• 2nd October 2015 • Review by Pete Dillon-Trenchard •
There is a growing schism in Doctor Who fandom. Many fans believe that ever since Peter Capaldi was cast we’ve been living in a golden age for the series, which a Doctor and a showrunner both at the top of their game. And then there’s a vocal section of the community that believes Steven Moffat has outstayed his welcome and have spent the past few years demanding his resignation.
“The Witch’s Familiar” seems almost designed to encourage confirmation bias on both sides of the argument, featuring as it does some of the best Capaldi-era moments to date alongside some pretty dreadful plot contrivances. By which I’m not referring to the cliffhanger resolution – I don’t think anyone was expecting either Clara or Missy to really be dead, and it made a refreshing change to be given an explanation for Missy/the Master escaping her fate at the end of the previous story.
I am, of course, referring to the sudden existence of living Dalek sewage, and both its ability and inclination to rise up and defeat the rest of the species. Not only is introducing the idea that Daleks are suddenly unable to die somewhat nonsensical given everything we’ve seen before, but worse than that – it’s cheap. And it actively diminishes the story. For an episode set entirely on the Daleks’ home world, there’s surprisingly little menace at play; the Dalek mud bath reduces the Doctor to an unusually passive role in the climax of the episode.
However, if you’re able to look past the metaphorical hand waving, there’s a lot to love about “The Witch’s Familiar”. For all of its fan-pleasing cameos, this isn’t a Dalek story. This is a story about the Doctor and Davros, two ancient and powerful intellects whose paths have become intrinsically linked. And it’s about Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach, two fearsomely talented actors who for most of the episode are simply put in a room together and made to spar.
Seemingly at the end of his life, this episode gives us something we’ve never seen from Davros before: humanity. The classic series never seemed to know what to do with Davros after his first appearance, presenting us time and again with a ranting megalomaniac who became more and more like his creations each time we saw him.
This story appears to bring Davros’ journey full circle, giving us the thoughtful, analytical scientist who first introduced his Mark III travel machines to the Kaled bunker. Doctor Who is a fundamentally hopeful programme, and as much as the Doctor wants to believe that Davros has a compassionate side while he celebrates the recovery of Gallifrey, we want to believe it as well – even if we’re less keen to believe that Davros simply had his real eyes closed the whole time.
As with the planned heroic sacrifice of the Master all those years ago, there’s something tremendously affecting in the notion that even the Doctor’s nastiest foes are able to make a sort of peace with him at the end. Bleach and Capaldi are utterly mesmerising here; one almost wishes they’d dropped the pretence and just had two whole episodes of the pair having a proper heart to hearts. For all his eyebrows and cynicism, the twelfth Doctor is every bit as wide-eyed and naive as his predecessor, for the simple reason that he really wants to believe. Which, of course, is why it’s so utterly heartbreaking for viewer and Doctor alike when the whole thing turns out to be another of Davros’ great and faintly ridiculous plans. It’s a proper kick in the teeth moment, and in the hands of two lesser actors it might have been more obvious that it was coming.
Elsewhere, we’re presented with a less effective but still enjoyable double act in the form of Missy and Clara. It’s an interesting pairing, as for all of Clara’s cockiness, travelling with Missy is a reminder – to the viewers, if not to Clara – of just how out of her depth she still is in a lot of situations. Michelle Gomez is clearly having a ball playing Missy, and whilst some of the direct comparisons to Roger Delgado’s Master being levelled at the performance seem a touch misplaced, the character is far more mercurial and in control than in her initial appearance.
One of the most chilling parts of the episode is Clara’s experience inside the Dalek casing. Whilst this is another instance of Steven Moffat rewriting the Daleks to suit the story (Ian Chesterton never had this trouble…), this one’s worth it for the sheer horror of seeing control freak Clara trapped inside a claustrophobic Dalek shell, unable to express herself. It’s the sort of scare that extends far beyond a frightening monster – though there is something primal about the moment when the Doctor, seated in Davros’ chair, is smothered in snakes.
Moffat is often associated with time-bending storylines, but fear is his business; from the Weeping Angels to “Don’t cremate me”, he’s up there with Philip Hinchcliffe in his ability to send children of all ages to bed with the light on.
“The Witch’s Familiar” is far from perfect. If you’re one of those who truly believes ‘Moffat must go’, this isn’t going to sway you. But for all its gimmicks and hand waving, there’s some powerful character material that continues to build on the good work of the last series. Doctor Who is open for business – and if this first two-part story is any indicator, we’re in for a heck of a year.