Spoilers are straight ahead. But if you're concerned about spoilers, you probably shouldn't read an article with the word in the title.
Mercy me! (See what I did there?) What a crazy start to a season! While The Magician’s Apprentice was all laughs and set-up, The Witch’s Familiar was deep, with a lot of payoff, something that’s refreshing to modern Whovians, to put it charitably.
We start off with Missy and Clara having escaped extermination. I loved this clever exchange between the Doctor’s two friends. It gave Missy some insight into why the Doctor chose Clara and gave us a Doctor surrogate in Clara. Only someone who thinks like the Doctor would be more focused on what Missy is doing and why than on her story, and only someone who thinks like the Doctor could figure out how he does what he does. Clara isn’t and will never be as clever as the Doctor, but she’s certainly proving her worth, both to him and to us.
I also loved this sequence as an explanation of the driving force of the Doctor and, by extension, time travel stories themselves. The Doctor always wins because he assumes he will; it’s the same sort of logic that proved successful for Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan. When his friends think he thinks he will die, they believe they will have to save him because he won’t survive if he thinks he won’t. Of course, Clara and Missy have forgotten Rule 1: the Doctor lies. Having seen this episode through to the end, I assume the whole confession dial/throwing his own wake ruse to make his friends believe that he would not survive was for the purpose of getting them out of harm’s way. He knew what he would do and didn’t want them coming to Skaro. When they insisted on being transported with him, it gave the Doctor a real sense of terror as the Daleks threatened the one part of his plan that wasn’t in his control.
Missy and Clara really make for an interesting pair. As they “work” “together,” they learn about each other. Clara has the good sense not to trust Missy, though apparently not enough not to get herself handcuffed and set up as bait in a Dalek trap. Missy is consistent in her character, studying the Doctor’s allies to learn how they can be used to her advantage and finds a particularly interesting specimen in Clara. Missy has always been alone and envies the Doctor and his companions. She belittles Clara (comparing her to a puppy, pushing her into a hole of uncertain depth), but she also protects Clara from the blast when the Dalek explodes because there is something of the Doctor in Clara and that’s what she loves. Of course, in the end, the Doctor chooses Clara, our human representation of compassion, over psychopathic Missy who’s always getting it wrong. This surely isn’t the last we’ll see of Missy. “I’ve just had a clever idea” is Doctor Who’s version of “a wizard did it”; it doesn’t matter how, she just escaped, it’s what she does. However brilliant Michelle Gomez’s performance is, I believe it’s best in small doses, so whatever she did, let’s hope it takes her a little while to find the Doctor again (presumably, when he inevitably finds Gallifrey).
This episode gave us such brilliant, crystal clear insight into what makes a Dalek a Dalek. We’ve always been told they are only capable of hatred and built only to kill, but when Clara is put into the Dalek shell, we see very clearly how that happens and what it means. The translation of all of Clara’s emotions into hate-speech and violence is heart-wrenching. It makes us understand why the Doctor saves everyone he can, even the bad ones. I highly approve of this brilliant tactic in the storytelling to get the audience to briefly side with the Daleks. It’s emblematic of the heart of the episode, the chess match between Davros and the Doctor on the point of compassion.
If you’re reading this, chances are you know the Doctor pretty well. You may have “WTF”d at the closing shot of the previous episode, but it was more out of disbelief that he would actually do what he appeared to be threatening than an actual belief in what we were being shown and a wonder at why. It was a good attempt at a fakeout, but we all remember Rule 1 in dealing with the Doctor, so then the questions become what is he actually doing and how did we get from point A to point B? The answer is a pretty intricate masterpiece. My notes at this point get pretty CAPS LOCK-y, I’ll try to contain myself for your sake, gentle reader.
It was a pretty deft battle of wits and words, reminiscent of that between the Dread Pirate Roberts and Vizzini (“...so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me”). Each knew what the other would do and played against that to their advantage. The layers of misdirection were pretty artful. All the steps in his plan (acting a fool, empty but convincing threats, giving the enemy a false sense of security, talking the enemy around to your perspective, pulling an ace out of your sleeve when the enemy predictably thinks they have the upper hand, dealing out justice, and a brilliant escape) are all classic Doctor, but the Doctor is so good, he has us all believing what we’re seeing instead of knowing what he’s doing. It’s truly sad that the Doctor does appear to get Davros to see the value of compassion in his apparent dying moments only to have him turn around and do what he does best, forcing the Doctor to do what he has to do. But there’s also a measure of comfort when the Doctor gets to be the one who teaches Davros, and by extension the Daleks, the concept of mercy.
This was a really fun and exciting episode that felt long in a good way; I kept looking at the clock and realizing there was more show left than I thought to my pleasant surprise. As this is science fiction and we haven’t seen a body, I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Davros either. I’ll be interested to see what becomes of the Daleks now; sure, their planet is coming to life and cannibalizing itself, but some of those Daleks will get away and I want to see what they’ll do with the knowledge that Gallifrey is back. Will Moffat be ballsy enough to take on a second iteration of the Time War and put it on screen? For now, I’m satisfied with this and I look forward to what appears to be a more monster-of-the-week type episode next time. See you all then!