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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who argues compassion is the best incurable disease

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Let’s get the not so good stuff out of the way first. “The Witch’s Familiar” pretty much wimps out on all the seemingly major questions that “The Magician’s Apprentice” raised. We never do find out what was in the Doctor’s last will and testament—though it feels silly to even pretend the show was ever going to reveal something like that—nor does this episode ever quite clarify why the Doctor thought he was headed for certain death in the first place. You would also be forgiven for thinking this episode would focus on the Doctor’s relationship with the younger Davros, given how last week’s episode ended, and whether he ever could kill a child in cold blood. Instead, the episode keeps its attention squarely on the relationship between the Doctor and the older Davros, which isn’t in itself a bad thing—quite the opposite, actually—but it does feel like the story ends up sidestepping what it was supposed to focus on.

Also, all that business with the living Dalek sewers? It’s funky enough as a concept on its own terms, even more so when it feels like an odd remix of the hand mines concept from, you know, the same story. But it’s even funkier as the lynchpin of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Daleks. The fact that the episode sets up the sewer graveyard at the halfway point doesn’t really change how out of nowhere the whole thing feels, particularly given how crucial it is to the narrative. Just generally, there are some issues with the plotting, and a lot of it goes back to how Steven Moffat has written the Daleks during his tenure. While Russell T. Davies drummed up the Dalek threat by making them utterly ruthless killing machines—something that was very effective in the two 9th Doctor Dalek stories, but saw rapidly diminishing returns in the 10th Doctor entries—Moffat has focused more on the master strategist part of their collective character, and the return of Davros lets him run with that to a still greater extent.

The trouble is that the show sometimes ends up doing a non-jokey version of one of the main gags in Moffat’s 1999 Doctor Who parody “The Curse Of Fatal Death,” in which the Master and the Doctor repeatedly reveal they have anticipated the other’s next move and already prepared an appropriate counter. It’s a game of narrative chess so fiendishly intricate that the audience isn’t really let in on the action until the Doctor is ready to reveal he knew what Davros was doing all along, and he let Davros ensnare him just to set into motion that final gambit with the undead sewers. Done too often, this can make the Doctor feel invincible, rendering the narrative inert. Steven Moffat’s last two-parter took us briefly into this territory with the Doctor and Clara’s illusory confrontation in “Dark Water.” Peter Capaldi excels at playing a straightforward, haunted, even vulnerable Doctor when the script asks him to play it, but the show sometimes gives his incarnation too much narrative control for the stakes to feel real.

There’s another cost to consider here. The Doctor and Davros here are both running so many plans inside plans that it’s hard to tell if either has a single honest moment with the other, and that’s a shame given some of the episode’s best moments come from their interactions. Those sustained conversations with Davros represent by far the best use the TV series has made of the character since “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and you would have to go back to “Dalek”—with an honorable mention to last year’s “Into The Dalek”—for the last time any Dalek-affiliated creature got the Doctor to open up the way he does here. We know Davros, broadly speaking, was deceiving the Doctor, but does that invalidate everything he has to say? And what about the Doctor? Can we trust any of the unguarded moments he has with Davros, or should those too be understood as part of his larger stratagem?

The way out here, I think, is to say that it doesn’t matter. Both the Doctor and Davros are complex enough characters for them to be able to reveal genuine aspects of themselves even when manipulating each other. To reverse a quote from the Doctor’s old friend Winston Churchill, lies are so precious that they must always be attended by a bodyguard of truths. But it’s asking a lot of the audience to get them to invest in all those insightfully written, beautifully shot, and brilliantly acted scenes between Davros and the Doctor, to reveal the Doctor and Davros were both concealing the truth the entire time, and then to have those scenes carry the same weight that they did initially.

Yet those scenes are great enough that I’m willing to forgive the sloppiness of the episode’s storytelling. Indeed, a big part of the reason those scenes still work, even after we learn what games the Doctor and Davros were really playing, is that the interactions are so cleverly informed by their perspectives. After all, if there is one thing for which Davros would feel sympathy toward the Doctor, it is his status as last (give or take Missy) of the Time Lords. Davros is so irredeemably psychotic and genocidal that it’s hard to fit him into that old chestnut that villains believe themselves the heroes of their own stories, but if Davros were to view himself in those terms, it surely would be as the man willing to defend and protect his race at all costs. He can hate the Doctor with every fiber of his being, yet he can still pity him for his utter isolation.


A particularly brilliant touch is to have Davros open his Kaled eyes, something I’m not sure we’ve ever seen before (and which I’m not sure should technically be possible, given why he needed the third eye in the first place, but Davros has had several eons to repair them). As soon as he opens his eyes, he transforms from an alien monster into a withered old man. Sure it’s a ploy, but it convinces to the extent that it does because the story does genuinely make an effort to humanize Davros. He does rather gild the lily when he asks about being a good man and starts blathering about wanting to be the Doctor’s ally just once, but Julian Bleach brings out that tiny wisp of genuine humanity beneath all the manipulation. That child the Doctor met on the battlefield was lost long ago, but Bleach and director Hettie MacDonald locate that tiniest trace of him.

And, honestly, “The Witch’s Familiar” says everything it needs to say about the dilemma the young Davros supposedly poses to the Doctor. The sequence in which the Doctor acknowledges his compassion might well represent Capaldi’s finest work yet in the role. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he demonstrates his belief in the virtue of compassion not through a big speech or high-minded bluster, but rather through acknowledgment. Of course he hopes his compassion will consume him. Of course he wouldn’t die of anything else. That scene, more than maybe any other in Capaldi’s tenure, shows us what it means to have a straightforward, essentialist Doctor, as opposed to just telling us.


The other reason I’m inclined to forgive, even praise this episode for swerving away from the young Davros plotline is that it avoids what would almost certainly have been a far greater mistake. The Doctor mused last episode on what created Davros, and the implication there was that he was very much worried that he had created his arch-enemy, a phenomenon otherwise known as pulling a Batman. As it turns out, this two-parter reaffirms the answer “Genesis Of The Daleks” had already implicitly given: Skaro created Davros. The war created Davros. A millennium of racial hatred and obsession with purity created Davros. No other answer is needed, and it would only cheapen Davros and the scope of the Doctor Who universe to reveal that one action by the Doctor would have been sufficient to trigger all the evil Davros later embodied and unleashed.

Indeed, “The Witch’s Familiar” wisely recognizes that even the greatest and most powerful of individuals can only do so much in the grand scheme of things. The Doctor can neither create nor destroy Davros, and all he could ever hope to do is make a tiny difference on the margins. The Doctor’s legacy at the end of this episode is no great thing. It’s just a nearly forgotten wisp of mercy, a rare exception to the pain and fear Davros experienced on every other day of his life, but it endured long enough for a single word—“Mercy”—to remain in the recesses of the Daleks’ memory banks against all odds. As these things go, that resolution plays out in a minor key, but it still works nicely as an encapsulation of what the Doctor stands for, and there’s a more universal point there about the value of compassion and mercy on their own terms, even in the face of vast, implacable horror.


Beyond the Doctor and Davros, there’s another reason “The Witch’s Familiar” easily transcends its sometimes wonky plotting, and that reason can be found in what I can only assume are its two title characters. Because seriously, Missy and Clara is a Doctor Who double act for the ages. The episode portrays them as a demented version of the Doctor and his companion, with Clara repeatedly falling into the familiar pattern and trusting the resident Time Lord—sorry, Time Lady—despite all evidence to the contrary. Missy’s constant, seemingly random betrayals, including her final effort to trick the Doctor into killing the Dalek-encased Clara just because, cut nicely against the more grandiose plotting of the Doctor and Davros. When she tells the Doctor the reason she gave him Clara in the first place was to make some point about the friend in the enemy and the enemy in the friend, it sort of sounds like she’s making a big thematic statement, but she’s also probably just spouting some bullshit because, well, she’s the Master. Why wouldn’t she?

More than that, as the Doctor and Davros get down to their deep, serious business, Missy just gets to have so much fun. Michelle Gomez is so fearlessly unhinged in her performance, and the opening scene alone gives us her wink when she alludes to eating Clara and her merrily skipping into the distance to go fight some Daleks. It’s the little things, like how she yells “Whee!” as a Dalek explodes a few feet away from her. And yet, for all that, Missy can still be just serious enough to allow Doctor Who to consider its own mythos once more, something I’ve long since gone on record as being endlessly fascinated by. Moffat already demonstrated a dab hand at exploring Dalek psychology with “Asylum Of The Daleks,” and he makes the very most of the opportunity here to see how Clara’s human emotions and ideas translate to the Dalek perspective. In isolation, that whole business works well as just a bit of prime Moffat cleverness, but it also sets up the eventual resolution as the Doctor hones in on the one word in the Dalek vocabulary that shouldn’t be there.


“The Witch’s Familiar” is a fine showcase for the Doctor, Missy, and Davros—Clara is admittedly a rather less crucial part of the proceedings, though Jenna Coleman does do nice work as Missy’s comedy partner and as a human trapped inside a Dalek—and it’s worthwhile beyond its considerable virtues for one simple reason: Neither Davros nor Missy dies at the end of this episode. Oh sure, they are both stuck in precarious situations, but compared with their previous exits in the new series, there’s absolutely zero reason to doubt that both survived. It took a decade, but this two-parter represents the new series finally working out how to portray the Master and Davros as recurring foes without cheapening the threat either represents. And, while I’m ready to step away from them for a little while—okay, fine, I would watch a Michelle Gomez-led Missy miniseries right this minute—it’s reassuring to know that there’s now a place for them to be ongoing presences in the Doctor Who universe. The fact that this two-parter also demonstrates how worthwhile both are as very different threats to the Doctor is almost a bonus.

Stray observations:

  • Another really clever touch is having the current Doctor take the place of whichever past incarnation—maybe the 4th, maybe the 1st, maybe another entirely!—had that showdown with the killer androids. It’s an effective way of illustrating that all the different incarnations really are the same person.
  • Hey, we got some Gallifrey talk! I remain deeply chill about the whole Gallifrey thing—bring it back, don’t bring it back, it’s all good—but this slightly more concrete acknowledgment of where the Doctor stands with respect to his own people is welcome.
  • “Admit it: You’ve all had this exact nightmare.” I didn’t even mention the Doctor getting into Davros’ chair! Probably because it was perfect, and requires no further elaboration. Fine, one thing: Capaldi’s righteous fury there was a sight to behold.
  • I’d probably go ahead and give the combined two-parter a B+/A-. I don’t think it’s quite up to the standard of some of those early 11th Doctor two-parters, but this is one I like more each time I rewatch it.