Sunday 27 September 2015

Reviews in Time & Space: The Witch's Familiar

The Witch's Familiar

Last week saw the premiere of Doctor Who's ninth season (or series, whichever you prefer to use) and boy did it start with a bang. After revealing the surprise return of a dying Davros, The Magician's Apprentice ended with the Doctor witnessing both Clara and Missy being exterminated by Daleks before the TARDIS is destroyed. In the very last scene, the Doctor returns to where he met Davros as a child and pointed a Dalek gun at him, claiming he is going to "save his friends in the only way he can". It was a pretty incredible first episode and has set the bar pretty high for it's second part, cleverly titled The Witch's Familiar. Odd sounding titles for Davros/Daleks may be, but pretty clever (at least in name anyway) when you realise what they are referring to.

The Bitch is back....REALLY?

Believing his friends to be dead, the Doctor goes all guns blazing in the Dalek city before returning to Davros' chamber once again. As the Daleks' dying creator prepares himself for death, the Doctor reveals just why he agreed to come to Skaro as Davros hints there might be more to why he originally left Gallifrey than the Doctor lets on. Is this the final day of one of the Doctor's greatest enemies, or does the creator of the deadliest race in the cosmos have one more scheme left in him?

Meanwhile Clara and Missy (who aren't actually dead - big surprise there) explore the underbelly of Skaro, both looking to reunite with the Doctor. However any alliance with Missy is going to be a shaky one, and it isn't long before Clara is fighting for her life from both Daleks and her supposed partner.

The Witch's Familiar is an episode which isn't too preoccupied with plot, because what's actually there is admittedly rather thin on the ground. It must come as no surprise to anyone that Davros was up something all along, but the specifics of what he plan achieved we'll never know because in typical Moffat-era Doctor Who fashion he was practically foiled before he even began. In most cases this would make the episode an instant failure, but The Witch's Familiar still manages to stay engaging mainly thanks to the wonderful dialogue and exchanges on offer. The episode itself can (and for the sake of this review will) be split up into three different strands - the Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara, and then finally the Daleks themselves. Obviously there is some overlap between them, but on the whole these are where the its overall strengths and weaknesses lie.

"For once Luke, let me look upon you with my own eyes."

First we the Doctor and Davros, which were by far and large the episode's highlight. With the way Davros looks and the way he's been portrayed over the years, it's genuinely easy to forget that he is actually a man and not just a monster. It's actually disappointing that it was a trick all along (or at least some of it was, it wasn't 100% clear whether he was genuinely dying or not) because those scenes of him awaiting his last sunrise with the Doctor are really powerful. Personally not a huge fan of him suddenly own his own two human eyes, but the actual dialogue and emotion Julian Bleach put into the role was incredible. The Doctor also really delivered here with his trademark compassion, treating his old enemy like a friend and equal once he genuinely believed that Davros was dying. There have been a number of excellent Davros performances from Terry Molloy in the Big Finish audios so it would be wrong to discredit those, but The Witch's Familiar undoubtedly features the strongest appearance of Davros as an actual character since his debut in Genesis of the Daleks way back in 1975.

It would have been so much easier for Ian Chesterton if he could have done this

Next we have the element of Clara and Missy, who spend most of the episode teamed up after things brought them together last week. Michelle Gomez is on top form once again, providing quips left right and centre as well as proving exactly why the Master should probably never have a companion in the same vein as the Doctor. Meanwhile Clara carried on the age of tradition of a cast member getting inside and controlling a Dalek, bringing things swiftly up to date with new science behind their internal mechanisms. This all comes to a head when Clara is left trapped inside the Dalek, unable to reveal herself as Missy goads the Doctor into destroying it - claiming it to be that one that killed his friend. It's an exchange that goes on for perhaps a little bit too long (and the solution should have been obvious to even Clara given everything Missy told her about using the casing prior), but one which features really great emotion on all sides. The audience gets a good explanation as to how Missy survived Death in Heaven (not that we needed one), and is swiftly left at the end of this episode in an equally unescapable position. Until the next time then Missy!

The Dalek control room
Ain't no party like a Dalek party

Finally we come to the Daleks, who were without a doubt the weakest link in this episode. It's a mostly agreed fact that once Davros was introduced in the classic series his creations lost some of their edge, and The Witch's Familiar does little to dispel that opinion. The Daleks do very little in this episode - once again merely acting as an extension of Davros rather than being a force of their own to be reckoned with. Ignoring the fact that Dalek factions and loyalties are just thrown out of the window in this episode (so they're still not particularly loyal to Davros but are keeping him alive), the only things impressive about them here are the sheer number of them and the use of multiple variants (I'd have liked some sort of clear hierarchy instead of just fanservice, but that's just me). Every character runs rings around them, and they don't actually achieve anything in this entire story. Their only there as an extension of Davros' plan, and that plan doesn't even go anywhere. There were some interesting additions to Dalek lore here (the updated inner-workings of the casing, the "sewer" system), but nothing that feels like it will leave a lasting impression.

The Witch's Familiar doesn't quite live up to the high bar set by the previous week's episode, but it's still a pretty strong conclusion to the story and set up to the rest of the season. It's a pretty weak Dalek story and hinges more on dialogue than actual plot, but it's one hell of a Davros story. With Big Finish having pulled it off so well in the past, it would be great to see the series tackle a Davros appearance that doesn't feature any Daleks and see how it turns out. Julian Bleach really made the role his own over these last two weeks, and it would be a massive shame to have to wait another six years for him to rear his withered, cybernetic head again.

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