Saturday, 26 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Witch's Familiar

"So... anyone for dodgems?"

Wow. That was unbelievably good, and indisputably the first truly epic Dalek story of the twenty-first century. I suppose I still have concerns about how the general viewer is going to react to a direct sequel to a story from 1975 but, dammit, this is one exquisitely written, made and acted work of art. The Moff has done it again, and as for Julian Bleach's extraordinary performance... there are no words.

We begin with a delightfully metatextual sequence. We all know (er, in spite of what I said last week) that Missy and Clara are not really dead, so we begin with them, after a nifty bit of upside down camerawork from Clara's POV. Missy has control of the tied-up Clara, which symbolises the fact (see the title) that she has control of the narrative, particularly here but also throughout: Missy is a character not limited by the rules of the text, and delights in finding holes in Moffat's plot. She is also, of course, a delightful unreliable narrator. Oh, and Michelle Gomez? Best. Master. Ever.

The Doctor, by contrast, doesn't have control of the narrative, as Missy does: the scene at the end where Missy almost tricks him into killing Clara is mostly there to emphasise that. He doesn't know, as we, the audience, know, that Clara is alive, and duly pulls a gun on the Daleks in a clear shout-out to Resurrection of the Daleks. He still gets to be cool, though. That's what all the fun with Davros' chair is there for. Personally, I love the cup of tea.

Oh, and I love the questioning of whether or not the Doctor ever uses weapons. I know I always bang on about it, but this whole thing with his never using them as a matter of principle is quite recent. Pertwee used to shoot Ogrons all the time. Go back and look. It's simply that he refuses to carry one himself. All the cool people do.

It's a delight to see the peerless imagination of Steven Moffat let loose on the planet Skaro, so much described in all those weird '70s Dalek books and annuals. His contribution- elderly Daleks that can't die of old age but that simply ooze angrily in the sewers- is ├╝ber cool. It is also, of course, a nicely placed plot point, like Raymond Chandler's revolver.

That's not the coolest thing he does with Skaro, though. That would be Davros' line about the effort he went to in order to get the Doctor "the only other chair on Skaro". Metatextual, again. I'm loving this.

The best thing about the episode, though, and where it is an exact thematic sequel to Genesis of the Daleks, is the whole extraordinary conversation between Davros and the Doctor, in which each word is loaded with weight and significance. It begins with Davros explaining that the cables are in fact a conduit for the Daleks, motivated by a filial respect which Davros calls a "defect", to nourish Davros with part of their life force. This process could be reversed to drain energy from the Daleks: once again the Doctor is handed the option of genocide: this couldn't be a more blatant reference. Once again, of course, he doesn't directly take it while, quietly, also masterminding their being hoist into extinction by their own metaphorical petard. The ethical distinction is important to him.

(And yes, I know the Daleks will be back, but my point still stands.)

Meanwhile, Missy and Clara are escaping by means of Clara homaging Ian in The Daleks, except here we have 50 years of Dalek behaviour thematically distilled through the device of having the Dalek change the words Clara says. Firstly, having Clara inside a Dalek in this way can only be a deliberate bit of body horror in harking back to Asylum of the Daleks and poor Oswin. Secondly, as explained by Missy (mistress of the narrative, remember?): while Cybermen repress their emotions utterly, the Daleks don't. They are very emotional indeed. And they channel that emotion into hate. And their guns.

But the more interesting stuff is still on that cosy chat between Davros and the Doctor. I'm not sure that stuff about why the Doctor really left Gallifrey really works, especially as there is never any real risk of this Dalek-Gallifreyan hybrid actually amounting to anything, but we can explain that as Davros' hubris. That wasn't why he left Gallifrey at all. Still, Davros is right to say that just being "bored" doesn't cut it. Future story arc once Gallifrey is found, perhaps?

More interesting is that Davros is genuinely pleased for the Doctor that Gallifrey survives: for this old racist, no man should be without his ethnic fellows. It's both perversely touching and a significant yet appropriate deepening of Davros' and the Doctor's relationship. Also, Julian Bleach is amaaaaazing.

Oh, and then Moffat goes and deepens the thematic depth (or "semiotic thickness" as we old fans like to say) by having Davros parallel the current Doctor's own "Am I a good man?". I don't care that this is more artful structure than actual thematic depth. It's awfully clever.

Speaking of clever, Davros cleverly uses the Doctor's compassion against him but, of course, the Doctor is cleverer, by means of Raymond Chandler's pistol, which we discussed earlier. But none of this lessens the pathos of the Doctor's concern that the ostensibly dying Davros should live just long enough to see another sunrise. And, if that's not enough, we learn the true context of last episode's cliffhanger: the Doctor goes back to save the young Davros.

Look; I'm prejudiced against "epic" Doctor Who stories. They promise much, and tend to deliver lots of bangs and very little real content. None of my favourite stories are epics.

Until today.

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