'Doctor Who': Season 9, Episode 2 - The Witches Familiar
In part two of the season opener, writer Stephen Moffat relies on easy solutions to the impossible problems set up in part one.
Doctor WhoAirtime: Saturdays, 7pm
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez
Subtitle: The Witch's Familiar
Air date: 2015-09-26
Last week’s episode left the Doctor in a right pickle: with Clara and Missy dead at the hands (or should that be plungers) of the Daleks, is his only chance at saving them a visit to the past, in order to kill Davros as a child before he gets the opportunity to create the Daleks in the first place?
Showrunner Steven Moffat knows how to write punchy Doctor Who episodes. Of course he does; you don’t get to be the most prolific writer in the history of a show approaching its 55th year of existence without being able to assemble the nuts and bolts of a script. However, he has a habit of painting himself out of the most extraordinarily tight corners by means of the old smoke and mirrors routine.
Here’s the dilemma: in order to really surprise and shock your audience, you have to do something genuinely surprising and shocking -- like killing off a main character. Maybe newbies with half an eye on the gossip feeds thought that Moffat was pulling a fast one by killing Clara right at the beginning of the series; Jenna Coleman is leaving the show, after all. But old stagers knew better. The principle is as old as the hills: want to bump off a member of the principal cast? Go ahead. It’s all good -- as long as you can bring them back in time for next week’s episode by revealing later that it only looked as though they were getting killed.
It’s a staple gambit of the mystery genre, and goodness knows, we’ve been around the block with it enough times with Moffat to see it coming a mile off. We see it in Sherlock – the brainchild of Moffat and fellow Who writer Mark Gatiss -- in which Watson is famously fooled into believing his deerstalker-hatted friend had thrown himself off a tall building to his death (and keeping a bevy of Cumberbitches on tenterhooks for almost two years in the process; check out the reaction videos to the beginning of ‘The Empty Hearse’ on YouTube for proof that squee-ing is not the sole preserve of Whovians). Moffat did it in "The Impossible Astronaut" (6.1), offering us the spectacle of Matt Smith getting shot and killed before the average viewer had chance to draw breath. Here, he manages it not once, but three times.
The first time is, as noted above, the oddly unmoving “deaths” of Clara and Missy. When we find them -- surprise! -- alive and well in the cold opening, we see Clara wondering aloud how she and Missy survived being blasted by the Daleks’ lasers. It turns out that the laser energy could be absorbed by a teleporting device, or something like that. It’s hand-waving of the most unforgivable sort, and it is compounded by Clara working it out for herself through deductive reasoning that is neither deductive nor terribly reasoned. The scenes between Jenna Coleman (Clara) and Michelle Gomez (Missy) in the Dalek sewers-cum-graveyards are fairly humdrum affairs, distinguished only by Missy’s entertainingly withering contempt for Clara -- for her, hanging around with a jumped-up schoolteacher seems to be infra dig. Clara’s strangely biddable persona is a disappointment, though. Only last week we saw Clara bossing UNIT personnel around, but here she comes across as weak and deferential.
The real focus of interest in the episode are the scenes between the Doctor and Davros. Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach play off one another well, and Moffat is right to direct so much of the audience’s attention onto them. How fandom gasped when Davros, in his dying moments, asked the Doctor: “Am I a good man?” Those words, more than any, were apt to play on the heartstrings, being the very ones the Doctor used with Clara in season 8 (“Into the Dalek”). In a fit of compassion, the Doctor helps Davros see a final sunrise -- and in so doing, gets ensnared. Davros was playing possum all along, and now seeks to use the Time Lords’ regeneration energy to enhance an entire planet of Daleks. Whoops.
Thus, for the second time, Moffat invites us into his hall of smoke and mirrors. The Doctor worked out Davros’ plan ages ago, because he’s just that awesome, and released his regeneration energy on purpose to revitalise the Daleks in the graveyards, prompting them to rebel against the living Daleks. Then comes gambit number three: the TARDIS, destroyed last week, is doing just fine, having ‘dispersed’ itself for safekeeping.
Three blind alleys, three easy get-outs. This is lazy writing. Ultimately, the Doctor’s intuiting of Davros’ plan boils down to “look how clever I am”, which is a lame subtext. His cleverness is a staple of the show, and celebrating it feels as pointless as celebrating the fact that two and two add up to four. The survival of the TARDIS and dodging death by laser, meanwhile, are deus ex machina solutions to plot points that were only thrown in to add a few more thrills and spills to this two-parter.
The trouble is that it never called for them. The Doctor finds himself powerless on the planet of his mortal enemy -- isn’t that enough drama? Are writers really so lacking in faith that the audience won’t switch channels in protest at insufficient levels of action, peril, romance, and adventure that they feel the need to shoehorn one more death, kiss, or plot twist into the narrative wherever there is a spare moment?
There is much to like in “The Witch’s Familiar”. Peter Capaldi turns in his usual imperious performance, and Michelle Gomez’s portrayal of Missy grows ever more impish by the day. The set design pulls off the neat trick of evoking the sets of the '60s serials without seeming overly dated or anachronistic. Witnessing Clara getting into a Dalek casing was perhaps the most affecting part of the whole episode, foreshadowing Clara’s fate in “Asylum of the Daleks” (7.1). Dalek fans will get a kick out of seeing all those old Dalek designs on display, and Moffat’s love letter to Classic Doctor Who continues with the allusion to the Fourth (Tom Baker) and First (William Hartnell) Doctors at the start of the episode.
Most importantly, there is the fine ending. It's a pity that poor plotting detracts so severely from these strengths, and turns what could have been a stand-out conclusion to the series opener into a strangely formulaic runaround.
Craig Owen Jones is a cultural historian and writer. His debut fiction work, the time-travel novelette Bute Street, will appear in Abyss and Apex magazine later this year. You can follow him on Twitter: @CraigOwenJones1.