Doctor Who – “The Witch’s Familiar”

Trapped and alone on the terrifying planet Skaro, the Doctor is at the heart of the evil Dalek Empire – no sonic, no TARDIS, nobody to help.

With his greatest temptation before him, can the Doctor resist? And will there be mercy?

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in The Witch’s Familiar.

X X X X X

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara – Jenna Coleman
Missy – Michelle Gomez
Colony Sarff – Jami Reid-Quarrell
Davros – Julian Bleach
Boy – Joey Price
Voice of the Daleks – Nicholas Briggs
Daleks – Barnaby Edwards, Nicholas Pegg

Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Hettie MacDonald

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhuVg5vKGwQ

Gifs by: J-Ru

X X X X X

The Witch’s Familiar is a solid follow-up to the story that began in The Doctor’s Apprentice but does so with very little carrying over from the previous episode. While the script sidesteps some of the plot hooks from the previous episode and continues to have Clara be a little too friendly with Missy as well as perpetuating the revival’s failure to make the Daleks scary, the acting triumvirate of Peter Capaldi, Michelle Gomez, and Julian Bleach once again carry the story to an satisfying conclusion.

Missy and Clara are dead. The TARDIS is destroyed. The Doctor threatens to kill Davros. Only one of these sentences is true. With no allies, no TARDIS, and no sonic screwdriver the Doctor has only his wits to survive in the heart of the Dalek Empire. Even as Missy and Clara, alive and force into an unlikely partnership, make their way back into the city to rescue the Doctor, Davros offers the Doctor the one prize that’s always tempted him – a chance to eliminate the Daleks once and for all, if only the Doctor would grant a dying Davros a merciful death. But when the Doctor refuses, another side of Davros emerges. The Doctor knows Davros’ playboook by hearts…but if the heartless creator of the Daleks can show a brief moment of regret, can the Doctor risk overlooking granting his archenemy one final moment of absolution?

The narrative of The Witch’s Familiar follows a series of familiar steps, with two moments (one to open the episode and the “twist” at the beginning of the end) that anyone whose the least bit familiar with how fiction works won’t blink an eye at. When looked at as two stand-alone episodes, very little from The Magician’s Apprentice carries over to The Witch’s Familiar. There’s no mention of Davros in the handmine field until the very end, with the same going for the Doctor’s last will and testament. Why would a summons from Davros lead to the Doctor’s devil may care actions in the 12th century? Damned it I could explain it, because The Witch’s Familiar sure doesn’t. The cold open explains that the Doctor always has a plan to escape, and he would only send his last will and testament if he knew it was the end…but he HAD a plan, as viewers see. Even if he knew it was a trap, he had a way out of it…so why act like he was going to die? Hell, the script doesn’t even bat an eye at the concept of Clara in a Dalek shell…you know, the Souffle Girl?

What The Witch’s Familiar does do is something that has been a criticism of Moffat even since “The Great Intelligence/Impossible Girl” story arc and amplified with Clara and a young Doctor in the barn during the events of Listen. Moffat’s script touches upon two key components of Doctor Who’s mythology – the physiology of the Daleks and the Doctor’s past on Gallifrey. In one of the episode’s inspired moves, Missy places Clara inside the empty shell of a Dalek as a plot to infilitrate the city. It turns out that the Daleks, thanks to the direct neuron connections that link their brains to their armored shells, are incapable of declaring themselves as anything other than “A DALEK.” Any concept of love or compassion can only be spoken as “EX-TER-MIN-ATE” and it’s that display of emotion that arms and reloads the Daleks’ weapons.

Cybermen suppress emotions. Daleks channel them.

A little later in the episode, Davros makes mention of something in a very casual manner when asking why the Doctor fled Gallifrey. The dialogue implies that the Doctor was part of some program or project that focused on creating a hybrid – half-Dalek, half-Time Lord. The viewer really didn’t get anything beyond that moment relating to the topic. But it was enough to perhaps set up what would be this season’s story arc – why did the Doctor leave Gallifrey, and what IS in the Doctor’s last will and testament?

Now, these moments were enough for some fans to get up in arms, proclaiming that Moffat was doing nothing more than rewriting the entire history of the show to fit HIS view of what Doctor Who should be, including the Doctor just throwing around regeneration energy like it’s pixie dust. To which I say – so did Russell Davies. Remember how the Time War got rid of the Time Lords and Gallifrey. Remember Philip Hinchcliffe, who did everything he could to turn Doctor Who into a televised Hammer Horror film? Remember the (Andrew) Cartmel Masterplan? Moffat is doing what every showrunner, script editor, and producer from Verity Lambert to John Nathan-Turner (and hell, Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs) has done, and that’s tell the story of a madman with a blue box the way THEY want to tell it. Down the road, when Moffat has stepped down and someone like Paul Cornell or Toby Whithouse or Howard Overman or Edgar Wright has taken over, it will their job to put their imprint on Doctor Who. And if that means creating a new generation of Daleks who fire their weapons from a miniature cold fusion reactor and the Doctor left Gallifrey because the Time Lord version of Columbia House was knocking on his door, then that’s what their legacy will be until the next showrunner comes along and rewrites it.

So what did work in the script? The opening scene with the Doctor running from a group of invisible assassins twinged the chords of nostalgia with some really cool effects.

Along with director Hettie MacDonald, the script places on screen an absolutely horrifying concept…a Dalek graveyard, which also functions as a sewer. Daleks don’t poop, but they decay. And when they decay, they end up here. It’s a sickening moment that does serve to drive home just how devoted to the cause of killing the Daleks are – their DNA is hard-coded so that they never die, and even when thrown to the side to be nothing more than tissue coating the walls, they still scream. It’s chilling…but sadly, it makes the concept of the Daleks scary, as opposed to the Daleks themselves being scary. For an enemy that made children dive behind the couch during the 60’s and 70’s, the revival Daleks haven’t been scary since 2005’s Dalek, and perhaps during Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. Episodes like Asylum of the Daleks and Into the Dalek gave viewers a look into Dalek society and how a Dalek functions, but the focus of those episodes wasn’t on what Daleks do best – exterminate. The idea of a Dalek is scary and Daleks are completely capable of being scary…but much like the Cybermen, the revival Daleks need a bit of a break and a good writer to make their next appearance a truly memorable and unnerving one.

But to be fair to this episode, the emphasis isn’t on the Daleks so much as their creator. Julian Bleach is absolutely mesmerizing as Davros. Under all the makeup, Bleach still manages to portray a variety of emotions. First, he taunts the Doctor about the fate of his companion, all but begging him to pull the plug on his life support cables and simply end his life, his pure contempt and anger for the Doctor pouring out of every ancient pore. As soon as the Doctor resists the temptation to end Davros’ life, Davros immediately switches gears. It’s a testament to Bleach’s acting that he does the impossible – he makes the viewer feel sorry for Davros. His reaction when the Doctor gloats that Gallifrey stands is unexpected and catches the Doctor off guard…joy.

The Daleks were created because Davros wanted to ensure that in one form or another his people, the Kaleds, survived. He knows what it’s like to lose your entire race…and he pleads with the Doctor to keep the Time Lords safe. ”If you have redeemed the Time Lords from the fire, do not lose them again. Take the darkest path into the deepest hell, but protect your own … as I have sought to protect mine.” The creator of the Daleks, who consistently upgrades them and does what he can to make them the ultimate force for destruction in all of time and space…sheds a tear. And even though everyone and their grandmother was screaming this…

…I’m willing to bet that there were a lot of viewers who were sold by Bleach’s performance, that maybe, just maybe, seeing the decrepit Davros open his eyes (probably all part of the trap) and shed a tear means there’s was a sliver of hope. It’s a rare moment in a Moffat story where an emotional moment is actually EARNED, and it’s all thanks to Bleach’s incredible performance. Of course, it all goes wrong, and Bleach does give us a fantastic moment of triumph that only Davros can.

For Bleach to sell the moment, he has to have someone on the other side willing to buy in. Peter Capaldi…ok, one hand, the Doctor is very “Doctor” in this episode, with lines like “The real question is…where did I get the cup of tea? Answer: I’m the Doctor, just accept it” and “Admit it, you’ve all had this exact. Whose up for dodgems?”

On the other side, Capaldi shows just why he’s the best Doctor in the revival when it comes to pure acting (just above Eccleston in my mind) simply because of how he reacts to Davros’ final words. I’d love to just write out the whole thing, but it wouldn’t come close to doing their interactions justice. Two longtime enemies, both who have tried to kill each other and wipe out their respective races, who have clashed time and time again through television, comics, and audios, and would probably be the last two beings at the heat death of the universe fighting over the last sharp object. And here they are, sharing a horrible joke.

Of course, it all goes wrong…but the Doctor knew it would go wrong, and as Missy and Clara said, the Doctor always knows he’s going to win. What makes the whole thing work is because of this question – why would the Doctor go see his archenemy? Because Davros asked. And deep down inside, the Doctor believes in hope. Hope that there’s a thin thread of compassion, decency, and regret buried deep inside Davros…and maybe, just maybe, by one way or another, there’s mercy.

Clara, oh Clara…there’s one thing I’ve always wanted – a story where we see the Master with a companion, someone traveling alongside that they haven’t killed YET. The Witch’s Familiar shows just how the Master would treat their companion – by lightly threatening them, using them as bait, encouraging them to do something risky, and casually throwing them away without a second though. The chemistry between Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez is off the charts, and every moment the duo is on screen is a delight. But…Clara Oswald has shown she’s a good liar, quick on her feet, and can improvise at a moment’s notice if need be. She’s very clever…and following Missy around without concern about that fact that in the previous episode she killed members of UNIT as well as threatening over and over again to kill the Doctor’s companion. She willingly climbs into a Dalek because Missy asks, jokes with her about having a stick, and just acts like she’s not letting a little thing like mass murder come between friends. It’s tough to talk about Coleman’s performance here. She’s wonderful while inside the Dalek, seeing the enemy from the inside and flat out panicking when the Doctor is about to kill her, her words being twisted by the armor’s programming, but it’s Clara who gives the Doctor the idea to save the young Davros. The companion, as usual, gives the Doctor a quality of mercy, and in that regard Coleman’s great, but Clara’s just a little too buddy buddy with Missy for my taste. She should have at least been given the change to serve as Missy’s conscience at some point.

And Michelle Gomez. Oh, Michelle…

…I’m sorry, I’ll post that again.

I’m calling this right now – Michelle Gomez is the best Master since Roger Delgado. It’s no slouch on the other Masters (yes, even Eric Roberts), but Gomez is just everything the Master should be. She’s classy when she wants, bold and commanding when need be, and underneath it all flat out INSANE AND EVIL. I could see how some people might find her “whacky” performance off putting, but when she’s on screen I simply can not take my eyes off of her. It’s not just because she’s a beautiful woman (Jack Davenport, you lucky lucky man) but her presence and charisma is dangerously enchanting. She has a plan, a very clever plan, maybe just as clever as the Doctor…but where the Doctor keeps his clever nature just a bit deferred, Missy is much more coy and about. The Doctor is “I’m clever, shut up,” and Missy is more “I’m clever, go on, ask me about it, I’ll never tell.” She’s also not afraid to get her hands dirty, with the best use of a brooch since Scherzo as she gets up close and personal with a Dalek. But much as Davros almost made viewers believe he was going to die on the side of the angels, there’s no doubt at Missy’s evil as she sets Clara up to be killed by the Doctor, pushing and pushing the Doctor to kill this rogue, insane Dalek who keeps screaming for “MERCY.” And when called out on it? “Oh, would you look at that, oops.” I love Michelle Gomez to the point that I hope we don’t see her again this season…a little Missy goes a long way, especially when that Missy is concentrated to the point of being Evil’s equivalent of 190-proof Everclear rectified spirits.

There are some valid criticisms with The Witch’s Familiar regarding Clara’s characterization, some changes to the “canon” of Doctor Who, and the events of The Magician’s Apprentice having little to no bearing on this episode. It’s up to the actors to carry this story. While there are some memorable moments such as the Dalek sewers and Clara in a Dalek shell, it’s Peter Capaldi, Michelle Gomez, and Julian Bleach who hold the banner high. It’s an interesting start to Series 9 as it potentially lays the seeds for some answers concerning the Doctor’s past. The question for Moffat in this case shouldn’t be “What are you going to do,” but instead should be “Is what you do going to be good?”

Random Thoughts
– The episode contained hints of the classic series, with throwbacks to Genesis of the Daleks and a couple of long scenes with some quasi-monologues.
– The return of the Hostile Action Displacement System from The Krotons, The Girl Who Never Was, and Cold War
– Vampire Space Monkeys. Wow.
– The Sonic Sunglasses? Jon Pertwee drove fast cars in his stories. If Peter Capaldi wants to wear sunglasses, Peter Calapdi can wear bleeding sunglasses.

Cobi’s synopsis – The acting is what carries The Witch’s Familiar, with several revelations about Dalek society bolstered by an eye-opening performance by Julian Bleach as Davros.

Next up – When an underwater base comes under attack, the Doctor and Clara must save the frightened crew and defeat an impossible threat…

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in…Under the Lake.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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One Response to Doctor Who – “The Witch’s Familiar”

  1. I’m in agreement with you on this one. I had some mixed feelings about it overall (at least in part due to the two halves that don’t connect), but ultimately it’s the performances that make the episode work.

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