Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Michelle Gomez, and Julian Bleach
Transmitted BBC One 26th September 2015
Rule One: The Doctor Lies.
Having met a child Davros on an ancient battlefield, the Doctor is running. His last confession is in the hands of Missy (Not Dead, Big Surprise). His confession may or may not be to do with Davros, he’s not letting on why, but he’s pretty sure he’s going to die. Clara and Missy come looking for him. A Snake Man made of Snakes kidnaps all of them and takes them to see the dying Davros, who wants a word. On Skaro. Cue Dalek Guns and dead friends. Doctor beside himself. Flashback/flashforward, the Doctor aiming a Dalek gun at young Davros. *Cliffhanger Sting*.
Rule Two: Steven Moffat loves a wind-up:
Ok, so there was no way that Clara, Missy, and the TARDIS were really toast, was there? Would have made for a very short series, wouldn’t it? Steven Moffat knows this, and really, so do we. We’ve seen the trailer. He also knows that we know. Thus, The Witch’s Familiar opens with a wry reference to those ‘How we did it’ montage scenes from Sherlock, as Missy offers a cheeky explanation of how they survived via a flashback of the Doctor (one of them, anyway) getting out of the same sort of jam. Consequently, Missy and Clara have escaped and are now outside the Dalek City, in Clara’s case - tied up and upside down while Missy contemplates lunch.
Meanwhile, the Doctor is still in the Dalek City, unwillingly continuing his fireside chat with Davros. This is broken up by a brief escape where the absolutely livid Twelfth Doctor manages what none of his predecessors did. He not only gets Davros out of his chair, but he does a bit of cosplay, and takes the Mark 1 Travel Machine for a spin. It’s a fun moment, but doesn’t last. The Daleks mobilise, in a cool moment they pass through their arches en masse like it’s 1966 - and the Special Weapons Dalek TALKS.
This diversion over, interrupted by Colony Sarff, he’s soon back with Davros (in the only other chair on Skaro), and Davros resumes his spiel. Their conversations in The Magician’s Apprentice were highly reminiscent of their first meeting in Genesis of the Daleks. That story is echoed even more here, Moffat paraphrases Terry Nation, and cleverly turns famous lines on their head, as the Doctor, shamed by his role in the making of his arch-enemy, is on the back foot for a change. Davros plays the Doctor like a stradivarius here, the wily old goat. Yes, he is dying. We learn that his biological link to the Daleks is the reason he can’t die. He lays it on thick, and the Doctor obliges him.
Capaldi continues to be a revelation. He rages and swaggers, yet shows sympathy for his ailing foe, trying to help him in his dying hours, even as confusion and disbelief loop around those eyebrows. Julian Bleach almost has us feeling sorry for Davros, turning Season Eight’s “Am I a good man?” question around on him. We even see his eyes, which we always assumed he didn’t have. They share a laugh together. But, even in an episode of Doctor Who that dares to show us Davros’s eyes, that reinvents the Daleks biology, that casually throws in a reference to a relative we never dreamed of - Moffat doesn’t go that far. Davros is still thoroughly rotten to the core and has been playing him. It’s a trap, Davros never intended to die, and the Doctor ends up giving away regeneration energy to him and his creations.
Rule Three: Missy is a compulsive liar.
Meanwhile, outside the walls, the two-hander going on between Clara and Missy is just as central as the one between the Doctor and Davros. The odd couple make their way to the Dalek City through the sewers, where we learn the icky truth of Dalek drainage, which will eventually prove the undoing of the Daleks on the surface. Their exchanges are electric, Clara is smart, but ever so straight-laced, while Missy is freewheeling and more dangerous than ever, as Michelle Gomez, preamble over, really gets going. She can’t be trusted in any way, shape, or form. One of the traits that Moffat has introduced is a tendency, like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight to casually reel off multiple explanations passed off as truth. She tries to kill Clara more than once, then, in an echo of Oswin’s fate in Asylum of the Daleks, locks her inside the casing of one. Here we learn more about what it’s like to be inside one, and this is no Ian Chesterton-hiding-inside-a casing deal. Missy puts her through her paces in the same way Davros puts his prototype through the motions in Genesis. The language of a Dalek is different to ours, it doesn’t translate, certain words will only come out as Exterminate. When Dalek-Clara finally comes face to eye-stalk with the Doctor, she can only, desperately try to say her name - which comes out as “I am a Dalek”. Missy tries to persuade the Doctor to kill her, in-between attempts at cosying up to the Daleks (“The bitch is back”). It’s only Clara’s desperate cry of “Mercy”, that alerts the Doctor to who’s under the hood, and that the word Mercy is even in the Dalek dictionary. And then the Doctor runs again, as Missy smiles sweetly at the Daleks and says that she’s got an idea.
This takes us back to that cliffhanger, where the Doctor returns to that battlefield encounter with the child Davros, tooled up. Needless to say, it’s the hand-mines that get it, and he leads the child that will one day grow up as his arch-enemy (don’t tell Missy, she’ll scratch his eye out) by the hand away from his doom, and the word Mercy finds its place in Dalek lore.
Obviously Davros is still going to grow up to be that man. Something awful will happen to him, but something else, and another day. There are still questions to be answered that will probably be answered in about ten weeks time, and Missy will undoubtedly be back at some point, having not been ‘killed off’ for once. Speaking of which.....the Doctor seems pointedly more worried about Clara possibly dying than ever before. Is this the hidden arc of the series? Who knows. Surprises to come no doubt. In the meantime, let’s savour this, the best two part story Doctor Who’s had in years, riffs, silver Daleks, sewers, ray bans and all.