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Doctor Who series 35, episode two: The Witch’s Familiar

‘I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed – a bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came here because you’re sick, and you asked.’

Speaking at a launch for the series in Cardiff this month, Steven Moffat said that the idea for this two-part opening story had been very simple. The Doctor and Davros, he contended, had never had a scene together that had been anything less than great. Even in the less revered stories, those two in a room together had always, always been electric. There had just never been especially much of it. Even the iconic stuff from Genesis is actually fleetingly brief. So his one-line pitch was: what would happen if you put them in a room together and leave them there for quite a long time?

There’s not a huge amount more to it than that. After the scale and cataclysm of last week, Moffat deliberately dials things down. The Witch’s Familiar succeeds as a stand-alone piece because of its self-imposed limitations. There is only Missy and Clara’s twisted buddy movie, and the sight gag of the Doctor in the Davros chair (“anyone for dodgems?”) to bring levity to an episode that’s thoughtful, claustrophobic and often incredibly grim.

This two-part format allows things to breathe – Moffat doesn’t try to pad out the extended running time with myriad extra plot twists, he just gives these old enemies room to dance around each other, batting back and forth centuries of animosity and bloodshed, made to feel recent and urgent once again in the light of recent revelations. This might have been brave if Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach as Davros didn’t crackle with such warped chemistry together. As each piled layers of bluff upon double bluff upon deception and betrayal, that moment when they ditched the poetics and just laughed together … considering the Doctor’s culpability, surely there was something real there? And even though there was no way Davros was really going to be redeemed, and even though the Doctor was always going to be one step ahead, was there not a strange romance to it, all the same?

And in the good guys’ final victory, that the Doctor knew what he was doing in “owing the boy a sunrise”, so he wasn’t crippled by his own compassion after all – well, what does that say about the Doctor’s compassion? Maybe all that it needed to. At the very end – one small act of compassion was enough to plant the slightest notion of mercy in the young Davros that would leave his Daleks with that tiniest of design flaws. Maybe that’s why they keep losing.

Peter Capaldi surrounded by Daleks.
Peter Capaldi surrounded by Daleks. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/BBC

‘Between us and him is everything the deadliest race in all of history can throw at us. We, on the other hand, have a pointy stick.’

Meanwhile, as the Doctor and Davros go all De Niro-and-Pacino-in-Heat, Clara and Missy got some altogether lighter adventures in the grey space around the “friend zone”.

Teaming them up is tricky, which obviously makes it a good idea. Clara seems to be getting on remarkably well with this psycho, despite herself. Missy’s way of dealing with their awkward, grudging respect is to keep tying her up, handcuffing her to walls and shoving her down wells – just in case this Earth girl forgets who is boss (“every miner needs a canary”).

The psychopath is playing the good game by being cruel, but she knows that Clara’s going to be just fine inside the Dalek – because if the Doctor trusts this woman, then so, implicitly, does she. Similarly, as she chivvies the Doctor to kill a Dalek, lying that it’s the one that killed Clara, she knows he will work out the truth, even if she doesn’t much care either way. We never see how Missy survived, and we don’t need to (“Not dead, back, never mind”). But if she’s going to have to go into league with the Daleks now, well, that’s just what she’ll do. “Know what? I’ve just had a very clever idea!”

Fear factor

After last week’s hand mines, more Skaro-related body horror in the putrid underground sewers. “They’re ever so slightly alive,” quips Missy as it’s revealed what really happens to the Dalek dead, and that their word for “sewer” is the same as for “graveyard” (we only hear them speak English, but hey). It all adds another layer of tragedy to such a monstrous creation: “genetically hardwired to keep on living, whatever happens”.

Mysteries and questions

Further intrigue about what might have been on the Doctor’s Confession Dial, and it’s looking increasingly like it’s about more than whether he may or may not have left young Davros to die, burdening him with the bitterness and fear that would lead him to create the Daleks. Old Davros refers darkly to a supposed Dalek/Timelord “Hybrid” that the Doctor may have had a hand in creating on Gallifrey; guilt being a possible motivation for him running away in the first place (which, of course, would dial back into a Young Davros thing … OK, I’m confused now).

Perhaps even more worryingly, let’s consider Missy’s (apparently throwaway?) line as Clara is revealed inside a Dalek: “This is why I gave her to you in the first place; a friend inside an enemy, an enemy inside a friend. Everyone’s a hybrid.”

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It was Missy who engineered Clara’s meeting with the Doctor. Are we looking at a much darker journey ahead for Ms Oswald?

Continuity 102

This construction of Skaro was closely based on Raymond Cusack’s original design of the Dalek city from 1963; “for no better reason than it’s an astonishingly good design,” Moffat told Doctor Who Magazine. “The sloping walls, the sloping doorways, the guillotine doors – it’s just amazing. Better than any other design that’s been done for Dalek architecture.”

Meanwhile, this is evidently the first time the Master and Davros have come face to face.

Deeper into the vortex

This was Clara’s third time inside a Dalek. Jenna Coleman’s first appearance saw the Oswin version’s consciousness trapped inside one in Asylum of the Daleks, while last year a miniaturised gang ventured round another’s innards in Into the Dalek.

Could it be significant that the boy is only credited as “the Boy”?

“You keep saying that, but you keep not dying. Can you give it some welly?”

The sonic screwdriver may be gone for now, but who foresaw the Doctor’s move towards “wearable technology” with the sonic shades? It’s just a shame that Moffat’s conceit has been out-dafted by reality, with the recent emergence of the Apple Pencil …

Missy had a daughter?

Not incredibly keen on Capaldi’s Doctor’s scruffier look. When can we see that lovely purple velvet jacket from the promo shots, please?

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“Don’t get emotional, it fires the gun.”

The whole two-part story is repeated in feature-length form on Sunday at 3.15pm on BBC1. Is this something we might expect as a regular fixture, given this year’s slew of two-part stories?

Next week

Writer Toby Whithouse returns to Who for what we’re told is an underwater ghost story: Under the Lake.


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