NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of Doctor Who are present in this review
After Series Nine kicked off so brilliantly with “The Magician’s Apprentice”, the second half of this beginning two-parter, “The Witch’s Familiar”, really had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, the episode was up to the challenge, delivering a very satisfying resolution to the story of the dying Davros, while also defying the odds by giving us yet more chilling insight into the Daleks, and how they think and operate.
First, to get the obvious out of the way, yes, Missy and Clara obviously aren’t dead. The episode begins with the two of them having warped to safety, and Missy explaining that she rigged Dalek weaponry to trigger a molecular reaction that actually teleports someone at the nanosecond of disintegration, based on a rather radical escape tactic by The Doctor at one point, who evaded invisible androids the same way, only to end up in a dark chamber of killer monkeys, before Missy cuts off the story. Damn, I hope we see the rest of that tale one day! Still, this also explains how Missy cheated death at the end of Series Eight, no doubt rigging the same trick to teleport away when the Brigadier-turned-Cyberman shot her.
Clara is strung up upside-down however, with Missy sharpening a stick, and saying that they may need to hunt. When Clara inquires why she’s tied up, Missy replies by saying that she doesn’t know if there’s anything to hunt on Skaro. It was the first of another fresh batch of wonderful Missy moments this episode. In fact, the dynamic between Clara and Missy was better than ever in “The Witch’s Familiar”, particularly when Missy employs a controversial tactic with Clara that I’ll get in to later.
Over on The Doctor’s end, he manages to swipe the life support chair out from Davros (which comes with a Dalek-proof force field, conveniently), and then rides to the Daleks in a moment that’s both hilarious and badass at the same time, to negotiate for Clara’s safety. The Daleks insist that Clara is dead, obviously being unaware of Missy’s little cheat (though how it worked on Clara is anyone’s guess), though The Doctor is rendered unconscious by our snake friend before anything can come of this tense conversation.
We then move back to Missy and Clara, who make their way into a ‘sewer’ for Daleks, in an effort to re-enter the lair of Davros. Missy explains that Daleks can’t conventionally die, since their genes force them to stubbornly live on, even amidst decay, and I must say that the atmosphere of this scene is outstanding. The reveal that the sewers are alive with suffering Daleks was very creepy stuff, and the way that Missy exploits them to incapacitate a functional Dalek is equally sinister. It was a great look into the true horrors of being a Dalek. As many of the best Dalek-themed episodes of Doctor Who have established, in both incarnations of the series, being a Dalek comes with its own horrors and pain. They may be a highly dangerous race of genocidal killers, but they are suffering in their own way. “The Witch’s Familiar” took this to very interesting new extremes, seeing how long-living Daleks aren’t even allowed to die, and simply rot together in a living tunnel of soupy sludge. Missy claiming that the Daleks have the same word for, “Sewer” as they do for, “Graveyard” in their native language (which the TARDIS’ translation telepathy presumably prevents us from hearing) pretty much sold this sequence perfectly by itself.
The scene only got better when Clara was forced to climb into a suit of Dalek armour by Missy as well. When the Dalek armour speaks Clara’s words, the viewer and Missy (though not Clara herself) see that some of them are automatically changed. When Clara tries to say her name for example, the armour simply says, “I am a Dalek.” When Clara tries to express any emotion, be it positive or negative, it simply comes out as, “Exterminate.” Emotions like anger and hatred also control the Dalek weaponry with telepathy, which is also how the armour moves. Finally, when Clara tries to say that someone is her friend or ally, the armour says, “You are an enemy of the Daleks.”
Once again, this provides wonderfully chilling insight into the true horrors of being a Dalek. For all we know, there have been Daleks who never meant to hurt anyone under that armour. For all we know, some of the Daleks that were killed by the supposed forces of The Doctor and heroes of mankind, were actually killing scared, emotional Daleks, not truly evil beings. It makes you re-think a good chunk of Dalek-themed episodes from across the whole of Doctor Who, and that’s very cool. Of course, it does make episodes like last series’, “Into the Dalek” look a little more suspect, but it’s possible that some Daleks are simply driven mad by the inability to communicate after a while. Even then, that invites its own scary speculations for how Daleks are created and manufactured.
When The Doctor wakes up, he has a lengthy conversation with the dying Davros, who congratulates him on learning that Gallifrey has survived, even if The Doctor doesn’t know where it is anymore. Davros claims that a man should have a home world, and it soon becomes apparent that Davros truly is dying. Likewise, The Doctor claims that his sole reason for coming to Skaro was out of compassion, because a dying man asked him to, even if said man was one of his greatest enemies. Davros then deactivates his mechanical eye and opens his natural eyes, asking The Doctor if creating the Daleks was right. The Doctor’s response to the question prompts them to share a joke about The Doctor’s poor bedside manner, and, in a strange way, the two actually start bonding.
This is one of the most poignant and emotional moments in the entire history of New Who, if I’m being honest. As The Doctor and Davros discuss philosophy, morality, and their separate legacies, the viewer actually begins to believe Davros is at his end, and simply wants to meet with The Doctor to clear his conscience. It’s a moment where you actually believe in the humanity of Davros, or at least want to believe in it. Considering that this is one of The Doctor’s longest-running and most dangerous enemies, the creator of a race that is responsible for genocide on a universal scale, seeing this scene actually tug at your heart strings and view the creator of the Daleks as a sympathetic, almost pathetic figure, is something that is both challenging and wonderful to watch.
Inevitably though, it is a trick, as when The Doctor agrees to share regeneration energy with Davros, the snake cables suck it all out of him, restoring Davros’ health and prolonging his life, along with rejuvenating the Daleks to be better and more dangerous than ever before. Davros alludes to a prophecy of Gallifrey, about a Time Lord/Dalek hybrid destroyer, and hints that this may have been part of the reason why The Doctor originally stole the TARDIS and fled from his home planet. Obviously, the episode doesn’t spell out why, but it continues to suggest that The Doctor’s reasoning for fleeing Gallifrey wasn’t cowardice, but perhaps courage, in the face of an increasingly corrupt force of Time Lords.
Missy ends up saving the day however, abandoning the Dalek Clara and freeing The Doctor, killing Davros’ snake buddy in the process. The Doctor then reveals that he allowed Davros to carry out his plan on purpose, since Davros failed to take into account the Dalek ‘sewer’. Sure enough, the Daleks in the sewer begin to rise up and overtake the functional Daleks, being angry and wanting revenge, and thus allowing The Doctor and Missy to escape.
The Doctor then encounters the Dalek Clara, not being aware that Clara is inside the armour, with Missy claiming that it’s the Dalek who killed Clara, and The Doctor should take revenge. Clara tries to shout at The Doctor that it’s her, but it just keeps coming out that she is a Dalek. The Doctor actually prepares to kill Clara from within the armour, until one of her protests comes out as, “Mercy.” The Doctor claims that the Daleks should have no concept of mercy (yes, a Dalek did say, “Mercy” to River Song in Eleventh Doctor episode “The Big Bang”, but remember that The Doctor wasn’t present when this occurred), and when he tells the armour to open, he sees that Clara is inside. The Doctor angrily tells Missy to run, with Missy then trotting off, only to be surrounded by Daleks in another room. Before they can kill her however, she claims that she has a most clever idea, and that’s the last we see of her in this episode. Obviously, this is bound to spell trouble for The Doctor later on, but more Missy to look forward to is always a good thing!
When The Doctor and Clara also end up surrounded by Daleks, he reveals that he has forsaken his Sonic Screwdriver again, in favour of a pair of goofy sunglasses (they could also be a callback to the 3D glasses worn by the Tenth Doctor) that allow him to activate the HADS system that initially worked against him and Clara in “Cold War”, piecing the TARDIS back together around the two of them, and allowing them to escape Skaro. The Doctor then travels to the young Davros’ time, which ties into the ending of “The Magician’s Apprentice” last week, where The Doctor appeared ready to murder the child Davros. The Doctor doesn’t shoot Davros however, but instead destroys the killer eye-laden hands surrounding him, allowing the boy to escape. The Doctor then tells the boy that it doesn’t matter whose side he’s on in any war, so long as he remembers mercy. This reveals how the Daleks were given a concept of mercy, even as The Doctor proves unable to change history. Let’s face it though, Doctor Who is never going to permanently kill off Davros or the Daleks, so that shouldn’t surprise fans.
The apparent ditching of the Sonic Screwdriver may ruffle the feathers of fans who have only seen New Who as well, where The Doctor has always had his faithful sonic device at the ready, but if you’ve seen the later parts of Classic Who, you’ll know that this isn’t the first time that The BBC has removed the Sonic Screwdriver from the series. During the start of the Fifth Doctor’s run, the Sonic Screwdriver was destroyed early on, with The BBC believing that it was too much of a deus ex machina that is more of a magic wand than a true scientific tool, and honestly, that’s not entirely incorrect, even in New Who. This wasn’t a temporary change for the Fifth Doctor either. The Sonic Screwdriver was gone for the rest of Classic Who, with the Sixth and Seventh Doctors never having it, that is until it made a return in the 1996 TV movie, where the Seventh Doctor conjured it up again. Eliminating the Sonic Screwdriver a second time for the Twelfth Doctor is a pretty bold move, but it could indicate an increased commitment to smarter, more organic storytelling that doesn’t rely so much on fantasy. That’s speculation on my part, but it’s likely that the Sonic Screwdriver was eliminated for a reason, and that obviously Series Nine has a lot of big ideas in the pipeline that are going to try and make do without it.
For now though, “The Witch’s Familiar” was a superb conclusion to last week’s brilliant season premiere. It was one of the best Davros/Dalek stories in many years in the end, and sets Series Nine in motion to be one of the best seasons of New Who yet. There may have been some bumps with starting off the Twelfth Doctor in Series Eight, but those now seem to be behind us, as we have one of the most promising seasons of New Who in a long time now ahead of us!
- Clara/Missy dynamic got even better
- The Doctor's emotional talk with Davros
- Chilling new insights into Dalek creation and lifestyle
- Some newer fans may be bothered by the Sonic Screwdriver's removal