I’d like to propose a new show to the BBC. It can still be called Doctor Who, for tradition’s sake, but the Doctor’s in trouble. No TARDIS, no screwdriver, no actual ability to affect the plot. A rather crotchety Doctor in Distress, if you will.
And so, in order to save him, his faithful companion Clara and his nemesis Missy team up and travel through time and space, fighting evil, fighting one another, and generally having adventures that will one day lead to them freeing the Doctor — although hopefully that “one day” isn’t for a season at least.
Overall, The Witch’s Familiar was a decent episode, with some fun and clever moments, but hampered, as the show often is these days, by a lack of development and an attempt to think too big. And despite the long history of the Doctor and Davros, its best moments, its best chemistry, came from the new pairing of Clara and Missy, and the freshness they brought to an otherwise quite tired, contradictory incarnation of the show.
The episode opened very strongly, as we got to see Clara and Missy scheme their way out of death and then back into the Dalek compound to help the Doctor. Missy’s storytelling made the “how we did it” explanation a lot more fun than simply having a Very Clever Character babble their way through their reasoning, and the “we’re working together but I don’t care if you die” banter was incredibly fun to watch, mostly because of Michelle Gomez’s gleefully over the top performance.
And generally speaking, behind all the fun and ridiculousness, their plan made sense. They warped away from death. They snuck back in through the sewers, and stole a Dalek body in order to infiltrate the group. It’s high stakes, creepy and easy to follow, and there are no immediate holes in their plot (a fact admittedly helped by Missy not caring about Clara’s well-being at all).
Contrast this with the Doctor this week, as he once again took the role of the omniscient merciful god. His scenes with Davros could have had gravitas, but it turned out it was all a web of lies, with each one anticipating how the other would react in response to anticipating how the other would react… perhaps it wasn’t hard to see that Davros was lying, since I was full of disbelief at Davros asking the Doctor if he is a good man, but the backpedalling and “ha! I tricked you into thinking you tricked me!” made it a little hard to follow, and difficult to become emotionally involved.
The problem, I think, was clearest in the scene where the Doctor steals Davros’s chair and explained it with “I’m the Doctor, just accept it.” Last week, when Missy hand-waved over her still being alive, I found the moment really fun, but when the Doctor attempted the same thing, it was just frustrating. But Missy came back because the Doctor’s recurring villains always come back. How she returned isn’t quite as important as what she’s going to do now. The Doctor’s actions, on the other hand, are the plot. It does matter how he does things. It does matter how he schemes his way out of certain messes. This arrogant handwaving, suggesting that the how doesn’t matter, only encourages the audience to distance themselves from him and his quest. He does things, he wins, just accept it.
But “just accept it” has been a general theme with Doctor Who for the past few years. And that would be fine, if it wasn’t trying to be so damn clever at the same time.
Like, for example, Clara only being able to speak and act like a Dalek when in the Dalek suit. OK, fine. Except aren’t the suits simply protective casings for the Daleks? Am I confusing my Dalek lore here? Surely either all those “evil Dalek traits” — identifying as a Dalek, hating everything, not having pity or emotion, shouting exterminate — come from the Dalek creatures inside the suit, or the show is suggesting that those creatures actually do feel emotion, don’t want to be Daleks, don’t want to exterminate everything, and are being held hostage inside murderous suits that turn their emotions against them. Or did I miss something? As far as I could see, the episode practically set the Daleks up as the unwilling prisoners of Davros, stuck inside these murderous suits, their voices never heard. Creatures that need the Doctor to save them.
Either that, or the show did something that doesn’t make sense to try and provide a dramatic emotional conclusion that it hadn’t really earned. But the show would never do that.
And then there’s the Doctor’s plan of how to defeat Davros. Apparently it involved waking up more Daleks, which doesn’t seem sensible or safe, even if they are mostly rotted. The sewers thing, while creepy, wasn’t entirely explained — when do the Daleks end up there? Why did this start happening? What’s left of them? — and so it wasn’t clear why they would be so determined to kill Davros and the other Daleks, or why they would do that while leaving their previous enemies alone.
Not to mention the fact that the entire final scene with the Doctor and Clara hinged on the idea that Clara never, not once, thought the word “open” in her panic. Not when Missy first locked her in, not when she was desperate to show the Doctor who she was… she didn’t once think or say “open, open!” in desperation?
And despite all the attempts to be philosophical, the episode didn’t really deliver on any of its promises from last week. The question of the Doctor saving or helping Davros in the past turned into a simple time loop, where he goes back in order to give Davros a brief concept of mercy… despite the fact that Davros probably wouldn’t associate that moment with mercy, since he and the Doctor weren’t enemies, and saving a young boy from death on a battlefield is kindness, or basic humanity, not mercy. Any exploration of Davros and the Doctor’s relationship got lost behind the double and triple bluffs, making it difficult for anything they said to seem sincere. And unsurprisingly, the entire “the Doctor’s going to die! Last will and testament!” thing was never explored at all.
But I seem to be in the minority here. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have praised this episode, and particularly enjoyed all the moments between the Doctor and Davros. Part of it, perhaps, is that I’m not an Old Who fan, so I’m missing a lot of the context and emotional background to really appreciate it. But part of it must simply be that I’m tired of Doctor Who. When Clara and Missy were on screen, it was fun and fresh, with genuine humor, but when the Doctor appeared, my brain mostly switched off. Of course, it’s a show’s job to engage its audience, not the audience’s job to force themselves to be engaged, but I’m particularly difficult to please with Who these days. I’ve moved past optimism, and past outrage, and even past being resigned, to just… apathy. Yeah, Doctor Who is a show. I liked it once. I like it now when it does non–Doctor Who–esque things, like the scenes between Clara and Missy. But on a week-to-week basis… nah. I’m gonna go watch something else instead. It just isn’t clicking with me any more.
Unless they make that Missy and Clara show, of course. I’ll be first in line to watch that.