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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

DOCTOR WHO Not So "Familiar," But Great

Article originally published as TV Review: 'Doctor Who' - 'The Witch's Familiar' on Blogcritics.

BBC’s Doctor Who concluded its two-part season opener this weekend with “The Witch’s Familiar.” The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is trapped in the heart of the Dalek home world, alone and without hope, especially after a hilarious failed escape attempt. Luckily, his friends aren’t as dead as he believes and are on their way to rescue him. He does need rescue, too, since his heart-to-heart with an old enemy doesn’t have the result it seems to.

The best part of “The Witch’s Familiar” is the interchange between The Doctor and Davros (Julian Bleach). Very old enemies who have fought war and seen genocide together, it seems their connection isn’t all negative in Davros’ final moments of life. They have shared something deep, and there are bound to be mixed emotions in that moment. Davros calls for The Doctor from his death bed and The Doctor, despite millennia of animosity, comes. That means something.

This scene becomes a teary goodbye in which Davros echoes The Doctor’s own question that he struggles with last season, “Am I a good man?” The Doctor can’t exactly say Davros is, nor does he, because Davros created a deadly race that exterminates people; he’s Hitler times a billion. But The Doctor gives him a sympathetic ear and proclaims “We’re on the same side now.” This illustrates The Doctor’s huge capacity for mercy and his dedication to all life, something he passes on in a small way to the Daleks, and he’s not able to kill his enemy when he has the chance.

Of course, Davros is just as evil as everyone thinks he is. There is no last minute turn of the heart, as it appears. This is a trap in which he steals some of The Doctor’s regeneration powers and renews his own life. When this twist comes about, it does feel surprising because Doctor Who has done such a good job in making Davros seem repentant. But it’s surprising that it surprises because the Daleks have always been The Doctor’s most clever and deadly enemy, so as soon as the initial shock wears off, this elicits an “Of course, it’s a trick!” Really, the whole thing is superior storytelling, playing on both emotions and expectations, and making use of a long history in order for a fantastic pay off.

In the meantime, Missy (Michelle Gomez) is able to explain to Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) how they’ve escaped what appears to be certain death (and the TARDIS is fine, too), negating the punch of the triple-homicide near the close of the previous episode. Missy then leads Clara through the sewers, where we learn something new about the Daleks, then traps The Doctor’s companion in a Dalek machine so they can break in. It’s a plan that works, but at what expense?

The way Missy continually plays Clara in “The Witch’s Familiar” is different from the way Davros manipulates The Doctor because Missy doesn’t commit to the her new leaf fully. Sure, she calls Clara clever, but she never ceases to taunt Clara or treat her as a lesser. Clara isn’t able to avoid Missy’s trap, but Missy is a lot, lot older and smarter than Clara, and really, being tricked by a Time Lord is nothing to be ashamed of. Missy’s actions just reinforce the fact that she can never be trusted.

The Doctor is furious with Missy when he sees what’s been done to Clara, and tells her to run. The Doctor’s relationship with Missy, like his with Davros, is mostly one of rivalry, but it’s interesting how The Doctor relates to his foes in these two installments. Missy is a more complex character, being one of The Doctor’s own people and not actively committing genocide, even if she cares little or none for others. The Doctor doesn’t feel the need to battle her unless she’s actively working to do harm. In this case, Missy messes with the wrong girl, but The Doctor allows her to leave and will probably cool down over time.

The Doctor manages to get Clara out of the Dalek, but this is a huge disappointment. I’m ready to be done with Clara, anyway, and this seems like such a perfect way to be rid of her. When Clara first meets The Doctor, before we even know her name, she does so from inside a Dalek. Now, with the way the timey-wimey nature of the show works, this might not be how Clara ends up, but it would be perfect symmetry if it is. Though, it occurs to me that perhaps Clara is still inside the Dalek, since Clara isn’t actually shown getting out, and whatever we witness at the end of “The Witch’s Familiar” with her running alongside The Doctor is a trick. One can only hope that will be a reveal in a future episode, the sooner the better.

DW902I am super impressed and confused that The Doctor has traded in a sonic screwdriver for sonic sunglasses. The look Capaldi’s Doctor is sporting this year, the t-shirt with the stripped pants, makes him look like an aging rock star (an apt metaphor for the character at this point), and the sunglasses add nicely to that persona. They don’t seem as convenient as the screwdriver, such as when he puts them on in Davros’ dark chamber, but they’re usually less obvious to use. It’s something completely new for Doctor Who, and after fifty years, such big changes are few and far between, and very welcome.

My only complaint about “The Witch’s Familiar” is that the sound mixing seems very off. It is incredibly hard to understand Davros, and Missy and Clara’s conversations in the sewer get drowned out a lot, too. I don’t know if it is just BBC America’s broadcast of the episode or what, but it is difficult to follow the story in places. I don’t recall this happening before, and hopefully this will not continue in other episodes.

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.

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