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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Doctor Who S35E2: The Witch's Familiar.

Doctor Who
Series 35, Episode 2
The Witch's Familiar

You know, there were points in this episode where I almost managed to forget that Steven Moffat was writing it. That's really the highest praise I can give a Moffat-penned episode, when you think about it: 'It was so okay, I actually sometimes managed to fool myself into thinking a competent writer had worked on it.' 

It's also a considerable achievement when you consider how many staples of Moffat-era Who this two-parter has had: The Doctor is going to die but is putting on a brave face, check. Ominous Doctor-related happenings across time and space to hammer in how Very Important the Doctor is, check. Series lore adjusted and built upon in a way that doesn't really add anything but does just make things more convoluted, because Moffat is snivelingly desperate to leave his mark on the franchise, check. Excellent Murray Gold soundtrack, check, quite glad about that one, not that it wasn't also a feature of Davies-era Who. Other characters rambling about how great the Doctor is, at interminable length, check. 

It's all there, nearly the whole gang, all we need is a monster against whom you must suppress a natural impulse and a monster with a recurring catchphra - oh. Oh. Well, to be fair, that one, at least, was out of Moffat's hands.

But it's a competently written episode. An episode that, dare I jinx my luck with this series by saying it about two episodes in a row, I actually quite enjoyed. I had fun. I liked it. It's a very liberating feeling: I don't foresee it lasting.

Oh, hey, the Special Weapons Dalek, one of my favourite Dalek designs, absolutely wasted here.

In this week's episode, the conclusion of the two-parter started with The Magician's Apprentice, the Doctor, believing Clara to be dead, is tempted by Davros towards committing genocide against the Daleks. Meanwhile, Missy and Clara infiltrate the Dalek city to reach the Doctor - a journey which will take them deep into the sewers beneath the city, where old Daleks go to rot away, and force Clara to occupy one of the Dalek's own mechanical frames.

Much of what makes this episode good is the interaction between Missy and Clara. Missy's probably the funnest character to come out of Moffat's writing, and nearly every line she says, especially when she's working with a protagonist instead of being actively antagonistic, is a joy. While Jenna Coleman was able to hold her own pretty well with Michelle Gomez in the first episode of this two-parter, she starts to fade a bit into the background, as Gomez chews on the scenery (in delightful fashion, I love some scenery chewing) with more gumption and vim with every scene. 

Paralleling Missy and Clara's interactions are those of the Doctor and Davros, and to be honest, those are pretty good. Moffat loves to play the 'the Doctor is an old man' card for pathos wherever possible, but in the scenes between these two, it actually works pretty well: They genuinely feel like two old men, who in their warring have sort of become friends, reminiscing and talking as one of them dies. It's actually pretty touching, and in a way, the episode might have worked better if it hadn't all been a cunning ruse on Davros' part, if it had all been genuine and he'd either actually died or had been dragged back from death and forced to continue living by the Supreme Dalek.

It's a very nice shot, I'll give it that.

Not least because 'Davros actually betrays the Doctor' would have been pretty easy to see coming - 'Davros is actually entirely genuine and gets betrayed by his own wayward children, shattering the peace between him and the Doctor and forcing them back into being enemies' is more compelling, gives the character more depth (which I think works better if you're going to end it on a 'and the Doctor goes back and saves tiny!Davros' note), and is quite sad, rather than totally expected.

Which isn't to say I hated the plot we were given. I didn't - predictable as it was, I quite liked it, it had more than a few nice moments, and it was generally handled quite deftly. It's also one that hammers in how lucky Moffat is to have good actors: In less skilled hands, the lines he's written would feel corny, fake, and droll - Gomez, Bleach, Capaldi and Coleman are what make those lines work.

Here's a better shot of the Special Weapons Dalek going utterly to waste.

On a technical level, this episode also does well. Skaro feels sufficiently alien, and lord knows that we don't have enough alien worlds on Doctor Who. The soundtrack is astounding, as Gold's soundtracks always are. The cinematography is good, the special effects are - pretty much standard for Doctor Who. All the boxes ticked there.

So, bizarrely, bafflingly, I enjoyed not just this episode but both parts of the series opener. I know, I'm shocked as well, it's a shocking thing. I would love it if this is a trend that continues for the entire series, but I'm not willing to hold out hope just yet. One interesting change is that this series seems to be composed entirely of two-parters, which I'm a little nervous about, but could turn out quite well! Or terribly. We'll see. 

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