Doctor Who Review: The Witch’s Familiar

doctor who the witch's familiar review steven moffat hettie macdonald davros peter capaldi twelfth doctor michelle gomez jenna coleman

I didn’t come because I was ashamed. I came because you were sick and you asked. 

To be entirely fair, I don’t think anyone really expected the episode to open the way it did. We’d all believed that we’d see a linear progression from the cliffhanger on to the start of the next episode – I even spent some time proselytising about the morality of it all, and whether or not you really should steal Davros’ favourite teddy.

It was a classic piece of misdirection though, which we really should expect by now, and it allowed Moffat to present us with something that was a little bit different. Rather than a parable about changing time (I was entirely expecting them to just do away with the Daleks completely, to be honest) of the sort we’ve seen before, we saw something that has been rather unique thus far.

A proper conversation between Davros and the Doctor.

That was, I’ve read, the starting point for the episode, when Moffat was working on the idea; we’ve had so many stories with the Doctor and Davros, and their interactions are always stellar, but often so fleeting as well. Here, then, was a chance for us to really examine the relationship between the pair of them, getting to the heart of it, and showing us something we’ve never seen before.

Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi sell it, of course. It’s their performance that captures the essence of the thing, and provides the true highlights of the episode. This is likely to be remembered as the best interaction between the Doctor and Davros ever, and will no doubt inform all future ones as well.

It’s some genuinely compelling writing in those scenes – I’d be prepared to say this is Moffat’s best rendering of a returning villain, but Missy was in this episode too – which gives us a fresh outlook on things, whilst still remaining faithful to what’s gone before. Take, for example, the conversation about Gallifrey; Davros congratulates the Doctor, says that he’s happy for him, and you can believe it, because that’s based on everything we already know about Davros. It builds upon his own jingoism and passion for Skaro, and examines it in a different light.

doctor who the witch's familiar review davros cries eyes julian bleach skaro twelfth doctor peter capaldi hettie macdonald steven moffat

Another thing that stood out to me were the moments where Davros was almost like a friend of the Doctor’s; sharing a joke with him, watching a sunset together, and speaking of the admiration he felt for the Doctor. It forms a wonderful set of parallels with Missy, another staple of the programme, who’s both an enemy and a friend to the Doctor.

The difference, of course, was that it was ultimately just a lie – where Missy genuinely does consider the Doctor a friend, albeit it in a complicated fashion, Davros is simply manipulating the Doctor, taking advantage of his compassion. It’s a testament to the strength of both the writing and the acting that Davros’ about turn really did feel like a betrayal; I’d totally bought into the idea that they were going to kill off Davros, because this felt like the absolute right way to handle it. When he did then start to laugh maniacally… well, everything changed.

Something that worked quite well about the Davros and the Doctor scenes were how perverse they were, in a way. A lot of the imagery relied upon twisting what we already knew so well, and presenting it in a very different, much more disturbing light. Davros laughing, for one thing, as well as Davros’ real eyes – there’s a strange, almost uncanny valley effect to it, which really heightens the tension to the scene. Davros quoting the Doctor’s own question – “Am I a good man?” – only added to this, really heightening the intrigue, and investing us in the interaction between the pair.

On the topic of the imagery, and disturbing ideas, it’s worth discussing the Dalek sewers. That was a fantastically macabre concept (that set up a similarly fantastic pun!) which was used quite effectively I think. It’s another aspect to the horror of the Daleks; the screaming sound remains chilling, and the concept of Daleks living on, even after “death”, is one that has a lot of potential, and I really hope it gets mined further.

Director Hettie MacDonald did a wonderful job of bringing it all to life. I must admit, I am typically not inclined to comment on direction, because I don’t really know a huge amount about it, and usually can’t distinguish between any particular flourishes or mistakes, but it must be said, this episode was quite well done. The Dalek city is very stylish, the sewers are atmospheric, and the whole episode is wonderfully evocative. So, great job there.

doctor who the witch's familiar review twelfth doctor young davros peter capaldi julian bleach steven moffat hettie macdonald steven moffat

Admittedly, though, the episode was not perfect. I think it’s probably fair to say that, as with last week, the plot was not necessarily the most substantial. Obviously, the sheer quality of the Davros/Doctor scenes more than makes up for a lot of this, but the episode does feel a little empty, in some ways.

Similarly, the subplot with Clara and Missy was lacking too. Lots to appreciate; both Michelle Gomez and Jenna Coleman are exceptionally skilled actresses playing well written characters delivering witty dialogue, and seeing the two play off of one another works very well, but… Clara was disappointingly easily manipulated. She fell for the same tricks just a few too many times, and I feel like she should have been a little more guarded around Missy – particularly given what happened with Danny.

Something that was interesting that came up: all this talk of hybrids and confession dials and why the Doctor left Gallifrey. It looks (though I’m not certain) like they’re trying to set up something of a series arc here. I’m not entirely certain how I feel about that, really – the reason why the Doctor left Gallifrey is something that I’m always cautious about them getting too close to. It’s one of those pieces of the mythos that should really always remain largely open to interpretation; add in bits and bobs, develop certain aspects, but shy away from any explicitly writing big prophecies into the canon. That’s the sort of divisive element that should really remain in headcanon.

But, talking about the character of the Doctor, this lets me swing back round to the start of the episode – and to the end of the episode – to comment on something I really enjoyed: the character of the Doctor put forward.

I loved that line, “I’m here because you’re sick and you asked.” I loved how Capaldi delivered it, and spoke of how ‘the Doctor’ is, essentially, an ideal he aspired towards. The Doctor is someone who’s just passing through, trying his best to help people.

He doesn’t kill Davros, because why would he? If presented with the opportunity to kill Davros, the answer is in fact to try and teach him something better. To help him. To let compassion win out.

And that was brilliant. So, no, the episode wasn’t quite perfect. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as last week (which I was perhaps a bit kind to), but it’s still a very, very good episode. 9/10

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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