Doctor Who Recap: Mercy Mercy Me

Photo : Copyright © Simon Ridgway, 2015 / +44 (0)7973 442527 / / / 16.03.15 Doctor Who Series 9 Block 2. Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC
Doctor Who
Doctor Who
Episode Title
The Witch’s Familiar
Editor’s Rating

Given how rooted in the classic series the first half of this two-parter appeared, the second half feels positively grounded in the new. It’s almost as if Steven Moffat constructed an elaborate bait-and-switch in order to tell a story of pseudo-redemption. Speaking of bait-and-switch, it was unsurprising that Davros had a scheme all along, yet fascinating were the emotive lengths to which he was willing to go in order to perpetrate the ruse. It would be easy to write off all of the little moments Davros shared in this episode, but one must take into account how rarely, if ever, he has tapped into that side of himself. I choose to believe that by and large they were genuine, even if in the service of an evil plot to drain the Doctor’s regenerative energy and create a race of super Daleks. Certainly, it will be difficult to view Davros exactly the same after this story.

Of course Clara and Missy didn’t bite it. It never mattered whether or not the viewer believed they were dead, it only mattered narratively that the Doctor believed it (though he should have known Missy had it all worked out, given the sheer number of times the Master has cheated death), as it gave him a sense of helplessness that Davros exploited. From those opening moments of Clara hanging upside down, it was shocking how dumbed-down the character became since the first half. Here she seems written entirely to play foil to Missy, which isn’t necessarily a terrible chess move on Moffat’s part, as it provided loads of comedy fodder throughout. Clara ended up the punchline for so many Missy gags, this episode should surely rate high with all the Clara-haters (who appear to be legion).

Speaking of comedy, the Doctor ripping Davros out of his chair (albeit offscreen), taking his seat, and pushing the buttons of a horde of Daleks was something we’ve never seen before and will likely never see again. “Admit it: You’ve all had this exact nightmare.” It never occurred to me that Davros might not have any legs, so that was a surprising revelation, and a darkly funny spectacle, what with his torso flailing about. If the chair has a force field around it, how did the Doctor wrestle Davros from it? And where did he get the cuppa? Yet another delight: The Only Other Chair on Skaro, which is surely one of the most slyly hilarious gags Doctor Who has featured in its 50-plus years. Yes, it’s that amusing, and made demonstrably more so by the fact that Davros is the one that cracks the funny. Indeed, as somber as “Apprentice” was, “Familiar” is comical.

It isn’t all laughs, and the real meat of the episode — the scenes between the Doctor and Davros — may be some of the best interplay Steven Moffat has ever written for this series. The back and forth, attempting to understand one another better is the sort of thing that we don’t see often enough. Granted, there are only a handful of villains this could be done with to this effect; certainly the Master is another, and it’d be revelatory to get something along these lines between Capaldi and Gomez at some point in the future. Davros opening his actual eyes was arguably the most striking moment in the entire two-parter. It instantly hit home how effectively the deformity has robbed Davros of any humanity all these years. (Surely I was not alone in being reminded of Luke and Vader at the end of “Jedi”?) Davros asks the Doctor, “Am I a good man?,” which is precisely the same question the Doctor asked Clara after his regeneration in season eight’s “Into the Dalek.”

Ultimately, “The Witch’s Familiar” delves into a fair amount of nonsense in its third act, though nothing that ever truly kills the episode, just leaves viewers scratching their heads. So Davros intends to steal regeneration energy from the Doctor, reinvigorate himself, while at the same time juicing up his Daleks? But the Doctor has other plans involving the Dalek sewers, so essentially he kills Davros’s scheme by drowning the Daleks in their own figurative shit. This is not a solution I suspect anyone saw coming, which is perhaps the best thing that can be said about it. In any case, we saw the regeneration energy seeping into the Daleks, and Davros appeared somewhat reinvigorated. Surely the Daleks gained something from this? And what of the hybrid Time Lord/Dalek that was spoken of? This story isn’t over, and presumably we’ll come back to it at the close of the season.

The entire thing with the Dalek translator, which becomes pivotal, made little sense, particularly as it flies in the face of previous Dalek stories in which humans climbed inside of Dalek casings and had no problems being understood. But even more than that, the Clara I’ve come to know would’ve devised a method of communicating even given the speech impediment. She would (and should) have found a way around this issue. Then we’d have been robbed of the mercy bit, which was the punctuation on the entire two-part affair, but there should have been a smarter way to get there. That said, Clara inside the Dalek took me (and surely you, too) all the way back to Oswin Oswald, the soufflé girl, from “Asylum of the Daleks.” That flourish was surely no accident.

Our cliffhanger last week was answered in the final moments here — the Doctor didn’t execute young Davros, but rather took out the handmines (disappointed, but unsurprised, we didn’t learn more about them) and taught the boy mercy and compassion, though exactly how he did that goes unexplained. Simply taking out those handmines wasn’t enough to teach the boy that, as the boy had no clue as to the significance of this stranger’s every action. There must have been something that occurred between the two after the credits rolled. We must also assume that the Doctor realized he had a very specific role to play in the proceedings, otherwise, why not just take the kid around the universe, teach him wonder and awe, and avert the creation of the Daleks altogether? Well, if you watched “Genesis of the Daleks,” then you know how the Fourth Doctor felt about getting rid of them entirely. The idea of doing that must fill the Doctor with utter dread, as his existence would be an entirely different thing without them. (Having said all of that, have we not heard a Dalek beg for mercy before? Why can I hear it in my head?)

Though I clearly have some narrative issues with this episode, they’re not enough to spoil it. It all makes a Moffat sort of sense, if you know what I mean. The emotion behind the spectacle is so thoroughly satisfying that the gibberish matters not. Ultimately, what made this two-parter work so well is that it was, at its core, a character piece, loaded with brilliant dialogue. It’s about the relationships of these four extraordinary people, and the extraordinary ways they’ve affected one another (perhaps not Clara as much as the other three, which is a shame). Unquestionably, this has set a pretty high standard that the rest of the season now has to live up to.


Odds and ends

  • Losing the magic wand and gaining the magic shades is huge … so huge I refuse to have an opinion on it at this juncture. It’s difficult to imagine the BBC letting go of that iconic bit of marketing in favor of something so mundane, however.
  • Last week commenter belledame took issue with the term “Time Lady,” which Missy got even more mileage out of this week. Is this term, which dates back to the '70s, outdated and possibly even offensive?   
  • We learned nothing more about the confession dial, and likely won’t learn anything substantial about it until the end of the season. Seems it’s this year’s “thing.”
  • Ace bits: “I’m the Doctor — just accept it”; the Doctor and Davros having a good laugh; the retro design of the Dalek city, and particularly those doors and corridors; the adventure Missy recounted to Clara about the Doctor at the top of the episode; vampire monkeys; “A bit of shame never hurt anyone”; the verbal acknowledgement that this was the first onscreen meeting of Davros and the Master.
  • The gimmick that brought the TARDIS back together, the Hostile Action Displacement System, was first introduced in the Patrick Troughton story, “The Krotons.” It was more recently used in the Matt Smith story “Cold War.”
  • Who’s the witch and who’s the familiar? I’m going the literal route on this one: Davros is the witch (his face is identical to a classic Halloween witch) and Colony Sarff is the familiar (which is basically his function in this two-parter). Others might say Missy and Clara respectively, but I’m not sure I see it.
  • Naff bits: The pointed stick; where did the Master get the rope?; The failure to show the true genesis of the deformed Davros (ala Anakin / Vader / “Sith”); Capaldi running his hand through Dalek shit.
  • Again, massive props to BBC America for all the classic Doctor Who they’re showing right now. Every Tom Baker story they’ve played has been a brilliant offering on some level. “City of Death” was written by Douglas Adams, is shot in Paris, guest stars Julian Glover as the villain, and features a John Cleese cameo. It’s also possibly the greatest Doctor Who story ever made. “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis,” Baker’s final two stories which reintroduced the Master (Anthony Ainley), are a cerebral and haunting double feature — utterly unlike anything the modern series could or would ever even attempt to create. Watch these tales. Watch every story they air!