Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Witch's Familiar written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald

This story in a nutshell: The best Steven Moffat penned episode since Day of the Doctor...

Indefinable: This is exactly the sort of material that Capaldi was born to play; high intensity, vivid and blazing with emotion. He's quite extraordinary here. I doubt I will love this Doctor more than the moment he is revealed in Davros' chair, swings around into the middle of a group of shocked Daleks (whoever knew they could emote so much with just movement) and declares 'anyone for dodgems?' I felt that connection between the Doctor and Clara again when he brandishes a Dalek weapon and threatens the Daleks to tell him that she is dead. Isn't is strange that the Doctor never seems more dangerous than when the odds are stacked against him like this (think Davison in Androzani). You could say that everything that is shared between the Doctor and Davros is a falsehood but I think there is more than a grain of truth to their words (who is it that said that for a lie to work it has to be shrouded in truth?). So when the Doctor says that he is just a man in a box and yet some days if he tries very hard he gets to be the Doctor...that sounds like the same flawed man last year that was trying to figure out if he was a good man or not. Is this incarnation a good Doctor? Will compassion kill him in the end? He wouldn't die of anything else. Between them the Doctor and Davros nearly destroyed Gallifrey and all of its inhabitants so there is some weight to the Doctor's insistence that planet is safe from the pair of them. He insists that the planet is intact, to drive him that Davros has failed. The Doctor refuses to admit that he is helping Davros to see a sunset, he's doing it to help a little boy he abandoned on the battlefield. The Doctor warns Missy to run after he almost kills Clara at her bidding.

Impossible Girl: Hang on.. I though Clara was smarter than smart and able to solve any problem. Or is that just on Earth? How do you explain that she can go from managing to outthink UNIT in the last episode to falling for Missy's desperately predictable (but very funny) tricks in this one? After being tied up and pushed down a sewer I would think she would get savvy to the fact that Missy isn't a very nice person but she falls for another few tricks after that that makes me wonder if actually she might be the dumbest companion we have ever had. Typical Clara, no consistency of any kind.

You're so Fine: I think I might be a little bit in love and I never thought I would say that about one of Moffat's women. The odd thing is that most of them are supposed to be likeable and he pushes hard to make them uber cool and smart but they wind up morally bankrupt and smug as hell as a result (River, Amy, occasionally Clara). Missy is supposed to be a conniving bitch and Moffat plays that to the hilt and the result? She's delicious fun to be around and yes, very likeable to boot. Go figure. All he had to do to make one of his female characters work is to make her heartless. That's what it takes to make this mans representation of a woman click. Go figure again. The way she mistreats Clara appallingly was the only time I found myself chuckling in an otherwise grim episode, she's needed to provide that levity otherwise this would be serious stuff indeed. Tying Clara up and threatening to eat her if she gets hunger might have been a little OTT but I love the image of the two of them yomping over Skaro's surface to rescue the Doctor...for a second I could really see this pairing work long term. She's not just spouting one liners in The Witch's Familiar, she's a genuinely unpredictable and dangerous creation, willing to sacrifice Daleks and Clara to get to her man. And she'll do it with a smile too. Missy has no qualms about sticking her hand into a Dalek casing and removing the abomination inside. She also has no qualms about sticking Clara inside and handing her to the Daleks (canned as she puts it). What I love about this character is that even when she is in the worst danger she seems to be having a whale of a time. Surrounded by so many Daleks in the ruined City, Moffat puts the Master in danger just as the classic series always did to pay for his crimes but also gives her an out. Bravo and I hope she returns before the end of the season.

Scarred Scientist: 'You have slaughtered billions of my children and I have slaughtered billions of your race. We have exhausted the conventional means of communication.' One of the best ever Davros stories and when that list includes Genesis of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks on the TV and Davros and Terror Firma on audio (as well as his outstanding spin off series I, Davros) that is no small statement. Julian Bleach gives a performance here that threatens to rival Michael Wisher and Terry Molloy at his best and shows just how few opportunities he had in Journey's End to impress. I always find Davros at his most interesting when he is written against type as the ranting madman, offering up something a little more substantial instead (although it has to be said that nobody can rant quite like Davros when he gets going). Such as his psychological games in Genesis and Revelation and his gripping backstory in Davros (which interestingly is not contradicted or confirmed here, leaving the audios relevance intact). The deception here is that Davros has had something of a change of heart on the day he died and he wants to make amends with the Doctor before he goes and try and justify his actions. Almost as if he wants some kind of forgiveness from the one man he can consider a rival. If that sounds appallingly twee then fear not, it is delicately scripted so we understand that both men deplore each other but there is a heavy atmosphere that trapped together in the aftermath of the Time War they can finally talk about their shared history and come to some kind of consensus about it. Two rivals as old men looking at the battles they have shared and getting the chance to talk. We finally get a good glance at just what is left of the man who created the Daleks in a macarcbre effects shot, legs missing and a spine-like tendrils shooting from his body and looking for his chair. He's the twisted remains of a man, the result of centuries of prolonging his life and sacrificing himself to his creations. It's sick. To anybody who questions Davros' 'dying man' ruse, he does at least try and get the Doctor to touch the tendrils several times before slapping on the mask of repentance. People might question why Davros uses his electronic eye if his own eyes still work but clearly the technology surpasses that of a dying mans vision. It makes for a breathtaking moment, when he opens his eyes and tears flood free, I was captivated in the moment and barely dared to breathe. The most hated man in the universe shedding tears of happiness for his rival. Astonishing. The laughter that they share feels wrong but it's still a wonderful moment. It's not exactly a new ruse, preying on somebody's humanity to take what you need from them - it is exactly the same parlour trick that the Dalek pulled on Rose in series one.  But the way Davros exploits his relationship with the Doctor is gloriously vampiric.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'He's trapped at the heart of the Dalek Empire. He's a prisoner of the creatures that hate him most in the universe.'
'Nobody hates like a Dalek.'

The Good:

* The Dalek City really is a beautiful piece of design and seeing it rebuilt in such style and shot with such care by Hettie Macdonald gave e chills. It must be how fans of Star Trek must have felt when the episodes were remastered with sexy new model shots of the Enterprise inserted. Seeing every single Dalek gliding about the turrets and towers is unbelievable, the new series indulging in what the classic show could never afford. It's the mixture of the astounding design from the sixties and the modern day shooting techniques that give this hybrid of nostalgia and innovation its piquancy. Like staring back into the past as the characters saw it in The Daleks, as opposed to how the audience saw it. Seeing the grey and blue classic Daleks gliding through the cramped corridors of the City gave me chills. The only thing that is missing is that unnerving soundscape to the City that made the opening episode of The Daleks so terrifying. What a shame that it should be left in tatters, I would have loved to have returned to Skaro in future stories just as the classic series did from time to time. Mind you what a lovely kiss to Evil of the Daleks, having the Doctor and Clara watch the Dalek City burn and collapse from the distance.
* A Dalek sewer made up of the decaying Daleks, the hideous experiments that didn't quite go right, is precisely the sort of ghastly notion that Moffat excels at. He manages to use the idea in a clever way too, not just as a way for Missy and Clara to enter the City but as a solution to the plot as well. Screaming, pulsating, slick walls...disgustingly creative. Almost as sick as the abortive, mordent Daleks crawling up from the sewers and claiming the Dalek shells that they were denied, flooding them and drowning the mutants inside. It's Moffat at his most ghoulish, giving this SF tale a lovely twist of horror. 
* Haven't we seen Clara wired up to a Dalek before? Or Oswin. Or something. There's still a great deal of fun to be had with the idea though, especially the claustrophobia of being encased inside and not being able to express yourself. Daleks channelling emotion through a gun and only being able to scream 'Exterminate' rather than expressing their feelings is a fascinating insight into their world inside the shell. After all these years there are still new things to learn about the creatures.
* The consensus that this episode comes to is that it doesn't matter about friends or enemies as long as there is mercy. It's captured to disquieting effect with that superb final shot of the Doctor taking Davros' hand and leading him across the battlefield, through the mist. Visually and emotionally stunning to the last.

The Bad: One of the reasons this isn't scoring maximum points is the rather bizarre nature of the pre-titles sequence, rehashing the joy of the opening of The Name of the Doctor in a blink and you'll miss it cameo by the fourth and first Doctors and continuing that obsession with getting inside the Doctor's head and figuring what makes him tick that Moffat has. It's all a hugely elaborate way of Missy saying 'I teleported us out of there' which if she had cut it down to that would have wasted less time to get to the juicy stuff. At this point I thought The Witch's Familiar was going to be as indulgent as last weeks episode.
* The sunglasses. Just no.

Result: Proper old school Who done to perfection. I don't know what the wider audience will think of The Witch's Familiar but I cannot imagine a long term fan of the show not getting a great deal of satisfaction from this smart and emotional slice of classic Who. For Moffat, it is his finest stab at an episode since the anniversary, perhaps since the beginning of the Matt Smith era. I'm not blind to the talents of Hettie Macdonald's efforts, she does a lot to make the script look as impressive as possible, delivering some awesome set pieces and dialogue scenes that literally had me holding my breath. In stark contrast to last week this is a story that barely wastes a moment and plays games with the audience throughout. Clara is the only character that fails to make much of an impression but with the vivid completion of Capaldi's Doctor, a sexy and sassy Master and Davros playing mind games I am not at all surprised. And between her appalling mistreatment by Missy and her nightmare inside the Dalek casing, Moffat tortures her enough to make up for any blandest in her characterisation. I can't remember the last time I spent this much time discussing the characters in a Moffat script rather than the ideas, for once he scales back on trying to write a huge sprawling epic and focuses on the people involved and the result is an intense, disquieting and moving piece of work. The scenes between the Doctor and Davros are exactly the sort of thing I thought we would be getting on a regular basis when he took over as showrunner and it's a shame it has taken four series to get there. But now we are...more please. Don't get me wrong there is the usual Moffat trickery in here where pretty much everything is a con but on this occasion that is precisely why this all works so well...because the performances are so powerful you can believe what you are being told only to have that turning point in these characters lives snatched away. It's an extraordinary sleight of hand. Looking at the two part story as a whole I think this is overstuffed, particularly in the first episode (although the pre-titles sequences here was just as pointless) and it would have made a near-perfect 60 minute story had we reached Skaro a lot sooner. Most of the second episode is extraordinary though, and for the conclusion to top the set up is the rarest of things in any show. 8/10 for the whole piece but top notch marks for the concluding part: 9/10


Anonymous said...

Is curious how Moffat can't produce likeable female companions and associates (I share your opinion about the morals and smugness) but he can do very likeable males (Rory, Craig Owens, even Rory's dad only appearance was a hoot). Since it seems Jenna Coleman is leaving, how about a male companion for Capaldi's Doctor? It could work wonderfully.

Martin Hudecek said...

Davros was really careless to let those rejects be part of his bloodline though... My only major issue with this fine outing.

Sam Palmer said...

I can't quite put my finger on what about this episode I didn't like. there's a lot and awesome stuff going on, which I loved. I think it may have gotten a touch too dark for me, and Missy's attempt to kill off Clara--even though I hate Clara and want to see her die--doesn't quite come off right, occurring as it does after the climax, and I'm left feeling rather ill at ease by it.

Also, he's seriously gonna use Sonic Shades the rest of the season? Shout "No!" loud enough for Moffat to hear it from me, too.

Luke Sims said...

I'm in the camp of the long term fan you can't imagine disliking it. I found a lot about this two parter didn't make sense and it soiled me on the emotion of the story being told.

Rob James said...

Clara is Missy's daughter.
I also reckon that The Moff will announce his departure soon.

im903yearsold said...

They watched this episode on Gogglebox Australia, and apart from one avid fanboy and one man who conceded it was alright, they were all utterly bored by it. In four seasons, no other show has produced so little a reaction one way or another.

David Pirtle said...

this is an amazing two-parter that kicks off a terrific series (at least in my opinion - YMMV). The moments between the Doctor and Davros rival their best meeting, and Missy secures her place in Master history as one of the great incarnations. We'll agree to disagree about Clara.

Yes, the first episode was overloaded with setup, but that's one of the great things about this year, that the stories aren't rushed. It's almost entirely made up of either literal two-parters or at least very interconnected stories. There's really only one stand alone episode, and it's by far the worst.