Writer: Steven Moffat.
Director: Hettie McDonald.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, Julian Bleach.
Hello, Whovians! Following last week’s absolutely cracking opening episode ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, we’re back with the Doctor, the Master, Clara, Davros and a whole host of the universe’s least-favourite genocidal pepperpots for Part Two! Can this story live up to the very lofty standards set by its predecessor? You’ll just have to read on to find out, won’t you?
On we go! Let’s examine ‘The Witch’s Familiar’.
[WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD]
After the shocking cliffhanger of last week’s episode, we open to a very whimsical scene in the wastelands of Skaro, where the Master is casually sharpening a stick (for hunting, she claims) while Clara dangles in the air, tied up and confused. The Master gives us a brief bit of exposition as to how the duo survived the events of the last episode (in the form of a very well-constructed and amusing flashback sequence to one of the Doctor’s prior escapes), an explanation that retroactively explains the villainous Time Lady’s survival in Series 8’s finale (and possibly several other times). Letting Clara down from her unfortunate predicament, the two elect to enter the Dalek city before them, the very heart of the Dalek Empire, to rescue the Doctor. Meanwhile, in the city itself, the Doctor stands trapped by Davros and teetering on the brink of a decision that could shatter everything he stands for…
After ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ set things up so nicely, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ had a hell of a job to do resolving the situation, and I’m delighted to say that it pulls it off with aplomb. The return to the two-parter format has allowed this episode to revolve entirely around the Doctor finding the way out of the unenviable position he and Clara have been placed in, and it works wonderfully. Elements that will play a part in the climax are rather cleverly introduced very early on in the episode and left to lurk under the surface until the right time, preventing any accusations of a “deus ex machina” finish coming into play (something which I know quite a lot of fans were worried would happen in this story, given the stakes). It’s not as overtly continuity-heavy as its predecessor, but tonally it’s a complete throwback to certain older serials. Fans of ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ in particular will be in very familiar territory with this tale. There’s also an utterly-tremendous in-joke going on in reference to Moffat’s well-known Comic Relief special ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ that took me a second watch to catch on to but had me outright laughing when I did.
Like its first part, the episode has a rather relaxed pace to it, all things considered, with almost all of the episode given over simply to the dialogue and interactions between the two starring duos: The Doctor and Davros; Clara and the Master. It’s a very heavy character piece, with explorations into the psyche of the Doctor and Davros in particular proving utterly fascinating to watch, genuinely bringing something new to the table. In addition, those waiting for it will be delighted to see that our first mention of Series 9’s driving question/arc has finally been dropped: just what is on the Doctor’s confession dial? Why did he run away from Gallifrey all those years ago? The brief hints towards it and the way things are set up are enough to come off as very tantalising indeed.
With that we segue into the characters and their actors in question! ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ is one of the strongest outings for Doctor Who‘s main cast that we’ve seen in recent times, with all four of the headliners providing fantastic performances. It’s interesting to note that they are the only four non-Dalek characters in the story (bar a very brief appearance by Colony Sarff), lending things a rather intimate feel and contributing greatly to the character dynamics in play. As ever, we’ll open with Peter Capaldi, who brings us arguably one of the most complete portrayals of his Doctor to date (those who have felt that the show has not yet fully represented his Doctor properly will no doubt be assuaged greatly by this episode). He’s funny and lighthearted one moment but instantly segues into roaring rage or agony at the drop of a hat; it’s genuinely enthralling to watch him (as the Doctor himself says, “I’m inconsistent”). The Doctor in this episode is placed in situations we’ve never quite seen him in before (which is a rarity in his quadruple-digits-and-counting lifespan at this stage!) and watching how he acts, even in the subtlest ways, brings so much depth to his character. There are points of the story where he’s at the most threatening we’ve seen this incarnation, a very intriguing development. The Twelfth Doctor in particular seems to have developed a tendency for dramatic entrances and showmanship, and this episode continues with that in spades. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll see.
A hero is only as good as their villain, of course, and ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ gives the Doctor a villain anyone would be proud to match in the form of Davros, still played by Julian Bleach. It’s a much-loved tradition for any episode featuring the two characters together to feature at least one lengthy debate between them where they wax philosophical at each other and generally try to one-up their opposite number (those clever-clogs, eh?). Suffice it to say, this story features such conversations almost to the exclusion of all else, and it’s a marvellous thing to observe; very strong vibes of the Classic era ring throughout. Much like the Doctor, this story brings a brand-new face to Davros’ character; I was actually very surprised to see the direction they took him in at first, it genuinely took me aback. I won’t go into too much detail but trust me, it’s a wonderful few sequences. Bleach and Capaldi play off of each other magnificently, with some of the choicest dialogue and piercing questions in the entire two-parter and the appropriate drama that both can bring to the role. Bleach in particular does an incredible job of being his usual scenery-devouring self, managing to bring great emotion to Davros through body language and speech alone, despite the limited range of facial emotion afforded him by his prosthetics.
Where Davros goes so too do his children, of course, and they’re scarier than ever. The Daleks truly are a fearsome presence once again on our screens. They’re smarter than they’ve been before, not pulling their punches in any way. They’re as vicious and predatory as they should be, which is wonderful to witness. We also get a very interesting perspective on the mental substance of what makes a Dalek, too, another part of the episode that had me quietly muttering “oh!” as I watched it through.
The episode’s other duo account for themselves very well too, of course. Jenna Coleman has a fair bit more to do in this episode than she did in the last, getting a rather rare opportunity as far as companions go (last afforded to Ian Chesterton way back in the debut of the Daleks themselves, funnily enough), but I won’t spoil the specifics beyond that. There’s a lot of close-up facial acting for her in this episode, and that’s something that Coleman never fails to deliver on. Still paired with her is Captain Scene-Stealer herself, Michelle Gomez as the Master. There’s very little I can say about her that I haven’t already said at this stage; she’s an utter riot at all times, no ways about it. She’s endlessly watchable as the Master, her performance consistently managing to remain one of the most memorable parts of any episode she features in. In the first part of this story, she informed Clara and us with quite some emphasis that she’s “not turned good”. In this part of the story, she shows us that in force. There are a couple of actions of hers that are some of the most delightfully and shamelessly villainous that the Master has committed in recent times. There’s one incredibly significant line to look out for too, in that typical Moffat way, so keep an ear out for that!
Aesthetically, this episode continues being a throwback to the Dalek stories of the ’60s, but with some added visual treats. The sewers of Skaro are as one would expect: disgusting and horrific. The prosthetics of Davros have been tweaked for some added dexterity, and the extent of the damage to his body is rendered in lovely, grim detail. It’s gloriously retro throughout, a trend that is somewhat of an undercurrent throughout the story.
All in all, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ had a tremendous amount to live up to after the last episode. What we got was not what I expected at all. It was easily one of the most intriguing episodes of Doctor Who in quite some time, with a very unusual feel to it but in a very good way. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, not with excitement but rather pure interest. Anyone still not sold on the Twelfth Doctor will likely be cheerfully along for the ride now. Series 9 has had the bar set extremely high.
A fascinating episode through and through and a stunning two-parter
Do join us next time when we go under the sea…or rather, ‘Under the Lake’! See you then!