Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar Review

Normally it would probably take forever for me to write a review about a Doctor Who episode, a situation not helped at all by the fact that I’m still unsure how to tackle reviews for the series due to my busy schedule. After having watched the first two episodes of Series 9 – the first two-parter in a long while – however, I couldn’t but dedicate an entire article to review, if not for the simple reason that The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar actually serve as a pretty good sequel to the best Davros/Dalek story ever, Genesis of the Daleks. Spoilers!

dw witch's familiar promo 2

Synopsis

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) finds a boy in an battlefield he is ready to save until he decides to abandon him to his fate when he discovers it to be a young Davros. Across different parts of the universe, Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell) searches for the Doctor for his employer Davros (Julian Bleach), who is at the end of his life and remembers his childhood encounter with his nemesis. Back on Earth, Clara (Jenna Coleman) is contacted by Missy (Michelle Gomez) – through UNIT – to find the Doctor, having received his confession dial, his last will. The two find the Doctor in Middle-Age Essex and are in turn found by Sarff, who takes them to Davros while the Daleks acquire the TARDIS. Missy and Clara soon escape and discover that they are on the Dalek home world Skaro, later to be vaporised by the Daleks as the Doctor is made to watch on with Davros from his infirmary.

Both have, in reality, survived thanks to the same bit of trickery on Missy’s part that saved her last time. They make their way to save the Doctor, going into the Dalek city sewers, which house the remains of generations of Daleks that withered away but could not die. Missy uses Clara for bait and has her take the place of the Dalek mutant they kill for camouflage. In the infirmary, Davros reveals that the machinery keeping him alive is connected to all Daleks, giving him the choice to commit genocide by disconnecting a cable or two. The Doctor hesitates, and he and Davros come to understand each other as Davros reveals his vulnerable side. Ready to help the boy he abandoned on the battlefield see one last sunrise, the Doctor hooks himself up to the machinery and gets his regeneration energy transferred to Davros and the Daleks, everything having been a ruse by Davros. Missy comes in and destroys the machine (and Sarff with it), and the Doctor reveals having known about the trap and gone along with it because his regeneration energy would also go into the Dalek remains in the sewers, giving them enough power to revolt and destroy the city above and the Daleks within. He and Missy escape and find the Dalek housing Clara, which Missy tries to have the Doctor kill in retaliation for Clara’s death. While initially unable to express herself due to the Dalek casing, Clara gets through to the Doctor when it has her expressing mercy. He and Clara flee to safety and the Doctor realises that the Daleks could only have an ingrained concept of mercy if Davros does, and thus goes back to the battlefield and saves the boy.

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

The Doctor and Davros

That bit of extra cheer from last Christmas seems to linger on as Capaldi gets the chance to make the Doctor fun again. His big entrance in The Magician’s Apprentice is pure gold, making good use of Capaldi’s guitar skills while perfectly capturing the Doctor in party mode. Even when faced with the probability of Clara’s death, he manages to make a couple of great jokes, with one my new favourite Doctor moments being his quip about himself in Davros’s chair being the stuff of Dalek nightmares. That is not to say that he loses any of the intensity shown in the previous series, as we see a more poignant side to him when talking with Davros and a fiercer side when facing the Daleks and the young boy in the battlefield. As Davros tries to dig into the heart of the Time Lord, viewers also seemingly get their mysteries for Series 9: what is his last confession, and why did he leave Gallifrey? Where did he get that cup of tea?

“Admit it. We’ve all had this exact nightmare.”
(Copyright BBC)

The main highlight of the episode is, in fact, the Doctor’s interaction and conversation with his arch nemesis. The Witch’s Familiar takes the time to show them as opposites playing off each other, leading to their heartfelt understanding of one another; the Doctor will continue to be compassionate whatever the price, while Davros seeks the survival of his children, whatever the uncompromising ways of the universe make necessary for this survival. The tears and laughs – a first for the character – may be false, but the main question he asks the Doctor – the same one that plagued him throughout the last series – is a genuine one: is he a good man? His subsequent behaviour makes it clear that he does believe he is a good man, his experiences having rather twisted his definition of good rather than his perceived alignment. Even his reaction to the revelation that Gallifrey exists could, at some level, be genuine, as the Doctor, much like himself, is at a crossroads about the survival of his people.

Here can’t but applaud the brilliant portrayal of Capaldi’s opposite, Julian Bleach, who has much better material to work with here than the mad scientist rants in Journey’s End (which, to Bleach’s credit, he still did very well). Not only does he take Davros through the usual motions of a cerebral battle with the Doctor, but also manages to imbue the character with such humanity – no small feat from under those prosthetics – that viewers are left with the impression that some of it must be genuine despite the mask he puts on to lure his nemesis into his trap. With a return to form by the end of The Witch’s Familiar, hopefully Bleach’s Davros can survive to plague the Doctor another day.

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

A Sequel Done Right?

The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar also feature a number of nods to the wider continuity of Doctor Who. Colony Sarff’s tour around the universe brings viewers back to the Maldovarium (not seen since its owner lost his head in A Good Man Goes to War and featuring a variety of previously-seen alien races), The Shadow Proclamation (from the Russell T Davies era) and Karn (last seen in The Night of the Doctor). The design of Skaro looks straight out of 1960s, thankfully still looking suitably shiny and new with the appropriate budget allotted to its realisation. The Daleks themselves have models from across their history, including the original from The Daleks (their first in-canon colour appearance), the Emperor Dalek’s personal guard from The Evil of the Daleks (another colour appearance first), the fan-favourite Special Weapons Dalek from Remembrance of the Daleks (who actually gets to speak for the first time) and newer models from the series revival. It’s a shame the New Paradigm Daleks introduced in Victory of the Daleks are excluded, especially after they got a better-looking coat of paint and got upgraded to the officer class of the bronze Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks, but I digress.

We also get quite a bit of new additions, including the Handmines, confirmation that Skaro does have another chair, Davros’s new head of security Colony Sarff – a brilliant creation – and the Doctor abandoning his screwdriver in favour of a pair of sonic sunglasses – which I’m admittedly less keen about. Much like Dalek-focussed series opener Asylum of the Daleks before it, The Witch’s Familiar also shows us more of the Doctor’s most hated enemies. They have perfected the art of survival such that even when utterly withered away by age, their bodies and consciousness cannot die and so are buried in Dalek city sewers. Perhaps even sadder is the fact that we also learn that their casing doesn’t allow them to express themselves beyond the parameters of traditional Dalek thinking, no matter how much the occupant would wish otherwise.

The greatest link to continuity is, of course, the fact that he two-parter also serves as a rather good sequel to Genesis of the Daleks. Much like that episode, Doctor and Davros clash on the ethical implications of the latter’s creations, while we and the Doctor observe and learn more about how Davros comes to view his children and how much they take after him.

More importantly, Davros – and Steven Moffat for sure – went through some classic Doctor Who DVDs to show the Doctor their previous exchanges, stopping with the ethical dilemma posed to the Doctor in Genesis: “Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?” In that episode the Doctor’s decision is about the Daleks as a species and comes full circle here as the Doctor faces the decision more literally when confronted with the young Davros and the possibility that his existence and eventual corruption is on him.

While the Fourth Doctor takes his failure to keep the Daleks from existing somewhat lightly in the belief that some good would still come out of their evil, it is here that he truly discovers the positive ramifications of such a course of action when dealing with Davros. With Missy’s machinations the Doctor would kill Clara trapped in a Dalek body were it not for their ability to understand the concept of mercy. (The whole situation is also a smart subversion of the birth of the Daleks in Genesis, in which they have no concept of pity in their vocabulary bank when Davros asks it of them.) The Doctor comes to realise that despite what he would become, Davros’s encounter with the Doctor as a boy is the event that ingrained in him and his creations the ‘flaw’ that would allow him to save Clara. No matter how much Davros can joke about it, that makes our favourite Time Lord a good doctor indeed.

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

Clara, Missy and the Doctor

Outside of this juicier core of the two episodes, we get the fun ride that is pairing up Missy and Clara (the eponymous witch’s familiar to the Davros being the magician Doctor’s apprentice). Their initial encounter is understandably wrought with tension as Missy kills agents just to remind Clara she is “not good“, things take an interesting turn once Missy responds to Clara’s pretensions of being the Doctor’s friend when she sees the his confession dial. Missy berates Clara for insinuating she shares anything like human love with the Doctor and proudly gloats that what she shares with him is friendship beyond human understanding. When they find the Doctor, however, his (platonic) affections seem to be reserved strictly for Clara, while egging the audience on to hiss at the “wicked stepmother”. Despite the Doctor still trusting Missy enough to give her a hint to escape and Missy and Clara being forced to work together to save their common friend, Missy never really sees Clara as anything other than her play-thing.

Michelle Gomez keeps bringing a certain fun to the character you – and, one suspects, Clara – can’t but enjoy as she merrily hops about and playfully pokes Davros in the eye for the Doctor referring to him as his arch nemesis in her stead (also their first encounter ever). The subsequent team-up may, in fact, be played up for laughs throughout The Witch’s Familiar, but it doesn’t take too long to delve into some rather disturbing territory. Missy blatantly makes Clara out to be to the canary to her miner, uses her as bait for a Dalek and makes her go through the experience of being in the same Dalek. On this last point I can’t but mention that Clara’s time in the Dalek casing is portrayed as unsettling enough without long-time viewers realising that it reflects the fate of Clara’s echo Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks. Not only does this material feed in to the main narrative and reveal more about how the Daleks work and how they cannot go beyond the parameters of their mechanical existence, but it also reminds viewers of how dangerous Missy can be. She makes Clara go through all that and is ready stab her in the back by offering her to the other Daleks or even have the Doctor himself kill her. Indeed, if Death in Heaven is the The Killing Joke of Doctor Who, this could easily be as close as the series comes to Death of the Family, with Missy ready to bump off the Doctor’s companions because she views her relationship with him as superior and wants him for herself. With Missy left surrounded by Daleks with “an idea”, this could lead to some intriguing possibilities for the rest of the Series.

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

Conclusion

The Magician’s Apprentice/Witch’s Familiar two-parter is a great opening for the new Series with great writing, brilliant acting and making excellent use of the two-episode structure to give the story the time to breathe and be more character-driven. The story itself proves to be a good love letter and sequel to the fan-favourite Genesis of the Daleks, bringing back its main ethical dilemma with more force and resolving it well enough, while also presenting a welcome return to form for Davros and his creations. Certain nods to the thematic beats of the episode and its place in the wider series continuity could be to on the nose for long-time viewers, but could be just what newcomers need.

Beyond that, there’s some great material with the Doctor, Missy and Clara which leaves the doors wide open to further possibilities for Series 9 and beyond. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea of replacing the sonic screwdriver with a pair of sunglasses, but we’ll see what writers can make of the situation.

And on that note, I leave you with this fun little but of Series 9 promotion I can’t help but share:

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

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