Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Doctor trapped in a Dalek city, face to face with Davros. Missy and Clara elsewhere on Skaro, not dead. Lots of Daleks. After last week’s whole episode of set-up (plus this week’s pre-credits to establish the not dead thing), it was time to get serious. (Oh, and nice of them to explain Missy surviving Death in Heaven – so the similar death effects weren’t just a coincidence!)

As set up in last week’s all-expenses trip for the Doctor Who crew to a cafe in one of our hot countries, the theme of The Witch’s Familiar is friends and enemies, and the blurring lines between the two, a theme reflected in the episode’s two pairings of characters usually on opposite sides – the Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara. It’s a wonder Steven Moffat managed to avoid the line “We’re not so different, you and I.”

So, looking at the Doctor and Davros first. Wisely, this episode sidestepped the trolley dilemma (of whether it’s right to kill a child in order to save many people in the future) set up by the cliffhanger – after all, Genesis of the Daleks explores this very problem rather well, and Moffat would be setting a difficult task for himself in attempting to remake a classic. The Witch’s Familiar also avoids too much unnecessary mucking around with established Dalek history, another trap that many feared Moffat wouldn’t resist diving into.

Rather, this episode focuses on the present, and on the Doctor and Davros as two old enemies temporarily putting their adversary aside, with Davros pleading for the Doctor to be, well, a doctor, and to see he survives one last Skaro sunrise (Skaro Sunrise should be a cocktail – 6 parts orange juice, 3 parts tequila, 3 parts hatred). It’s a trap, of course, but there’s a lot of very good stuff leading up to the reveal that could almost fool you into thinking you won’t need your Admiral Ackbar memes, and Julian Bleach gives Davros an emotional range never seen before. Congratulating the Doctor on saving Gallifrey is an excellent, surprising moment – he’s trying to show empathy, but can only do so within his ideology of race above all. And his eyes! Perhaps what impressed me most about that moment was the realisation that Bleach had been giving this remarkable performance with his eyes shut.

But, though Davros’ sudden turn back to the megalomaniacal is another great part of Bleach’s performance, the actual climax of this confrontation, in which the Doctor channels his regeneration energy into some wires, doesn’t feel as solid as the build-up to it. Firstly, I’d like to know, even if it’s just a detail noticed on second viewing, at what point the Doctor realises (a) Davros is lying and (b) there’s a way to get the upper hand. It all seems very arbitrary. Perhaps he could have overheard a report on Missy's disruption in the sewer, thus giving him his get-out?

And secondly, this Dalek hybrid regeneration thing. Right. The Daleks loudly announce “WE ARE MORE POWERFUL NOW” and then sort of sit around, failing to do anything about their worst enemies smashing the place up right in front of them. Even if it’s meant to be a set up for a future story, the Daleks’ increased powers need to raise the dramatic stakes, and they just don’t. Also, I have trouble believing the Daleks would want to be Time Lord/Dalek hybrids given they’re all about the racial purity.

Meanwhile, Clara and Missy head back to the place where they’d both just been shot (it’s as good a plan as any…) via the sewers. Nothing quite as complex here, but I did enjoy these scenes. The sewer-graveyards are a wonderfully creepy idea, and Missy playing her twisted take on the Doctor’s usual role is delightful – pushing Clara down the hole, "every miner needs a canary", "the bitch is back". The downside is that Clara does little in this episode other than be pushed down holes and into Daleks – a stark contrast to Super-Clara of last week. At this rate, series nine Clara will be as inconsistently characterised as series seven Clara.

But these antics were ultimately a sideshow to the Doctor’s confrontation with Davros, and it’s remarkable that, after last week’s manic race through time and space, the heart of this episode was a lengthy reminiscence between two old men in a basement – the kind of thing which wouldn’t be allowed within a hundred miles of the Matt Smith era. As a two-parter, we may look back on these opening episodes as structurally messy, but the second part doubtlessly benefitted from its concentrated setting, which allowed us some quality insights into the Daleks’ creator. With time, The Witch’s Familiar may overtake the action blockbuster Asylum of the Daleks and the more Doctor-focused Into the Dalek as the most fondly remembered of the Moffat era’s Dalek episodes.


Post a Comment