Have you caught that clip from Gogglebox Australia, where the resident group of couch potatoes are invited to watch The Witch’s Familiar? (“You know who likes these sort of shows?” says one of the watching bogans. “Nerds!”). In bad news for nerds everywhere, it goes down very badly.
There’s general grumpiness about the pace, the special effects, the dialogue… and some particularly filthy humour about what the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is about to do for Davros (Julian Bleach) when he starts limbering up his regenerative wrist. It doesn’t really matter if we give a toss (ahem) about the opinions of these Who-hating boxheads. But what it shows is that a general audience found this particular episode incomprehensible.
I’ve occasionally voiced skepticism about whether too much indulgence in continuity really does alienate a general audience. In fact, I alluded to it last post when talking about Attack of the Cybermen. But that much maligned nostalgia fest is no contest for this other two-part series opener when it comes to over reliance on references to the show’s past. (Sure, I was going to say “fanwank,” but that would have been three references to masturbation in two paragraphs of a normally G rated blog, so let’s not go there.)
At times, it seems this story can’t go 30 seconds without a reference to what happened last year, what happened last regeneration or how there are three versions of Atlantis. It contains a cavalcade of Daleks from every era of the program… which only excites if you’ve actually noticed that there have been different Dalek designs over the years.
And it not just referencing past stories, it’s embedded in them. Its very premise is based on that famous line of dialogue from 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, which posed a moral dilemma about murdering a child who would, if allowed to live, grow up to be a dictator. After visits to Karn, the Maldovarium and the Shadow Proclamation, eventually the story seems ill at ease with the extent of its own self referencing. Witness the torturous build up to the reveal of the invisible planet as Skaro, and how it forces a rare moment of over acting from Capaldi (“Skaro! You’ve brought me to Skaro!”). You sense the desperation inherent in trying to make an audience realise why they should care about a place they’ve probably never heard of.
So no wonder those Goggleboxers can’t get a grip on this story. (No, that’s not another reference to… quiet up the back, please.) But all these shoutouts to the past are just symptoms of a more fundamental affliction: the show’s deep fascination with itself and some of its long standing characters.
This story brings together two super villains, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and Davros, and not just for a 2 for the price of 1, season opening spectacle. It brings them together to ask, can either of these infamous badasses be redeemed?
Redemption will turn out to be the dominant theme of the Capaldi era. The Doctor spent the whole of Series 8 wondering if he was a good man. Series 10 will devote much time to rehabilitating Missy. And in between, there’s this story, where Missy is pressed into service to help the Doctor and thus be uncharacteristically altruistic and Davros appears to be having an end of life epiphany. The question this era is constantly asking is, can people change for the better?
In Davros’s case, the answer is no. It’s a ruse. But to generate any tension out of this “has he/hasn’t he turned good” scenario, there has to be a slow, gradual exploration of his apparent change of heart. Played out over the majority of The Witch’s Familiar as a discussion between Doctor and Davros, it’s a deeply portentous debate. It’s what our impatient Goggleboxers objected to the most, and on rewatching, it’s hard to disagree with them.
Missy’s situation is different. She comes to the Doctor’s aid, thinking he’s about to die. She does this under a claim to being the Doctor’s oldest friend, the Time Lord definition of which is large enough to encompass being long-term enemies as well.
On Doctor Who Extra, writer Steven Moffat claimed that a friendship between the two is more interesting than an ongoing feud. I think he’s only half right. What’s interesting about that scenario, and has been for 40 years, is the story of a friendship lost, which has mutated into hatred. The version presented here, that Time Lord friendship can exist in tandem with deadly rivalry, is just confusing.
Back when she was the Master, of course, Missy did come to the aid of four Doctors and one stuck in wavy video effect. On that occasion, his motivation was clear: the promised reward of a new regeneration cycle. It’s not at all clear what Missy’s getting out of helping the Doctor out now. Nothing, it seems. So in fact, it appears that she is indeed acting altruistically, which is a big character U-turn. It’s only her last minute decision, seemingly on impulse, to try and manipulate the Doctor into shooting a Dalek-encased Clara (Jenna Coleman), which reminds us that she is actually wanting to harm, nor help, our hero.
Again, all this requires a deep commitment to Doctor Who to give even the scantest of figs about.
The difference between the redemptive stories of Davros and Missy is that at least Missy’s is fun. I suspect that for an audience which has never heard of Skaro!You’veTakenMeToSkaro! it’s hard to get anything out of Davros’s story, no matter how adorable he looked as an 8 year old.
But Missy can at least be relied upon to crack a few jokes, be deliciously sneaky and mistreat Clara to comic effect. And as long as she’s being the most interesting thing in the story, I’ll bet no one’s in any hurry to find out whether or not she sorts herself out. (I’m sorry. I promise that’s the last one.)
The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar mini quiz
- Where did the Doctor get his cup of tea?
- Where did the Doctor get his tank?
- Where did Missy get the rope she uses to tie up Clara?
- Where did Davros get those clips from past Dalek stories? (Did he buy the Davros collection DVD box set?)
- Where did Colony Scarf get their Segway?
NEXT TIME… here’s Marco Polo. Come for it!