‘Doctor Who’ Review: Compassion Is Key In the Emotional ‘The Witch’s Familiar’
Recap and review of Doctor Who – Series 9 Episode 2 – The Witch’s Familiar:
Although he’s barely been around for a season and a half of Doctor Who so far, I’d wager to say Peter Capaldi is fast becoming one of my favorite Doctors of the modern era. And an episode like “The Witch’s Familiar” is the key to why, as this hour exemplifies the qualities of what makes The Doctor who he is.
So last week, I speculated that the confrontation with the young Davros represented The Doctor’s greatest shame, since he was unable to prevent the Daleks from coming into creation, thereby resulting in the deaths of countless innocents. And yet, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is quick to correct that misconception, outright telling the father of the Daleks, “I didn’t come here because I’m ashamed – a bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came here because you’re sick, and you asked.” This statement more or less represents the ideals of The Doctor, an approach that is as intrinsic to who he is as the TARDIS itself: The Doctor will help anybody, friend or foe. All they have to do is ask.
This is never more evident than through his repeated attempts to help Missy (Michelle Gomez), despite their long and storied rivalry. Yes, Missy is alive (were there every any doubts?), and yet — well, she’s still the same Missy. Even with The Doctor doing his damndest to help her, and find Clara (Jenna Coleman) in the process, Missy hinders him by insisting that she witnessed Clara getting killed by a Dalek. We all know good and well that Clara is alive, but The Doctor has his doubts, even after a Dalek steps forward shouting out the word “Mercy”. This is a word that shouldn’t even be in the Dalek vocabulary, yet The Doctor struggles to even consider that the being inside the Dalek might be Clara. And yet, The Doctor’s compassion (his Hippocratic Oath, of sorts), keeps him from just blasting the Clara-Dalek to pieces, just as it prevented him from killing the young Davros, and just as it stopped his predecessor, The 4th Doctor, from wiping out the species in “Genesis of the Daleks”. The Clara-Dalek was asking for help, and The Doctor heeded the call. And, as this approach usually does, it paid off in spades. Clara is alive and well, and the Daleks face their own possible destruction.
Of course, The Doctor is absolutely livid with Missy for nearly forcing him to kill his friend, but that plot is left on a cliffhanger, as Missy escapes, and then encounters a group of Daleks, at which point she gets “a very clever idea.” Once again, Missy is the dark mirror to The Doctor, as she lacks compassion altogether, instead serving as an agent of chaos in a universe that’s already fairly chaotic even without her. I mean, look at the Daleks, for crying out loud! We learn that their word for “sewer” is the same word for “graveyard,” which tells us all we need to know about the horrors of what happens to dead Daleks, as the vile goo that pollutes the sewers is “ever so slightly alive,” according to Missy. As it turns out, even in death, a Dalek is “genetically hardwired to keep on living, whatever happens.” It compounds the tragedy of the Daleks’ existence, and further comments upon the horrors Davros has perpetrated in creating this species in the first place. And yet, the big twist in the episode is that, even when hardwired to exterminate and to keep on living no matter what, a Dalek is still capable of compassion, because The Doctor showed it to a young boy so many years ago. Showing mercy to the young Davros and instilling in the boy the lesson that friends and enemies are insignificant against the larger concept of mercy itself.
“Which side are you on? Are you the enemy?” the boy asks.
“I’m not sure that any of that matters. Friends, enemies. So long as there’s mercy. Always mercy,” The Doctor responds.
It’s a poignant lesson, and one that goes on to be the reason the day is won, since the concept of mercy ended up being encoded into the Dalek DNA. The way the scene plays out goes back to my earlier statement about loving Capaldi’s take on The Doctor. Yes, he has the same compassionate aspects as the previous Doctors before him, and he’s arguably just as strange as any of them, if not stranger. But Capaldi’s Doctor has this weary, haggard, weathered disposition. He’s seen countless atrocities, to such an extent that I don’t think anyone would blame him for being a darker character than he is. But even when it would be easier to just blast his enemy away, The Doctor remains on the just path. Capaldi does an outstanding job of communicating this inner struggle without saying a word. Just his facial expressions illustrate a man who’s at constant odds with himself and his own mission statement. This is a Doctor who probably wishes he could just be the bad man, the renegade who can take the easier road, and not have to show compassion to every single enemy he faces. But the fact that he still does exemplifies The Doctor’s best qualities. He could be a bad man, but he chooses not to be. And he’ll always choose not to be, because he’s The Doctor.
Naturally, there are still some mysteries surrounding “The Witch’s Familiar”, such as what Missy is planning, or if the sonic screwdriver is really going to be replaced by sonic sunglasses, or the much larger question of what’s on the Doctor’s Confession Dial, and what Davros meant when he implied there was a Dalek/Time Lord hybrid. But this series looks to be more serialized than series past, so I’m guessing we’ll get those answers as we move forward. As for now, this two-parter was pretty great, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it stitched together as a form of Doctor Who movie. I know in the UK, they’ll be airing this tomorrow night as a movie, although I’m not sure if BBC America will do the same. But it speaks to the overall quality of this two-parter that it’s even an option. I’m very optimistic about this series, and what’s in store for the future.
But what did you think of “The Witch’s Familiar”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Doctor Who, check out our review of last week’s series premiere, “The Magician’s Apprentice”!