27 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Witch's Familiar

Review by Tom Newsom

Doctor Who has legendary stories, those images and scenes that have lasted long in the memory. The sort of thing that’s talked about in the playground, or reiterated in fan publications (icon or not): Daleks invading London, Cybermen out of their tombs, Sea Devils rising out of the sea, Davros. Hopefully Series 8 and 9 have provided a few more. And the show thrives on these - the fans picked up on them over the years, then created their own stories and retold the mythology when they then took over the show.

Some of these have been revisited - followed up as a sequel, or lovingly ripped off as a remake, depending on your point of view - but curiously for the TV series itself, not the earliest of imagery. Now, and only now, we’re taken back to the metal cities of 1963. Perhaps it’s because the technology has finally caught up, as I doubt Skaro would look as impressive as in people’s memories if it wasn’t in HD and fine lighting. This story harks back in every way - old Daleks, and the plot points from the first Dalek story like the trip to the city and the companion getting inside one. Davros and his speech from Genesis of the Daleks and Tom Baker with the wires. Whether or not it adds something new might depend on your point of view.

Except it’s much more than old scenes playing out with a nod and a wink. The show is doing that great, marvellous thing of going beyond the imagery and telling us something new about the Daleks and how they think. And it’s marvellous that in every story they come back in, we always find out something new - and it always feels like a big secret! It’s not just them, either. Taken all the way to Skaro, in the heart of the city of the Daleks, and it feels like a character piece. The Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara - we find out more about all of them.

The Doctor's morality doesn’t seem to be questioned, not like we saw last year. He knows he’s a good man, and a bad man, and an idiot. And not a very good doctor - but a brilliant Doctor. He’s robbed of the best lines in this one, but he’s out of his comfort zone, and we never quite know what he’ll resort to next - even when he’s stealing Davros’s chair! We’re always with him, though - it’s a great performance.

The scenes with Davros and the Doctor are the most important here, and among the most grown-up we’ve seen since, well, last year’s rather grown-up stories. Here are two old men, enemies who pity each other, sensing the long, bitter end. I can’t imagine any other of the Doctors having this talk with Davros, not really, yet here it fits. The episode is happily full of parallels, with Davros’s character compared to the Doctor’s, and Missy being both friend and foe as well. It’s like two retired generals facing each other, as there’s an element - for a while - of differences being put aside. I realised I’d missed the typical gloating, power crazed Davros, so it was nice to see a return to that in some scenes. But it merely rounds off a very nuanced, well written character for this episode - the bit with his eyes, for instance, breaking an unwritten rule for pure emotional effect, forcing us to look at old Davros as we never have done before. Hats off to Julian Bleach; and hats off too for the incredibly detailed make-up on him.

As her double act with Clara showed, Missy’s the Doctor but with different morals. She’s a joy to be with - the sort of Doctor figure we aren’t seeing in the Davros scenes, you could argue - if very fast and occasionally incomprehensible. Having her and Clara together really, really works; it’s the sort of partnership that was all too fleeting with Roger Delgado and his ‘Miss Grant’, dropped since. Much more of this, please.

And Clara. Brought along for a hell of a ride, but knowing how much she means to the Doctor, she’s put through hell with this episode, as the situation gets even more dangerous (and a real Sarah Jane Smith level of companion hell, too). I wonder if the terrific scenario at the end with the Doctor facing her is a sign of things to come...

But really, it's about the Daleks. They have little screen-time, really, but a big presence. After all, the Dalek city is back, the often-extinct race are alive once more. Their personality, not just as an alien race, but as an engineered race who started off as human but, through the choices of a madman, or a frightened child, ended up conquering worlds. And replacing emotional thoughts with firing weapons. It’s all there, literal, in this week’s story. If that’s not an icon properly restored, I don’t know what is. Fantastic.

1 comment:

  1. Utterly agree with all of this. The best two episodes of the show for ages and it was so refreshing when we discover that there was so much more to Davros dying than we expected. Capaldi was tremendous - such a change for last series. Not that he was bad then but here he seems to truly be the Doctor. And one of the best ones at that. Looking forward to the rest of the series.