I would argue that the most important aspect of the New Series is character. Character is what fuels the revival, what it lives on, and what more or less defines this version of Doctor Who. While character was definitely present in the original run, especially towards the end, I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t the focus as it is here. While Classic Who was about the adventures, New Who is about the people having the adventure. How they grow, how they develop, how they change. It’s why no matter if the story is set in a galaxy far, far away, or on prehistoric Earth, this Doctor Who remains as a drama. Because it’s a drama, (a drama that always changes and yet stays the exact same, like the titular character) we get episodes like The Witch’s Familiar.
The Witch’s Familiar is effectively a 45-minute long character study. Despite being set on a spaceship on Skaro, and having three of the show’s most infamous monsters in it, I don’t think this is a story which works in Doctor Who. It doesn’t really tell a story, and there’s really little plot. That’s not a criticism, by the way, more an observation. We are effectively watching four very similar, but also very different characters, just interact with each other. This episode does feel like an observation of what the show is about, what it can do, without doing very much at all. It’s a very clever script, one which makes use of four extremely talented actors and gets them to play together, which is what makes it work.
While the characters all work well on their own, everybody here, particularly Missy, gets some really good development, it’s their interactions with each other which really makes the episode interesting. In particular, the relationship between the Doctor and Davros. There’s no doubt that Bleach and Capaldi have fantastic chemistry, they really work together extremely well, and it’s easy to believe that these two characters have had a history with each other from their performance. They’re paired with poetic and emotional, but not overbearing dialogue, which really makes you sit up and feel something for these characters. The amount of emotion, and the various feelings these characters have for each other is gripping. From the anger at the beginning, to the admiration and respect in the middle, to Davros backstabbing him at the end is fantastic. Though part of me does feel a bit disappointed that Davros wasn’t repenting. The scene where he reveals he was playing to the Doctor’s weakness, his compassion, is powerful, but I do think it would have been a touching way to write off the character. Of course, this is Moffat’s intention, and the episode may be better because Davros metaphorically stuck his middle finger up at everything the Doctor stands for, but the ten minutes or so in the middle, where it is just two old men reflecting on their lives together, are some of the most glorious and touching in the show’s history.
The other character which is really strong here is Missy, particularly her interactions with Clara. With Clara pretty much a female version of The Doctor now, it is only appropriate Missy treats her as we should him. This is of course, by manipulating her, winding her up, and almost playing with her like a toy. It’s very amusing how they interact, but it’s also quite scary. Gomez gives her best performance to date, and Moffat writes her best. When she says “the b*tch is back”, I almost feel that statement is meta. Gone is the in my opinion unbearable caricature of the Master we saw in series 8, here is a more rounded, more dimensional, incarnation. One which is actually terrifying. The scene where she’s manipulating the Doctor to kill Clara is petrifying, and so cold, the darkest and scariest The Master has been since the 1970s. I hope we see more of this Master next series, as I think if this version is built upon, we could have objectively the best Master of the New Series.
I do find this story incredibly interesting. The new mechanics of the Daleks are fascinating and are used really effectively throughout the story, allowing for some great character work and parallels with Clara. It’s also really funny, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not so, which is where the story shines. The Doctor and Davros’ main scene is funny in a touching manner. How they both laugh that he’s not the best Doctor, is actually rather sweet. Top that off with a stunning soundtrack, gorgeous direction, and pacing which is perfect, then you have yourself a modern classic.
Overall: Probably one of the best pure character pieces of the revival. Absolutely wonderful.
Previous score: 10
New Score: 10