Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar

Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar September 28, 2015

I apologize for not blogging about “The Witch’s Familiar” sooner – it was airing while I was traveling back from a conference. The title of this episode is no more self-explanatory than the previous one. My hunch is that both are veiled references to Clara Oswald – the Doctor’s apprentice, and yet said by Missy to be “the puppy” in relation to her and the Doctor’s relationship as friends. SPOILERS AHEAD!

The episode begins with Missy having accomplished an escape from the Daleks for her and Clara which used a method the Doctor had once used. Clara’s ability to figure out how he did it (and thus how they did it), and what it is that keeps the Doctor alive in so many situations in which other clever people would die, echoes his words to Davros in last week’s episode: you ignore the odds against you and focus on the one in a thousand chance that you will survive. Missy refers to Clara at one point as a canary to her as a miner. Yet the Doctor, at the end of the episode, chooses Clara over Missy. And so it is clear that, while the witch (Missy) would treat Clara as a pet/familiar, the wizard (the Doctor, not just in this episode but frequently on Doctor Who) views Clara as apprentice and friend.

The episode has a number of nice elements. One is the exploration of how Daleks work on the inside. Clara tries speaking and in some instances it cannot come out the way she intends. “I am Clara” can only come out as “I am a Dalek.” And any expression of emotion, even “I love you,” comes out as “Exterminate.” Missy says that while the Cybermen suppressed emotion, the Daleks channeled it into a gun.

The way Davros speaks to the Doctor, even opening his actual eyes at one point, is surprisingly moving – especially when he cries and says that everyone should have a race to belong to. And so it actually comes as a jolt when we realize that, far from honestly wondering whether he had done the right things and whether he is a good man, Davros is seeking to channel the Doctor’s regeneration energy into himself and the Daleks. But (rather like the Seventh Doctor in a number of episodes) we learn that the Doctor had known why Davros really summoned him, and had a plan. Daleks never really die, and so Dalek sewers (which is the same word in the Dalek language as “graveyard”) are full of the slimy existence of Daleks that cannot live normally but nonetheless are not really dead either. That slime gets some of the regeneration energy too, and wreaks havoc on the city and the Daleks in it.

The ending was what I expected – that the Doctor would go back in time not to kill Davros, but to rescue him. This allowed the word “mercy” to be part of the Dalek DNA, which was how he was able to recognize that it was in fact Clara in the Dalek that Missy told him had killed Clara. Of course, the word “mercy” had been uttered by a Dalek before on the show, albeit not in the Doctor’s hearing:

Among the intriguing references for long-term fans of the show are the reference to a time lord prophecy about a hybrid race being created, with the possibility that that is why the Doctor went on the run; and also Missy’s reference to her daughter, and a broach the Doctor gave her. For those interested in the show’s religious themes, the explorations of compassion and mercy, as well as prophecy, are interesting. But perhaps most significant is the suggestion the episode makes that there is no simple black-and-white distinction between friend and enemy. Good and evil run through us all.

Despite being very serious and poignant in some of its themes, the episode also had moments of very clever humor – such as when Davros says he has brought the Doctor something of great value – the only other chair on Skaro! And of course, when the Doctor previously stole Davros’ chair it was also entertaining, as were many of Missy’s quips.

What did you think of “The Witch’s Familiar”? What do you think of my interpretation of it here?

Witch's Familiar Doctor in Davros' Chair

 

 


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  • I really liked these two episodes. I’m getting a better grip on this Doctor’s personality (he’s an aged rocker – moody, slightly self-obsessed and easily distractable, but kind-hearted), and his relationship with Clara makes more sense to me now.
    Seeing the Daleks again was nice, and they felt properly menacing. The bit where Davros describes them toying with Clara before “killing” her was quite scary, really, the sort of thing that would’ve sent me behind the couch as a kid.
    The second episode improved on the first in some ways. With our main drama established, exposition was breezed through in favour of drama and plot, and it all worked quite well.

  • Marcus Maher

    I liked the episode on the whole and agree with what you wrote above. My only complaint is that I felt it wrapped up very, very quickly.

    I’d also add that I enjoyed the strong resonances with the epsiode Dalek and the reprisal of the Dalek’s interactions with Rose in particular (but also the theme of loneliness as discussed by the Doctor and the Dalek). It seems the Doctor had grown morally since the 9th incarnation.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    For me this episode’s greatest contribution to Who lore (aside from the chair joke!) was the exploration of Dalek language and the moral implications of that fact. Daleks don’t just control their shells telepathically but are psychologically and neurologically controlled right back. They are clockwork oranges living in Ludovico machines that rewrite their emotions and define their personalities from their earliest days. They were not just created by Davros but are recreated in his twisted image every moment of their lives. (Is Davros the witch and the Daleks his familiar?) They are truly tragic figures, all the more so because their evil’s inbuilt inevitability doesn’t stop them from having to be stopped. And this transformation from cartoon Nazi villains to complex moral questions is happening slowly over decades worth of stories; I look forward to the Dalek redemption in the 2035 season of Doctor Who.

  • Ursula L

    A bit I picked up from the posts at the Tardis Eruditorum.

    When Davros says that “Everyone should have a race”, it isn’t just a nice sentiment. It is an expression of the fascism of the Daleks, the belief that the individual is defined as part of the race, and humanity exists in a state of racial struggle.

    The Daleks have always been Nazi stand-ins, and Davros their Hitler.

    Yes, Davros genuinely believes everyone should have a race, and be part of a race. And part of him is probably glad for the Doctor, that he should find his place within his race again. And he’s sure that the proper order of the world is that the two great races of Daleks and Time Lords should struggle for domination. The Time Lords seemingly destroyed by the Doctor undermined Davros’s fascist sense of the proper way of the world, and the restoration of racial struggle restores it.

    Fascism was an ideology that was and is genuinely believed, and considered a positive understanding of the nature of the world by the people who believe it. Which we see in Davros’s congratulations to the Doctor.

  • guest

    I thought it was a lot of fun. I was sceptical of the Master as a woman to begin with, especially with the actress they chose as she’s mainly a comedy actress, but Missy is really growing on me. I agree Davros’ scenes were surprisingly moving, even though it was clearly a trap. I thought it was interesting that the Daleks care for him too- are they capable of love?
    I have a secret theory that the hybrid between ‘two great warrior races’ will be a human-timelord combo. You heard it here first, folks!