TV Review: Doctor Who – Series 9 Episode 2: ‘The Witch’s Familiar’

Davros and the Doctor get some of their finest scenes in the thrilling second episode of Doctor Who’s ninth (or thirty-fifth) series, says

★★★★☆

Image: BBC/Simon Ridgway

Image: BBC/Simon Ridgway

Doctor Who has had a rather rough few weeks in the media; the latest series didn’t begin with the greatest of ratings and even the BBC’s own news site said the show was ‘deserted by millions of viewers’. Fortunately, writer and executive producer Steven Moffat crafted am entertaining, thrilling and humourous episode that proved why the show remains one of the BBC’s greatest assets.

Clara upside down and tied to a tree, whilst Missy sharpens a stick, is an ‘interesting’ opening visual for an episode of Doctor Who. The cliffhanger to the previous part is neatly resolved through a flashback to the Doctor performing a similar escape from a weaponised foe, which was an innovative way of explaining their escape. Although, I could have done without another apparent ‘death’ that results in the character quickly returning to life. The classic series (if we still use that term?) threatened its characters with death nearly every week, but Moffat continually presents death as something escapable, which robs the show of any dramatic potential. If there is no threat of death because some dramatic contrivance can just bring them back (see Rory, Amy, Clara, River, the Doctor, that pilot guy from the rubbish Christmas special years ago…), what’s the point?

Anyway, the separation of Doctor and companion allowed Moffat to explore all his characters in finer detail, which provided a uniquely emotional core to a hardened sci-fi programme. The combination of the Doctor/Davros and Clara/Missy gave significant insight into their traits, as both protagonists were forced to work with their most hated enemy.

Despite the incredibly high calibre of acting across the board, Julian Bleach stole the episode with a tour de force performance by Julian Bleach. The viewer instantly forgets there is just a normal actor behind the mask, as he creates a fully believable character. Bleach was truly staggering in the scene of Davros’s attempt to make the Doctor sympathise with his predicament. Even long-term fans, who know how ruthless Davros often is, can begin to question whether he really does just want to see the sunrise on Skaro for one final time; especially as the tears start to flow from his eyes. The sudden switch to the merciless Davros of old was brilliantly scripted and performed. Bleach excellently captured the necessary nuances and subtleties to make the character live up to his reputation. It may be a controversial thing to say, but I think Bleach may have managed to surpass Michael Wisher (the original Davros, from 1975’s classic, Genesis of the Daleks) as the greatest Davros actor.

Hattie MacDonald’s direction was beautifully accomplished. Her style managed to bewitchingly capture Michael Pickwoad’s clever set design that paid a lovely homage to the original ‘60s designs, whilst also keeping the pace of the drama flowing. The image of the Doctor in Davros’s chair was both humourous and gruesome – given what it meant for Davros- which was a moment delicately balanced by the production team.

I’m not certain what non-fans will have thought of this episode, there were many links to the show’s past, but I think there was enough detail explained to keep the casual viewer entertained. Moffat managed to great a thrilling story with an interesting narrative, while often bleak, had a solid emotional centre. Meanwhile, fans of the show will have loved seeing a variety of old Dalek designs and even fleeting glimpses of older Doctors. It appears that Doctor Who is back on form!

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