[Review] - Doctor Who, Series 9 Episodes 2 and 3, "The Witch's Familiar" And "Under The Lake"

Courtesy of the BBC
Due to an impressive bit of poor planning on my part, I now have the unenviable task of reviewing two episodes that have nothing to do with one another. It's not just that one is the conclusion to a two-parter, and the other is the precipitating episode of an entirely different doublet. It's that they cover different themes, hit different story points, and basically fulfill the mandate of Doctor Who: every episode should feel as though it is coming from a different genre, a different tone, a different universe entirely, bridged only my a mad man in a box.

In light of this, I will structure this review unlike any doubled-up review I've done before. Rather than just merge my thoughts together into one 700 word pile and let you sort out what you think I mean, instead I will do two micro-reviews of each. That way, I won't keep tripping over my own thoughts, and I won't staring anything trying to compare apples with chesterfields. Sound fair? Excellent.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that fell into a pit of vampire monkeys, but that's another story.

The Magician's Assistant had all the failings of a modern opener for a two parter. It spent so much time setting things up, it never had a chance (or a willingness to take a chance) at being its own thing. Like so many that had come before it, it was a mad rush to get elements in place so that something could come of them in the conclusion. And come of them they did. The Witch's Familiar lacked the more obvious flaws of the former episode by benefit of having a clear vision of where it wanted to go, and do, and accomplish while being there. And it was, as I have and always will insist is better, a much more simple episode. And by that I mean, it resisted over complicated itself with lots of buzzing distractions like anachronistic guitar solos and UNIT and other fuss. In a lot of ways, it was just two old men talking about their younger days. It was also about jealousy. But lets start with the first.

Davros stories are, by and large, shit. When he was introduced early in the Fourth Doctor's run, it was because the Daleks had become so overused that their stories had degenerated into nonsense and ineffectiveness. The Fourth Doctor era brought about two changes to the Daleks. First, each Doctor from then until Nine only encountered them once per regeneration (twice for the Fourth, because of how long his tenure was). This restriction of appearance was meant to make them a more effective villain, increase their menace, and make them a more significant challenge for the Doctor (as Moffat pointed out some years ago, they are the Doctor's most defeatable enemy). Which is a jolly good tack to take, and one I wish that the new series would embrace. The problem was, the writers in the old series began to rely on the crutch that is Davros. Really, his character should not have reappeared past Genesis of the Daleks. Had he remained a singular occurrence, he might be considered one of the best villains the show ever produced. Instead, he kept turning up in increasingly ridiculous circumstances. About his best turn post Genesis was in the Seventh Doctor serial Remembrance of the Daleks.

This episode went a long way towards redeeming his past failures. Here, we see Davros at his most introspective, his most defeated, and his most manipulative. And I will admit, I completely bought it. His philosophical death bed conversation was about some of the best writing that Moffat has done in ages. It didn't rely on puns, or flirting, or pop culture references. It was genuine, emotional manipulation. Two old men talking about their failures, and reminiscing about their successes. It served as an excellent counterpoint to the reintroduction of the Master in Missy, as there are no two specific characters that have such a long history with the Doctor as the Master and Davros. But while the Master is the Doctor's opposite in deed - The Joker to the Doctor's Batman - Davros is his opposite in nature. Davros is the unrepentant father of ultimate evil, who has led his children in rebellion against creation. Whereas the Doctor is a solitary man standing up as the champion of life.

Which was what made Davros' confessions seem so honest. He wasn't apologizing, he just wanted to be assured that he did the very best he could. Davros wanted to be told by the best man he ever knew that he was the worst man the Doctor ever knew. Valediction of a lifetime's work is something we can all sympathize with, even if that work is horrific galactic terror. And it was a brilliant hook. He might have been playing the Doctor's sense of compassion, but it was more than that, he was playing a universal sense of humanity. That even the worst of us, at the frail and vulnerable end, is human (and yes yes, Davros isn't human, but you get what I mean). Should it have been obvious that it was all a lie, in order to manipulate the Doctor into doing something he shouldn't because he is a good man (Davros here echoed the Doctor's question to Clara from last year's premiere)? Yes, completely. But it still managed to take me by surprise.

The episode was also about jealousy. A little bit from Davros concerning the Doctor, but mostly from Missy towards Clara. Missy, in her new form, is far more possessive of the the Doctor than she ever was in the old days. Perhaps its a side effect of the regeneration, but as much as she claims its just because they are good old buds, she acts more like the crazy ex. And views Clara as the new woman threatening to take her place. The reasoning behind Missy "bringing them together" has yet to be explained, and knowing Moffat, it either never will be or will be terribly. The current effect seem to be a love/hate relationship with Clara. Missy understands that the Doctor needs pets to keep him interested, but also to keep him from becoming too much like her. But at the same time, she hates them because they have what she can never have and seems only to want: to be the one at the Doctor's side. Moffat thread this notion carefully, but it is there underneath Missy's actions. And gave us just enough of a taste of what it would be like if Missy did become the new companion as to get us excited and terrified of the prospect.

The episode also featured a nice call back to Clara's best episode, Asylum of the Daleks, as she became trapped in the Dalek shell and began to struggle with what the Dalek tech was make of her. With the news confirmed that Jenna Coleman is leaving the show, I assume this was an intentional bit of cyclical call-backery on Moffat's part, a reminder of how far we've come with Clara. What I'm worried about is that, with her departure imminent, will it now become a case of her nearly dying in ever episode, right up to the moment she does? Because that isn't engaging peril, that is just annoying.

On the other side, we have Under The Lake, which I will discuss in more depth (ha) next week with it's conclusion. But what is completely obvious is that Toby Whithouse, creator of Being Human, is in the unenviable position that Moffat found himself in during the Russel T. Davies era. That position: he's writing the best episodes of the series. Under the Lake is the best episode of the Capaldi era so far, and I say that with no hyperbole. It was old school in a way that didn't feel like it was calling back to anything. While the setting and story wouldn't have felt out of place with the Second, Third or Fifth Doctor wandering around, sorting things out, Whithouse avoided making it feel nostalgic. In short, it was exactly the sort of episode you'd expect from Doctor Who without ever feeling like it was trying to be an episode of Doctor Who.

And again, the trick is keeping things simple, which is Whithouse's strength in all his episodes. A military base under a lake, besieged by ghosts. About the most complex idea in the episode was the ear-worm coordinates. But where the episode really excelled was in being it's own independent thing. I didn't know it was a two parter until they dropped the cliffhanger on us, and I think it was probably the best two parter opener since the series came back. The episode existed entirely within its own 42 minutes. Never once did it feel, until the Doctor's spectral form appear at the last second, like it was setting up next week. This episode had in and of itself, a beginning, middle and end. And that is the trick that most other two parters can't seem to get around. They spend an hour putting items on the table, so they an spend the next hour cleaning them off. This episode was it's own meal, and then surprise, there is an entire other meal coming too.

The other raving success of Whithouse's, and this is something that Moffat struggles with, is the character development. If Moffat has time and lots of episodes, he can built great characters: Jenny, Vastra, Strax, River. But within the confines of an episode, his characters tend to be high on quirk, low on depth. Again, look at the first appearances of Jenny, Vastra, Strax, River, and pretty much any other one-off character that support a Moffat episode. Whithouse's characters all feel as fully developed as the Doctor straight away. Certainly, his characters are the ones that most feel like they have potential to become companions further on down the line. The crew of the base all felt like they were preexisting characters, the cast of their own show that the Doctor has just dropped in on (and now I'm imagining a version of the show where the Doctor just drops in on other series). The point is, Cass, O''Donnell, even Moran felt like people, not characters. And because of that, I had a genuine fear for their safety. In any episode you figure a few characters are going to die in the course of things. A good episode makes you not want that to happen, and sad when it does, rather than just taking bets on who will bite it next.

It also helped that the mystery of where the ghosts came from, what they want, and who is locked in that box is a genuinely interesting one. The Capaldi era has done a fair bit of good bringing genuine suspense and mystery back to a show that had largely become an action series. And aside from the one where the answer was "it was the trees" the mysteries have all been fairly well constructed. I am properly itching to find out the hows and whys of this ghost story, rather than just following the episode on to the next one because that's the way it's done. The geek in me also needs to point out that the Doctor violated one of the fundamental rules of time travel in setting up next week: once a person becomes an established part of events, they cannot (or should not) simply loop back to before events transpired to stop them or otherwise direct their course. Which is why the TARDIS is merely a plot device for getting the Doctor into an episode, and why every episode doesn't end after ten minutes of him seeing what the trouble is, then popping back and fixing it before it becomes an issue. I also feel like this is too big a rule for Whithouse not to know, and I'll be interested to see if it plays a part in the Doctor's condition.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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