Season 9, Episode 2 “The Witch’s Familiar”
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, Julian Bleach
Air date: Saturday, September 26, 2015
So… how do we start? We assume we’re going to win! When we left off last week, the Doctor discovered his own part in Davros’ past; he, Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS were all on Skaro; and the latter three of those four were apparently vaporized. It was just the Doctor, Davros, and a planet full of Daleks, or as Missy put it this week “on the run, no TARDIS. No friends, no help. In other words … the Doctor, happy.” Well, I wouldn’t go that far… and neither would showrunner Steven Moffat. It’s a tangled web, to be sure! How does the Doctor escape? By creating a future that causes a past that produces his present, and showing once again that compassion is a disease for which there is no cure.
With all of the opening overture fireworks completed, the strengths of the Moffat-era Doctor Who now become more apparent. Where last week we saw almost a bewildering display of characters and plot twists, the players this week on Episode 9.2 “The Witch’s Familiar” are reduced to just five: the Doctor, Missy, Clara, Davros, and the Daleks. We know they are on Skaro, and we have some idea how they relate to one another… or do we? The brilliance of Steven Moffat the writer is to skillfully invert what we think we know about characters and situations and to do it with brilliant, economical dialogue.
The escape of Clara and Missy provides an essential example. The classic movie serial approach to this cliffhanger would be to have characters apparently meet their doom (such as our heroes become trapped in a flooding tunnel) one week, and then show a key visual with an illuminating line of dialogue the next (our heroes reappear treading water and one of them remarks “it sure was lucky that we found this trapped air pocket”). Moffat goes much farther than this with amazing novelty. When Missy and Clara reappear, Clara is caught in a very compromising position and Missy is sharpening a stick. When Clara asks how they escaped, Missy tells how the Doctor once escaped in similar situation against very long odds, and invites Clara (and through her, the audience) to work out how they escaped herself. It takes a fairly stock cliffhanger situation and resolves it with both cleverness and style, through careful use of a dramatic device.
The same sort of point can be very clearly raised when you look at how the Doctor and Davros interact this week. The initial action last week was about establishing them each at the head of competing narratives that have long been in conflict. The Daleks create Doctor Who for television viewers in 1963. The Doctor is dispatched to destroy or alter the Daleks at the moment of their creation and meets Davros. The Daleks go to Earth in 1963 to obtain one of the artifacts from the Time Lords’ creation myth to destroy Gallifrey. The Doctor appears in Davros own past, playing a part his creation.
How should these characters now interact? The stock solution would be to see them continue this struggle on a smaller, personal scale. This is the essence of the original up close and personal exchange between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Davros in “The Genesis of the Daleks” in 1975:
DOCTOR: Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory, something contagious and infectious that killed on contact, a virus that would destroy all other forms of life, would you allow its use?
DAVROS: It is an interesting conjecture.
DOCTOR: Would you do it?
DAVROS: The only living thing, a microscopic organism reigning supreme. A fascinating idea.
DOCTOR: But would you do it?
DAVROS: Yes. Yes. To hold in my hand a capsule that contains such power, to know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. To know that the tiny pressure on my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything. Yes, I would do it! That power would set me up above the gods. And through the Daleks, I shall have that power!
Yet what Moffat gives us this week is the opposite: the Doctor and Davros appearing (for a time, at least) to be allies in something private, personal, and far removed from the conflict between the two narratives they lead. For this, writer Moffat, director Hattie MacDonald, and actors Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi deserve very high marks. Together they turn in one of the most real and moving scenes for the Davros character since his original appearances played by Michael Wisher over forty years ago. I, for one, found myself wanting it not to be, knowing it shouldn’t be, but being moved nonetheless.
This inversion sets the stage for the real revelation that sums up the last forty-plus years: compassion. The Doctor may oppose many things, but he cares for nearly everything and really hates next to nothing. Enemies are, in large part, just friends who are behaving very badly at any given moment. We can talk about reclaiming the mystery and the anarchy of the Doctor’s very beginnings on the show called Doctor Who, but the show will never be able to go all the way back. In that beginning, there was the Doctor, his granddaughter, and two people he kidnapped. While he may have cared for his granddaughter, his concern for Susan’s two school teachers and indeed anyone with whom he was allied was initially an open question. Fully changing that took a while, over a year, but it’s become so central to the show that it cannot be undone.
The consequence of this revelation is the same one that Tom Baker voiced in 1975: the Daleks, for all their evil, must produce something good. It is the Doctor’s compassion and Davros’ lack of it that produces the feint within a feint that reveals the true position of the pieces on the board. The compassion in Davros’ past that elicits compassion in the Doctor’s present that then allows the Doctor to offer compassion in his future. Thanks to the machinations of Missy, it also keeps Clara from any real danger.
Last week, I wrote about the differences between Steven Moffat the contributing screenwriter and Steven Moffat the showrunner. Part of that difference lay in restraint and economy. Comparing this week’s episode to the last, we find a leaner, more economical approach and the kind of artful reversals of ideas that makes Moffat a great writer for the show. Along the way, we got some great performances from all the principals, some Dalek nostalgia for those who want it, and an interesting restatement of goals and ideas from on the all time great Doctor Who serials from 1975. While not perfect, the results are pretty damn good. If Steven Moffat the showrunner could ensure that all the episodes made on his watch were this good, I think fans would have nothing ever to fear.