One of the things that worried me about Doctor Who Series 9 being touted as a year of two-parters is that, in the past, the second part had a tendency to be a let down. This was certainly true the last time two-parters were a common thing, in Series 6. That series started with a two-parter that had an excellent first part and a just-okay second part, and that was the success of the bunch. Anyway, this is all to say that “The Witch’s Familiar” had the chance to be not-so-good in relation to “The Magician’s Apprentice.” Luckily, this certainly wasn’t the case, delivering a second part that more than delivered (actually, delivered MORE) on the promise of the premiere.
From here on out, the SPOILERS will be freely used. I strongly encourage you not to read until after you’ve seen the episode.
Cliffhangers don’t get more cliffhangery than the Daleks exterminating Clara, Missy, AND the TARDIS, leaving the Doctor totally alone and without even his sonic screwdriver for help. But, this episode began with Missy and Clara alive and well (despite Missy possibly going to eat Clara), so how did that happen? Well, through a story Missy tells about “The Doctor” – it doesn’t matter which one – we learned that he goes into every scenario expecting to win. He’s not sure how usually, but he knows there’s always a way. With that in mind, Missy did that with her vortex manipulators, which allowed her to escape the Cyber-Brig’s blast in “Death in Heaven” and saved her and Clara in “The Magician’s Apprentice.” Cop out? Nope, not at all. This is how this stuff works, and it’s better than just “Welp, they didn’t die.”
This episode didn’t skimp on any of the Doctor/Davros stuff we wanted, offering up conversations and mental chess games that rival any he’s had in episodes past. Once you get to the end, you know Davros was trying to use the Doctor’s compassion against him, but before then, when we saw Davros weeping and asking if he’s a good man, and saying congratulations to the Doctor for saving Gallifrey, and OPENING HIS EYES(!), even I was thinking he might actually be turning a new leaf, or was at least really coming to grips with nearing death. Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleech are amazing playing off each other in these scenes, hearkening back to the best of Tom Baker and Michael Wisher in “Genesis of the Daleks.”
Meanwhile, we continued the Missy & Clara Adventures, and even more than the last episode, we saw that Missy is certainly not someone Clara should put any trust in. But, needs are what they are. After chucking her into a dark pit, chaining her to a wall, and basically sicking a Dalek on her, Missy killed a Dalek and forces Clara inside. Michelle Gomez is always wonderful but here we really got to see Missy’s fiendish delight at experimenting with the Dalek-Clara. We learned that the built-in Dalek mechanisms can’t allow it to express any form of tenderness, and we also learned what the Daleks use for power… Emotion!
Steven Moffat has a way of explaining things that have always given fans of the show pause, and in this episode he explained one of the most fundamental parts of a Dalek: it shouts “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!!!” over and over and over. Why? Because their tank-casing computer harnesses emotion and focuses it into a weapon. It has to shout that to reload. It’s a genius way to explain a frankly stupid thing the Daleks have always done.
Also, Missy continued to be nice and evil, attempting to make the Doctor kill Clara when she’s trapped in a Dalek shell, unable to say anything that might give away that she is who she really is. (Luckily, the whole idea of “Mercy” ended up not being too foreign to them.) And yet, perhaps because of how deliciously sinister she’s portrayed, Missy is a joy to watch. As long as they don’t overuse her, I think she should come back once or twice a series like Roger Delgado did back in the day (following his first year when he was in every single story).
The Doctor and Davros attempting to out-think each other proved to be the episode’s strength. Just when you thought the Doctor has the upper hand, Davros made his move, only for it to be revealed the Doctor was playing him. Not the whole time, but enough of the whole time. Grotty Dalek sludge, the remnants of the mutants inside the shells, apparently doesn’t like being flushed and left for compost, which I’m guessing the Doctor must have known. But, he still thought he was going to die, hence the confession disc.
And it’s through this that we learned, perhaps, why the Doctor was running in the first place: he was part of a plan to make a hybrid of, I guess, Time Lords and Daleks…? Does that mean the First Doctor lied about not knowing who the Daleks were when they met in the very second story ever? Or is it something else? I’m genuinely curious now because I’m not entirely sure that makes sense. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, of course. Naturally, that’ll be a theme this year.
Aaaaaand, I had one question that I wasn’t able to reconcile: How come the Dalek Supreme didn’t recognize Missy when Dalek-Clara wheeled her back in? Didn’t they JUST exterminate her? Surely he was there for that. He seemed confident Clara was dead, meaning he was privy to that. Did he literally just forget Missy was there? I’m very, very confused about that. And she also seems to act like they hadn’t met already. Buuuuuuuut they did. So, anyway, like I said – confusing.
That aside, “The Witch’s Familiar” was a truly great episode, I thought, and it did things that a show that’s been around for 52 years should be doing to stay relevant. It shook things up, it built on things that came before, and, like Moffat has done for awhile, it made us looks at things we’ve seen forever in a new way. And we got to see that compassion does win. It isn’t a mistake. How nice.
Next week, the first of two episodes Steven Moffat himself said are among the scariest the show’s ever produced. Directed by Daniel O’Hara and written by Toby Whithouse, it’s “Under the Lake,” which looks to be about eyeless underwater Victorian ghosts. I mean, who doesn’t love that?!
Let me know what you thought about “The Witch’s Familiar” in the comments below!