Once upon a time, Steven Moffat wrote self-contained episodes of Doctor Who, and they were often among my favorite episodes of the season. One episode could flow effortlessly between being scary, humorous, and moving, all the while telling a story that left the viewer satisfied at its conclusion. Since he became the showrunner, however, Moffat is usually writing series openers and finales, episodes that need to set up season arcs and have implications far beyond the conclusion of the episode itself. The stakes are usually so high and far-reaching that it is almost impossible for the episodes to reach a satisfying conclusion. This is what happens in “The Witch’s Familiar,” an episode that I enjoyed, but it ultimately left me a bit unsatisfied.
The basic plot of this episode is fairly simple. Clara and Missy have to work their way back to the Doctor after teleporting away at the end of “The Magician’s Apprentice.” The Doctor, of course, must continue his confrontation with Davros.
One problem I had was that I didn’t feel that the two halves of this two-part episode fit together well. The previous episode was framed by the question of what you would do if confronted with a child who you knew was going to grow up to do horrible things. That question isn’t really a question anymore in this episode. I always knew that the Doctor would not end up murdering the young Davros, but that whole moral dilemma is pretty much ignored. The whole Missy-as-the-Doctor’s-best-friend idea is pretty much scrapped as well, replaced with a more general idea the difference between friends and enemies.
However, the issue that rises to the forefront in this episode is another interesting idea: what separates the Doctor from his archenemies? In this episode we have not only Davros, but Missy for comparison as well. The episode does a good job of bringing out some of their similarities. They’re all clever, intelligent individuals. Missy is just about as good as the Doctor at thinking on her feet and anticipating her opponents’ moves. The parallels with Davros are a bit more direct, as Davros seems to be trying to convince the Doctor that they are not that different; they’re both individuals trying to save their own race by any means necessary.
The key difference, it becomes apparent, is compassion and/or mercy. Missy is willing to help the Doctor (mainly for her own selfish reasons), but both parts of the episode make it clear that she has no compassion for others. Humans are nothing more than inanimate objects (she even humorously uses Clara as a rock at one point in the episode, making her feelings about humans completely clear).For Davros, the Doctor’s compassion is his biggest weakness. After all, the Doctor has now had more than one chance to wipe out the Daleks, but hasn’t. He even seems to have compassion for Davros; the Doctor is still able to see the boy/man who was so frightened he placed his entire race in tanks.
I loved the heart to heart that Davros and the Doctor had for the bulk of this episode, even though I did suspect a trap. Both Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach give powerful performances. This is also probably the best use of Davros since “Genesis of the Daleks.” This episode really adds depth and a bit of pathos to his character. It also makes him feel like a worthy advisory again, instead of a cartoonish villian.
I was still, however, disappointed to learn that both the Doctor and Davros were playing each other the entire time, with Davros hoping to use the Doctor’s compassion against him. I wondered if perhaps a bit of truth had inadvertantly slipped out between them, but basically, it made their entire conversation meaningless. Still, it served to drive home the point that compassion is what separates them, and that the Doctor’s compassion is not his weakness, but his strength.
I had worried that this confrontation with Davros was going to reveal that the Doctor has been more instrumental in the creation of the Daleks than we thought, so I was relieved that Moffat took the story in a different direction. The Doctor’s journey to discover what kind of a man he was last season has left him with no doubts on that score this season. Last year’s Doctor would have been stuck in the moral dilemma that this Doctor manages to rise above. After running away the first time, he goes back and saves Darvos, planting a seed of mercy in him. This mercy seeps from their creator into the Daleks themselves, making the Doctor’s influence on Davros and the Daleks a positive one.
While the theme was interesting, I was a bit disappointed in the execution of it. I enjoyed Missy and Clara’s interactions, but at times they felt like they were a distraction from the Doctor/Davros confrontation that was really at the heart of the episode. Clara really did not have much to do except be Missy’s canary/rock/Dalek. I did like the fact that Missy tried to have the Doctor kill Dalek Clara (also clearly a reference back to the time that we first met her in “Asylum”), as it reinforces the idea that Missy is dangerous and not really to be trusted. It also allowed the Doctor to demonstrate his mercy again as he gives Missy a chance to escape rather than face his wrath.
It was the whole part with the Dalek/Time Lord hybrids that gave me the most trouble. What exactly was the Doctor’s plan? The Dalek sludge couldn’t possibly destroy all of the Daleks. Many of them were in the air. How would the dying Daleks get to all of the Daleks? So, are there going to be Dalek/Time Lord hybrids out there? This whole aspect of the plot felt rather underdeveloped to me. Plus, some of the revelations about how Daleks worked left me scratching my head, although I may be able to figure out some points if I give them more thought. Why would the Dalek not be able to say what Clara did? Wasn’t her brain controlling it? I would assume a Dalek wouldn’t need a filter because Daleks presumably wouldn’t be having thoughts that were unbecoming to a Dalek. Plus, we’ve seen dead Daleks in the past. Can they just not die a natural death? And, of course, why is their a perfect space for a human inside a Dalek (but this could be asked on several occasions in the classic series as well)? Some of my questions may be loose ends that are picked up in a later episode. After all, we left Missy with a clever idea, surrounded by Daleks, so we might not have seen the last of this story.Overall, I enjoyed the episode, I just felt that it could have been executed a bit better. Once again, a two-parter that started out with great promise fell a bit flat for me in the second half. There were many great parts to this story, I just didn’t feel like they added up to a cohesive whole. I’m hoping the next two-parter manages to deliver on both ends.