Review: ‘Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar’ [Spoilers]

After the epic return of Doctor Who last week, we were all left wondering just how show runner Steven Moffat would be able to tie up all the strands of story and bring them to a satisfying conclusion, which is a familiar problem with Doctor Who. Seeing that it wasn’t really going to be possible to escalate from the explosive season opener, Moffat took the only sensible decision available and went smaller, tighter, and more intense.

So, while last week was an improbable Jenga tower of plot problems, this latest episode curtly tied the majority of them up in the first few minutes, then gets on with the real business of the story: the relationships. Don’t worry — stuff still blows up — but we get to further explore the idea that was opened in the finale of Doctor Who season 8 when Clara said to the Doctor, “If you let her live, all this is on you.” The idea that the Doctor is actually complicit to some extent in all the death, destruction, and misery that is caused by arch enemies that, for some reason, he never quite manages to finally kill. Missy pointed it out as well when, toward the end, she described Clara as ” a friend inside an enemy, an enemy inside a friend.”

Doctor Who
Meet my head of personal security

“The Witch’s Familiar” is basically two twisted buddy movies running concurrently. There is the grim, deceptive poker game that the Doctor is playing with Davros in claustrophobic little room and, on a much lighter note, Missy’s psychotic escapades with Clara. Missy and Clara are actually quite a team. While Clara can’t be brought to like her, we feel that there is a sort of grudging respect for the lunatic “Time Lady.” Even though Missy is taking every opportunity to tie Clara up, use her as bait and push her down sinkholes, Clara still listens to her and does what she says. This makes for some wonderful chemistry, with the delightfully deranged Missy romping home as Deus Ex Machina, dragging an unwilling but co-operative Clara along the way.

The Doctor’s relationship with Davros is somewhat more complicated. All the way through their long passages of dialogue (by far the most facetime these two have ever had), we know that Davros is deceiving the Doctor and we know, or hope, that the reverse is happening also. Despite these multiple layers of deception, there are moments of kinship between the two. Not so much in the strained and elaborate dialogue passages where Davros desperately compares the Doctor to himself, but more in the way that they seem to see the world. They both probe relentlessly for weakness and neither of them are all that bothered by little things like committing genocide for a greater goal. And there is that magical moment when the Doctor and Skaro take a break from their machinations and just laugh together. The joke — “You are not a good Doctor” — is such a weak one, we know that this laughter must purely be a moment of true fellow feeling.

Doctor Who
The Doctor's compassionate face?

As with any good episode of Doctor Who, it is laden with references. In terms of the new canon, there is a reference to an earlier episode with David Tennant when the Doctor yells out that he has been on the Dalek homeworld for “42 minutes.” This is clearly a reference to the episode “42,” where Tennant’s doctor must appease an enraged sun. And the sun does play a minor role in “The Witch’s Familiar” as well, being the mechanism by which Davros is deceived into believing that he has deceived the Doctor. There is also Clara’s new turn in a Dalek unit. This will be the third time Clara has been inside a Dalek and the second time she has actually operated or been one. We see hints of a very dark future for Clara. Given that her departure from the series is imminent, this continual shading of her character as “frenemy” feels like it might finally be the foundation for an exit storyline for “the impossible girl.”

Doctor Who
Which one of you is Clara?

There’s plenty here for fans of the old canon as well. The design of Skaro looks exactly like the planet as we first saw it. Speaking to Doctor Who Magazine, Moffat confirms this impression by saying that he basically used the old design unchanged “for no better reason than it’s an astonishingly good design.” And let’s not forget the classic Daleks and the fact that this whole story is based on the fan favorite episode, “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Moffat has said that the idea for this episode came from a very simple concept. He noted that there has never been a bad scene between the Doctor and Davros, and that there had also never been one of any appreciable length. So why not stick them in a small room and see what happens? Well, what happened is a classic Doctor Who muddle of explorations of ideas like mercy and compassion, dark insights into the non-human side of the Doctor, tantalizing setups for the grand scheme of the series and, of course, running, explosions and wisecracks. Watch for the line “Your sewers are revolting,” as a glorious example.

As always, there are many Doctor Who fans complaining that this double-header has been too convoluted, too un-canonical or just too “Dalek-y,” but we shouldn’t bother with the complainers. The Doctor is off and running in brilliant style, having generated the kind of following that allows it to simply do whatever it wants, without trying to please everybody. And next week, according to the BBC, we have an underwater ghost story written by Toby Whitfield, one of our favorite Who writers. We can’t wait.

[Images courtesy of BBC]