“The Witch’s Familiar,” the conclusion of the tale begun in last week’s season opener, is a case, rather rare in Doctor Who, where the second half of the story is even stronger than the first. Often in Doctor Who’s multi-part stories, the payoff struggles to match the setup, with a rushed or unconvincing resolution. Here, after the spectacle of “The Magician’s Apprentice,” writer Steven Moffat changes direction and keeps the focus almost exclusively on two pairs of characters, who carry the entire episode through a series of long but compelling dialogue-driven scenes.
When he’s on form, as he is here, Moffat is adept at constantly surprising the audience, always looking for a non-obvious way to tell a story. The pre-credits sequence is a good example; Missy (Michelle Gomez) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) were both apparently disintegrated last week, but we open with them out in the desert, Clara tied up and Missy nonchalantly sharpening a stake. As we try to work out what Missy’s intentions toward Clara are, she spins a parable of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), which is actually a clever way of getting across the explanation of how the two of them survived without resorting to a boring info-dump.
This story shows perfectly why, despite the character having always been portrayed as a dark reflection of the Doctor, we’ve never seen the Master with a traveling companion. Judging by Clara’s experiences here, they would never survive for long. Gomez again steals every scene she’s in, as Missy shows an utter disregard for Clara’s attempts to fill the same sort of role as she would at the Doctor’s side, simply treating her as a tool. Eventually, she convinces Clara to get inside a captured Dalek—bringing back memories of Coleman’s first appearance in 2012’s “Asylum of the Daleks.” In a very effective twist, Clara finds herself unable to communicate except in concepts acceptable to a Dalek: When she says her name, the Dalek’s voice just says, “Dalek,” and phrases like “You are different from me” come out as the Daleks’ catchphrase: “Exterminate!” Coleman excellently shows Clara’s distress and relief during a tense confrontation in which Missy tries to induce the Doctor to shoot the Clara-Dalek, until Clara finds a way to make the Dalek ask for mercy.
That confrontation is at one end of the wide range of material Moffat gives to Capaldi in this episode. At the other extreme, there are moments of sheer fun: When the Doctor temporarily steals Davros’s (Julian Bleach) chair, the sight of him trundling around among a roomful of Daleks (as he tells them, “Admit it…you’ve all had this exact nightmare”) is a laugh-out-loud moment. He also gets to show a sudden ferocity with the Doctor threatening the Daleks over what happened to Clara, but his most gripping scenes are when the Doctor tries to come to terms with his relationship with Davros.
Given a far more complex and nuanced characterisation than in the 2008 two-parter “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End,” where he was mostly stuck with playing a ranting megalomaniac, Bleach is magnificent in conveying a whole range of emotions through the heavy Davros prosthetics and makeup. When the Doctor, perhaps unwisely, reveals that he recently succeeded at bringing his own planet and people back into existence, Davros congratulates him with a sincerity that baffles him. But to a man whose entire existence has been focused on setting his own race against the rest of the universe, the Doctor’s achievement is deeply moving. As Davros opens his own human eyes again and wonders, “Am I a good man?,” the very question that preoccupied the Doctor last year, it’s no wonder that the Doctor is lured into helping him. Despite our knowledge that his snake-like henchman, Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell), is lurking nearby, and Davros’s own comments earlier about entrapping a Time Lord, we want him and the Doctor to reach some kind of reconciliation, which makes the subsequent reveal that he was pretending all along—planning a way to steal the Doctor’s regeneration energy—all the more crushing.
In fact, Davros’s moment of triumph is so powerful that the subsequent reversal, with the Doctor revealing that he was ahead of Davros all the time, strikes the only false note in the script; it feels slightly pat and unsatisfying, and not in keeping with the picture drawn by Missy earlier of the Doctor as a supreme improviser. On the other hand, the scenes of Missy coming to the Doctor’s rescue provide a neat ending, along with possible hints for the future as both Davros and Missy drop portentous references to a mysterious “hybrid”—some kind of Dalek/Time Lord merging—with even a teasing suggestion that this might somehow be related to the Doctor’s original departure from his homeworld.
The Doctor and Clara’s escape from the city is also a little rushed, as a convenient bit of magic restores the TARDIS (though, in retrospect, the fact that the Doctor never showed the slightest concern over it apparently being disintegrated last episode could be seen as a clue). The episode ends strongly though: In a typical Moffat twist, last week’s cliffhanger has quite a different meaning when its proper context is revealed. It becomes the true ending of the story, with the Doctor planting the small spark of mercy in the young Davros who’ll survive into the Daleks and eventually save Clara.
Next Week: The Doctor and Clara visit a futuristic submerged base haunted by ghostly apparitions, in “Under the Lake.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Several years after his first appearance, Davros made the first of his many returns in 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.
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