Doctor Who Review: The Witch’s Familiar

“We’re Time Lords, not animals. Try, nanobrain, to rise above the reproductive frenzy of your noisy little food chain and contemplate friendship. A friendship older than your civilisation and infinitely more complex.”

Doctor Who

Stop all the clocks and hold the press. It is a momentous occasion, Constant Reader: I actually like something that Stephen Moffat has written.

Despite being a follow-up to the crashingly boring Magician’s Apprentice, The Witch’s Familiar was…actually deeply satisfying.

Partly, I think, this is because Familiar is in many ways Apprentice‘s opposite. Clara and Missy have, of course, escaped the Daleks, using the kind of clever-stupid plan that Doctor Who writers tend to conjure up out of thin air at a moment’s notice, and now they are on their way back into the city of the Daleks, to rescue the Doctor from the clutches of Davros. Or, alternatively, just because they can. Meanwhile, the Doctor, bereaved of his friends (or so he thinks), nicks Davros’ special life-support chair and threatens to wreak havoc.

Spoiler: he doesn’t manage it.

As I noted last week, Doctor Who under Moffat’s guiding hand is obsessed with its own past. Its constant, occasionally crushing awareness of that past means that every episode is essentially asking the same self-referential question: what is Doctor Who? What is this thing, this ridiculous cultural phenomenon rooted in a very bad sixties television show about a grumpy old man in a box?

The Witch’s Familiar comes to a very simple conclusion on this: Doctor Who is a story – a collection of stories – about humanity.

Matthew Kilburn over at The Event Library suggests that Missy in these episodes is a kind of metafictional Narrator who tells and orchestrates the action (see also Lloyd in The New Albion Radio Hour), and I actually like that idea very much. For a start, I am a sucker for any metafictional theory. But I also feel that the idea that Missy is metafictionally trying to change the shape of the Doctor’s story fits very well with Stephen Moffat’s project, which is trying to determine what the Doctor’s story actually is.

The Witch’s Familiar is an episode which replaces the deconstructionist chaos of The Magician’s Apprentice with some familiar (if you’ll pardon the pun) polarities. By the end of Familiar, the Doctor and Davros are restored to their usual positions in the series: arch-enemies, one always already dying, the other always already running, one cooking up evil plans which are inevitably foiled at the last minute, the other always achieving a partial and negotiated victory. (“I meant that to happen all along,” says the Doctor of a nearly-disastrous redistribution of regeneration energy. Do any of us ever believe him?) Missy and the Doctor, too, become, after a brief and disorienting period of alliance (remember the Doctor’s “Missy, no!” of Apprentice?), enemies once again. And the final scenes of the episode see a very typical triumph for the Doctor: rescuing the child Davros from a war, because mercy at this crucial juncture will save lives later on. It is a small gesture; it is, perhaps, a partly futile one; but it is also a triumph for the disempowered, the weak, the trodden-on.

Back, then, to the Metafictional Missy. If the episode’s natural tendency is to return to Doctor Who’s traditional polarities, then it still has to contend with the anarchic energies of a woman who was once a man, a woman who is both protagonist and antagonist, a woman who can direct the very score of the episode and still lose out to the plot. (It occurs to me that the fact that she does lose is typical of Moffat’s treatment of powerful, flirtatious women in general *cough*Irene Adler*cough*. This is a pity, because otherwise this is a great episode.) Missy is jealous of the Doctor’s obvious regard for Clara (because empowered women are at heart all jealous and evil and I’m not going to let go of this, you know) despite Clara’s weakness – despite her humanity. That is, Missy is jealous of the fact that Doctor Who is a story about humans and not a story about Time Lords (or Time Ladies). This is why, of course, she tries to kill Clara, or, rather, to have the Doctor kill her. Ironically, though, her attempts to get Clara killed, to remove humanity from the Doctor’s story, only points the role of the human up further: the Doctor’s desire for revenge on the Dalek who he thinks killed Clara is very human indeed (at least by Missy’s standards; last episode she was reviling humans for being all biological and emotional and incapable of forming intellectual friendship bonds). And, of course, it’s Missy’s trapping of Clara inside the Dalek that sets in motion the Doctor’s very human rescue of the child Davros from the minefield, restoring the episode’s Whovian balance.

The point is, I suppose, that the episode reaches those emotional triumphs (regenerating Davros, even if it was in trickery; having the forgotten, angry Daleks destroy the healthy ones) despite everyone’s best efforts to the contrary: despite Davros’ and Missy’s efforts to make this a story of gods dealing death and destruction to those brief mortals below. It’s a story about the inertia of Doctor Who; a story that reveals that Doctor Who was never a story about Time Lords or evil geniuses. It was always (always and forever) a story about us, and it could never be or have been anything else.

Until next week, of course.

6 thoughts on “Doctor Who Review: The Witch’s Familiar

    1. Thanks! Michelle Gomez’s performance is great – but I hate, hate, hate the way the show treats her.

      And yeah. I think Moffat only actually knows how to write three characters: the Sociopathic Genius, the Scary Transgressive Villainess, and Everyone Else.

      Liked by 1 person

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