September 27, 2015, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
Being a true, die-hard fan of Doctor Who frequently means farming fallow land with the hope of getting some small sprout to grow. This is a show that, by its very nature, is structured as to be incredibly variable in quality and full of insane missteps. This is not a show that risks going off the rails so much as it off-roads so gleefully its almost surprising when it finds itself on the road. Doctor Who is an exciting ride, but it isn’t a smooth one, and sometimes it involves finding joy in the bumps along the way.
“The Witch’s Familiar” is a mess of an episode, if we’re being honest, and caps off a two-part premiere that has danced dangerously close to outright disaster throughout. But it is also an episode that is packed basically wall-to-wall with fun, clever, or emotionally compelling moments. In other words, its bad Doctor Who in the best possible way, an episode that doesn’t bother trying to work and instead just throws out a lot of things and hopes to distract from the utter lack at its center. For long stretches, it basically works, and I came away enjoying “The Witch’s Familiar” far more than its predecessor, even as I recognize it basically wimped out on all of the interesting ideas in “The Magician’s Apprentice” in favor of sewer goop saving The Doctor from a fate that makes no sense in the first place.
To begin with, there’s Missy and Clara, a duo that is basically every bit as magnificent to watch as I expected. Michelle Gomez is absolute perfection in the role, the first Master since Roger Delgado I can honestly say I am excited to see return semi-regularly, and an incarnation of the character that seems to get that The Master is less a brilliant nemesis for The Doctor and more a sociopathic kid in a cosmic candy store, making decisions as much based on what seems fun at the time as on what would actually be expected to get results. Missy tries to trick The Doctor into killing Clara late in the episode for no real purpose other than because the deeply contrived way the Dalek shells work (seriously, Moffat’s understanding of the Daleks seems deeply flawed here—the suits aren’t the reason they are genocidal, after all) allows her to give it a shot, and when it doesn’t work out, she just shrugs, makes alms at a point about friends being inside enemies, and then takes off to have some clever idea when she is surrounded by Daleks. But before that, we get to see Gomez vamp and Clara basically try to engage with Missy like she is capable of having a plan that makes sense and doesn’t consist basically of a bunch of random betrayals until The Doctor comes along to clean up her mess. And boy, is that fun, from Missy’s story about The Doctor’s random adventure ending in a pit of vampire monkeys to her glee at the idea of taking on a city full of Daleks with a pointed stick (which, since she has her brooch, we later learn she didn’t even need anyway, a touch that is either very clever writing of Missy or very sloppy of Moffat, and I’m not quite sure which).
Then, there’s The Doctor and Davros. Much of the power of these scenes is robbed by the later reveal that The Doctor and Davros are both manipulating each other in the most obvious and predictable ways, but there’s a level at which they still work. The idea that these two ancient enemies might, on some level, long to be friends, and the notion that Davros, who literally destroyed his people to save them, might actually sympathize with The Doctor and be emotional at the idea that he managed to save his people, is a potent one. And while the level at which these two are ever being honest is unclear, I choose to read those scenes as varnished honesty, as lies coated in truth, a moment of connection long-coming for two brilliant men who have committed atrocities on opposite sides of an endless war.
Of course, that can’t entirely make up for the fact that The Doctor’s plan, apparently, is to pretend to be tricked so he can trick Davros by basically giving Davros what he wants and then also some goop-Daleks, I guess? In all honesty, The Doctor could have just not given up any regeneration energy to his greatest foe and likely escaped just the same way, which gives this whole two-parter a bit of a hollow feel. I talked last week about the problem of stakes in this story, and that the whole thing is revealed to be a nonsensical shell game in which The Doctor wins by losing in a battle he didn’t even need to be in to begin with makes everything about this feel more than a little pointless.
This opening story isn’t good Doctor Who, not by a long shot, but at least “The Witch’s Familiar” is fitfully interesting and full of almost enough iconic moments to paper over the hollowness at its center. Hand mines, The Doctor in Davros’ chair, the meeting of Davros and Missy (which is underwhelming, but also seems to understand that), and the final message about the value of mercy, which gives Capaldi one of his best moments yet in this role all land as moments, even if the connective tissue isn’t wholly successful at making them work as a cohesive story. This show should be smarter, weirder, and altogether better than it has been so far this season. But at least this episode does the work of not being boring, even if that’s all there is going for it.
- “Why are you sharpening that stick?”
- “Not seeing you as sandwiches now.”
- “So the androids think he’s dead, and he escapes.” “No. He’s the Doctor. He fell into a pit of vampire monkeys.”
- “Why did the Doctor survive?” “Because he’s clever!” “Yes, but there’s lots of clever dead people. I love killing clever people, they make the best faces!”
- “Between us and him is everything the deadliest race in the history of the universe can throw at us. We, on the other hand, have a pointy stick.”
- “Can I have a stick too?” “Make your own stick.”
- “Admit it. You’ve all had this exact nightmare.”
- “So the real question is, where’d I get the cup of tea? I’m the Doctor. Just accept it.”
- “I’ve been at the heart of your empire for 42 minutes and I own it. And I haven’t even got out of my chair.”
- “What are you doing?” “Murdering a Dalek. I’m a Time Lady, it’s our golf.”
- “I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed. A bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came because you’re sick and you asked. And because sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I’m not an old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.”
- “Don’t worry. There’s loads of nanotech repairing the wounds as it goes in.” “What about when it comes out?” “I’ve no idea. Nobody knows.”
- “Still you play the fool.” “By now that should make you nervous.”
- “Tell him the bitch is back.”
- “Gallifrey is back and it is safe. From both of us.”
- “You have redeemed the Time Lords from the fire. Don’t lose them again. Take the darkest path into the deepest hell. But protect your own.”
- “You’re my secret favorite. Don’t tell the others.”
- “I have always admired you, Doctor. I wish, just once, we had been on the same side.” “Look. The sun’s coming up. We’re on the same side now.”
- “In a way, this is why I gave her to you in the first place. To make you see. The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend. Everyone’s a bit of both. Everyone’s a hybrid.”
- “What is happening?” “Oh, same old same old. Just The Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS.”
- “I’m not sure any of that matters, friends, enemies. So long as there’s mercy. Always mercy.”
This opening story isn’t good Doctor Who, not by a long shot, but at least “The Witch’s Familiar” is fitfully interesting and full of almost enough iconic moments to paper over the hollowness at its center.