02 “The Witch’s Familiar” (Doctor Who series 9) [SPOILERS]


doctor who peter capaldi

So regular readers will know that when I watched the d├ębut of Peter Capaldi’s second series in the TARDIS, I was pleasantly surprised. Having cast my eyes around the interwebs, that wasn’t universally the opinion, but I’m standing by my impressions.

It was funny, it was dark, it was bold, and as the opener to a new series it did what too often New Who has shied away from. The cliffhanger also raises an interesting format, whereby they seem to be going for a collection of two-part episodes, and giving stories two hours to run over. This feels like a little more room for stories to breathe, and a step towards the serials of old.

And given that this blogger grew up on the adventures of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor (Reruns, I have to stress -Ed), a character which more than a few times Capaldi’s iteration has harked back to.

Of course, setting up a compelling story is all well and good. New Who has always excelled in that. It‘s the resolution that Moffat et al usually fall down on, and it’s that on which “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” will be judged.

Trapped at the heart of Skaro and believing his friends to be dead, the Doctor grapples with the reason Davros has brought him there, all the while playing into his hands. Meanwhile, Missy and Clara try to find a way to get the Doctor out from the midst of his enemies.

Hands up if you actually believed that Missy and Clara were dead? Yeah, me neither. It’s actually a pretty lazy move by the writers, but it’s something done so often that I can’t really be bothered to criticise it. What we do get, though, is an explanation of how they survived that is both quite good and has a role in the story.

Missy treats us to a tale of the Doctor’s past, where cornered by invisible android assassins, he channels the energy of their weapons into his vortex manipulator in order to escape. Which, naturally, is exactly what Missy did when “disintegrated” by the Daleks, and incidentally when she was shot by the Brigadier-Cyberman in last season’s finale.

But more than that, it plays into something which I sense is going to be something of a theme for the Doctor through this series. Whereas last season it was whether the Doctor was a good man, this time we seem to be playing into a whole “how does the Doctor survive?” thing. The answer suggested here is because he always assumes that he will.

The Doctor we witness in Davros grasp, then, is one without hope. Or at least on a precipice. His first approach is to steal Davros’ chair in a sort-of escape attempt, which is really more of a confrontation with the Supreme Dalke of the “Clara better not be dead” order. Of course, he doesn’t get very far, because Davros’ chair is full of snakes (My hovercraft is full of eels -Ed). I mean the delightful new villain Colony Sarf, of course, who subdues the Doctor once more.

Missy and Clara, meanwhile, infiltrate the city via the subterranean sewer, after Missy decides not to eat Clara. Apparently Daleks are genetically programmed not to die (What? -Ed), and even when their bodies break down and liquify they are still alive (What? -Ed), and so their sewers are full of very old, very irate, liquid Daleks. (No really, what? -Ed). Once the dynamic duo lure a Dalek down there, Missy punches holes in its shell and the old Daleks kill it for them. Clara then agrees to Missy’s plan of her getting inside the Dalek armour. Presumably because she’s stupid.

Now, whether or not the concept of Clara getting inside the Dalek armour is stupid (It undeniably is -Ed), it actually leads somewhere interesting. Everything that Clara says is translated through Dalek, and so anything denoting identity comes out as “I AM A DALEK!”, and anything emotion based — delightfully including “you are different to me” — comes out as “EXTERMINATE!”. Missy’s rather brilliant explanation is that rather than repressing emotions, a la the Cybermen, the Daleks harness it. “EXTERMINATE!” is basically reloading their gun.

Now, the reason that Davros wanted to see the Doctor was that he was dying. And the reason that the Doctor came was that Davros asks — it was more down to his general compassion than that he left kid Davros stranded in that rather brilliant hand mine scene last episode. Davros, as part of their age old compassion is good/compassion is bad argument offers the Doctor revenge: he is sustained by his connection to every single Dalek, but were the Doctor to take his place in the chamber then he could use it to wipe them out. The Doctor, even bereft of hope, refuses to commit genocide.

Davros then opens up to the Doctor, expressing that he wants to see a sunrise with his real eyes, one last time. He’s circling the drain, and clearly not going to make it, so the Doctor does his first actually doctor-y thing in ages, and offers Davros a spark of regeneration energy to perk him up long enough to see the dawn.

Now, naturally this is what Davros was after all along: to get access to the Doctor’s regenerative abilities to restore himself and all of the Daleks into some hybrid master race. There’s some sort of Gallifreyan prophecy, apparently, talking of two warrior races joining into one. But, naturally, the Doctor has been onto Davros from the start, and what he has actually done is use the regenerative power to restore all of the annoyed Daleks in the sewer, who rise up and destroy all of the other Daleks, whilst Missy rescues the Doctor from the Davros trap.

All’s well then? Yeah, except that Clara is still inside the Dalek armour. And Missy tells the Doctor that she is, in fact, the Dalek who killed Clara. And all of Clara’s protestations come out as “EXTERMINATE!” and “I AM A DALEK!”. Until, that is, she happens upon the word “MERCY!”, which the Doctor reasons shouldn’t be in a Dalek’s vocabulary. He twigs who it is, and they flee the collapsing city, with Missy making her own, sort of, escape.

Except, that’s not it. Because remember that brilliant final scene from the last episode? Where the Doctor turns up in the past, pointing a Dalek gun at child Davros. Which, after everything, the Doctor rushes into the TARDIS to do. To save his friend. But it’s not Davros he shoots, but the hand minds, and saves the child, if only to introduce the word mercy into the Dalek lexicon.

So how did it weigh up?

Well it was mental. And it made very little sense. And it was still as madcap as ever. And of course the Doctor didn’t leave the child to his fate in a muddy minefield. And it really did make very little sense.

But that’s Doctor Who. And this actually was a really enjoyable opening two-parter. It wasn’t going to end on a bleak note, clearly, but it tackled some reasonably dark stuff head on, and managed to bring back the Daleks without me groaning at their overuse. And where I might have expected the parallels with the Genesis of the Daleks to grate, it was actually really well done.

Capaldi seems to have grown to fit the role, and I do hope rumours of his imminent departure are unfounded. His serious, grouchy Doctor is exactly the antidote to the over-excited child of Matt Smith’s version. I’m hopeful that series 9 will turn out to be a real gem.

Closing thoughts:

  • This, of course, isn’t the first time we’ve heard a Dalek say “MERCY!”
  • Bad Moffat! Put. The prophecy. Down. We don’t need any more of that, thank you.
  • Not sold on the sonic screwdriver in the sunglasses, to be honest.
  • Missy still steals the show, I’m afraid.
  • It strikes me that even with the Doctor’s plan having succeeded, you still have a race of uber-powerful, Time Lord infused, liquid Daleks running about. And I’m not sure that’s much of an improvement.
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