Doctor Who: “The Witch’s Familiar” Is Disturbingly Magical
There is a lot to love and even more to unpack in Season 9’s blockbuster two-part opening, but let’s start with something meta-critical of showrunner Steven Moffat. There are several recurring criticisms of him. One is that his writing involving female characters is often a little sexist, something that could be addressed by introducing more female writers and directors. He’s done that here with Hettie Macdonald, who returns to the director’s chair for the first time since “Blink”. The performances she’s coaxed out of her main four cast members is nothing short of astonishing, and it harkens back to great character-driven bottle episodes like “Midnight” and “Edge of Destruction”. Not that “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar” are technically bottle episodes since they span actually quite of lot of time and space, but 90 percent of the run-time is mostly conversations. Some of them, particularly this week’s duel of conscience between The Doctor and Davros, are scenes that will live on for as long as Doctor Who survives, replayed endlessly like Tom Baker asking if he has the right to wipe out an entire species or William Hartnell saying that one day he will come back. I guarantee it.
The second criticism that gets hurled at Moffat is that he is a bit slap-dash with the show’s mythology and rather dismissive of the past before 2005. Personally, I’ve never really seen this as Moffat’s penchant for subtle in-jokes and nods to the classic era are numerous and well done, without ever sacrificing a forward vision. Hopefully these last two episodes will end that criticism because it’s hardly possible for Moffat to have better welded not just the classic and revived eras together, but also the important audio era that maintained Doctor Who as an actively performed enterprise since the ‘90s.
There’s this scene in “Witch’s Familiar” where Missy described a past adventure of The Doctor alone and without companions being chased by invisible robots trying to kill him. Before it shifts to Capaldi we see the familiar form of the Fourth Doctor as he ducks behind a pillar to avoid laser fire, emerging on the other side briefly as the First Doctor until he too shifts out of sight and becomes Capaldi in the close-up shot. Missy says of the adventure it doesn’t matter which of the men it was who had it because it’s all the same Doctor to her, but choses to stick with “the eyebrows” this go-round. It’s a subtle and beautiful reminder to both elitist classic fans and revived fans that sneer at the low-budgets and silly monsters of the pre-Eccleston episodes that no matter what form this is all one long show.
You can also a more subtle influence from Big Finish audio plays, and Julian Bleach’s masterful portrayal of a dying and despondent Davros being held alive against his will by the Daleks draws heavily from “I, Davros” and “Terror Firma”. The unexpected and disturbing conclusion to the episode echoes other audio plays, particularly “Stones of Venice” with its meditations on compassion and rebuke of those in power forgetting the underclass at their peril, and Missy using a broach as a weapon calls to mind the Eighth Doctor doing the same in “Scherzo” (Lots of Eighth Doctor in there… can the rumors of his return be true?). Add in the fact that the whole adventure was basically “Genesis of the Daleks Part 2” and I think it’s very clear that Moffat more than ever is plugged into the Who mythos across all mediums.
The great standout scene this week was between Missy and Clara in the sewers of Skaro. Missy manages to kill a Dalek and coax Clara into the casing in order to basically pull the same trick Han and Luke did with the Stormtrooper outfits and Chewbacca in handcuffs in the first Star Wars. Once Clara is locked inside Missy somewhat cruelly gives Clara, and by extension the viewer, a crash course on what makes a Dalek tick mentally. Prompted by Missy to say, “I love you”, the Dalek voice broadcasted from Clara’s casing screams, “Exterminate!” “I am your friend” does the same, and even saying her own name broadcasts only “I am a Dalek.” It’s wicked disturbing. It’s not that Daleks hate, but that their very design has been created to make it literally impossible for them to express emotions most of us take for granted. Watching Missy walk Clara through the scene was like watching an infomercial for brainwashing, and if it sort of contradicts things we saw in “Asylum of the Daleks” well that’s a price we should be willing to pay for such a remarkable look inside the Dalek mentality.
Last season my least favorite episode was “Into the Dalek,” which I maintain was so full of internal weaknesses in storytelling that it was essentially nonsensical. Rewatching it has not improved my opinion. That episode is just not good. However, there is a really awesome moment in it where the sick Dalek The Doctor is attempting to reason with beholds a star and instead of being filled with the beauty The Doctor was hoping for, he regains his terrible, all-consuming Dalek rage.
“The Witch’s Familiar” has an odd but genius replay of that scene as Davros asks to see the sun rise over Skaro one last time with his own long-shut eyes instead of the glowing mechanical one in his forehead. The Doctor, maybe remembering his own past self begging Handles the Cyberman head to see one last sunrise with him, tries his best to help Davros, but it’s at that exact moment that Davros’s true plan becomes clear. There is something weird but excellent in the manner in which Moffat links the concept of the new day revealing evil, and it’s a unique motif.
On the other hand, it was a little bit of a downer to see Davros revert to form, essentially throwing half an hour's worth of beautiful character development out the window to return him to a cackling madman. It was, for want of a better term, predictable. The whole thing reeks of Batman: The Killing Joke (right down to Davros making The Doctor laugh) in places, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, The Joker was still The Joker at the end of it all, and that’s a little depressing.
The opening was fun in spite of that, though. The Doctor zipping around in Davros’s chair, the reappearance of old Daleks long disused in the show, the daffiness of Missy, and The Doctor trading in the sonic screwdriver for magic sunglasses all made for hilarious and uplifting moments that offset the darkness. Doctor Who has been very, very good this season so far. Fingers crossed it continues.
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