TV Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. There’s not a lot more you can say about The Witch's Familiar even though I expect I will as the night draws on. Much of Doctor Who is pretty ridiculous. It’s why we love it so, and why all of it is amazing even when it is rubbish. Try to describe the plot of most stories to someone with only a passing interest in the series and they’ll generally look at you as though you spent the whole of the 60s dropping acid despite you having been born in the 70s. Try it some time, pick something at random, The Sunmakers, for example, and have a go. Watch carefully for the moment when they either (a) try to look for the quickest route out of the conversation or (b) have the phrase “And you watch this?” pop into their brains awaiting the most strategic moment of deployment.
This isn’t unique to Doctor Who. Most of science fiction and fantasy has to be pretty bonkers in order to justify its own existence and keep us entertained, but there’s just something expressively weird about Doctor Who because no matter how many times you think you have a story understood and you know what’s about to happen, some random element will introduce itself and everything will narratively head off in a direction you weren’t expecting. Indeed there’s an argument that Doctor Who fails when it isn’t doing that, when everything you think will happen in a story happens, when a particular story element is set up to occur in an episode and there is no twist and the outcome is as expected. But I think I’ve clobbered half of last year’s episodes more than enough.
That’s why The Witch's Familiar is so damn good. Throughout I had absolutely no idea what it was doing, where it was going and how it was going to end. Not one. As a friend pointed out to me last week, there were story elements in the first part, the Hand Mines, the planes with laser being shot at by bows and arrows which would have been key elements of some other shows and yet they’re introduced and forgotten almost immediately. Such as we are with the hybrid Daleks. In another series, that would have been status quo from now onwards, the old threat regenerated. But in Doctor Who, it’s blown up almost as soon as it’s introduced as a way of underscoring how its main character reacts to danger, his compulsive expectation that he’s going to win (wearing now what amounts a pair of Joo Janta 200s).
Even when it looks predictable, it really isn’t. Knowing full well that we didn’t really believe that the Daleks would have exterminated Missy and Clara (despite neither of the given actresses appearing in any of the published cast lists), the writer Steven Moffat, for it is he, boldly just sticks them in the teaser, explaining how they got out of that as a way of introducing the aforementioned compulsive expectation. Even then we know, because they tell us, that their part of the episode will be about them returning to the city, but because Missy’s an even more unhinged presence than ever before, “a nightmare dressed like a daydream” if you will, we’ve no idea what that will look like especially since the only reason she’s keeping Clara alive is because of some notion murder her further down the line. Or sewer.
Sure enough what results is a version of the Hulk and Loki incident from The Avengers (Assemble) over and over and over again with Clara, the familiar in this case, on the receiving end. In this strand Moffat’s paying homage to The Mutants (or whatever Doctor Who Magazine’s deciding to call it now) to a large extent, with the companion in much the same position as the Thals in that earlier adventure, but whereas the unpredictable element then was dependent on which of the fair haired ciphers would be eaten by a tentacled something from the deep, here it's whatever horror Missy will subject the companion to. With the chemistry between Michelle and Jenna underpinning the comedy with dread and Hettie MacDonald’s nose for slapstick and editing, it’s all hilarious and scary. And sticky.
And perverse because here’s Missy also inflicting on Clara the shocking truth behind, Oswin, the character played by the actress’s first appearance in the series. Across the years Daleks have supposed to be scary but there are few fans who haven’t also wanted to become one, running around in circular columns of printed pvc or a cardboard box with some blu-tac stuck on the end of a pencil applied to the front (depending on the disposable income of the parent). Yet here’s poor Oswin or at least a version of her, having a similar experience turned into a nightmare for a second time. Like Chesterton she finds herself locked inside. Unlike Chesterton that captivity extends to her ability to communicate. Expect an ios or (ironically) Android translation doodat which does much the same thing at an app store in time for Christmas.
Except, all of this is just the B-story. Weaving throughout is the Doctor’s confrontation with Davros which barring the introductory scenes in which this Twelfth incarnation finally recreates the bitter John Birt end of the 1993 BBC VT Christmas tape (“So Jeannette, by increasing my assistant’s salary to above my own I can then point out to the governors the foolishness of the pay scale AND GUARANTEE FOR MYSELF A HANDSOME PAY RISE”) is a two hander between these old, old foes and friends. Again, ridiculously, we’re in episode two of a twelve episode run and it’s largely about emotional chicanery and referencing forty year old mythology at a time when in earlier series it was about properly introducing some new companion or showing a post-regenerative Doctor’s first adventure. Thrilling, intellectually satisfying and also shifting that old mythology onwards still.
After his first couple of appearances, the original television run of the show tended to made a point of keeping these two separate for as long as possible which was nonsense because as even Davros knows, the reason Genesis of the Daleks is a classic is because of his lengthy conversation with the Doctor over the price of eggs or the universe (which is roughly the same in the Organic food section of Waitrose). In later years, Big Finish has thankfully noticed and Joseph Lidster’s Terror Firma in particular presents a spiritually similar conversation as appears here with Davros apparently close to death (which is why its absence was felt so much last week presumably due to licensing and BBC charter reasons). For all his whimsy, the Doctor’s always at his best when academically jousting with scientists even if he has the beating hearts of an artist.
As expected, Moffat’s Genesis wave from last week wasn’t just the introduction of some gratuitous continuity point and paid off this week (and how). There was always something slightly nonsensical about Fourth's attitude to those two wires in Genesis since he’d destroyed the Dalek race on numerous occasions already and all he’d be doing was saving his younger incarnations from doing much the same thing as Twelfth does at the conclusion of this story (somewhat referencing Power in the process). He mentions the effects on history (which various chronologies have since suggested happen anyway due to the line about setting back the development of the Daleks) and Russell T Davies has since suggested it was the original front of the Time War. But, yes, it’s a very odd scene in retrospect.
Even more than Journey’s End, the intensity of Julian Bleach’s depiction of Davros is breathtaking, continuing the legacy of Wisher, Gooderson and Molloy with the script providing him the opportunity for offering even greater emotional depths, at least for the screen version (Molloy has been astonishing in the audios too and I don’t want to draw away from his achievement). Davros’s eyes open and suddenly the least expressive element of the old mask is given force. We know now of course that both figures in the conversation are play acting, but anyone who's heard the biographical audio series about Davros (which Moffat studiously doesn’t contradict at all here) will find even greater poignancy in the action (even as we’re wondering if Moffat meant to paraphrase George Lucas or more probably Lawrence Kasdan here).
Up against him is the Doctor giving his A-game. Yes, he is the Doctor. He really, really is. There were glimmers in the final production block episode of last year and Last Christmas that Capaldi had realised how to play him and Moffat to write him, but finally we have a figure that fulfils the promise of those technicolour eyebrows from The Day of the Doctor, all of the fierce, powerful forces, underpinned by tenderness, diplomacy and yes, compassion even if in the latter case it’s being deployed as a bluff. Peter finally looks like he’s properly enjoying himself and also that his Time Lord skin fits snugly rather than as something he’s been told to wear and is making the most of it. Even without the visual reference at the start of the episode, we can see the Fourth Doctor as a major influence, but Scottish (with a few Tennanty ticks).
More than that, I also feel like my hero’s returned, which as anyone who held my hand through the dark times last year will know is huge. This man simply doesn’t feel like the cruel impostor who wandered through series eight, though I say that cautiously given that he only has a conversation with about half a dozen people across this entire story and none of them are strangers. We’ll see what happens next week. But when he smiles here, it’s with the gleeful, comfortable warmth of Tom or the other Peter or Matt rather than because his teeth want a divorce from his gums and can’t seem to find a decent solicitor. It’s been argued that what we saw last year was the mania of a post-regenerative cycle stretched across twelve episodes, but without that made plain in the script, it was really hard to take.
Then, just when it looks like everything’s about resolve itself and the Dalek base is about to tip into its own sewers, there’s the supremely odd scene of Missy trying to convince the Doctor to murder Clara. Designed mainly to give the Time Lady a point in the story which isn’t that she not River Song, it’s the Doctor Who equivalent of the repeated fake out which causes the surviving cast of the various Scream sequels to have weapons to hand when current wearer of Ghost Face looks like he’s already checked out. We know he won’t do it and on the surface it seems like the kind of slightly bland confrontation designed to ramp up some false tension that often ruins a good story.
But as has been the case in the rest of the story, it has a purpose: to return the Doctor to moment of cliff-hanger in the previous episode, the reasons for which are self-explanatory. Nevertheless there are staggering implications which are somewhat glossed over and are connected to the end scene of Listen. How is the TARDIS able to visit these points in time now, old Skaro and old Gallifrey, given the events of the Time Way and why is he not asking that question? When young Davros was revealed last week, I thought half of the surprise was that the Doctor could even be in that space let alone be speaking to a pint-sized version of his arch enemy. Moffat’s said that all these stories will be linked in some way. Perhaps he’ll return to this element later in the year.
The upshot of all this is that I’m really excited about the next ten episodes plus Christmas special which is really good news since the last thing you want is to dread watching the next episode of what purports to be a favourite television series (as anyone who sat through s6 of Buffy and s5 of The West Wing will tell you). Moffat seems to be enjoying himself again, evidenced by the teaser and at the other end of the episode Missy’s first meeting with Davros after all these years. We’ll see how that transmits through the other writers, if this is a genuine new direction for the series or an abiration. Nevertheless, for now, Doctor Who’s back to be being the thing it should always be, ridiculous, utterly ridiculous. But in a good way.