Doctor Who series 9: The Witch’s Familiar review

Davros, Missy, Daleks and sewers: here's our spoiler-packed look at The Witch's Familiar, the second episode of Doctor Who series 9.

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

9.2 The Witch’s Familiar

“I’m dying, Doctor” “You keep saying that, and you keep not dying”

When it comes to the Doctor’s key foes that aren’t a) people in silver suits or b) killers with egg whisks attached, the best scenes have generally boiled down to two characters having a chat. The genial sequences between Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado in the old days, for instance. Or the prolonged chinwag between Davros and The Doctor we get in The Witch’s Familiar. Heck, it’s why I’ve got a soft spot for 2005’s Boom Town. That the episode is willing to put the brakes on for a good conversation. I daresay a few biscuits were in the original draft.

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Straight away justifying splitting series 9’s opener across two episodes, Steven Moffat’s script here makes sure there’s lots of space for dialogue in The Witch’s Familiar. Specifically, a chat between the Doctor, and a Davros who’s dying for most of the running time. It’s intercut throughout the episode, and it’s two long-standing foes seemingly engaged in a long goodbye. Two equals, head to head, on different sides of a moral divide. And as the conversation progresses, and you start drawing Venn diagrams in your head, it’s not tricky to see the overlap between them.

The best moment of their chat was a tender one. It’s where the Doctor tells Davros that “I came because you’re sick and you asked”. Granted, Davros then tells the Doctor that his compassion is a cancer, that will kill him in the end. Yet it draws a firm dividing line, demonstrates the loyalty the Doctor holds to those perhaps least deserving of it, and it’s excellent Doctor Who.

In the midst of the chat, interesting things get discussed too. The Doctor telling Davros that Gallifrey is back, and “is safe from both of us”, for instance. Might Gallifrey yet be making its full comeback appearance later this series, as part of a revisiting previously destroyed planets roadshow?

Then there’s the part where Davros views the Daleks’ “respect for their father” as “a design flaw”. Last series, in Into The Dalek, the suggestion was that the Doctor would make a good Dalek. This time, it seems, the Daleks are suffering from something that the Doctor has inherent to him too: compassion. In a strong tie-up to the episode, it turns out that compassion and mercy is more of a Dalek quality than you’d think, but I’m coming back to that shortly.

Hettie MacDonald’s direction is smart here, and unfussy, as it was in the exquisite Blink. So it means that when we get to the part when Davros opens his real eyes, it actually means something. Julian Bleach’s performance of Davros deserves credit, too: it’s not always easy to articulate a character under layers of posh, expensive prosthetic stuff. Bleach delivers, though. I hope we see his Davros back.

There’s a sporting chance of that, of course, because The Witch’s Familiar swerved Davros’ potential demise, and had echoes of the Doctor pulling his life back from the brink in the past. “Am I a good man?”, he asks the Doctor, a line with an air of familiarity about it. It works: the Doctor is lulled into helping Davros, gets hooked up to a light show, and Time Lord energy allows the Dalek’s creator his very own regeneration of sorts.

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So where does this leave Davros? Is he the latest character in Doctor Who to now possess a little bit of Time Lord DNA in there? Well, there’s certainly hybrid talk (yeah, I shuddered too when they started talking about Dalek hybrids). It gets weaved back into long-standing Who – something last series steered clearer of – as Davros questions whether the Doctor’s running is because of a Time Lord/Dalek hybrid (Steven Moffat again, for better or worse, threading in questions that go back to day one of Doctor Who, and playing with the long-time mythology of the show). No answers thus far, but the door’s clearly open for Davros to come back at the end of the series to help round things off. 

Expect that Confession Dial to play another part, too. Along with Sonic Eyewear, it may just prove to be the key new prop of this series of Doctor Who.

“We, on the other hand, have a pointy stick”

Inevitably, it felt like The Witch’s Familiar was dominated by the terrific Davros/Doctor dynamic, but there were other things in there too.

It didn’t even tease for one second that everyone who apparently died in the last episode was anything but alive. Opening with Missy, Clara and that gag about a pointy stick, we got some gubbins about vortex manipulators, as the pre-credits sequence explains how the Doctor’s got around the ‘exploded’ TARDIS problem. Everyone seems to be roughly back to where they were in a matter of minutes.

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Well, sort of. There’s the small matter of Skaro to break into. That’s not a problem for Clara in particular, though. Last week, she took a phone call from a head of state, popped into UNIT, and generally looked to be taking control of anything she was let near. Oh, and she died. This week, she undied, and became a Dalek. Next week, start the betting on her winning Strictly Come Dancing.

But I like that she became a Dalek. Few of us are intimidated by the Daleks any more (as impressive as the moments were with them flying off to get their shopping around the skies of Skaro), and so Steven Moffat decided to have a lot more fun with them here. Thus, he put Clara into the driving seat, and Missy promptly pissed herself laughing. So did I.

The evolution of Missy is worth a look at. Michelle Gomez’s terrific, no compromises performance is enormous fun, after all. But is the character of Missy/The Master turning a little? Just under a year ago, Missy was an intriguing, intimidating character in Doctor Who. Across this two parter, her threat seems to have dissipated somewhat. Granted, she tried to fool the Doctor into thinking Clara was dead, but even though her actions were cutting, they didn’t feel as nasty, oddly enough. Instead, I was weighing up a Clara/Missy spin-off series at one point. Which, obviously, I’d watch.

Oh, and she told us something new about the Daleks. When they say exterminate, it’s them reloading. We’ll add it to the list.

“I am a Dalek!”

So, lots and lots of good things. I’d best get onto my grumble. Whilst the two episodes have allowed plenty of space to get the series back up and running, and deal with two major foes, once again the defeating of the Daleks didn’t really feel that satisfactory. In fact, it brought in more questions than answers.

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We’ve seen Daleks toppled in minutes by all sorts of things across the history of Doctor Who, but this is the first time to my knowledge that dead Daleks have bubbled up and killed living ones.

How does this work? Does this mean that wherever Daleks have died, there’s gunk in the sewers somewhere? What happened to the remnants of the one that Ace spectacularly smashed to bits in Remembrance Of The Daleks? Does that mean that, somewhere under the floorboards of Coal Hill School, there’s some dead Dalek gunk ready to spring up?

Also, the TARDIS. It had been seemingly destroyed (again), and some Capaldispeak (steeped in Doctor Who past) brought it back (Missy had implied is was destructible too, but the BBC’s toy division might have words with her over that). At least they did it quickly. I quite like the idea of a Doctor basically having to hitch a ride for a bit without a TARDIS though. Are we going to see Missy’s TARDIS soon, too?

“The Doctor without hope… nobody is safe now” 

Still, redemption all round came with the ultimate ending, which concluded where things had started. By the Doctor saving Davros, which in turn led to him introducing the concept of mercy into their DNA. Granted, if he’d killed Davros totally, then Clara would have been saved a different way. But the Doctor – as had been firmly established – doesn’t do genocide, and has never rented The Last Supper from Blockbuster (a smashing little film, if you’ve never seen it).

A satisfying, enjoyable start, and two really entertaining episodes these ones – especially the second. Not without a niggle or two, once straying into odd language for the show, but confident and, at best, extremely good. Certainly, Doctor Who series 9 is certainly going to have to go some to top the Davros/Doctor moments here.

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First to try? Another two-parter, kicking off with Under The Lake, from Toby Whithouse. See you next week for that one…

Our review of last week’s episode, The Magician’s Apprentice, can be found here.