Saturday, 3 October 2015

Doctor Who - The Witch's Familiar


Click here to read my review of “The Magician's Apprentice”, the first part of this two-part story.

It is nice to see a return of multi-part stories, which until “Dark Water”/“Death in Heaven”, we had gone quite some time without. Cliff-hangers are a classic part of Doctor Who. They create anticipation for the next episodes, and the truly good ones can leave you on the edge of your seat for the whole week you have to wait. Of course, they also leave you wondering whether the second episode will live up to the first (assuming you liked the first). Sometimes the conclusion can let you down; it's just not what you hoped it would be. But other times, the conclusion manages to outdo the beginning, taking something that was perhaps mediocre and making it good, or something that was good and making it great.

The Witch's Familiar” is one of these latter cases. I found a lot of good in “The Magician's Apprentice”, yet as much as I enjoyed it, there were a number of things about it that I was less than happy with (see my review linked above). “The Witch's Familiar”, on the other hand, is a much better episode, and it manages to avoid many of the flaws that plagued the first episode. It's better paced and better focused, without the nostalgic diversions of “The Magician's Apprentice”. As such, it's also a much more accessible episode to newer viewers (assuming they aren't put off by the first episode). While it builds on some of Doctor Who's history, it sticks to the history that is relevant to the story without bombarding viewers with a whole pile of other, unrelated history. And while “The Magician's Apprentice” throws a huge cast of characters at viewers, most of whom are only on screen for a short period of time, “The Witch's Familiar” focuses on a small cast, giving viewers the chance to get to know these characters and to become invested in their stories. In short, “The Witch's Familiar” is a damn good episode.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

There are really only six characters in “The Witch's Familiar”: four principal (the Doctor, Clara, Missy, and Davros) and two support characters (the Daleks, which count as one group character, and Colony Sarff). A case might be made for the Daleks and the decaying Daleks in the sewers being two characters, but that doesn't really change my point. There aren't even any no-name extras who pass by in the background or get exterminated when the Daleks first appear. The small cast really helps this story as this is very much a character-based story, something people might not expect from a Dalek tale (though there have certainly been other character-based Dalek stories). More than that, this story examines its villains (and really, apart from the Doctor and Clara, this is an episode where everyone is a villain) and who they are, what makes them tick, in a way few other Doctor Who stories ever do. This is particularly true of Davros, but also of Missy, and yes, even the Daleks become more three-dimensional than ever before. The small cast provides the time to make this possible.

I am truly amazed and entranced by what “The Witch's Familiar” does with Davros. This, in part, comes from a truly spectacular performance by Julian Bleach, who, frankly, is now my favourite actor to have portrayed the character (I thought he was excellent in “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey's End”, but he has excelled himself here). But it also comes from some incredible writing by Steven Moffat. I know I have frequently heavily criticized Moffat's writing in the past, but—credit where credit is due—Moffat has excelled himself here. Some accolades should probably also go to director Hettie MacDonald.

In the past, Davros has tended to be a bit one-note. There were certainly some subtleties in the character (particularly in stories like “Genesis of the Daleks” and “Revelation of the Daleks”), but for most part, he has tended to rave and rant. Overall, he was pretty much just a Dalek that the Doctor could have a conversation with (which, indeed, was the primary inspiration for adding him to the show in the first place). Yet in “The Witch's Familiar”, he becomes a person. He's still irredeemable, but we come to understand his motivations and desires so much more. He has emotions, he can laugh, he can cry, and he can act. There were certainly hints of this greater characterization last episode, but this episode brings it to the forefront. The subtleties invested to Davros by both the script and Bleach's performance are simply mesmerizing.

Before watching this episode, I never would have believed any Doctor Who episode could make me feel sorry for Davros, but this one did—and the best part of it all is that it was all part of Davros's trap. Even though it is established early on, when he has Colony Sarff set the trap, and I knew full well that it was a trap, I was still taken in by his lies. Davros telling a joke and laughing with the Doctor! Davros feeling happy for the Doctor because the Time Lords are back! Davros and the Doctor watching the sunrise together! These things cannot be, and yet they took me in and I believed.

But here's the thing. The best lies are those that are partial truths. Davros probably doesn't care about the sunrise, but I think he truly is happy for the Doctor that Gallifrey and the Time Lords are back. And he used that truth to try to lure the Doctor into his trap (I'd say this is pretty apparent in the way Bleach plays the role). This is wonderful insight into who Davros is. He honestly believes that fighting for the survival of his own people is the most important thing in life (even when Davros betrayed his people in “Genesis of the Daleks”, he did it to save them), and while the Doctor is his enemy, he also believes that his enemies should be fighting for their own.

Of course, there's one other thing beyond the writing and Bleach's performance that helps bring Davros alive: his eyes. All this time, fans have no doubt believed that Davros no longer had his original eyes, thus the mechanical one in his forehead. In fact, I'm sure that's always been the intention. I certainly believed it. However, it's never been specifically stated that he doesn't have eyes, so now he does (or perhaps he didn't before and has now genetically engineered some for his trap). Eyes are generally one of the most expressive parts of the body. Giving Davros eyes humanizes him, and we are further drawn into his trap.

I also like the way this episode refers back to the question, “Am I a good man?” that formed a central basis of Series 8. In Series 8, it was the Doctor trying to answer this question about himself. Here, Davros spins it round and asks it about himself. However, the difference here is that Davros believes he already knows the answer and that he is a good man because everything he's done has been for the benefit of his people, his children, the Daleks.

Of course, the Doctor has been one step ahead of Davros the whole time and is leading him along. This is even cleverly foreshadowed in “The Magician's Apprentice” when Ohila answers Colony Sarff's question, “Where is the Doctor?” with, “Where he always is: right behind you and one step ahead.” Yet through this, we get to see a bit of the Doctor's character. Of course, it's less of a revelation than with Davros, but it's still compelling drama. Why does the Doctor go to see Davros when he knows it's certainly a trap? It's not the shame he leads other people to believe, although he certainly does feel shame over his actions. It's simple compassion, the Doctor's greatest strength—or greatest weakness, if you take Davros's side of the argument, the cancer that will surely kill him in the end, but the only way the Doctor would ever wish to die.

The Doctor and Davros are the key characters around which this character-based story revolves, but Missy and Clara have their own roles to play. There are some interesting parallels between the two pairs of characters. Both pairs feature one villain and one hero. In the case of Davros and the Doctor, the villain is attempting to expertly outwit the hero, but the hero ends up doing the outwitting instead. In the case of Missy and Clara, it's similar, except that Missy really does outwit Clara—not just once, but several times. It's an interesting choice to pair Clara off with Missy for this story as it provides a very different insight into this latest incarnation of the Master in a way that facing her off against the Doctor wouldn't. It makes perfect sense that Missy should be able to continually outwit Clara and play Clara for the fool, but alas, it does mean that Clara never really gets an opportunity to shine, and it means that Clara is the one principal character who doesn't gain the benefit of increased character development. Clara's not a fool, but this episode does kind of make her seem like a fool.

That said, the Clara/Missy pairing certainly provides a lot of humour, which provides the balance to the dark sombreness of the Doctor/Davros pairing. Pushing Clara down the pit at the suggestion of dropping a stone down—“Twenty feet”—and referring to their pairing as a miner and a canary make us laugh, but also tell us a lot about Missy and how she views the people around her—and in a much better way than randomly killing no-name extras last episode. Though I do wonder how Clara fell twenty feet and came out of it without a single scratch or bruise, or indeed, without even a bit of mud on her clothes, but I suppose that's a minor nitpick.

Michelle Gomez continues to be phenomenal as Missy, expertly bringing across both the character's apparent insanity and her calculating brilliance. She makes the Master fun to watch, while being simultaneously terrifying. Missy and Clara's survival is handled well, too (I was right about the vortex manipulators, not that it was really that hard to guess), and I liked that we get to see that Missy used this same method to survive the end of “Death in Heaven”.

When it comes to the treatment of the Daleks in this episode, I'm of mixed opinion. I love that Dalek emotions are acknowledged! Too often, the Daleks are treated as if they have no emotions. Some episodes even directly refer to them in this way (I'm looking at you, “Destiny of the Daleks”). The Daleks are not Cybermen and they are not robots. Hate was their original defining characteristic in 1963, and hate is perhaps the most emotional emotion of them all. Missy explaining that the Daleks channel their emotions into their weapons is utterly brilliant! It's great character development for the Daleks, and I doubt many people ever thought that character development for the Daleks was even possible. That their hatred becomes hatred for themselves when they decay and ought to be dead is just icing on the cake.

On the other hand, I'm much less enthralled by the amount of control the machine part of the Dalek appears to have over the flesh-and-blood part. Why does the tank need to edit speech since the Daleks should naturally talk that way anyway? When Ian Chesterton rides inside a Dalek shell in “The Daleks”, he isn't limited in his speech, and Oswin Oswald (one of Clara's splinters), who actually is a Dalek, isn't inhibited in “Asylum of the Daleks”. Similarly, just because a Dalek doesn't understand a word shouldn't make it incapable of saying it. There are situations where some “forbidden” vocabulary may even be necessary, for things like lying (as the Dalek in “Dalek” does to gain Rose's trust and trick her into touching it) or even referring to someone else's use of the word. In “Genesis of the Daleks”, Davros pleads with the Daleks to have pity, to which one responds, “Pity? I have no understanding of the word. It does not register in my vocabulary banks.” The Dalek may not understand the word, but it is capable of saying it. Yet this doesn't bother me because of the continuity errors I've pointed out. Doctor Who has always been rife with continuity errors, so a few more is hardly a problem. However, it bothers me because it just doesn't make any sense, and it's the one really noteworthy flaw in an otherwise excellent episode. (If we really want to get into continuity, what about that Dalek in “The Chase” who stutters and says words like Um. What happened to that one's speech control?)

A few quick thoughts:

I love that the HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System) gets used. It's a good bit of continuity.

I absolutely do not love the sonic sunglasses. Ugh.

I don't like that the cliff-hanger of the Doctor “exterminating” young Davros turns out to be at the very end of the story. That is a bit of unfair baiting. However, I do really like that the Doctor doesn't go there to kill Davros, but instead to destroy the hand mines.

Vampire monkeys?! I want to see that story.

The Master had a daughter? Very intriguing...

I really do not like the Doctor using Davros's disabilities (no legs and only one eye) to mock him. Yes, Capaldi's Doctor is supposed to be a bit terse and rude, and Davros is a villain, but... ugh.

It looks like the series arc is going to centre around the Doctor's confession dial and why he left Gallifrey. I'll wait for the resolution before making final judgements, but this does tie back into the problem I talked about in my review of “The Magician's Apprentice”, that the show is too tied up in the Doctor. Oh well.

Overall, “The Witch's Familiar” is a great episode. It suffers a little from being the second episode of the story started with “The Magician's Apprentice”, but as that episode was pretty good too (just with some significant flaws), this isn't a major problem. Indeed, it makes a fitting and compelling resolution to the story, and while I still think this story would have worked better as a series finale, the two episodes together make a better series opener than I first thought.

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