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Doctor Who (Spoilers!) Review: "The Witch's Familiar"

“We are renewed! We are more powerful! The experiment has succeeded!” -Everyone who works on Doctor Who.
Cliff-hangers are a tricky thing to get right. Particularly on two-part episodes of television. Sometimes the set-up can be so ambitious, so interesting, leaving you on such an anxious note, that there’s no way the follow-up can live up to it. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Best of Both Worlds”, The Simpsons’ “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” (as well as the Dallas episode it’s based on “Who Shot J.R.?”) are great examples of shows that ended on a tremendous cliff-hanger only for the resolution to be …okay. Doctor Who’s “The Witch’s Familiar” sort of falls into that collective but admittedly does go a step beyond.
We find that Missy had managed to save herself and Clara from being exterminated by transporting them outside the city. They venture into the sewers to sneak back in to find the Doctor and Davros who are meanwhile in conversation, and Davros reveals that through various cables he is connected to every Dalek, thus how he has managed to survive so long. However it’s not enough anymore. He questions the Doctor on his character and motivations, and on his deathbed, Davros seems to be regretting his actions and relationship with his “children”.
A part of me is disappointed that the story ultimately turned into a typical Doctor vs. Daleks story, but I do like that it probes a little beyond the surface. Davros’ ultimate plan to use Time Lord energy to regenerate the Daleks and fulfil some prophecy of a Dalek/Time Lord hybrid isn’t as exciting as it could be, and his questioning if this hybrid idea is what made the Doctor run away from Gallifrey in the first place seems a little bit of wasted philosophizing. We’ve never gotten a clear answer as to why the Doctor ran away so there’s a built-in drama whenever it comes up. But come on Davros, you couldn’t have thought that was why the Doctor left! Once again we hearken back to Genesis of the Daleks with Davros tempting the Doctor to become a god and destroy his enemies, and I’m glad they didn’t simply repeat the dilemma from that story. But I do wish it factored more into the episode. Bringing up that question again last episode only to ignore it for the most part here was also disappointing. But they do know what the viewers want and so they keep the crux of the focus on the Doctor and Davros. I always love diplomatic interactions between great enemies and this episode is pretty good at delivering on that. And then there’s the unexpected aspect of Davros opening his eyes (literally) for the first time to the Doctor. Peter Capaldi’s acting really sells it. You know it’s not going to pan out like this, Davros won’t be a good guy or dead by the end (they did show off Colony Sarff in the cables early on), but the Doctor’s sympathy is believable. You don’t think him foolish for indulging Davros. Seeing the two of them laughing together is both wonderful and deeply wrong. Their philosophies are so incompatible but at the same time you see in the Doctor his desperation for this to be real. He does want to be a Doctor, he wants to help people, even if they appear to be past hope. And in a way Davros is right, it is a weakness. All that ‘compassion is weakness’ vernacular is similar to the Cybermen’s assertion to the Fifth Doctor that friendship is a weakness in “Earthshock”. The Doctor considers them strengths but they have been used against hit and you wonder if there will come a time when he’s hurt enough by them to come over to Davros’ way of thinking. The way he was led along this entire episode (Davros is a pretty good actor!), his faith in trust has been violated. Even if he did have a plan.
I wasn’t too big a fan of that plan either as it seemed too easy the Doctor would get out of trouble. There’s also the fact of Missy saving the day. I do like Missy but throughout these two episodes she was a supporting ally of convenience and I hope the writers remember she is a villain. Maybe there’s not much to worry about though. I loved that she turned on them at the end trying to trick the Doctor into killing Clara. It was wonderfully characteristic of the Master and especially considering her dynamic with Clara was likable, it was a good reminder she’d turn on someone in a second. And it seems she has some plans for the future by the end which intrigues me. I liked a lot of the little things in the episode. Even though the explanation for their survival was standard technobabble I thought it was really clever that Missy’s escape plan was stolen from the Doctor. The TARDIS displacement system at the end was also clever. Putting Clara in the Dalek was a nice inversion of her first appearance on the show and I like to think a reference to a couple times in the classic series when characters would easily hop inside and impersonate a Dalek. I loved the outlook of Skaro, how it was updated but still was recognizable as the same place (maybe even same city) first seen in “The Daleks” in 1963. The Doctor showing up in Davros’ chair exclaiming it was every Dalek’s worst nightmare was great, and on the topic, I loved the joke of Davros dramatically telling the Doctor he was seated in the only other chair on Skaro! And the Doctor’s gone through whole incarnations without his sonic screwdriver before, but I don’t know how to feel about him adapting it to sunglasses. It feels too much like they’re trying to imitate Google glasses on the misapprehension that those are popular.
The one last thing I should address is that I do wish we delved more into Davros’ story which is an implicitly fascinating one. You don’t know how much of what he was telling the Doctor was true, if any of it, but seeing him as boy forces you to re-examine the character. Most fans of New Who have never known his history, but this is a man who committed genocide against his own people in preference of his creation! How does that kind of person come to be? Seeing Davros as a kid in the midst of the Thousand Years War, you’d think would lead to a further exploration of his background. But we still may get that. The resolution to the cliff-hanger from last episode was a bit of a cop out, but there weren’t many avenues to go down anyway. At the very least they could give Davros and the Daleks an iota of the concept of mercy.
                “The Witch’s Familiar” didn’t live up to the promise of “The Magician’s Apprentice” but it did give us some thought-provoking ideas, some great acting, fun moments, and a thirst for more development with these characters and a greater story. Sure it did feel a little too generic at times, and the sewer-dwelling Daleks taking over the city felt like a plot device to provide a defeating yet ambiguous enough ending to the events on Skaro for now; but then again cliff-hangers rarely pay off completely satisfactorily. 

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