Doctor Who S9E2 “The Witch’s Familiar”

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Spoilers. Big Ones. Right from the start.

As feared, I’ve been too inundated with work to sit down and tap out any thoughts about the second episode of Doctor Who on Saturday, although I did at least get to watch it live at the time which was rather more than I’d hoped for. There seems little point in going into too much detail this long after the fact – I’m sure you’ve already read dozens of review pieces about “The Witch’s Familiar” by now and are hardly slathering over the prospect of another – so I’ll keep this relatively short. And when I say ‘relatively’, long-time Taking The Short View readers can feel free to smirk.

WItchsFamiliarIf you cast your mind back, you’ll recall that my main churlish complaints about the season opener were that for all its fan-pleasing treats, the episode was overly reliant on several old tropes and in particular lacked substance under all the tricks. Given that the follow-up episode was completely the reverse of that – taking risks and doing things the show has never done before, and overall stuffed to the gills with genuine substance with remarkably few mere ‘frills’ – you’d think I’d come away from this one feeling really happy and praising it to the skies as one of the best episodes of recent years.

Well, no.

Actually I’m going to praise it not just as one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who of all time, but as one of the most superlative pieces of TV drama I think I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

Drama, when it comes down to it, is putting two compelling characters into a room and then having them talk with intelligence and insight about things that really matter. And that’s exactly what Steven Moffat did with the Doctor and Davros, confining them for the bulk of the episode in one bare room and then having them take a wide-ranging discussion encompassing many profound and universal themes, all the while throwing fascinating and compelling new light on two characters that we thought we already knew inside and out having been in their company for decades. Instead, both men surprised us: it’s rare that simple spoken dialogue can hold one’s attention so utterly and deliver so many shocks and chills as this managed to do.

The credit of course goes to Moffat, but he had the reassuring safety net of knowing that he could rely on two brilliant performers to execute his script. I’ve been a big fan of Peter Capaldi ever since he started in the role, but this week he took his performance as the Doctor up to a whole new level and also in many different directions. There were times when he seemed to be channeling the spirit of the Fourth Doctor so authentically that I honestly had to stop and think about whether Tom Baker had really ever originally played the role with a Scottish accent. And as for Julian Bleach as Davros – what a stunning bit of acting. Michael Wisher was great as the original actor in the role and was well-served at the time by a terrific script from Terry Nation (polished by Robert Holmes) while Terry Molloy showed in the Big Finish audios how good he could be with a decent story rather than the ‘ranting megalomanic’ parts he was saddled with in his TV appearances, but neither of them ever had the sort of full-developed, brilliantly nuanced script to work from that Bleach gets here from Moffat. And Bleach accordingly knocks it out of the park and then some, delivering a Davros that is a real person rather than a mere caricature-concept as has so often been in the past. The fact that the aged, dying Dark Lord of Skaro is more dangerous here dripping quiet malevolence into every whispered word of malice than he ever was ranting and raving at full volume at Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy says it all.

Meanwhile, there’s the small matter of Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Missy (Michelle Gomez), last seen being exterminated. Of course, Moffat was always far too clever than to try and spin this out for interminable ‘are they really dead?’ suspense and fortunately there wasn’t any timey-wimey big rest button to bring them back to life à la the many deaths of Rory Williams, but even so I was taken aback when the episode wasted no time and actually opened with the pair of them alive and well on Skaro outside the Dalek city. While clearly in a secondary position to the Doctor/Davros face-off, Clara and Missy’s consequent road-trip was no time-filling B-story but was genuinely needed to supply much of the plot structure that the story would rely on at the climax. It also provided many of the laughs as Missy time and again outsmarted Clara and stitched her up good and proper, the best one surely being how she determined the depth of a hole in a cave with Clara’s unwitting ‘help.’ But it wasn’t all fun and games, and the sequence in which we get inside a Dalek, both literally and figuratively to find out why it rants and says ‘Exterminate’ the way it does, was jaw-droppingly fascinating. It was totally original and yet completely in line with 50 years of canon, the sort of real, original insight into the Daleks that was disappointingly missing in the otherwise cheerfully entertaining “Into the Dalek” last season.

capaldiEven the parts that looked like nods to fan-pleasing ‘style’ were laden with real significance and substance in “The Witch’s Familiar.” The pre-teaser sequence in which we flash back to some previously unseen adventure with the Doctor surrounded by 50 invisible robot assassins in an audaciously budget-friendly breakout scene? Many labelled that gratuitous and unnecessary but without it you’d just have a dull minute of boring technobabble from Missy explaining how they had managed to escape extermination. instead, this way she also gets to analyse and judge whether Clara’s sharp enough to work it out from a few clues, while we also get to see how Time Lords (and Ladys) think of each other’s changing appearances with a brief flash of the Fourth Doctor (and the First; or was it the Third?) diving for cover before settling for ‘the eyebrows’ version for the purpose of this presentation. To Missy, such cosmetics are inconsequential.

The other big fan-pleasing moment in the episode was the Doctor taking over Davros chair and facing off against the Dalek Supreme: “Admit it, you’ve all had this nightmare” he quips before challenging them to a game of dodgems and pulling out a china cup of tea from, uh, somewhere. And yet the sight of the Doctor in Davros’ chair visually sets up how he and his supposed arch-enemy are mirror images, interchangeable to an alarming degree, and the comparison is brought home even more forcefully in dialogue later in the episode when Davros suddenly and apparently with complete sincerity asks the Doctor “Am I a good man?”, linking directly back to the the Doctor’s own voyage of self-discovery throughout season 8. Once Davros asks that question it’s impossible not to see him in a new light as a real person and not just a despotic load of prosthetics moving around in a Dalek-themed chair. That new insight and depth lasts even when he later springs his deadly trap: after all, the Doctor’s got one of those too, so just how different are they really? They both believe that whet they’re doing is for their good of their people and/or the universe which is normally considered a noble aim. This is the golden rule of all good reason: every character is the hero of their own story, whether they’re your protagonist, or the jet-black bad guy, or merely the second Dalek from the right. All of them think this story is about them and they’re the most important player; if the writing remembers that and delivers accordingly then you’ll be on fire.

If I have a qualm about the episode, it’s with the literal shitstorm at the end. The actual idea of the decrepit, rotting Daleks in the graveyard/sewer is quite brilliant and yet another example of Moffat finding previously under-utilised horror in the everyday and then spinning it into a completely new direction. However, the final sequence where the Daleks are subsumed by a tidal wave of effluent could frankly go either way – more execrable than excrement you might say, and not a million miles away from the juvenile silliness of the farting Slitheen. If it hadn’t been for the brilliance of what had preceded this moment in the show – and the fact that the plot had all been carefully put into place to make it feel logical – the audience might easily have found this too laughable to accept as a satisfying ending.

In any case, let’s not think of this as an ending. It feels more like a simple pause in the Dalek’s endless war with the Doctor. Just like any home that’s had its sewers back up and flood the house, the Daleks will get to work cleaning up and surely be back for more. It’s at best a mild inconvenience for them. Davros will be just fine of course and so will Missy, whatever clever idea she’s had – I loved the way that Moffat now simply pre-builds in her escape rather than having to do it retrospectively later on when she returns from what had looked like certain death. There’s too much business left over regarding the Doctor’s confession, the real reason he fled Gallifrey in the first place, and the small matter of a fabled Time Lord/Dalek hybrid to take care of. None of these were resolved, but for once that didn’t feel like a problem because none of these were the focus of the episode. We got our closure, enough for now at least, but also with enough dangling threads to keep us coming back for more.

“The Witch’s Familiar’ was a perfect second part to the season opener, the pair making an ideally balanced double act where the one makes up for any deficiencies in the other. It’s best viewed in one sitting and I was pleased to see the BBC decide to hastily organise an omnibus repeat on Sunday which allowed us to really appreciate just how genuinely brilliant the whole thing had been. The only problem with starting off the season with such a barnstormer is that you wonder whether the momentum and quality can possibly be sustained.

Well, the next story is another two-parter. “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” are both written by Toby Whithouse who I think it one of the best writers working in the business at the moment thanks to the likes of Being Human and The Game although his previous Doctor Who entires have been a bit up and down: “School Reunion” was superlative, “The Vampires of Venice” very disappointing, and “The God Complex” rather terrific once you got your head around it, which took a little doing.

From the look of it, Whithouse is dropping the high-concept of “The God Complex” this time and going instead for something flat-out entertaining – and scary. It’s a return to the old ‘base under siege’ formula, much derided when done badly or repetitively but if I’m honest a personal favourite of mine in moderation. It’s being likened to three David Tennant-era stories, namely “The Impossible Planet”, “42” and “The Waters of Mars” all of which are serious favourites of mine from the post-reboot show. If it’s anywhere near as good as that trio then I will be bouncing off the walls with delight.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings.

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