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Doctor Who 9.2 Review – ‘The Witch’s Familiar’

September 26, 2015 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
8.5
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Doctor Who 9.2 Review – ‘The Witch’s Familiar’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who.]

One of the primary themes of Peter Capaldi’s run as the Twelfth Doctor thus far has been a question that he asked Clara Oswald early in his second episode, “Into the Dalek.” Sitting there with her on the floor of the TARDIS control room, he looked over and asked, “Clara, am I a good man?” Clara wasn’t able to give a definitive answer right away; even at the end of the episode she has to admit that she doesn’t know if he’s a good man. “But I think you try to be,” she said. “And I think that’s probably the point.”

There are a lot of parallels between that second episode of the last series and this year’s second episode, “The Witch’s Familiar.” Again the question comes up of what being a good man means, and again someone literally gets inside a Dalek. More importantly, the question of whether the Doctor would be a good Dalek or not comes into play. But while last year’s episode left that on a dark and somewhat ambiguous note, this year we get a clearer — and more optimistic — answer.

But more on that shortly. Last week’s strong start of series still left a bit of lingering trepidation amidst all of the Missy threatening and Dark Ages tank riding, guitar shredding fun. Stephen Moffat is a man with loads of interesting ideas, but his two-parters don’t always live up to the potential off the set-up. And since a downturn in the second half often ruins the first episode, there was cause to be potentially concerned. Luckily that doesn’t turn out to be the case this time around, as “The Witch’s Family” delivers on the promise of “The Magician’s Apprentice” — albeit with a couple eye-raising moments.

In fantasy stories, a familiar is someone who assists a witch in their magic. A familiar is the supernatural link between the spellcaster and its source of power, the manifestation of what makes them otherly. We get two pairings that explore this. One of those pairings starts with a cold open in which we quickly learn that Missy and Clara are not dead, and in fact the Doctor doesn’t need to go back in time to stop their deaths. (No surprise there, as he’s never been one to do that.) Instead, Missy regales Clara — and us by proxy — with a tale of how the Doctor has managed to save himself in the past by using teleporting technology powered by the very energy that is attempting to destroy him. It’s pure Moffatism, the type of clever fake-out that has been used so many times before. It would be distinctly aggravating on many shows, a deus ex machina to save the heroes at the last moment by some casual flip of the plot.

But it works on Doctor Who. You can argue several reasons for this, varying from the very optimistic (the Doctor’s past skill at getting out of such jams makes such ingenuity plausible) to the exceedingly pessimistic (Moffat and even Russell T Davies and John Nathan-Turner have brainwashed us into accepting such things). But the simple truth of the matter is in both of those statements, which aren’t far apart. Doctor Who is a show where such tricksiness is built into its DNA. Call it lazy writing if you want but that depends the intent and Moffat’s fault, if one can be ascribed here, is more in his love of being crafty and less in his desire to handwave away plot logic. That’s much less egregious.

Besides, it allows us to have plenty more of Missy and Clara together, which is a good thing. I know not everyone is in love with Missy, but Michelle Gomez is a highlight of the first two episodes. She is able to have some more wicked fun, which is an important balance since the Doctor is busy being deadly serious. We get more exploration of Missy’s perspective on the difference between her and Clara’s relationships with the Doctor. I mentioned last week that there appear to be some insecurities in the way Missy treats Clara, and that’s both more and less obvious this week. There aren’t as many speeches about how much more meaningful she is than Clara, but the way that Missy is constantly trying to prove her superiority is telling.

So is the fact that she tries to maneuver the Doctor into killing Clara later in the episode. It’s already a bit disturbing for us to see Clara contained inside a Dalek shell; after all, the first time we saw Jenna Coleman on this show, she had been turned into a Dalek without realizing it. But for Missy to try and get the Doctor to kill his closest friend reinforces the difference between not only Missy and the Doctor, but Missy and Clara. Clara may talk a good game about shoving that pointy stick into Missy, but unless it were absolutely necessary I feel confident in saying that she wouldn’t kill the other. Missy has no compunctions about it; not only would it prove her superiority over Clara, it would have irrevocably changed the Doctor. While Missy may be the cleverer of the two, that’s just only because of experience. Clara has it where it counts, in the morality department. It’s the one thing she has that Missy lacks, and it’s why the Time Lady will never be able to let bygones be bygones.

While Missy and Clara are busy being each other’s foil in the midst of saving the Doctor, good old Twelve has his own dark mirror to look into. The dialogue between the Doctor and Davros in their scenes together is really where this episode shines. With all the running, adventure, sonicing and clever planning that Doctor Who runs through on a regular basis, the best part of the show is often just the sit-down talks between a hero and a villain. Capaldi and Julian Bleach come into this episode bringing the best out of each other to a degree that frankly hasn’t been seen since Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor and Roger Delgado’s Master. The back and forth between the two is phenomenal, punctuated by Davros asking of the Doctor that same question he asked Clara last season.

And like Clara, the Doctor can’t answer. There is an analogy to be made between the Doctor is to Clara and what Davros is to the Doctor; they’re so far apart on the spectrum that they can’t even figure out what to say. Instead, the Doctor diverts into the realization that Davros really is dying. Of course, we learn shortly after that Davros is manipulating the Doctor — no surprise — and that the Doctor was playing along (also not a shocker). But that doesn’t make their words any less meaningful because the best lies have truth in them. There is something honest in the way Davros tells the Doctor, “If you have redeemed the Time Lords from the fire, do not lose them again. Take the darkest paths into the deepest Hell, but protect your own as I sought to protect mine.” And damn if Bleach didn’t make me sympathetic for Davros there, at least for a moment. That’s quite a feat, and the exploration of this dynamic between the two is fascinatingly written.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if we didn’t have some adventure in the plot, and that comes about when Davros’ final plan is revealed: use the Doctor’s regeneration energy to rejuvenate the Daleks. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this the weakest part of the episode, but it’s still fun. Moffat sets it up with Chekov’s sewer/graveyard early on, allowing the Doctor to use the Dalek’s own cruelty against them once again. As always Moffat keeps his attention on past continuity; he manages to bring in callbacks throughout the show’s history from the “My vision is impaired!” line and the visual references to Daleks from across the show’s eras to the return of the TARDIS’ Hostile Action Displacement System.

That being said, there’s a lot of bluster about the Daleks and Skaro — and there should be — but in the end the whole thing is rather quickly done away with. That feels like a missed opportunity. I have no doubt that Davros somehow survived and the Daleks will rear their heads again, but the idea of both Gallifrey and Skaro being fully back in business should feel more important than it did here. This has the potential to rekindle the Time War and that was sort of brushed over. I do hope that this concept is revisited sometime later. And the somewhat anti-climactic treatment of the Colony Sarff is a touch disappointing as well.

But in the end, these are fairly minor complaints in the grand scheme of things and it pales in respect to the Twelfth Doctor really coming into his own as someone who does indeed, as Clara said last season, try to be a good man. Davros may think compassion is the Doctor’s weakness, and the Doctor’s showing concern may have had deceptive intent. But there’s truth in the way that he says, “I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed, though a bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came because you’re sick and you asked. And because sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I’m not some old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.” It’s an important moment that is played right and helps set this episode as a satisfying conclusion to our two-part starting story for series nine.

Some Final Thoughts:

• Missy alludes to having a daughter. More breezy lies, or is there truth in there? Could go either way, really.

• Also, I imagine that her “The bitch is back” line will be controversial among some Doctor Who fans that feel the language is a bit unnecessary for what is still ostensibly a kid’s show. Didn’t bother me personally, but I could understand the complaints.

• Even though I know there is literally zero chance of it happening, I would watch the hell out of a Missy/Clara spin-off series.

• Not gonna lie; the sonic shades bugged me a bit. I also didn’t like the sonic lipstick, sonic pen or sonic lances from the past, so I hope that this goes away as quickly as those did so we can get back to the screwdriver. It’s iconic, after all.

• The Doctor Who nerd in me got my feathers ruffled when the Doctor said “Mercy” isn’t in a Dalek’s vocabulary, since one begged River Song for mercy in the series five finale “The Big Bang.” So I’m glad they fixed that up in the end scene.

• Funniest line of the night: “So the androids think he’s dead, but the Doctor escaped.” “No, he’s the Doctor. He fell into a nest of vampire monkeys.”

• And on the flip side: “So the real question is…where did he get the cup of tea? Answer: ‘I’m the Doctor. Just accept it.'” Stephen Moffat’s mission statement for Doctor Who in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen.

8.5
The final score: review Very Good
The 411
The second half of Doctor Who's two-part premiere realizes the potential of its first. "The Witch's Familiar" explores the Doctor's relationship with perhaps his greatest enemy in Davros and features fantastic performance work by Peter Capaldi, Julian Bleach, Michelle Gomez and Jenna Coleman. Some overly clever plot flourishes are slight nicks but by no means sink what is a great start to the new series.
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Doctor Who, Jeremy Thomas