2nd Opinion: The Witch’s Familiar
David Selby and Connor Johnston give their verdict on the 2nd episode of Series 9.
This is going to be a difficult review to write. Last week, I reviewed an episode that was overall decent – which at its worst was slightly devoid of tension, and at its best was a genuinely intriguing setup for the next episode. This week, I’m forced to tackle one which is far more polarised in quality, for better or for worse.
Let’s begin, then, with the easiest way of starting a difficult piece: looking back. Within the context of previous episodes, The Witch’s Familiar fares well. Moffat uses the episode in several places to explain some incongruous points in the show’s history: a Dalek begging River Song for mercy in The Big Bang, for instance; Missy surviving death in Death in Heaven; or Oswin the Dalek in Asylum of the Daleks, which, whilst not developed per se, was explicitly recalled in a way I noticed was lacking from last year’s Into the Dalek. It’s good that the show maintains and exhibits a sense of consequence and self-awareness, which has felt lacking in certain previous episodes. These references also strengthen metafictional interpretations of the series, which are delightfully fun to read.
Yet if we decide to only look back a week, and consider The Witch’s Familiar within the context of its opening half, it’s a bit of a let-down. The story was not, in any shape or form, about whether or not it’s right to kill a child to stop them becoming a dictator. Genesis of the Daleks remarked on the idea, but never explored it because it was busy with quite an important story about the creation of the Daleks. The Magician’s Apprentice promised to explore it. The Witch’s Familiar didn’t, largely because it didn’t have time. Am I wrong to feel frustrated with Moffat’s borderline self-destructive tendencies? He brings back the two-parter format to flesh his concepts out more, and then just throws two times as many in, taking us back to the issues of previous series’ were the episodes were overfull.
Another example of this was Missy, whose presence here felt – and I’m sure I’ll never be forgiven for saying this – unnecessary. That is not, for the record, an admission that I dislike the character. I think she’s terrific. But for any purpose other than finding something to do with Clara and poking Davros’ eye out, Missy had little relevance to The Witch’s Familiar. I understand that she suited, thematically, the motif of friends and enemies, but the theme could have been extended to the whole series and she could have featured in a later episode which accommodated her better. Still, I found her attempt to get the Doctor to execute Clara a contender for this incarnation’s best moment so far: a choice of absolute, irredeemable evil at a point where she was nearly becoming casual enough to be called ‘harmless’. Missy seems to work best when she’s being spontaneously dangerous. And when she’s trying out her repertoire of accents.
I enjoyed the long dialogue between the Doctor and Davros. I’ll concede that large parts of the audience suffer from concentration issues – I mean (Michelle Gomez-feigning-serious voice), ‘prefer traditional, action-packed Doctor Who stories’ – but I’m enthralled by the tenser, more introspective style of storytelling which has thus far characterised the Capaldi era. Julian Bleach’s performance exceeded even that of Journey’s End – which I’d hitherto deemed to be unbeatable – and the script used the physical characteristics of Davros to draw a contrast with his previous appearances. Would it have been too far for the character to turn (thick Scottish accent) good? If there’s one question I’d be happy to read a few dozen comments of speculation on, it’s that. Would it have tarnished the character’s history? Personally, I thought it was generally in-character: Davros congratulates the Doctor not on his compassionate achievements, but on his preservation of his own species after tortuous war and trauma.
Whilst Davros tricking the Doctor was probably the sensible option, I wasn’t too fond of it. Not only did it cheapen their previous exchange – which I should have expected, to be honest, given the character’s history – it also gave Davros the same ending he always got. This, ultimately, is the issue with a lot of Steven Moffat episodes. He cares so much about the show that he will never be able to kill off a character as important as Davros, but his imagination extends to exploring those sorts of concepts. In other words, these kinds of episodes will never quite go far enough. The only changes Moffat will ever make to mythos will be concerned primarily with preserving the show; for instance saving Gallifrey, or extending the Doctor’s regeneration cycle (is the thirteenth Doctor now confirmed to be a short woman?). He is the Davros of Doctor Who production. (On a positive note, if the show-runner’s main flaw is that he cares about Doctor Who too much, we know we could be in far worse places right now.)
Before I finish, I’d like to praise Murray Gold for his work on this episode. One of his finest yet.
Overall, The Witch’s Familiar was a mixed bag. It was clever and experimental, playing with some interesting concepts, but failed to follow a few of them up, and was left a little wanting. At this stage, I anticipate the return to ‘normal’ adventures – the proper return of the TARDIS, of the Doctor/Clara dynamic, and of their adventures in ordinary people’s lives: for me – and this might be why I didn’t entirely take to this two-parter – the most successful type of Doctor Who storytelling.
Last week Series 9 launched with the impressively captivating “The Magicians Apprentice” – and as affectionate as I was towards the episode, I was also cautious of the risk that “The Witch’s Familiar” could very easily have jeopardised both the story and the series itself. Opening stories are arguably the most important in a line-up of Who; craving consistency and the ability to constantly engage its audience as to hook them in for the rest of the series.
Throughout the history of Doctor Who – there have been great episodes, and “The Magician’s Apprentice” was very easily a great episode, but then there are episodes like “The Witch’s Familiar” that exist on a whole different level, very often causing you to revaluate your affection for other serials – because in comparison there is just no contest. I am conscious to not fall into the trap of being bashful, and so of course I will attempt to justify this statement as best as I can in the coming review, but it remains to be said: “The Witch’s Familiar” was an episode that not only moved me in a plethora of ways, but also reaffirmed and justified to me personally why I devote so much attention and love to this show. With “The Witch’s Familiar” Steven Moffat reminded me why I’m a fan. The reason – we’ll get to that a little later.
There’s no disputing the talents of Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez and Nicholas Briggs – who all give exemplary performances. There’s a certain fierceness to Capaldi’s Doctor that we’d only glimpsed hints of before, which gave such a sincerity to the Time Lord’s desperation. It clear that after a full series Capaldi is far more confident in the role, and if the writing continues to do his ability justice there’s no telling how elevated his presence in people’s affections will be by the end of the series. While it has been mentioned at length by many since the airing of the episode- special mention must go to Julian Bleach’s chilling portrayal of Davros. Personally I’ve always been somewhat of a Davros sceptic when it comes to valuing his existence in the Whoniverse, but it is the depth of understanding that Bleach brings to the role- the menace, the hatred and (dare I say it) the humanity he exhibits that truly immortalises this performance.
While the line-up of talent does impress extensively, the fact that each were utilised in such a succinct fashion needs to be accredited to the striking script by Steven Moffat – a piece of work rich in character development. The double act between Missy and Clara made for a refreshed and charming dynamic, and however unlikely it is, one I would love to see again. The pair seem to balance each other out quite comically- but also work to keep the intensity of the episode rife with risk. However rewarding Missy and Clara’s interactions were, it’s the relationship between the Doctor and Davros that is the most encapsulating. The episode bravely takes their relationship into uncharted territory. The beauty of the whole spectacle is that it presents us with the interpretation that in many ways Davros and the Doctor are reflections of each other; both men that find themselves more or less isolated in the universe, both men who are prepared to do unspeakable things to prolong the survival of their race and both men who in their old age have questioned their own morality. It truly is so fittingly poetic.
Another aspect that makes the appeal of the episode so strong is the coherent balance of tone the plot achieves. The balance between hard-line comedy and full-blooded adventure is breathtaking. Only in Doctor Who can sections of dialog have you laughing, crying and fearing the fate of your favourite character all within the space of a sentence. The entire episode expels a polished finish – which must be accredited once again to Hettie MacDonald’s seamless direction. The refreshing thing about Hettie’s work is that she’s not afraid to take risks in her storytelling – particularly evident in the chaotic yet refreshing pre-title sequence that remained a highlight of the episode. With “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” McDonald provides 2 episodes that work tremendously well in shaping her case for a return next series. Once again Murray Gold proves his worth with a hauntingly beautiful score, with the heightened use of lyrical pieces contributing to the sacred and heavy tone of the episode.
Acting, relationships, tonal balance, a polished finish – all very worthy reasons to love an episode, however none of them alone the reason that “The Witch’s Familiar” will sit so fondly in my reception of the show. No – the justification I give today for my praise is the effortless inclusion of such a powerful lesson. Last December, a brilliant writer and a better friend – Mark McCullough – wrote an article on the lessons Doctor Who has imparted on its audiences. The article for me captured the essence of Doctor Who’s success – the ability to teach as well as entertain – to inspire as well as to inform. “The Witch’s Familiar” was at its core a story that endorsed and exhibited the very values the Doctor aims to uphold: Compassion before hatred, mercy before murder, and above all the hope to see a person’s conscious govern their actions.
There’s no such thing as the Doctor. I’m just a bloke in a box, telling stories. I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed. A bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came… because you’re sick and you asked. And because sometimes, on a good day… if I try very hard… I’m not some old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.
Acknowledging that this lesson was accompanied by a plot that kept me constantly enthralled and most importantly was worthy of the legacies it sort to broaden in terms of the Daleks and Davros simply sweetens the deal. While it’s true the opening story has set the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the series, and I highly doubt any other episode this year could affect me as profoundly as “The Witch’s Familiar” has done – I still await them as eagerly as ever.