It’s relatively minor, I’ll admit, but one of the things I enjoyed about this week’s episode of Doctor Who was that now I don’t have to be so circumspect about what happened in the season premiere. So, spoilers away…
When we last left The Doctor, he was in another very dark place. Trapped on Skaro by his ancient nemesis Davros, with his three closest friends seemingly exterminated before his eyes, he looked truly broken, desparate enough to throw away his greatest rule: the rule of compassion.
And so ended “The Magician’s Apprentice,” a dazzling beginning to Series 9. But this was a two-parter. And we all know how hard it is for the second part to live up to the promise of the first.
Except this time, it was even better.
“The Witch’s Familiar” wastes no time in revealing what we all figured out already. Clara and The Master both survived their apparent deaths, through a bit of trickery that also explained Missy’s surviving the end of Series 8. (Missy relates all of this in a life-of-the-Doctor monologue, played by Michelle Gomez with a nice touch of Roger Delgado flair.)
And so Missy and her new companion (“Every miner needs a canary”) have to figure out how to get through a city full of Daleks to rescue Twelve, using only a pointy stick. As B plots go, this one’s pretty smashing. Gomez and Jenna Coleman build on the chemistry and humor they showed in “The Magician’s Apprentice.” And when Clara gets stuck in a tight place (which invokes both “Into the Dalek” and her debut in “Asylum of the Daleks”), Coleman is at her best.
While all that’s going on, Twelve is busy getting back into that eternal chess match with Davros. And that’s the heart of the episode.
There’s an energy to the scenes between the two that I haven’t seen on Doctor Who in a while. It’s in the script, which is one of Steven Moffat’s cleanest in years. It’s in Hettie MacDonald’s direction, which builds tension on nothing more than two men sharing memories and enmities. And it’s in the acting.
That Peter Capaldi rises to the occasion is no surprise. It’s what he does. But Julian Bleach (returning to the role of Davros for the first time since Series 4) also excels, and matches Capaldi blow for blow. Whether he’s spewing venom at Twelve, or reaching out to his last friend, you cannot take your eyes off him. His Davros is a true Dark Lord of Skaro.
It goes without saying – so of course I’m saying it anyway – that the whole thing is a trap, Davros’s ploy to restore the Dalek empire and his own life, at the cost of The Doctor’s. But since we’re talking about The Doctor, we also know that The Moment Has Been Prepared For. And by giving Davros the new life he lusts for, Twelve has also given him – and pretty much all of Skaro – a horrific comeuppance I’ll not spoil here.
Before too long, Twelve is the Punk Rock Doctor once again. And with a rather snazzy pair of sonic Wayfarers, he restores the TARDIS, rescues Clara from Missy’s Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal, and escapes with his companion. As we all knew he would. (Missy, of course, is left to her fate, but we all know she’ll get out of that one.)
But before they leave, Twelve has one question of mercy left to answer. It’s the same question he asked of himself in “Genesis of the Daleks.” And when he faces young Davros one last time, he answers it the only way he can.
Because no matter what he tells himself, he is – and will always be – The Doctor.
For all its many strengths, the best thing about “The Witch’s Familiar” is how it evokes classic Doctor Who so effectively. It’s not just the plot or the characters or the Special Weapons Dalek. It’s in the way the episode is written and directed and shot, the way the story’s moral issues are handled. This episode has more of the classic DNA than any episode I’ve seen in a while.
If this is what Series 9 is going to be, it’s good to know our future is in safe hands.
And that’s it for this week. Thanks as always for following along – I’ll be back in seven days… ish… for “Under the Lake.”