Doctor Who recap: The Witch's Familiar
The Doctor plays musical chairs with the enemy.
For such a hopeful show, Doctor Who has a high body count. It’s why, after only 10 episodes, the Ninth Doctor could shout “Everybody lives!” and make it feel like he’d never had that kind of day before. The Doctor rarely gets so complete a victory; you can’t tell a story about time travel without consequences. But there are consequences to living, too — to being “basically hardwired to keep living” even as you grow older. If you’re a Dalek, you wind up stuck in the sewer, holding up a society that no longer wants to acknowledge your existence. If you’re the Doctor, you watch your friends suffer in your place. And he’s getting tired of it — so tired that, between preparing his confession dial and offering Davros some of his regeneration energy, it almost feels like the Doctor would rather just die instead. Until it doesn’t.
So everybody lives, including Clara and Missy. Clara wakes up in the Skaro desert to learn that Missy modified their vortex manipulators to channel the energy from the Daleks’ guns, teleporting them instead of killing them. They have nothing on their side but a pointy stick and an inability to trust each other, and if that sounds like the buddy comedy you never knew you needed, it is. Michelle Gomez is both a scene-stealer and a team player; Missy may be a sociopath, but she manipulates the world around her by engaging with it, which sometimes means pushing others into the spotlight — or the sewer — in her place.
Beneath the heart of the city, Missy teaches Clara a lesson in basic Dalek: They can’t die on their own, but they still age. As their bodies decay, they’re sent to line the tunnels underground — the Daleks’ word for sewer is actually the same as their word for graveyard. Missy loves a good graveyard, especially when it’s alive. How better to deal with her own unlikely undead-ness than to weaponize it? What she can’t know is that Clara has also died her share of times, including once inside the shell of a Dalek. It’s not clear how much Clara remembers of that ordeal, either, which makes this whole sequence of events feel even crueler — of the three of them, the person most likely to object to the plan to save the Doctor’s life is the Doctor. Then again, isn’t he always?
Using Clara as bait, Missy summons a guard Dalek, pokes holes in its casing (“you can’t kill a Dalek with a brooch!”), and waits for the angry, liquefied old Daleks to do the rest. They invade the tank and blow up the motor, effectively — or at least nearly — killing the Dalek inside. Missy instructs Clara to take its place. After teaching her how to control the tank with her mind, Missy locks Clara inside, and it’s Oswin all over again. When Clara says, “I am Clara Oswald,” the world hears, “I am a Dalek.”
It’s a lesson not only in how Daleks think (“I love you” and “You are different from me” both become “Exterminate”), but in how they operate. As Missy explains, Daleks channel emotion in the same way Cybermen suppress it. Every “Exterminate” reloads the gun, forcing Clara — already all but robbed of her voice — to modulate her feelings as well. Davros designed the Daleks to hate, but it’s easy to see how the tank helps things along. Clara is being dehumanized. And Missy, never more alien, is loving every minute of it.
The Doctor, meanwhile, has commandeered Davros’ chair, along with its protective force field, to demand Clara’s safe return. He hopes for all of their sakes that her death was a trick — and if it wasn’t, they’d better watch how they tell him. Missy and Clara eavesdrop from below. “Listen to that,” Missy twists the knife. “The Doctor without hope.” An hour ago, she was trying to convince Clara that the Doctor “on the run, no TARDIS, no friends, no help” is “the Doctor happy.” She was wrong. Missy might have more history with the Doctor, but she’s not the one who knows what he needs.
Davros reclaims his chair using the old “democratic colony of snakes” trick and arranges for a conversation (and a new chair for his guest). He’s impressed to see this urge for conquest in the Doctor, so he tries to use it. All the Doctor has to do is cut the cables that pump the Daleks’ life force into Davros, and they both win: the Doctor for eliminating his enemy, and Davros for watching the Doctor get on his level. “Genocide. In a moment. Such slaughter — not in self-defense, not as a simple act of war. Genocide as a choice. Are you ready, Doctor?” The Fourth Doctor wasn’t. The Twelfth isn’t, either. Even losing Clara, his “carer,” hasn’t hardened him that much. He walks away.
But Davros expected as much, and he might even prefer it. He’s counting on compassion to kill the Doctor in the end. Davros goes out of his way to bond with his archenemy in order to take him down, only to get sidetracked by genuine bonding — whether or not he’s glad to hear that Gallifrey is saved, he’s been there. He advises the Doctor to do whatever it takes to protect his own; as far as Davros is concerned, life is worth every cost. Is this all because the Doctor told him years ago that “survival is a choice”?
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That’s enough emotion for one artificially prolonged lifetime. Davros makes a big show about wanting to see the sunrise with his “true” eyes, and the Doctor is all too willing to donate some of his regeneration energy to the cause. Losing his companion couldn’t make the Doctor betray his conscience, but it has made him careless with his own life, especially given that he knows exactly what the energy will be used for — not to help the little boy from the battlefield open his eyes, but to recharge the Dalek race. As soon as the Doctor grips Davros’ cables (some of which turn out to be snakes), his regeneration energy is rerouted to every Dalek on the planet.
Yes, he’s got a plan: Every Dalek includes the sewer Daleks, who rise up — literally shaking the foundations of Skaro’s society — and rebel. And yes, it’s brilliant: He lets his enemies destroy themselves while implying that they’ve really been destroying themselves all along. The old, the overlooked, and the suffering are here to get theirs. But is symbolism worth a few of his own lives down the line? Even Missy worries when she sees what he’s done. Using Clara-in-the-Dalek as her cover, Missy works her way into Davros’ chamber just in time to watch the Doctor explain himself, then follows up on her promise to scratch old Davros in the eye.
It’s the only promise she’s any good at keeping. When the Doctor finds the Dalek that is Clara, Missy tries to convince him that Clara is dead, and this is the Dalek who killed her. Meanwhile, everything Clara says comes across as “I am a Dalek.” It feels like the two of them should have some secret code — some inside joke that could make it through the Dalek’s filters — but if they do, she’s too emotional to think of it. The Doctor is about to shoot, but Clara begs him to stop, and the Dalek asks for “mercy.” Since she’s showing mercy in return, that’s enough to do the trick. “Just think the word open,” he tells her. That would have been nice to know earlier.
Clara opens the tank, and the Doctor holds her face while he apologizes, because unlike everyone else in the room, he remembers the version of her who has been here before — trapped in a Dalek. What killed an echo of Clara has now touched the real Clara. How much time do they have? Not as much as they should. But for now, they’re back in business. As Missy, who’s no longer welcome at this party, takes off, the Doctor uses his sonic sunglasses (rebel Time Lord all the way) to reassemble the TARDIS around them. It was never destroyed; it just redistributed itself.
Not until he and Clara stand safe in the desert, watching buildings crumble in the distance, does the Doctor realize — Daleks have a concept of mercy because he put it there. He flies back to the boy in the battlefield, exterminates all of the hand mines, and walks him home.
- “You know what? I’ve just had a very clever idea.”
- What is on the Doctor’s confession dial?
- There’s a prophecy about a Dalek-Time Lord hybrid, and if it’s all the same, I’d like to pass.
- “Admit it: You’ve all had this exact nightmare.”
- “We’re not a team.” “Of course we are. Every miner needs a canary.”
- “I’ve been at the heart of your empire for 42 minutes, and I own it, and I haven’t even got out of my chair.”
- “You should be grateful: the only other chair on Skaro.”
- This week in Things Peter Capaldi Can Say on His Sleeping Tapes: “vampiring off your own creations.”
- “You’re my secret favorite; don’t tell the others.”
- “Oh, same old same old. Just the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS.”