Sunday, 27 September 2015

Doctor Who - The Witch's Familiar


Contains spoilers.

So, it turns out that The Witch's Familiar is a completely different episode to last week's The Magician's Apprentice. In Doctor Who history it isn't uncommon for a two part story to feature wildly different episodes. Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways, for example, couldn't be any more different if they tried, and last year's Dark Water and Death in Heaven were almost two completely separate stories. This two part opener to the show's ninth season follows that trend, but with an unusual spin.

This time around, it was the second episode that slowed down the pace and focused predominantly on dialogue. The Magician's Apprentice was a big, loud introduction to the new series that soared along at a tremendous pace. The Witch's Familiar, by contrast, moves slowly, taking its time and allowing the small moments to matter. Due to how wildly different these two episodes are, it's difficult to compare them in a simple "Which episode is better?" manner, so I'm going to try not to do that across this review. But whether or not this is a better episode than last week's, either way, it is bloody brilliant.

If last week's installment offered the majority of its high points with Missy and Clara, then the Doctor and Davros rightfully returned to the spotlight for part two. This episode belongs to them. After the Doctor steals Davros' chair and attempts to rescue Clara ("Anyone for dodgems?"), he is returned to Davros' infirmary, and remains there for the bulk of the episode. This opens up a series of superbly written and wonderfully acted conversations between the pair; the Doctor and Davros' only other encounter in the revived series was burdened by too many characters taking up screen time and a typical Daleks Destroy the World narrative.

This time, however, the two simply remain in one room and are allowed to talk, and we get to see how this unfolds. A vast range of emotions are covered in this sequence, and although Davros is initially hesitant to show his, Moffat does a fantastic job of humanising him across the episode. After sincerely congratulating the Doctor for Gallifrey's recovery, Davros and the Doctor even share a joke with each other, before the dying Davros declares he wishes to the sun one last time. Of course, the Doctor helps him, until we discover that by doing so he has fallen victim to Davros' plan.

So Davros was lying, he wasn't dying. At least, he wasn't as bad as he claimed to be. As the episode continues, it then comes out that the Doctor knew this and allowed Davros' plan to be carried out. It's a series of plot twists that come from something relatively simple, but work to keep things moving forward in the episode's second half. I also don't feel that this diminishes the power and emotional weight of their previous conversations either; yes, Davros was using it to further his plan, but could Davros fake those tears? Was that joke merely acting on both of their behalves?

There were some compelling statements made between the two in this episode that aren't undone by the episode's resolution, and this was achieved simply by not filling the episode with a plethora of plot twists, but simply letting two big characters - with a history of war, violence, murder and bloodshed - talk. Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach have such fantastic chemistry on screen that each second watching them felt like a privilege, two ancient arch-enemies brought together by their differences in compassion. It's to Moffat's credit that the episode can end without Davros being killed yet still feel like a fitting conclusion.

The same can be said for Missy, the last time we saw her she was surrounded be a squad of Daleks, but we know she'll be back. Playing to Doctor Who's logic is a clever trick to pull, but also a risky one. Moffat found that balance here tonight. Missy's detailing of how she and Clara escaped the Dalek's extermination last week is simple but effective, told wonderfully over gleaming black and white footage of the Doctor doing the same trick many years ago.

It was inevitable that these two survived, I don't think we were expected to believe them dead at any stage. The two of them needed to be out of the city for this episode to work, and while this might have felt slightly like a cheat, it was resolved quickly and efficiently without burdening the episode. Missy and Clara continue to be a great double act, Clara's resentment over Missy still looms but they can also just be themselves around each other, making them ridiculously enjoyable to watch.

Another balance that was effortlessly made in The Witch's Familiar is the humour/drama battle. Doctor Who does need to be funny, it's rare for an episode not to be littered with a few good one liners, and I love that about this show. Missy was on top form again, with an array of quotes that I'll save for the closing part of this review. I particularly loved Clara inside the Dalek. Not only was this initially a good way of injecting some humour into an otherwise grim story, but it soon transformed into quite an eye-opening, interesting analysis of the Daleks.

Watching Clara to try to say the words "I Love You" only to have them translated as "Exterminate" was an especially powerful moment in an episode full of them; just when you start thinking the show's oldest villain is getting tiring, we're given more understanding of them than we have since their first episode back in Series 1. This opening two part story has been a triumphant way of returning Doctor Who back onto the small screen, but it also leaves a hell of a big shadow. Another two part story will follow for the next two weeks, and it's going to have to be quite special indeed to live up to this.

Notes - 
  • "Tell him the bitch is back". Oh, Missy. 
  • "Between us and him is everything the deadliest race in all of history can throw at us. We, on the other hand, have a pointy stick". 
  • "Supreme Dalek, your sewers are revolting". Was the entire final act written around that pun? I don't really mind either way to be honest. 
  • Davros opening his real eyes was a beautiful scene. I guess I always just assumed he didn't have real eyes, yet here we are. It worked wonders in humanising an enemy in an episode that focused heavily on compassion. Bravo Moffat. 
  • The Doctor returned to the young Davros in the battlefield at the very end of this episode, shooting the hand mines and showing mercy to Davros. It was a genuinely emotional way of ending the episode, the Doctor saving his friend's life by saving the life of his enemy. 
  • "Good, bad, none of that really matters, so long as you have mercy. Always, mercy". 

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