Sunday, 27 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Witch's Familiar (Episode Review)

Being a two parter, you can probably guess that some spoilers for part one will need to be brought up here. Sidestepped and avoided as best as possible in The Magician's Apprentice, it's impossible not to bring them up here. If you have yet to see that episode, please do and then visit this one.

Now, with the usual warning out of the way, how was The Witch's Familiar? Second verse same as the first, really. Hit and miss throughout, we had both some extremely good ideas mixed in with some very dubious ones. However, this time there was a definite push for greater consistency and at least less recycled ideas.

Having been captured by the Daleks, with his companion and oldest enemy seemingly annihilated before him, the Doctor is being pushed further and further towards the edge. Davros seems almost gleeful at the thought of this, and yet things soon take a curious turn. The last of the kaleds brought the Doctor before him as one final request, one final question he has to make, and it is the last one the Doctor would ever expect of him...

If there's something to praise, the story sidesteps the blindingly obvious and seems to acknowledge the faults people had with the first half. Well, at least some of them anyway. Ending with Clara and Missy dead, it plays upon the original details of death being cheap to bring them back almost immediately. At the same time, it does not instantly cut to the Doctor cutting down a younger Davros, and instead it plays things out until the end. It only returns to that point during the closing scenes, rather than utilising it as some immediately resolved moment of tension.

Much of the story itself revolves purely around the Doctor and Davros' chemistry, with the two trapped in a room conversing with one another. A bold move on the part of the writers, this definitely gives the audience what it wanted to see, as despite being old enemies the two were often only meeting face to face very briefly in the classic series. Taking such a different route here is most welcome, and being able to focus upon Capaldi and Julian Bleach's chemistry seriously helps to buff the story's overall quality. The writers were obviously having a fair bit of fun working with them as well, given we have several quite unexpected turns play out. Well, and one very expected one, but in fairness that's the very first thing they do and the writing utterly nails it.

Davros' actual character and personality here prove to be surprisingly effective. While it might be a song and dance we've seen done before (if you've at least listened to the audio dramas anyway) Bleach's performance sells it. The story plays up a few tropes and elements which make it almost believable despite everything, and it really does look for a few moments as if the series will try something very different with its villains. When the sudden but inevitable betrayal occurs, in some regards it's almost a disappointment as you're left wondering what might have happened had Davros' gambit not been a ruse.

The story also manages to sidestep the issue of pushing them into the background while focusing upon Davros. While they're sadly regulated more to henchman role than we'd normally see, each act does go out of its way to give them something to do. Whether it's via the Doctor's escape attempts or pushing to include Clara and Missy's own sub-plot, they're woven into the story to the point  where they never feel as if they're stuck on the sidelines. Better yet, the episode also makes full use of the classic designs on hand. Despite limiting the Special Weapons Dalek to a simple cameo, we see the older designs continually appearing alongside the new ones, and it's definitely a welcome return albeit a brief one.

Oh, and it does also help that the episode is brimming with dialogue laced with sly wit. Really, if nothing else, that is one thing the series has always had in its favour under Moffat.

It's unfortunately once the story moves away from anything directly involving the Doctor and Davros' scenes where things start to go wrong. There's a lot of plot holes to say the least in this one, and none more obvious than those surrounding Missy and Clara. Trying to delve into some deeper ideas behind the daleks, the script sadly just opens up a few problematic plot holes. Foremost among these is the idea that the daleks have no concept can cannot even utter the word "mercy" in a rather facepalming scene. Sure, past stories might have cited it as a weakness, but they certainly understand the damn emotion!
This proves to be problem which is further compounded when it tries to extend the emotional ideas further, by having dalek armour simply be a power ring. It's not the dalek firing the guns according to this, it's the armour using their emotion to charge itself, reload and fire. These are points which might have been brushed over were they simple background comments, but instead they're key points in the plot.

Matters keep being made worse as the story keeps playing fast and loose with ideas on how the daleks operate as well as their very abilities. Asylum of the Daleks already introduced one exceptionally big contradiction with the abrupt retcon of killing insane members of their kind, but now we have them pointlessly keeping alive flawed and failed mutants. Along with flying in the face of their core nature as a allegory of fascism, their very drive stems from their determination to annihilate and destroy those inferior to themselves. Keeping a vast number of failed and flawed creations alive, is so woefully out of character it's utterly mind bending. It's supposed to serve as a clever element, perhaps even tying into the angle of "mercy" the story aims for, but it ends up making the episode all the dumber for its inclusion.

The Missy-Clara dynamic here is sadly far weaker this time than in the prior episode. While Clara herself might have been dragged along a least a little, she was given more moments in the story to really shine, showing her intelligence and skill. Here she is, at best, used as a tool by Missy to show off. Held captive, manipulated and left to simply follow in her wake, she did little beyond serve the damsel in distress role within the story. This isn't to say that Missy herself was perfect by any means. Losing some of her crueler edge, while she does have more than a few fun moments the episode seems far less willing to use her as the villain. At best there is a moment right towards the end where she starts to shine through, but that's sadly overshadowed by the stupidity of the scene itself.

Overall, The Witch's Familiar is fun, engaging and well acted, but suffers from writing which is far more style than substance. The integration of Classic Who elements to be more than just window dressing continues, and is a welcome improvement, but too many loose plot threads and a unwieldy narrative leaves something to be desired. It's still worth watching, and there's a definite step up in quality from the last week at the Doctor's end, but the show definitely needs to up its game during the coming series.

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