The Witch's Familiar

Story No. 277 We've all had this exact nightmare
Production Code Series 9, episode 2
Dates September 26, 2015

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: An old enemy has summoned the Doctor with his dying wish.


"Every miner needs a canary" by Donna Bratley 20/12/18

And every Time Lord needs a great enemy. In Davros, the Doctor has one.

The Witch's Familiar starts with a smashing piece of shorthand and develops into the kind of well-paced character offering the series often lacked in its "run around, wave the sonic, shout a smart-alec line" days. It takes a strong opening half and builds on it, offering two contrasting conversations that knit together toward a conclusion that satisfies and chills in equal measure. I love it.

Steven Moffat achieves a lot before the opening titles. "Consider the Doctor" efficiently deals with multiple escapes from "certain" death; reaffirms Clara's deep bond with her best friend; and reveals Missy's grudging admiration for the genius of her old frenemy. It conveys information, establishes relationships and ends on an "only the Doctor" moment of mischief. It's also extremely funny.

Terrific actress though she is, Jenna Coleman is restricted to playing the foil for Michelle Gomez. A good one, but she's playing Ernie Wise to Gomez's madcap Eric Morcambe. The deranged Time Lady (upgrade? since when was equality about denigrating men?) is always going to dominate their scenes with absolute relish, but Clara ought to know better after her rollercoaster experience with the Twelfth Doctor than to think she can manipulate a true Gallifreyan rebel. Whether she's casually shoving her unsuspecting "canary", stone-style, to test the depth of a hole or dancing around an out-of-control Dalek, Missy is manically watchable.

Swapping the Master's biology is a cheap cop-out. You want to write a brilliant, demented villain(ess), great. Invent one. Yet I can't deny Missy develops one decidedly Master-like trait here that makes the "creative decision" easier to bear.

There's cruelty for its own sake in the way she urges the grief-stricken Doctor to inadvertently kill the woman he's desperately trying to find: a cold amorality that's the very essence of the character, far deeper than any theatrical villainy. Missy doesn't give two hoots if Clara lives or dies, and she really doesn't care if the Doctor is left shattered, either. She's playing the game because she can. Because it amuses her.

In Peter Capaldi, Gomez meets her match. Here's a Doctor who in his own way is just as much of a renegade: one just as capable of anything, whose menace is constrained by something Missy utterly lacks. Davros nails what makes the Doctor who he is impeccably in the more compelling of the two conversations that dominate the episode. Compassion. Brusque and unsentimental as his manner may be, the Twelfth Doctor is compassion personified. The epitome, whether he realises it or not, of a good man.

He's just as bananas as Missy and even more mercurial. From a moment's raw rage (that "Get OUT!" as he holds a gun to Davros's head is the Oncoming Storm personified) to the wonderfully deadpan moments playing dodgems in his stolen chair, this Doctor can turn in an instant. He's dangerously unpredictable and utterly compelling.

Davros, on the other hand, is never unpredictable: he's evil to the core, but - courtesy of Julian Bleach - he does, briefly, become a figure of real pathos. Every scene between him and the Doctor is a gem, tautly written yet giving breathing space to each character and - it goes without saying but should always be said, lest we become inured to how fortunate we are - superbly played. There's a rare moment of empathy between the arch enemies - "You are not a good Doctor" says Davros before both men start to honestly, genuinely chuckle - that given their history shouldn't feel right, yet does. It's Moffat, Capaldi and Bleach at their peak, and what a team they make.

I'm not sure the Doctor's readiness to play along with Davros's scheme makes sense: I can only assume that believing Clara dead and his position hopeless, he decides to take the whole of Skaro down with him. For an awful moment, I seriously thought he'd been bested, and I'm still uncertain how (or if) he intended to extricate himself without Missy's intervention, but it doesn't matter. This is fiction, and I don't expect reality to hang together intelligibly either. It's a bit dim of Davros to forget what lurks in his own sewers, but once again the head writer has intervened in established lore, and his tweaks are enthralling.

Decaying Daleks flushed into their own sewer system; the gun reloaded by the channelling of emotion. Clara's learning a lot on Skaro, although she can be forgiven for not finding it as fascinating as I do. The one thing I'm not happy with is a tiny grain of mercy finding its way into Dalek DNA.

Obviously, it had to be there for the purpose of the narrative - without Clara inadvertently making her casing reveal it, how was the Doctor going to figure out where she was? - but it's no minor fiddling with the mythology. This is diametrically opposed to fifty-plus years of Who custom. It makes for a sickly moralising finale, as the Doctor returns to implant that tiny morsel of humanity into the child Davros, and it gets the writer out of a hole, but I'm still not keen.

Still: it's my only complaint about the closing of a two-parter that demonstrates all the strengths of the format with none of the flaws. There's no padding; where the action slows, the main players expand, and as a fan of character-driven drama that puts it right up my street. Revealing dialogues share the spotlight with moments of sheer hilarity - Missy's fulfilment of her promise to scratch Davros's eye out; the Doctor's satisfied cry of "Moron!" and his solemn announcement to the Dalek Supreme (doesn't "your sewers are revolting!" count as banter? he's warmed to that since Sherwood Forest); and the magically appearing cup of tea; Davros being urged to give dying some welly; and the only other chair on Skaro. The Witch's Familiar is packed with great moments and tells a cracking story to boot.

Series 9 couldn't be off to a grander, more confident start.