Review: The Witch's Familiar October 01, 2015 00:08 - Philip Bates

The solution to last week's cliffhanger bookends The Witch's Familiar: it was a two-part cliffhanger, and writer, Steven Moffat knows which one you'll know is a red herring – the deaths of Clara and Missy – and which will keep you hooked, namely the Doctor seemingly threatening to exterminate a young Davros.

That opening is bold and clever, mixing gorgeous visuals with an explanation that should satisfy fans. The scenes on Skaro contrast beautifully with the dark direction of Missy's tale of the Doctor escaping invisible androids. Shot in black and white, featuring brief glimpses of past Doctors, and borrowing something from episodes like Planet of the Daleks and The Androids of Tara, it's a great reminder of Doctor Who's past.

But then, that's what The Witch's Familiar does so well, and this first scene sets the tone well.

Moffat of course should take credit for his allusions to the past – indeed, Peter Capaldi called this serial a tribute to the First Doctor era – but similar praise should be heaped onto Production Designer, Michael Pickwoad, and director, Hettie MacDonald.

The interior of the Dalek city is an obvious nod to the show's second story, 1963/4's The Daleks (sometimes known as The Mutants), with sleek lines and sterile environs, while the sewers of Skaro remind viewers of the grim locales of Genesis of the Daleks (1975). Davros' talk of his final victory is reminiscent of 2008's The Stolen Earth/ Journey's End, and the hybrid idea has been explored (briefly) in 2007's Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks. Furthermore, the Dalek civil war – given a nod in the rotting Kaled mutants seeping through and attacking the Daleks – has been shown in stories like Evil of the Daleks (1967) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988).

The HADS (renamed here as the Hostile Action Dispersal System) is another knowing wink to the past, the defence tool first cropping up in The Krotons (1968) and coming back for Cold War (2013).

The shock viewers got at seeing Skaro again (destroyed in Remembrance) in 2011's Asylum of the Daleks is even revisited, last week by Missy's understated surprise to be back on the planet, and this time by the Doctor actually questioning Davros about its return.

Yep, it's rather appropriate that The Magician's Apprentice/ The Witch's Familiar is so steeped in history, and while you can't help but wonder what the casual viewer would make of it all, I very much doubt it genuinely excludes even the newest of viewers (the majority of whom would already know about Davros and the Daleks regardless).

Not knowing, for instance, that the Doctor was previously sent back to the Daleks' origins to destroy the race before they got off the ground doesn't hamper what's a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing story about the Doctor, stuck in the middle of an army of angry tanks, facing up to his arch-enemy.

It's impossible to isolate a single exemplary scene because seeing Capaldi opposite Julian Bleach's creator of the Daleks is a joy, as is Missy's manipulation of Clara, a companion who is normally more than a match for most of the aliens she comes up against.

In fact, while Jenna is never anything less than brilliant, Clara does seem uncharacteristically useless, and this does sit uneasily with anyone who has seen her strength in tales like The Rings of Akhaten (2013), The Time of the Doctor (2013), and 2014's Flatline. I liked the scared Clara shown in Cold War, but that was a long time ago now, and she's grown into an extraordinarily strong, capable person. Seeing her dumbfounded when questioned by a Dalek is odd. Perhaps Missy really does have her on the back-foot, or maybe she's just terrified of the Daleks. It's interesting territory that's not really explored enough.

Seeing Clara imprisoned in a Dalek is another step into exciting territory, and the parallels with Asylum of the Daleks, in which it's revealed that one of her splinters in time (Oswin Oswald) has been converted, are sublime. Given it's Jenna's final year in the role, it's fitting that her first appearance in the series is at least alluded to.

We even get blasts of the Asylum soundtrack, courtesy of the always-great Murray Gold!

The music, however, is at times overwhelming, never more so than when Missy is destroying the Dalek in the sewers, a satisfying scene that, in retrospect, doesn't entirely make sense. We get an explosion, pre-empting the Doctor's destruction of the Daleks en masse, but when Clara is shoved inside the Dalek, the armour is fine again.

These are the only real missteps in an otherwise excellent story that enlightens and intrigues in equal measure.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – for one, the Confession Dial, which we'll surely get to in the Series 9 finale; and secondly the fates of Davros and Missy. Michelle Gomez is fantastically insane throughout, and Julian Bleach gives a shockingly emotional performance. Most fans presumed that Davros' eyes were burnt out or something similarly grotesque, but Moffat shows us otherwise. We also get to see him out of his chair, replaced by an angry (and thus dangerous) Doctor, wheeling about and threatening the Supreme Dalek.

We also get an insight into the psychology of the Daleks, adding more definition to their understanding of emotion. In the past, they've come worryingly close to becoming emotionless robots, akin to the Cybermen (who, no, aren't robots either). The lines had been blurred. Fortunately, here it's revealed that emotion is how Daleks 'reload.' "You are different from me" translates into "exterminate." That's horribly scary and utterly true of the Daleks.

More Dalek tropes are given greater significance, notably one of the my favourite things about them: the thrumming heartbeat. It was used superbly in Victory of the Daleks (2010), ushering in the new (but sadly forgotten) paradigm, and is of importance in this serial because, quite simply, it's keeping Davros alive.

(Given the stunning acting, you can believe that Davros is at the end of his life, but I'm so, so pleased that he's been regenerated!)

And most importantly - to the Dalek mythos, and as the resolution to the cliffhanger – we learn how the Daleks have a concept of mercy. Fans of the Eleventh Doctor era will recall 2010's The Big Bang in which a stone Dalek begs River Song for mercy, and this episode pays that off perfectly.

The Witch's Familiar is a product of the past and hints at an exciting future, and without doubt my favourite link to Doctor Who's history is seeing the Daleks, in the process of regenerating, seemingly deactivated amongst the long corridors of the city. It reminds me of the First Doctor's victory over them in The Daleks, where we learnt that those early Dalek designs were powered by static generated from the metallic floors.

Indeed, when contrasted with the jumping narrative of The Magician's Apprentice, The Witch's Familiar is quite a static tale, but it's certainly better for it: more coherent, more satisfying, and ultimately more captivating... Exactly what an opening serial needs to be!

Next: Under the Lake.

Images: BBC.