away. However, they differ from the Doctor in one important respect. “They still age, poor dears,” Missy concedes, as she examines an entire sewer system packed with outdated and retired Daleks dumped beneath the City of the Daleks.

The Doctor constantly changes; he constantly evolves. Regeneration serves as a mechanism to keep the show young, literally and figuratively. The show itself can change form dramatically and incredibly. Doctor Who is a very different show now than it was when it premiered ten years ago. The Doctor is always becoming something new and different. He is immortal, but he is eternally youthful. In contrast, the Daleks are not. The Daleks never truly change. They are largely the same now as they were when they were first introduced.

Skarro'd earth...

Skarro’d earth…

Of course, there are superficial changes. The Daleks no longer need to generate static electricity to move; the Daleks can fly; the Daleks have Davros. However, The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar actually demonstrated that you could put a Dalek from The Daleks in a crowd scene full of more modern Daleks and it would blend in perfectly. For the sake of contrast, imagine a Cyberman from The Tenth Planet showing up in a crowd scene from Death in Heaven.

The Daleks resist change. This is as true outside the narrative as within it. The revelation that Daleks are immortal but immune to change feels like a particularly wry observation from Steven Moffat. The Moffat era has repeatedly attempted to reinvent the Daleks, but none of those changes have actually stuck. The “new paradigm” Daleks from Victory of the Daleks have faded into the background; the “Parliament of the Daleks” from Asylum of the Daleks seems to be consigned to history; the Dalek Wars of Into the Dalek seem particular to that episode.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

The Daleks of the Moffat era lack even the continuity of the Daleks from the Davies era. They are not so much a living and changing entity as they are a single monolithic concept filtered through prisms; changes that never hold, because the Dalek DNA inevitably reverts back to its most primal form. The Doctor uses regeneration to push himself into the future, while the Daleks seem to always push back to the most basic of templates. No matter how hard the Moffat era tries, it cannot reshape the Daleks.

That is perhaps the key to the conversation between Davros and the Doctor. Davros asks why the Doctor runs, dismissing the idea that somebody could run so far and so fast simply because he was bored. This could easily be set up for future revelations about the “confession disk”, but it seems like a red herring; Davros simply cannot understand why the Doctor would leave Gallifrey because Davros is always drawn back to the Daleks. “How far we have come to go home again,” Davros reflects. It does not seem to apply to the Doctor.

"This isn't what I meant when I asked Colony Sarff to bring me a Doctor."

“This isn’t what I meant when I asked Colony Sarff to bring me a Doctor.”

The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar incorporate some interesting eye motifs. There is something very disconcerting about seeing Davros open his eyes for the first time in The Witch’s Familiar; it is a perversely touching moment that really humanises the character. Much emphasis is put on Davros getting to see things with his own eyes; whether it is the face of the Doctor or the rising of the sun. Later on, Missy pokes Davros in his own glowing blue eye.

This is to say nothing of the “hand mines”, perhaps the most striking image of the two parter. The “hand mines” are outstretched hands with eyes in the middle of the palm. They are something of a clever organic proto-Dalek; after all, if a child wants to pretend to play as a Dalek, they simply walk around giving a Nazi salute; pretending their raised arm is an eye-stalk and their palm holds an eye. This fascination with eye-related imagery bubbles through the season, most notably in the eyeless ghouls of Under the Lake or the “sleep monsters” of Sleep No More.

Practically glowing...

Practically glowing…

The skill with which the conversations between Davros and the Doctor are constructed and performed belies the biggest issue with The Witch’s Familiar. It is an episode in which very little actually happens. The Doctor spends the bulk of the episode in a single room, with the exception of the climax and a brief escape attempt in Davros’ wheelchair. (That early episode sojourn is particularly delightful for the sheer pleasure that Peter Capaldi takes in riding around in Davros’ chair.)

There is no real evil plan here, no gigantic gambit. Davros plans to hijack the Doctor’s lifeforce to revive himself, but it plays as something of an afterthought. It is the type of half-cocked evil plan that a baddie of the week might concoct in the third act of a stand-alone episode. It is hardly enough to sustain a two-parter. In fact, the primary reason that Davros plans to hijack the Doctor’s lifeforce is to prolong his own life, drawing attention to the fact that is not some grand scheme to conquer the universe. Davros wasn’t dying until The Magician’s Apprentice, after all.

We all need somebody to lean on...

We all need somebody to lean on…

The actual stakes in The Witch’s Familiar feel decidedly light. This is an episode that climaxes with the Doctor concocting a clever plan to feed Skaro’s “graveyard”, hinging on the suitably Moffat pun that “[their] sewers are revolting.” More than that, The Witch’s Familiar is an episode that finds the Doctor effectively drowning the Daleks in their own filth. As such, it is fair to say that The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar are not episodes that treat the Daleks as particularly credible threats.

Similarly, Moffat diffuses all the moral dilemmas that he set up in The Magician’s Apprentice, as is expected. “Genocide in a moment,” Davros teases. “Not as self-defense, not as a simple act of war. Genocide as a choice.” It would all seem to lead to the big “moral choice” scene that fans have been conditioned to expect in stories like Genesis of the Daleks or The Parting of the Ways, but the episode is having none of it. Davros tempts the Doctor with the power to wipe out or control the Daleks, but The Witch’s Familiar never takes any of that dialogue seriously.

It's worth it to see an old man smile...

It’s worth it to see an old man smile…

The cliffhanger to The Magician’s Apprentice seemed to tease fans with the question of whether the Doctor might kill baby!Davros in order to save Missy and Clara. Naturally, this was all a big misdirection. “Would the Doctor kill a child to save his friends?” the cliffhanger dared to ask. According to the ethics of the Moffat era, the answer was so thunderingly obvious (and had been since The Day of the Doctor) that it could be left unspoken until the last possible moment. The answer, of course, is “No! What are you smoking?”

One of the shrewder dramatic ruses of the two-parter is the clever reveal of why exactly Davros is trying to shame the Doctor. In The Magician’s Apprentice, it seems like Davros is trying to shame the Doctor for abandoning a child in need, for betraying his principles and leaving baby!Davros to die. However, The Witch’s Familiar puts a bit of a twist on things, revealing that Davros has always been trying to shame the Doctor for the opposite; for saving his life. It is a clever twist, one that reveals how little Davros actually understands the Doctor.

Crossed wires...

Crossed wires…

These subversions are quite clever in their own ways. After all, the Moffat era is a lot less willing to indulge in debates about situational ethics than the Davies era was, which means that these arguments always seem to build to the same conclusion. Moffat sets up the argument, and then trusts the audience to understand enough of how the show works to realise that the question isn’t really a question at all. However, it does create a very real and very tangible problem with The Witch’s Familiar. It robs the episode of any real sense of heft or momentum.

There is nothing wrong with an entire episode of the Doctor and Davros talking in a room, but the problem with The Witch’s Familiar is that it is never entirely sure what to do with the army of Daleks sitting outside that room. As a result, all the obligatory plot beats of a Dalek episode end up feeling rote and rushed. This feels somewhat intentional, given how the Doctor eventually defeats the Daleks, but it doe leave the episode feeling rather unsatisfying. This is the problem with a two-parter building to an anticlimax; it can be frustrating.

"The Dalek Supremes" sounds like the best cover band ever...

“The Dalek Supremes” sounds like the best cover band ever…

After all, part of the fun of The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar is finally getting a proper “the Master and the Daleks story”, because The Frontier in Space doesn’t really count. The Master and the Daleks are two of the three most iconic adversaries in the history of Doctor Who, as The Magician’s Apprentice suggested when Missy took offence at the Doctor naming Davros as his arch enemy. Finally getting a proper two-part story starring the Master and the Daleks is something fans have been anticipating for quite a while.

And so Moffat subverts expectations. This is nothing new; The Time of the Doctor completely subverted the epic “the Doctor searches for more regenerations” story that most fans were expecting to come as the show approached the arbitrary limitation imposed by The Deadly Assassin. There is something quite clever about this in The Magician’s Apprentice, when Missy fails to organise an impromptu alliance with the Daleks. Demonstrating why “Dalek team-up stories” are tough to write, the Daleks exterminate Missy on the spot.

One fabulous woman, of course.

Messin’ with Missy.

This is at once the logical conclusion of any attempt to write a proper “the Master and the Daleks story” and a brutal refusal to give fans what they want. After all, everybody likes villain team-up stories; Moffat even wrote the Daleks into one in The Pandorica Opens. However, the Daleks don’t have a philosophy that easily accommodates such storytelling. That was what made the delightful snipe-fest at the start of Doomsday so much fun; if you can’t have the Daleks and the Cybermen team-up, have them go to war. That is a bit tougher with Missy, who is just one person.

The problem is that The Witch’s Familiar pushes this a little too far. Missy and Clara spend most of the episode engaged in their own twisted take on the conversation between the Doctor and Davros. Missy threatens to kill Clara, Clara threatens to kill Missy. Missy talks Clara through one of the Doctor’s daring escapes, and they both embark on a mission to save the Doctor. (Missy, naturally, has her own unique twist on this.) Of course, because the Doctor has already outwitted Davros, it feels largely redundant and pointless.

Underneath the surface...

Underneath the surface…

However, the Missy subplot ultimately leads to two things. The first is another subversion of the seemingly inevitable Master/Dalek team-up story, as Missy comes into contact with Davros for the first time. Missy even points out how big an occasion this is, having two of the most iconic Doctor Who baddies on the same set for the first time. It feels like something should happen; after all, Missy is tremendously jealous of Davros’ relationship to the Doctor. Instead, Missy settles for poking Davros in his eye and running away.

The second thing that the Missy subplot builds towards is the sequence where Missy tries to trick the Doctor into murdering Clara. There is a host of interesting continuity taking place here. Clara is trapped inside a Dalek, like she was when she was introduced in Asylum of the Daleks. She is also hijacking a Dalek like the original TARDIS crew did way back in The Daleks. The fact that Clara can make the Dalek articulate the word “mercy” is itself an allusion to the controversial sequence in The Big Bang where River Song makes a Dalek beg for mercy.

All tangled up...

All tangled up…

However, the actual attempt to trick the Doctor into murdering Clara seems like a fairly shallow attempt to give the story some emotional stakes at the last minute. Moffat throws out pretty much all of the big ideas set up in The Magician’s Apprentice, only to write in a fairly under-developed emotional hook at the very end of The Witch’s Familiar. Then again, it is a nice nod to some of the Master’s more delightfully convoluted games. Missy is clearly the same character who decided to sabotage the Magna Carta just because in The King’s Demons.

While The Witch’s Familiar does feel a little too arch and subversive for its own good, more interested in subverting audience expectations than delivering upon them, the script does take the time to carefully set up a more skillful and successful subversion down the road. Davros introduces the concept of “the Hybrid” into the show’s mythology, with all the elegance that viewers have come to expect from previous “arc words” like “Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood.” Moffat practically hangs a big neon sign from that conversation.

Supreme leader...

Supreme leader…

However, while Davros provides more up-front exposition than usual, Moffat is effectively teasing a long-form joke. “The Hybrid” ultimately turns out to be something like a less mean-spirited version of “the Impossible Girl” arc from the anniversary season; it is a riddle without an answer, where the lack of the answer is the point. The Hybrid is a parody of a long-form arc, a prophecy so vague as to be effectively meaningless. It is not applicable to one event, but many events. Even Missy cheekily acknowledges as much, reflecting, “Everyone’s a bit of both. Everyone’s a hybrid.”

In some ways, The Witch’s Familiar points towards the end of the season; it is a reminder that Clara’s time with the Doctor is coming to an end. If Clara’s false death in The Magician’s Familiar harks forward to her long-postponed death at the end of the season, then The Witch’s Familiar takes Clara backward. Placing Clara inside the armoured shell of the Dalek evokes memories of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s first appearance, playing Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks. That episode also featured Jenna-Louise Coleman trapped inside a Dalek. (As did Into the Dalek.)

Hardwired.

Hardwired.

The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar combine to form a very odd episode. They feel like a standard season premiere that has been stretched and extended to fit the two-part format, rather than as an episode that was designed and developed as a two-parter. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but there is a sense that the story might benefit from a tighter structure and a more conventional approach to framing an episode like this.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s second season of Doctor Who:

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7 Responses

  1. The “eras” of Doctor Who are defined, in part, by their Dalek episodes. This is not an original thought, btw. (The Third Doctor’s inability to stick the landing on his Dalek stories is proof, if you needed more, that series 7-11 were almost Doctor Who “in name only.” Not that it’s a bad thing.)

    So I’m sitting here, scratching my head, and wondering why Moffat’s Dalek episodes are so…piss poor.

    Victory of the Daleks was a shambles. Asylum of the Daleks provoked me into quitting the show (I hesitated to say “made me quit” because that’s absurd. It’s merely the point where I sat back and said, Enough.)

    • That’s a very valid point about each era being defined by their Dalek stories.

      It’s interesting that Asylum was the one that almost made you quit. While I’m hesitant to say that it worked, it’s probably my favourite Moffat-era Dalek story by a considerable stretch. (Unless we’re extending “Dalek story” to include The Day of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor”, but I accept that the last one is polarising; it certainly grew on me over time.)

    • (con’t)

      Inside the Dalek was pretty good. If anything, that was the worthy successor to Genesis of the Daleks, not this. Missy did a superb job of tempting the Doctor into abandoning his principles, and that was last season…

      I guess what I’m saying is: Moffat had a choice here. He could either make a nice crowd-pleasing everything-you-want-to-see story, or try for something simple and more cerebral.

      As usual, he went for both. The tosser.

      • Wow, you’re pretty quick on the draw, Darren. 😉

      • I’m currently editing the post as well.

        I don’t get a press copy! 🙂

        So I’ll be adding links and fixing typos and tidying prose for the next hour or so as well. It’s possible to be both fast and (eventually) right in the internet age!

  2. Wow! That must be the quickest indepth DW review I’ve seen go up post-broadcast so far, and damn insightful too. I need to take a step back in admiration! 🙂

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