The Witch’s Guide To Not Fizzling Out
Guest contributor Christopher Rohrbeck on how The Witch’s Familiar can hopefully avoid the pitfalls of a weaker second half.
The Magician’s Apprentice, widely regarded by most as a cinematic, engaging, suspenseful marvel of an opener, that drives the audience head first into what seems to be an even stronger second half. But, then again, the same esteem was given to 2014’s Dark Water, only to be followed by the less than satisfactory, Death in Heaven. While I hold a higher regard for Series 8’s finale than most, there was little doubt that the two-parter’s second half dropped the ball when it came to fulfilling audience’s enthusiasm from last week’s feature. Rather than build upon the themes, tension and character introduced in Dark Water, Death in Heaven felt it’d rather allow those gripping elements to flicker, fizzle and fade away into Whovian obscurity.
To prevent this from reoccurring in Moffat’s latest two parter, I’ve prepared a guide (perhaps, on reflection, a tad too late) on how past mistakes can be noted, learned from, and reconciled in The Witch’s Familiar. Let’s begin.
No More Chessboards
Moffat loves a set piece. Moffat loves setting up set pieces. Moffat loves shoving the Doctor on a tank, a plane, in a volcano, what have you. Moffat loves to set up the chessboard, and lay the groundwork for a story. Finishing that story, however, has not been his strong suit. In Dark Water, everything is established for a rousing second half, the characters are where they need to be, the themes of confronting one’s own past have been established, etc, etc. But what’s the first thing Death in Heaven does to reignite the story? Cut the pacing dead in its tracks, introduce U.N.I.T., put the Doctor and Missy under, hop aboard a plane, and have Clara muck about pretending she’s the Doctor for a couple minutes.
This is an unforgivably poor way to begin the second half of a narrative. Here, Moffat proved to viewers that he was less interested in building up to developing arcs, and more interested in building up to cliffhangers… which would ultimately recycle themselves to more build up. This decision crippled the entire episode and sacrificed precious run time.
The Witch’s Familiar must open with a bang, not the sort of indulgent bang where the Doctor is seen riding the Emperor Dalek down a flight of stairs playing Free Bird on the electric, but a bang that instantly thrusts the audience into the story’s conflict. The Doctor is lost in a city of Daleks, tormented by one of his greatest adversaries. We have 45 minutes. The quality of the story rests upon Moffat’s patience to remain focused in that narrative.
While I could argue Missy had a presence in Death in Heaven, with her chilling eagerness to kill anything the Doctor is remotely attached to, the same could not be argued for her cybernetic army. Sure, I adore the scene where Cybermen rip apart the Doctor’s plane midflight, and seeing them crawl out from the ground like a robotic Night of the Living Dead, though derivative, drives home the fact that Cybermen used to be people, an aspect to their character sorely missing in recent stories. But the Cybermen never really make an impact on the citizens of Earth other than providing an excuse to make a short jab at selfies. I mean, seriously? We have an army comprised of the general populous’ friends and loved ones and Moffat can’t squeeze an ounce of emotional weight out of that?
If I had it my way, the dead would be stomping through the streets of London, and with the sadistic Missy at the helm, every citizen would be receiving a little visit from their recently departed. Is that too dark for Doctor Who? Possibly. Oh, who am I kidding? Probably. But the least we could’ve had is a proper invasion. A proper invasion that establishes this new, alien army as a formidable threat, not just props sitting about in the world’s graveyards as a belated birthday gift.
The same can be applied to The Witch’s Familiar. Since the revival,we’ve encountered Daleks in bunkers, in space, alone, in armies, the past, the present, the future, and it’s become passé. Moffat brought this narrative to Skaro, assumedly, to raise tension, to mix things up. So let’s change how the Daleks stand their ground on their own turf. After all, this was the planet the Doctor managed to destroy himself in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks. How desperate are these hyper-intelligent, nearly indestructible, godlike, space Nazis to defend their home, their creator, and their future? We need to acknowledge, in this story, there’s not simply consequences for the Doctor, there’s also consequences for the Daleks.
With A Bow On Top
“We’re saving that for later.”
– Moffat on every script he’s ever written since 2010.
Is a story that I can sit down and watch with some Whobie Newbies, not having to worry about some overly complex, overarching plot, really too much to ask for? Even Moffat’s most recent stand alone Listen isn’t fully understood without having seen 2013’s Day of the Doctor. The unused potential of character arcs left open for the following series is fully evident in Death in Heaven. Missy is blasted away by the Brigadier in Cyberform, in a poor attempt to mimic the Master’s previous brushes with death, but with none of the 70’s camp that made it so lovable in the first place, and just when her relationship with the Doctor was hinting at becoming a bit more interesting.
Now I, like the majority of others, was enthralled to see the potential in the Doctor/Master relationship since The Magician’s Apprentice, and I think I stand for the majority of viewers when I say that I wish to see the ‘frenemies’ arc have some landmark in part two.
Make no mistake, Missy and the Doctor, deep down, are friends, and that’s one of the core themes to this two parter. Having the audience accept that somewhat complex, wibbly wobbly relationship should be an expressed interest for The Witch’s Familiar. What better way to do that than have the Master actively take part in the story’s resolution? Aiding the Doctor, working on his side, as a temporary, but heartfelt, ally. Why not have the Doctor accept that he has to save Davros, but have Missy willingly stand in his place instead? Surely trying to kill the Doctor would be far less fun if he had become the creator of Davros. An event like that would change a best enemy. He could no longer be the light to her dark. A small favor such as that would drive viewers mad with anticipation for the next Missy appearance.
The Bit Where Conclusion Happens
While I found myself really engaged with the Series 9 opener, I’ve been let down by Moffat before, and unfortunately, I see the same tropes I did in The Magician’s Apprentice as I had previously: the tediously long, albeit fun, set-up, the cliffhangers, the aimless moral dilemmas, etc. I hope some of the suggestions here may have passed through ol’ Moff’s head when writing his second part, but for now, I’m trying to lower my expectations.