Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Witch's Familiar - Spoiler-Free Preview

Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 2
The Witch's Familiar

Written by: Steven Moffat
Directed by: Hettie McDonald

Broadcast Date: Saturday 26th September at 7.45pm on BBC One

The Gallifrey Times have seen The Witch's Familiar and have put our spoiler free preview together.

When we left the Doctor, things weren't looking so good for him. Trapped in the centre of a Dalek city and at the mercy of Davros... and that was before Missy and Clara were exterminated by Daleks. The last we saw of the Doctor was the seemingly desperate Time Lord reaching for the last resort and travelling back to kill the young Davros. With those huge, shocking events at the end of last episode, the question is: how do you top that?

The answer The Witch's Familiar poses is, after a relatively madcap opening act that delivers a visual gag that's just about as endearingly crazy as last week's tank entrance: to go smaller and more personal. This is a different beast to the galaxy-spanning The Magician's Apprentice - it's still undoubtedly a cinematic episode that sports some great CGI, but this is an episode that places character interaction rather than pyrotechnics at its heart. 

The bulk of that aforementioned character drama rests in the multiple scenes between the Doctor and Davros. To spoil the nature of their conversations would ruin a set of genuinely unpredictable scenes, but it's safe to say that Moffat's punt on bringing Davros back after seven years has really paid off here. Julian Bleach absolutely shines here, shifting and contorting his performance to fit every one of the numerous avenues that The Witch's Familiar explores with Davros - it's a performance that shifts effortlessly from chilling to affecting and back without missing a beat, and it's complemented by Peter Capaldi's reliably fantastic turn as the Doctor faces his greatest enemy.

If TMA's introduction of a lighter Doctor felt too sudden, then the Doctor here feels more like a natural evolution - this incarnation has undoubtedly lightened up, but there's the familiar shades of darkness and existential angst that coloured Capaldi's performance in Series 8. All of this feels seamless, providing a stone cold confirmation (if you needed one) that Capaldi has nailed every aspect of this role. Bleach and Capaldi are undoubtedly compelling to watch as they spar and challenge each other, but they're aided even further by a script that's very different to Steven Moffat's regular fare.

The Witch's Familiar, somewhat unusually puts aside Moffat's usual bag of tricks for something far more straightforward. The scenes between the Doctor and Davros rely purely on the good old fashioned tactic of digging into the characters and discovering exactly what makes them tick (even if what makes them tick isn't exactly what you'd expect) rather than any ornate, tricksy sleight-of-hand - and as a result, they form some of the best Doctor-and-villain scenes in recent years, with a clever element of underlying ambiguity that will certainly reward further rewatches. It's also a tighter, more joined-up episode than its predecessor - almost everything in the narrative has a purpose, and there's enjoyment to be taken into seeing just how every element introduced over the course of the episode will play into the conclusion.

As per usual, there are a few niggles. The opening act, as fun as it is, tonally jars with the rest of the episode and never feels quite as essential to the narrative as it should do. Likewise, the conclusion, despite generally capping things off in a way that satisfyingly ties together the episode's core themes, has a couple of elements in there that feel a bit cheap and easy for a conclusion 90 minutes in the making. In fairness to this episode, a slightly cheap conclusion is hardly unusual even for two-parters, and it's an ending that does have more virtues than most.

For those who enjoyed The Magician's Apprentice but were concerned that the story might falter on the home straight - The Witch's Familiar, in this reviewer's opinion seals the deal. It might not be as nuttily entertaining as its predecessor, but it's deeper, more compelling and prioritises emotion and drama above all. It does hugely unexpected things with well-worn characters, wraps up this two-parter stylishly... and yes, sets a few things up for the future...