Review: ‘The Witch’s Familiar’

9-2 Witch 9

Well, that was shit.

Warning: Contains Spoilers

Some while ago, I wrote a couple of blog entries that dealt with foolish predictions. It was an exercise in humility, and a good excuse to showcase some of the times I’d got it spectacularly wrong. Matt Smith was covered in some detail. So was Donna Noble. I maintain I was right about ‘The Name of the Doctor’.

But I got it wrong last week. I assumed that the cliffhanger was going to have universe-wide ramifications, and in a way you can’t blame me, because that’s the sort of thing the chief writer does. It was therefore something of a blessed relief when we’d dealt with two of the supposedly destroyed things within the space of a minute and a half, while the third one languished in the background, turning up precisely when it was needed. It meant – in an instant – that the story no longer became a wibbly wobbly mess (well, it did, but only in the last few minutes) and instead became far more straightforward. Straightforward isn’t necessarily good, but at least I don’t have to start drawing the flow diagrams so I can explain this one to the kids.

Those who complain (I haven’t checked, but I’m going to assume that people did) about the inadequate resolutions are entirely missing the point: Doctor Who’s cliffhanger denouements are supposed to be a bit rubbish. Sarah Jane falls three feet instead of thirty. Leela fires on the guards coming up the corridor. And the Doctor channels his regenerative energy into a convenient spare hand (we’re coming back to that later). As outcomes go, I’ve seen worse, although it features gratuitous use of slow motion. You can almost hear the score of The Matrix rising in the background.

The opening scene of this episode – in which Missy discusses said cliffhanger with a restrained, upended Clara (fifty-seven fan fiction writers just punched the air) – mirrored both the third series of Sherlock and, curiously, the opening of the second Monkey Island game; at least it did in my head. We’re going to assume that Missy’s explanation is correct, because otherwise we’ll be here all night and it is, in any case, of no real consequence. What follows is a prison break, of sorts, as the two reluctant allies navigate through the Skaro sewage system (ostensibly an excuse for lots of goo – actually a vital plot point) in search of the Doctor, who is still looking after Davros.

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‘The Witch’s Familiar’┬áis a story of two halves. The scenes with Missy and Clara are, for the most part, reasonably entertaining, largely because Clara is back in ‘nice’ mode and Gomez remains ambiguous and untrustworthy through to her very last encounter with the metal titans (in which, like Michael Caine, she is suddenly struck by a very good idea). The interdependence between the two is played out through a scene in which Clara hides inside the case of a Dalek – something you really feel she ought to be better at, given how her character was introduced – while Missy spouts off a bunch of stuff we didn’t know we didn’t know. “Emotion fires the gun,” she explains, when Clara comes very close to exterminating her. Speaking of ‘exterminate’, there’s a reason the Daleks say it so often: their translators have an auto-filter, and certain words are blocked, replaced with “I am a Dalek” (again, a vital plot point) and “Exterminate”. “That’s why they keep yelling ‘Exterminate’,” Missy insists. “It’s how they reload.”

This is so utterly lame I don’t even know where to begin, but if the Doctor is half human on his mother’s side, surely we can grant Missy a little headcanon. It jars, but it’s not of fundamental importance: just something to add to my list of gripes. (I don’t know how Missy managed to clear out a space designed for a mutant brain so that there was enough room for a fully-grown human, while still retaining all the essential circuitry, but no one asked that question in ‘The Space Museum’ or ‘Planet of the Daleks’ either, so this is nitpicking.) Thus, Gomez and Coleman go trundling off through walls of dead Dalek, coming to the rescue. While all this is going on, the Doctor has been messing around with dangerous electrical equipment and stealing an amputee’s wheelchair. I don’t know why they bothered.

The problem is that the scenes with Davros are supposed to be an insight into the relationship between the two of them (I was going to use the words ‘eye-opener’ but that really may be a pun too far). Unfortunately they’re built on a colossal lie: Davros intended for the Doctor to heal him, and the Doctor, in turn, seems entirely unsurprised when the regenerative energy wakes up all the organic Dalek matter in the depths of the Dalek city, leading to its apparent destruction. This is two old enemies trying to outdo each other – it’s like ‘Curse of Fatal Death’ without all the boob gags – and any profundity that might have been lurking in their little exchanges is more or less rendered moot. Instead, all we do is shout at the screen in horror that the Doctor’s been taken in so easily, only to discover not long afterwards that he hasn’t.

Other parallels with Sherlock play out over the course of the story. We already witnessed Missy’s return from the dead – mirroring, to an extent, that of Moriarty. This week, it’s glasses: Charles’ Magnussen’s were a colossal red herring, while the Doctor’s sunglasses turn out to be more than just decorative. It leaves Capaldi with both hands free for eyebrow-plucking, I suppose. The Daleks, meanwhile, spend most of the episode in a single room, doing not an awful lot: it would feel like a colossal waste, were it not for the fact that this is almost certainly leading to something else, on another day, and probably evoked in Power Ranger yellow.

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There was good stuff. Missy’s opening explanation was the funniest thing I’ve seen in Doctor Who since the Addams Family gag in ‘Flatline’. Clara is her old likeable self, and the scenes inside the Dalek – while protracted – were fun, and creepily reminiscent of the closing moments of ‘Asylum’. Unfortunately the concept of Daleks infused with Time Lord DNA just doesn’t seem very…Dalek, really, and the convenient reappearance of the TARDIS is poorly done (although once more we are tantalisingly spared a peek at its interior). And someone really needs to have a word with the sound mixer, particularly when Michelle Gomez is speaking. We could hardly hear a thing, and that’s a shame because some of the dialogue really was quite fun.

Still, I’ll say this in closing. Gareth is not watching these episodes, but he just emailed me saying he’d read a ‘review’ which said something like “For God’s sake, Moffat, please can we just have a story with a beginning, a middle and an end?”. For the sake of giving him an easy summary, I have written one:

“In response to the ‘review’ you read: it turned out that all the stuff we saw last week was a red herring, and the Doctor had actually managed to save them both, we just didn’t know it. He did spend half the story thinking Clara was dead. Then he stole Davros’s chair and tried to escape. Meanwhile Missy and Clara, who were not dead, made their way back through the sewers, which are actually walls of dead Dalek (although they’re still awake).

Then Clara hid inside a Dalek. Meanwhile Davros was about to die and asked to see one last sunrise, and couldn’t open his eyes. So the Doctor used some golden sparkly regenerative energy to heal him. Except that Davros is connected to all the other Daleks via some tubes that were ACTUALLY SNAKES, and when the Doctor touched the tubes, they all got Time Lord powers. Except the ones in the sewer were also affected, and they rose up through the floor like big piles of poo and killed all the other Daleks.

Then the Doctor reassembled his TARDIS, using a pair of magic sunglasses.”

Put like that, it really was shit.

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