After last week’s underwhelming series opener, The Witch’s Familiar scales back on the planet-hopping shenanigans and brings its brilliantly written characters to the fore to deliver a tighter, darker and far more thrilling episode that proves to be a satisfying pay-off to the series’ first two-parter.
The Magician’s Apprentice ended on a triple cliff-hanger with Missy and Clara being exterminated by the Daleks, the TARDIS being destroyed and the Doctor back on ancient Skaro threatening the boy Davros with a Dalek gun. While all three elements are not immediately resolved, with Steven Moffat wisely saving some revelations for the electrifying conclusion, this episode plunges straight back into the action with the Doctor in deep, deep trouble.
With no TARDIS, no sonic screwdriver and no friends to help him, Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord finds himself alone at the heart of the Dalek empire. With seemingly no hope of escape, the Doctor is left with no other choice but to face-off against a vengeful and ailing Davros if he’s going to have any chance of saving Clara.
In contrast to last week’s episode, which zipped around several locations often at the expense of character development, The Witch’s Familiar is a self-contained affair with the action limited to just a few areas on Skaro. This scaled-back approach may not bring about the increase in excitement many fans were hoping for, but it does make for a tighter story with Moffat opting for a more character-driven piece as the Doctor confronts his dying archenemy for what may be the final time.
And why wouldn’t Moffat focus on his characters when he has such sublime performers as Capaldi and Julian Bleach at his disposal? With the Doctor and Davros at the centre of the story, these veteran performers are allowed to play out a tense two-hander that could easily fill an entire episode on its own.
Bleach is utterly superb as Davros, exploring a radically different side to the maniacal leader, as he appears gentler and more vulnerable in his final moments, warmly congratulating the Doctor for saving Gallifrey whilst also mourning the loss of his own people.
Capaldi is equally brilliant as the twelfth Doctor, showcasing a whole gamut of emotions – rage, despair, whimsy and, yes, compassion – as Davros challenges him with big questions about his morality. It’s great to see the return of a more conflicted, ambiguous Doctor – Capaldi just never looks comfortable as a care-free Time Lord – and the revelations that he may have had ulterior motives for running away from Gallifrey and also had a hand in creating a Time Lord-Dalek hybrid raise fascinating avenues to further explore as the series continues.
It’s not all about the Doctor and Davros, of course. Having escaped the Daleks’ exterminating rays via some teleporter-based jiggery-pokery, Missy and Clara continue their twisted buddy cop adventures this week with a trip through a Dalek graveyard – a vast, slimy cavern lined with decaying Daleks, it’s yet another creepy body horror imagining from Moffat after last week’s disturbing hand mines.
Their shared mistrust and grudging mutual respect makes for a crackling dynamic that is hugely enjoyable to watch with Michelle Gomez’s Missy being her usual bonkers, maniacal self, pushing her “canary” off a cliff and handcuffing her into the path of an on-rushing Dalek, while the scene where she tries to convince the Doctor that a Dalek controlled by Clara is really an enemy is one of the episode’s tensest moments.
(As a side note, this is the third time Clara has found herself inside a Dalek; after Asylum of the Daleks and Into the Dalek – is this a possible clue that Clara is the Dalek hybrid Davros was referring to?)
A few words, too, on the Daleks, who pale close to insignificance in this episode. I mentioned last week that they always seem less of a threat when under the control of an outside force and that proves to be the case here as, though their classic design is a sight to behold, the “trigger-happy mini tanks” essentially stand around waiting for Davros to give them an order, which makes it hard to see them as anything other than comically inept.
It’s a minor flaw that hardly matters once the story reaches its exhilarating conclusion. Ever fond of the double bluff, Moffat outdoes himself here by revealing Davros’ newly-found softer side is nothing more than a vicious ruse designed to trick the Doctor into bestowing his regeneration powers upon himself and his army of Daleks. Naturally, the Doctor is one step ahead, as always, allowing Davros to go through with his plan knowing it will revive the decaying Daleks upon which Skaro was built.
It’s a thrilling and immensely satisfying climax; but while the Doctor gains some form of redemption by returning to save the boy Davros from the hand mines’ clutches, the question of why he left a child there in the first place is left frustratingly unresolved. Of course, there’s plenty of time to return to this issue later in the series, along with the notion that Missy has become the new leader of the Daleks, but it does mean the story feels incomplete in a wider context.
Nevertheless, The Witch’s Familiar is an excellent follow-up to last week’s series opener. By reducing the scope of the action and focusing more on intriguing character moments, Moffat has succeeded in delivering a taut, gripping conclusion to series nine’s first two parter. If the remaining episodes are as good as this, we’re in for one hell of a series.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar on BBC iPlayer