Doctor Who: “The Witch’s Familiar” First Impressions

So what do I think about this episode?


I think that I just don’t like Daleks very much.

I’m not sure what my hangup is about the Daleks. Maybe I didn’t have the best of introductions to them (1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks”). “Destiny” is clearly not the best Dalek story ever. Finding Davros switched off in the rubble was suitably creepy, but the rest of the story doesn’t do much to make the Daleks look very threatening. How can you take the pepper pots seriously when the Doctor points out the Daleks’ greatest weakness by saying “If you’re supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don’t you try climbing after us?”

There are a couple of Dalek stories that I love to little bits. “Genesis of the Daleks” for me is an untouchable thing that can do no wrong. Not even the attack of the Giant Clam can mess that one up for me. From the new series, Rob Shearman’s “Dalek” is a strong favorite because he actually sold me on that Dalek being the actual last Dalek. I thought it was brave and wonderful for the production team to kill off the Daleks so dramatically. Ah-ha. HaHA. HAHAHAHAHA! I was soooo wrong to think they’d ever do Doctor Who without the Daleks. Another favorite is last season’s “Into the Dalek.” If I hadn’t just read the graphic novel The Only Good Dalek just before this episode aired, it might have been even more striking when I first saw it. Everything about “Into the Dalek” was fun. It felt like an entirely new production team had taken over Doctor Who because of the effort they made to make Peter Capaldi’s first proper story feel fresh and new. I also loved the scene where the Doctor begs Rusty to see something good in the Universe by seeing it through his eyes–but when Rusty does that, he sees the splinter of blackness in the Doctor’s soul instead. “You are a good Dalek,” he tells the dismayed Doctor. I love Doctor Who when it’s dark, and you can’t get much darker than that.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want you to know that it’s not “The Witch’s Familiar.” It’s me.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate this story in any way. I loved loved LOVED Michelle Gomez’s performance here as Missy. She’s the Witch in the title, of course. Clara became her unwilling companion/test subject in the last story, and their adventures together continue here. I’d guessed that their vortex manipulators would land them at the same place in relative safety, just outside the Dalek city. So that was a bit predictable, really. Missy acts as a kind of inverted Doctor throughout the story. She and Clara work together out of necessity, not out of friendship. Missy’s idea of working together is bent of course. She chucks Clara down a hole to check how deep it is, points Clara at a sensor and then handcuffs her to it when they need to lure a Dalek into the sewer, and wires Clara up inside a Dalek (err…again…) to sneak into the city.

How deep is that hole, Missy? "About 20 feet."

How deep is that hole, Missy? “About 20 feet.” Screencap by

Her goal is a good thing: she wants to save the Doctor. Unlike the Doctor, though, Missy is happy to do dreadful things to get what she wants. As she herself put it, “The bitch is back!” She even made good on her promise from last week and poked Davros in the eye on her way out of the door. Oh Missy. Never change!

Clara, for her part, handled everything that Missy threw at her (or threw her at!) with skill. The scenes where she was trapped inside of the Dalek were creepy and yet highly informative. I think we learned more about the Daleks in the five minutes that she and Missy spent learning how to move it around than we learned in over 50 years of Dalek stories. Another standout scene for Jenna Coleman was the moment after the Daleks have been defeated when she finds the Doctor. No matter what she said, the Dalek wouldn’t give voice to her words. Of course the Doctor is smart enough to work out that something is wrong when a Dalek asks for mercy, but she made you see how scary it was for Clara to not be able to communicate properly with the Doctor. I’m very happy with her performance here.

Clara is released from inside of the Dalek. Screencap by

Clara is released from the Dalek casing. Screencap by

As far as Davros’ and the Doctor’s interaction goes, I caught a strong whiff of the temptation of Christ in the desert. Davros of course takes the position of the Adversary, probing the Christ-like Doctor, trying to find a way to get inside of his head and manipulate him. Davros tries to appeal to the Doctor’s hatred of the Daleks, offering him a quick and secret way to kill them all. He tries to make the Doctor seek vengeance by reminding him that the Daleks killed Clara. Finally Davros seems to find a way in by presenting himself as a pitiful dying man. Moffat sets it up so that we think the Doctor is buying it. I’ll admit it, there was a moment when I felt sad for Davros. Of course it was all a lie to get the Doctor to touch the cables in order to extract regeneration so Davros could renew himself and the Daleks. I like that we’re still using the Daleks to explore the nature and good and evil a bit like we did in “Into the Dalek,” but the story here isn’t as immediate or heart-wrenching for me as the one from last year.

So, all in all, this is a fine story. It’s well acted, there are some meaty thematic things going on here. It’s fun. Missy is her own batty self, and how can you not laugh watching uberfanboy Peter Capaldi rolling around in Davros’ chair? “The Witch’s Familar” adds to what we understand of the Daleks, and it gives the Doctor a bit more culpability when it comes to their creation thus serves the kind of darkness that suits my taste. I can’t help it, though. These episodes feel flat to me in a way that isn’t the story’s fault at all. A Dalek two-parter is just never going to be peak Doctor Who for me. I’m just not wired that way.

Apart from my taste issues, this was a very good season opener. I can see what Moffat was going for here and I can appreciate it intellectually even if it doesn’t grab me personally. What did you think of “The Witch’s Familar?”

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