Reviews: Doctor Who - Series Nine Episode Two - The Witch's Familiar

Chris Jordan continues his journey with Doctor Who.

"Dude. I just love this color green!"
Doctor Who Series 9 completes its first story arc with The Witch's Familiar: the follow-up to last week's premiere, The Magician's Apprentice. This installment isn't quite as excellent as the first episode, but it isn't too far behind either. A story rooted in the philosophical questions at the show's heart, the Magician/Witch arc gets this series off to a great start, with an even blend of the previous series' strengths and some welcome thematic returns to original Doctor Who's roots. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are both in excellent form, and Steven Moffat's writing is mostly quite strong, only briefly lapsing into his more irritating self-indulgences.

In many ways, this two-parter feels like a spiritual sequel to the Tom Baker-era classic Genesis of the Daleks; not just because there are Daleks involved, but because of the questions that it asks related to the ethics of time-travel, and the ways in which it asks them. The overarching theme of this arc is the slippery, sometimes-nebulous line that separates good and evil people, and the question of whether this distinction is real or artificial. We see this theme explored in the dynamics of two pairs of characters: The Doctor and Dalek-overlord Davros, and Clara and the sociopathic Missy. The interplay between these characters is surprisingly complicated, and frequently occupies the nebulous gray area between conventional norms of good and bad. It asks us to examine the situations from the perspectives of characters we are used to rooting against, and to see them as more than just antagonists.

It is in these moments – quiet conversations that make up the heart of the episode – that The Witch's Familiar is at its best and most compelling. Ideas and philosophical questions are clearly what Moffat is most interested in, and they are where his writing is the strongest. The Doctor and Davros scenes are especially good; indeed, I'm not sure those two have talked for so long and with such depth since Genesis of the Daleks 40 years ago. We also see a bit of a different side of Missy than we did last season, with a subtle shift from villain to antihero. It makes her character a good deal more interesting; I would love to see antihero Missy become a regular part of the TARDIS team, rather than just a foe lurking in the background.

"Sweet. These ARE the droids I was
looking for!"
However, when the episode leaves this philosophical territory and enters the realm of action, that is when the flaws of Moffat's writing occasionally rear their heads. It's fairly clear that the episode is more interested in the former area, and simply requires the action scenes to move events forward and provide exciting set-pieces. The action feels somewhat perfunctory as a result, and there are a couple occasions when Moffat leans too heavily on silly or hastily-explained plot devices to resolve situations that the script honestly doesn't have time for. But this only happens a couple times, and the scenes in question are brief, as the heart and soul of the episode are elsewhere. These moments are frustrating, but the strengths easily outweigh these smaller weaknesses.

It may be a bit more uneven than The Magician's Apprentice, but The Witch's Familiar is nonetheless a very good episode when at its best. It proves that Doctor Who still has plenty of interesting ideas to explore, and that even after half a century the Daleks and Davros can still be used to create compelling, fresh stories. If series 9 continues along this vein, it will be a very good series indeed. This two-parter has proven that Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor and Coleman's Clara Oswald have both grown into their own as very strong leads, and I cannot wait to see what new things this series has in store for them.


 - Christopher S. Jordan

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