‘The Witch’s Familiar’, written by Steven Moffat, finds the Doctor still at the heart of the Dalek Empire. With one of his oldest enemies dying will the Doctor choose to destroy or save him? Meanwhile Missy and Clara (not dead, big surprise) form an uneasy alliance to save the Time Lord from himself.
With all the setup established in ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ this episode can concentrate on scenes of drama, action and horror scenes that make for a great story. While there are still some minor issues with padding ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ is memorable for its vastly enjoyable return of Davros.
Spoilers From Here On In!
Since the return of the Doctor Who series the universe has increasingly been portrayed as revolving around the titular Time Lord. Everything is a consequence of his actions. This can serve as a great way to examine a character, by showing a dark reflection to compare and contrast.
For the Doctor that reflection is Davros. Both have prolonged their lives beyond their limit. Both lost worlds and people. Both can be manipulative and both wonder if they are good men. The back and fore between the two men, as they debate their choices and the nature of compassion, are some the best written dialogue and acting the series has seen. The two part story could be boiled down to just those scenes in Davros’ chamber and still be one of the best Doctor Who stories.
Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach make those scenes riveting to watch. While we later learn that Davros was manipulating the Doctor in order to steal his regeneration energy to rejuvenate himself and his Daleks I like to think that at least some of those scenes were genuine.
A particular stand out is where Davros learns that the Doctor has restored Gallifrey. His heartfelt congratulations and belief that a man should have a race, a people and an allegiance. That a man should have a place.
For the first time I thought about how Davros lost his world and people. How the Daleks may be his children but he doesn’t belong with them and how the people of Skaro are long gone. While much of this is his doing (although it is arguable how much of a future his world of perpetual war had) Justin Bleach conveyed the unspeakable loneliness and regret that Davros must feel.
The simple act of Davros looking upon the Doctor with his own true eyes was heartbreaking. The viewer and the Doctor can at last see him as a person. The Doctor can even share a laugh with him as Davros makes a joke about the Doctor’s inability to see just how close to death he is.
It makes it completely believable that the Doctor would do his best to try and grant Davros’ wish to see the sunrise just one last time (not unlike his last moments with Handles in ‘The Time Of The Doctor’). If everything had been just as it seemed this would have been a wonderfully crafted end to Davros.
The shadow of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ still looms over the scenes, particularly in the invocation of the ‘Do I have the right?’ scene from that classic story. Once again the Doctor is presented with wires and offered a choice that will mean life or death for the Daleks.
Just as entertaining was the double act between Clara and Missy. It is nice that not only do we get an explanation for how they escaped at the end of last episode but how Missy survived ‘Death In Heaven’. In both cases an energy blast powered the vortex manipulator, allowing them to teleport to safety. A trick that Missy learned from the Doctor (in a lovely flashback that shows us glimpses of the 4th and 1st Doctor as Missy doesn’t bother to specify who actually experienced this unseen adventure).
In some ways they also serve as a reflection of each other. Both of their lives revolve around the Doctor and both are able to get out of situations by thinking what the Doctor would do. ‘Dark Water’ certainly demonstrated that Clara is willing to put the Doctor in danger to get what she wants.
Yet Clara comes out much better here than in the previous episode. She shows great courage in standing up to Missy, putting aside her obvious fears to save a friend. Clara can see the good points of the Doctor and use them to her advantage while still recognising his bad parts which motives her to save him from himself.
For her part Missy makes a good stand-in for the Doctor, showing some affection for Clara if only because she needs bait. While she puts Clara in danger she also saves her. One suspects as well that Missy wouldn’t have as much fun if she didn’t have someone to show off to.
Missy convincing Clara to pretend to be a Dalek is very well crafted. The audience well remembers that this is the situation that we first encountered Clara in (or at least a version of her) even if the character doesn’t know that. Jenna Coleman does a good job of conveying the claustrophobia and panic Clara feels as she is sealed inside the metal shell and her every word is twisted.
The insight into the inner workings of the Dalek, particularly how their vocabulary is filtered, is just one of the many nice additions to the mythos. The journey through the sewer, filled with the rotting slime of the still living Daleks is horrific. As with Davros, for all their terrible acts, we can pity for any Dalek who has to endure that fate.
Everything converges back at the Dalek city. In trying to hook Davros up to the wires that feed him life from the Daleks the Doctor has fallen into a trap. His compassion means that his own regeneration energy will make the Daleks even stronger, turning them into hybrid Time Lords.
For all their points of similarity the Doctor proves that he is smarter than Davros. He knew it was a trap and what the mad scientist planned yet he saw the flaw and Davros didn’t. Renewed the Dalek slime escape the sewers and overwhelm the Daleks in the city.
In the process of escaping the Doctor runs into Clara, still trapped within her Dalek shell. This appears to have been Missy’s end game as she urges the Doctor to kill the very Dalek that exterminated his companion. Clara is only saved because the Dalek had the word ‘mercy’ in its vocabulary bank (as we saw in ‘The Big Bang’).
Missy tries to laugh the whole thing of as another lesson she was trying to teach the Doctor about the nature of friends and enemies but wisely takes his advice to run. The incident does, however, make the Doctor realise that for the Daleks to understand the concept of mercy it must have come from their creator.
This turns the end scene of last episode on its head. The Doctor returns to the battlefields of Skaro not to kill the young Davros, and in so doing wipe the Daleks from time, but to show him compassion. In a touching scene he fulfils the elder Davros wish that they’d been on the same side, if only once, by explaining that friend and enemy doesn’t matter as long as there is mercy.
This brings the two part story full circle. The young Davros was surrounded by hands that would have dragged him down into dark oblivion, like so many soldiers on the battlefield. Instead the Doctor gave him his hand, offering him salvation. The two walking hand in hand into the swirling fog was a great visual to end the episode on.
Not that everything was perfect (but then what is?). Colony Sarff was mostly regulated to a bystander (except for one scene) and his existence was never really explored. At the moment he was a nice concept that was shoehorned into a Dalek story but really we needed to know more about him to justify his presence.
There was a little padding. Missy and Clara escaped the Dalek City only to have to return and the Doctor escaped from Davros’ chamber only to be returned shortly afterwards (although it is a treat to see him whooshing about in Davros’ stolen chair).
I really hope the supposed prophecy about a hybrid is only Davros’ idle speculation and not the actual reason the Doctor left Gallifrey (and as a half human he is already a hybrid). It would be a shame to dilute the central mystery of the series to vague mystical nonsense.
I’ll reserve judgement on the abandonment of the sonic screwdriver for sonic sunglasses until we see them used in further stories.
These minor points aside I felt this one of the stronger Dalek-centric episodes in recent years. It certainly better than ‘Into The Dalek’ which tried to explore the same material but failed due to a troubling definition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
‘The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar’ found a way to pay tribute to the shows past while building upon it. This is a promising sign and I hope we get more explorations and integration of Doctor Who’s long history.
The biggest mystery that remains (other than what is on the confession dial) is who the two episode titles refer to. Presumably it is a reference to Clara, with the Doctor being the magician and the Witch being Missy. While apt the story isn’t about her with her relationship to the two mostly regulated to a subplot. It therefore comes across as a little generic.
It would be stretch to say the title refers to Davros but he truly is the centre of the story. Since in many ways this an examination of how the Doctor made the mad scientist the two part tale might be called ‘The Genesis of Davros’.