Doctor Who The Witch’s Familiar review: “Michelle Gomez reminds me of a young Maggie Smith”

Will Missy live? Will Davros die? More five-star thrills from Steven Moffat in emotionally intelligent Doctor Who. Spoilers ahead!

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★★★★★ Last week I said that explanations often bore. Well, sometimes they annoy. After the unconvincing “maximum extermination” of Clara and Missy at the end of the previous episode, Missy does now explain to Clara (and to the audience) how they’ve just evaded death (and how she has pulled it off before). It’s dealt with swiftly with some predictable blather about vortex manipulators, but the digression into some escapade of the Doctor, goofing about on a stone staircase assailed by “50 invisible, indestructible android assassins all programmed to kill him”, is frankly a waste of everyone’s time and reinforces a sense that no one is ever in jeopardy.  

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That is my only gripe with The Witch’s Familiar, which is otherwise a shining example of how to do pared-down Doctor Who while maintaining a grand scale.

The drama unfolds in only a handful of settings and with a minimal cast – a quartet of excellent actors handed protracted dialogue scenes that test their mettle and demand audience attention. It’s also underpinned by emotional intelligence – something Steven Moffat is accomplished at but rarely credited for. 

He depicts the Doctor and Davros as never before: not just the horrible image of Davros’s dethroned, twitching torso and Peter Capaldi living a fan-man’s dream, wheeling about in Davros’s Daleky base (“Admit it,” he tells the Daleks. “You’ve all had this exact nightmare… Anyone for dodgems?”), but as two ancient opponents with so much shared history. 

There’s a palpable sense of their characters reaching back, not just over the 40 years of their TV association, which Capaldi and Moffat know in their bones, but the millennia during which the Doctor and Davros have fought and lost millions of their own kind. Although each is trying to hoodwink the other and has a cunning plan, genuine empathy emerges during their exchanges. 

Davros weeps. Davros laughs. Davros is happy for the Doctor that Gallifrey also survived the Time War. Capaldi and Julian Bleach are superb in these moments. There’s a coup de théâtre when, for the first time, the wizened Davros opens his eyes. We’d always assumed he had none. No one but Steven Moffat would have thought to do this.

The action cuts between these two grim fossils and the unlikely, amusing and, yes, sexy pairing of Missy and Clara. The Time Lady ties the companion upside down, shoves her down a sewer and inside a Dalek casing, taunts her and, because she’s a woman, can patronise Clara in a way that the Doctor never now could. Sometimes Clara is allowed to solve problems by herself but it’s a miracle that Jenna Coleman manages to stop her looking totally stupid. 

Michelle Gomez is screen magic: her angular features, her terpsichorean agility, her precise diction even as the accent jumps from Glaswegian to Texan broad to prim English schoolmarm. She reminds me of a young Maggie Smith, able to make any line funny or stinging at a whim.

The Daleks dazzle in this production; the mishmash of designs (with the notable absence of the loathed 2010 Paradigm Daleks) works beautifully, and Ray Cusick’s 52-year-old Dalek City designs impress, afforded a lot more space and money. If you’ve watched the original serial from 1963 The Daleks, it’s extraordinary to see Capaldi and Gomez walking in those cramped corridors with lopsided arches.

The crux of the piece is the Doctor’s overriding compassion. Davros tells him: “It grows strong and fierce in you like a cancer. It will kill you in the end.” “I wouldn’t die of anything else,” says the Time Lord. Davros believes it’s a weakness; the Doctor realises it’s a strength. 

The resolution reconnects with the end of Genesis of the Daleks and the moment Davros realised his folly as his creations gunned down their kindred Kaleds. To quote from 1975 – Davros: “Let them live. Have pity!” 
Dalek: “Pi–ty? I have no understanding of the word.” In 2015, Steven Moffat eschews the awkward term “pity” and opts for “compassion” and “mercy”. 

Just as I was doubting that the narrative would ever spool back to the boy Davros and the cliffhanger where the Doctor seemed about to kill him… bang, we’re back! And at last, in a small but significant way, the Time Lord does affect the Daleks’ creation.

At this crucial point, he chooses to save the boy and instils into him a life-changing sensitivity: “I’m not sure any of that matters – friends, enemies – so long as there’s mercy. Always mercy.” The child takes the adult’s hand and they walk off into the mists of time. This is grown-up Doctor Who. 

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Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide