Doctor Who S09E01 “The Witch’s Familiar” Review
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Hettie MacDonald
Essential Plot Points:
- Missy adapts an idea once formulated by the Doctor to teleport her and Clara to safety nanoseconds before extermination.
- They re-enter the Dalek city through the sewers/graveyard of Daleks (although Daleks never truly die, they just fester, apparently)
- Missy places Clara in a Dalek casing. Clara now has a limited Dalek vocabulary.
- The Doctor and Davros chat about centuries of animosity. A lot.
- Davros offers the Doctor the chance to destroy all the Daleks in one fell swoop using Davros’s techno-link to every Dalek in existence. The Doctor declines. But he begins to feel pity for his old adversary who is pondering his own morality as death nears.
- The Doctor gives Davros some regeneration energy so he can see one final sunrise on Skaro… but it’s a trick to hijack the Doctor’s regeneration energy to power-up the Daleks.
- But the Doctor knows what he’s doing: he’s re-empowered the Daleks in the graveyard/sewers too and they set about destroying the city.
- On his escape the Doctor bumps into a Dalek that begs for mercy – not something a Dalek should do. He realises it is Clara inside and frees her.
- He also realises that it is he who must introduce the concept of mercy to Davros, so he pops back to the little boy in the handmine field and saves him.
For 16 minutes – a full third of the episode – “The Witch’s Familiar” is just the Doctor and Davros nattering. Not 16 minutes in a row, admittedly, but even granting that, there are still three massively long scenes of pure Doctor/Davros dialogue: two of over four minutes, another one over three minutes. While you have to wonder what less attentive younger members of the audience made of two old wrinklies droning on, for the rest of us it was a mesmerising experience, as two old adversaries rifled around each other’s psyches, digging deep to gain access to what they needed from one another: in Davros’s case, trust (albeit misplaced); in the Doctor’s, hope.
Featuring two blistering performances from Capaldi and Bleach, this was an engrossing psychological work-out. You could argue that because, ultimately, the Doctor knew he was being lead into a trap all along (and presumably had his coup de grace worked out as soon as he worked out what Davros’s gizmo was for) all that moral to-ing and fro-ing was pointless. Why didn’t the Doctor just use the gizmo to give the sewer Daleks an energy drink as soon as he had the chance? But you get the feeling that the Doctor was genuinely desperate to suss out if Davros did still contain any shreds of humanity (or Kaledity, or whatever); was there still a trace of that little boy from the handmine field; or did the Doctor actually help create this monster by not helping him back then?
It’s a bold, daring move by Moffat, taking advantage of the two-part structure as a chance to explore character rather than plot. It may well be culture shock to those used to New Who’s more fast-pace action adventure but it’s not without precedent: “Midnight”, anybody? The show can, and should, experiment like this.
Besides, if we’re talking about culture shock, there’s Missy to bring a bit of light to the darkness, in the way a fireworks display would fit into a Samuel Beckett production. Here we have some traditional New Who silliness; at times it’s fun, at others it jars. Missy can be an amusing scene stealer, sure, but you can’t help wishing there was more depth to her.
Clara has a good episode, though, as she adds a new spin to the old cliché of entering a Dalek city by pretending to be a Dalek. There’s a real sense of claustrophobia that only partly comes from being trapped in a tin can; if anything, the inability to express herself is even more alarming. It’s a great new piece of Dalek mythology, which is more than can be said for Dalek sewers. They had “This episode’s denouement!” written all over them as soon as they appeared.
The Daleks themselves are a little underwhelming too. This is an episode where they needed to be scary – or at least taken seriously – to provide a chilling context for what’s going on in Davros’s lair; to ram home the evil devastation he has unleashed that the galaxy fears so much. Instead both the Doctor and Missy make them look like complete fools, running rings around them. They spend most of the episode looking about as dumbstruck as a Dalek can. Last week we blamed the director, Hettie MacDonald, but this week it’s definitely the script that undermines the Doctor’s oldest enemies. Besides, we don’t want to be mean about MacDonald when she does such a brilliant job in all other areas; rarely have corridors been shot so well.
- Those great, lengthy scenes between Davros and the Doctor – two great actors, great dialogue and disturbing undercurrents.
- The idea that a Dalek has a limited vocabulary and translates things it doesn’t understand into a few concepts that it does is a brilliant new piece of Dalek lore (even if the specifics of how it all works don’t quite bear up to scrutiny).
- The black-and-white flashback at the beginning is huge fun, especially the brief shots of Doctors one and four – so much better achieved here than in “The Name Of The Doctor”.
- This shot (which will surely inspire a Big Finish audio…?)
- Murray Gold’s score for the final scene in the handmine field is wonderful, as is the final shot of the Doctor and Davros hand-in-hand.
- There are some glorious shots of the Dalek city.
- So many great lines including:
- “I love killing clever clogs. They make the best faces.”
- “Admit it – you’ve all had this exact nightmare.”
- “I am dying, Doctor.” “You keep saying that. You keep not dying. Can you give it some welly?”
- “You weren’t bored. No one runs the way you have run for so small a reason.”
- “Time Lady. Some of us can afford the upgrade.”
- “You are an enemy of the Daleks.” “Yes, well, anyone who is not a Dalek, is an enemy of the Daleks so that was an easy guess.”
- And, of course, “Dalek Supreme, your sewers are revolting.” Classic!
- It’s a shame Davros was just pretending all along – it tends to lessen some of the potency of the previous scenes.
- Missy is still a tad one-note. She’s fun, but lacking in depth so far. And the pirouettes should be rationed.
- The special FX shot of Colony Sarff’s eyes vanishing into a cable is poorly achieved. It looks like an afterthought.
- The physical FX for the destruction of the city are rather humdrum as well. The Dalek goo looked likes something from Who in the ’80s.
And The Random:
- Did anyone else desperately want Missy to call her stick “Mr Pointy” in a reference to Buffy The Vampire Slayer?
- Sonic sunglasses? Now there’s an easy new gimmick for kids play with.
- A Dalek has been heard begging for mercy before in the series, in the final episode of Matt Smith’s first season, “The Big Bang” (2010). The Doctor wasn’t present, though so he many not have know about it; the Dalek was asking River Song for mercy, and now we know how that could be possible. Interestingly in, the final Christopher Eccleston story, “The Parting of The Ways”, the Doctor says, “You might’ve removed all your emotions but I reckon right down deep in your DNA, there’s one little spark left, and that’s fear.” Or maybe it’s mercy?
- The Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS) was first seen in operation in the Patrick Troughton story “The Krotons” (1968) and was last used in the Matt Smith story “The Cold War” (2013). Clara also referenced it in “Kill The Moon” (2014).
- The “Are you ready to be God?” speech mirrors Davros’s monologue in “Genesis Of The Daleks” (1975) when the Doctor asks him what he would do if he created a virus that could wipe out all life: “That power would set me up above the gods!”
- Hmmmm… ongoing questions, Moffat-stylee: How did Skaro return and did the fact Davros had the sonic screwdriver all those year have anything to do with it? Why did the Doctor run? Was or he bored or is this an arc plot? Will a Time Lord/Dalek hybrid ever rise from the ashes of the city?
- “The DNA Of The Daleks” is surely one of the great lost Dalek episode titles?
- After decades of smutty gags about “Ex-sperm-inate!” and “Ejaculate!” you have to assume that Moffat’s line about Dalek guns being triggered by emotion is dripping in innuendo.
- And speaking of smutty humour, is the Doctor boasting here?