Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 2
“The Witch’s Familiar”
Doctor Who seemed to leave the characters in a dire situation last week with Clara and Missy killed by Daleks and the TARDIS destroyed but it’s the character questions that really built my anticipation for this episode. This review is pretty late but I’ve had things on. Next week will unfortunately be the same.
In the past I have said that Moffat’s way of establishing high stakes is pretty laughable. Many of his stories have had the entire universe be at stake and the Doctor has to pull a solution out of nowhere that seems equally ridiculous. When the stakes are at that level it’s easy for the characters to be so swept up in the plot that any meaningful development opportunities are lost.
Moffat’s best stories have always been character driven with the jeopardy going on behind it but not being overly important. “The Witch’s Familiar” is a really good example of that as much of the story focuses on the Doctor and Davros reflecting on their complex relationship forged over the centuries.
As far as the Doctor is concerned at the beginning of this episode he has lost everything. Clara is dead and the TARDIS is apparently destroyed though the latter is never really addressed as the Doctor knows that the TARDIS is just fine. I’ll come back to that a bit later on but the loss of Clara is something that is firmly on his mind and has caused him to be even more reckless than usual.
The way that Moffat chose to show the Doctor’s more reckless attitude was a good scene though it didn’t serve much in the way of story purpose. Seeing him roll around in Davros’ chair was really entertaining and a little bit cruel. I do really like that Capaldi’s Doctor has a bit of a mean streak that allows him to remove the dying Davros from the chair that gives him mobility and taunt the Daleks with it. He jokes that every Dalek must have had the nightmare of the Doctor being in that chair and it sort of makes sense that they would find it an unsettling sight. This episode spends a lot of time focusing on the similarities between the Doctor and Davros so having this personified by the Doctor taunting the Daleks this way works really well.
As I said this scene serves very little plot function beyond the Doctor finding out that the Daleks definitely think they have killed Clara but the entertainment value coupled by what it represents in the grand scheme of things makes it stand out.
The real meat of the story comes from the discussions that the Doctor and Davros have when they are alone. There is a lot of respect between the two of them that comes across really well. Davros and the Doctor have basically been at war for centuries so a bond has built between them. The Doctor mentions that he came to Davros because he’s sick and asked. For him his desire to help is so sincere that it doesn’t take any more than that for the Doctor to come. He fully believes that everyone can be saved and his intention is to try to save Davros before he dies.
I found the similarities between Davros and the Doctor to be really fascinating. One of the burning questions since the beginning of Capaldi’s run has been whether the Doctor is a good man or not. Davros asks the same question about himself. I’m unsure how he can really believe he is considering all of the genocide he is both directly and indirectly responsible for but it appears that at the end of his life he regrets some of the things he has done and needs the assurance that there is some good in him.
Seeing the Doctor be so vulnerable around Davros created a lot of dramatic possibilities. In the course of the episode he opened up about a great number of things including the existence of his home planet Gallifrey. Viewers of the show will know that he managed to save it in “Day of the Doctor” but he has no idea where it ended up. He tells Davros that it’s safe from both of them. The Doctor has often been quite self hating so it makes sense that he would feel that he’s a danger to his people. Considering all of the trouble he seems to attract it’s a fair point. If he finds Gallifrey then maybe one of his enemies could follow him there and then the Time War could begin all over again.
Davros’ reaction to finding out that the Doctor isn’t alone in the universe got my attention as well. He seems genuinely pleased for his adversary that he doesn’t have to suffer the loneliness that he knows can be all consuming. Davros could only save his people by turning them into killing machines trapped inside a tank so in effect he is completely alone since there are none among his people at all like him. Loneliness seems to have allowed these characters to find common ground and the personal revelations had by each of them are intriguing viewing.
The resolution of the episode lets it down somewhat unfortunately. I like the idea that Davros was playing on the Doctor’s compassion. Many of his enemies would perceive that to be his greatest weakness so it would make sense to attack him that way. Davros seems like the type to take advantage of any weakness for his own ends so it’s somewhat bizarre that I didn’t actually see it coming. It probably has a lot to do with the excellent performances of both Capaldi and Beach that really sell the shared vulnerability. The moment where Davros opens his eyes so that he can see the Doctor was really nicely done.
What lets this down is that the Doctor was anticipating the betrayal and had it as part of his plan all along. I get that the Doctor is a genius and knows how his enemies work but he’s a much more interesting character if he’s fallible. It would have been so much more effective if the Doctor had been blind sided by the betrayal. There have been too many of these sorts of reveals over the course of the series as a whole that they are pretty ineffective when used now. I also wonder what giving up so much regeneration energy means for the Doctor in the future. He has lives to burn now sure but if this is consequence free then the impact will be further lessened.
Similarly the Doctor’s sonic sunglasses and the reveal that the TARDIS was never destroyed felt a bit cheap. I really hate that he was in control of the situation the whole time as it implies that the conversation between him and Davros was lacking in sincerity. I choose to believe that it wasn’t but the possibility is in the mix.
The Daleks were obviously in this story as well but they act pretty much as a wall. Pretty much their only function is to keep the Doctor from escaping but don’t do much beyond that. Repeated usage of them as an enemy have left them pretty toothless by this point so I can understand Moffat’s rationale for using their appearances to introduce new concepts to them.
In this case the tank that houses the Dalek is shown to have software that has a limited vocabulary as shown when Clara is driving one. She is unable to say her name as it gets translated into identifying as a Dalek. Any positive messages become “Exterminate” and now it turns out that the word “Exterminate” is what they say to reload their guns. It seems a bit silly but I am willing to accept it. I like the idea of a creature trapped inside a tank unable to project anything but hate onto the universe. It does suggest that the drivers of these tanks might not be inherently evil but are driven to horrible acts by the technology that keeps them alive. I think it certainly merits further exploration. Also, having Clara become a Dalek again was a nice throwback to her first appearance as Oswin Oswald in “Asylum of the Daleks”.
I also really liked the idea that the concept of mercy is deeply rooted in the Dalek belief system which leads the Doctor to choose to save Davros after wondering where it might have come from. It essentially absolves him of the guilt of abandoning him but it nicely answers the question of who created Davros. Having it turn out that Davros has a sliver of mercy in his personality because of the Doctor rather than having him be the inspiration for all the genocide committed by the Daleks. It is perhaps a little too neat but no less effective.
Speaking of Clara and Missy the episode doesn’t leave the question of their survival open for any time at all and quickly revealed the contrived nature of their survival. Missy’s recounting of the time that the Doctor used a similar method to get himself out of trouble several faces ago was nicely put together and an enjoyable watch.
The quality of Clara and Missy’s tenuous team-up entirely depends on whether you like the Missy character or not. I really don’t so these scenes were the weakest for me. There were some interesting moments as they looked to double cross one another at any opportunity and Missy’s inevitable betrayal came at around the right time. I do like that she is still at large but I’m hoping she doesn’t return any time soon.
Clara did feel more like a companion in this episode with very little agency of her own which actually makes for a nice change. On a conceptual level the idea of Missy and Clara embodying a twisted version of the Doctor/Companion dynamic is interesting as well. Mileage will vary based on how irritating you find the characters but there was nothing really wrong with the execution beyond my personal issues.
Season 9 is off to a strong start so far with an engaging opening story that really provokes thought and gives some interesting insights on an old enemy of the Doctor. I think if Moffat continues to keep the series focused on the characters rather than the situations and keeps the Doctor as consistent as he has been in these episodes then we might be onto a winner here.
An engaging conclusion to the story that began last week with some nicely handled exploration of the characters involved.
The focus of the story was kept on the Doctor’s relationship with Davros and rightly so. Plenty of time is given to each of them to be introspective about the events that brought them together at that moment. Davros seems very similar to the Doctor in terms of the self loathing and doubt felt. The scenes between them are very well written and acted to provide plenty of interesting concepts to think about.
It is somewhat ruined by the double cross and the fact that the Doctor is more than ready for it. It would have been far more effective had the Doctor not been expecting it and the resolution seemed to be a little too neat. It doesn’t ruin the good faith built up prior to that but the impact is very much lessened.
The Daleks are mostly around as window dressing without doing much to move the story along but Moffat smartly introduces a few new ideas to associate with them. It’s a good decision to make since they are fairly toothless by this point so learning more about them is an acceptable compromise at least some of the time.
Missy and Clara’s tenuous team-up isn’t badly done but enjoyment highly depends on personal reaction to the characters. I find Missy as written immensely annoying so those scenes do very little for me when watching them. The ideas are solid such as their team-up being a twisted version of the Doctor/Companion dynamic but mileage will vary depending on the reaction to Missy and Clara.
Season 9 is off to a good start so let’s hope that Moffat and crew can maintain this level of quality and make Doctor Who something I can enjoy again.