Review: Doctor Who – 9.2 – ‘The Witch’s Familiar’

I still have precisely zero idea what this episode’s title is about. But who cares! I watched it in one take with WIFI in Spain! Rejoice! I honestly thought that it was more likely that the TARDIS would materialise in my living room.

So…as a sequel, where do we stand? Am I bothered that I nearly burst a ventricle praying it would work as a conclusion to the opening gambit of season 9? As the kids say, ‘meh, it wasn’t worth it’.

As you’ll remember last week, I was an excited puppy, even going so far as to renounce my sins and confess that I had been wrong to question if there could be life after Matt Smith.

Yet, while ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ confirms that yes, the well has not dried up, it’s now producing a flavour of water that won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Whoever said that Capaldi’s era would be more like old Who was a master of understatement: there is something very macabre and almost joyless at the heart of this new direction. The combination of ‘Death in Heaven’, with the dead coming back to the life and the resurrection of a mechanised Danny Pink, and the now casual display of a writhing, dethroned Davros makes it feel like the show has become too horror-honed. They go beyond the usual fantastical elements and focus on a realism that is very out of a place, a bit too close to the bone.

The implication and perhaps the unintended knock-on effect of this is that The Doctor, and not just his enemies, is exposed as a right bastard. Wit is tactlessly thrown around about the horrors he is witnessing and the change of tone in the show makes The Doctor’s past deeds seem spectacularly evil. That Davros has to tell him that he can commit genocide, then and there, without it being in war, is a clear effort to merge the continuity of the character doing just that at the end of the ‘Day of the Doctor’. What was then viewed as heroism is now remembered as a diabolical exercise callously executed by a detached alien. Capaldi is just a grump, the show is now too serious and the impact is to make his immediate predecessors feel more fun. The reverse of that is if their Doctor’s were having fun in a portrayal that is more serious, they seem callous. Wibbly-wobbly.

Of the plot? Predictable. The casual discussions with Davros, on genocide to life and redemption, were the best part, but not enough to give hope that the show will live much longer. It was all a bit standard. We’ve seen Daleks, we’ve seen Davros, we’ve seen the Doctor’s quirkiness in a range of sonic devices all before. We’ve seen the TARDIS destroyed, we’ve seen The Master return before, we’ve seen the Doctor defeat his enemies with cunning before and we’ve seen allusions to future plot points (here Dalek-Timelord hybrids) before. Jenna Coleman is leaving, so of course we know the fact that Missy brought her and the Doctor together will need to be resolved. All done before.

There is an unavoidable feeling that the show has deliberately sidestepped the fun of it’s new-Who incarnation and become the monotonous, serious, technobabble focussed realism that doomed the original series by the time of Sylvester McCoy. He too intimated that he was more than just another Timelord, he too was more conventional than frilly scarves. He also schemed, he too dark and he ultimately holds the distinction of not being a bad Doctor, but the one that yielded to the public’s boredom with the show.

This week there were moments of gold though. Michelle Gomez remains outstanding and Julian Bleach put in what, in any fair world, should be considered a BAFTA-winning performance. All the cast are good, but it’s too late and too little to save it.

Davros was spectacular and the ‘redemption’ was thoughtful and believable and full of moments that really did inject humanity into the monster – surely a better end and twist than the clichéd trap and regeneration energy harvesting that we got (we’ve had that continually since Steven Moffat took over almost as much as we’ve had the continued suggestion that The Doctor is about to meet his end). Well, this time he might. Even perfect moments like the opening flashback with the perfect use of the Fourth and First Doctor’s likeness, or Missy’s casual statement that she has a daughter, are overshadowed by the recycled wear and tear the show now exhibits. It’s actually very neatly represented by the Doctor’s dishevelled appearance.

Murray Gold’s score is brilliant but it’s not enough to ignite the imagination over the same old tropes, the same old allusions and the intimations about the plot and the Doctor’s character. Last week we had the show off to a cracking start because was eccentric and fun and played to the show’s strengths. It was fun. But the incremental additions and allusions to the Doctor’s past, or if he’ll find Gallifrey, are not enough to buoy our lagging attention. It will need a sharper shock, something truly radical. Killing a small boy and dealing with the implications would have done it (it was already intimated that the Doctor killed the alien harvester in his inaugural ‘Deep Breath’). Walking blithely away from the possibility of killing young Davros, despite the wonderful implications and thoughtfulness behind the whole set-up, was a serious mistake.

Steven Moffat was once revered as the best thing about new-Who. His episodes were enjoyed like a savoury sweet, taken every once in a while but never too often. His work with Matt Smith was an achievement in intricacy all while maintaining a sense of fun for the show. River Song’s arc was majestic.

Yet now, and we can’t blame him for it, the fatigue is showing. Since 2005 we’ve gotten used to the new show and since 2010 we’ve gotten used to the writing style and plot tricks of its executive producer. Simply, it’s all been done before and everyone is getting a bit tired. It was 26 years before the old show was taken off the air for a hiatus; we’re a third of way there, but with four times as much exposure to the show the inevitable might happen quicker than that.

For the sake of the show, Moffat should finish up his tenure when Capaldi elects to leave. It’s healthy in a show that espouses change for that to happen at every level too. After that, take it off the air for a year, maybe two, and make people miss it before it comes back again.

I don’t think Capaldi needs sunglasses, because if this episode is anything to go by the sun’s about to set on the show quicker than expected. I could be wrong of course, there’s always next week and I live in hope that Christmas with River (I hope that’s the title) could be fabulous.

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