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Doctor Who S9.02 "The Witchs Familiar" review

Last week’s episode channeled classic Tom Baker tale “Genesis Of The Daleks” but “The Witch’s Familiar” drills even deeper into classic Who – back to the very birth of the show, in fact, homaging the serial that first made Doctor Who a phenomenon, half a century ago.

Yes, there’s a ton of 1964’s “The Daleks” to be excavated here. The subterranean journey to the city – with byplay between Missy and Clara that brings a fun twisted mirror to the traditional Doctor/companion dynamic – echoes the infiltration by the Thals in the original tale. Elsewhere Clara disguises herself as a Dalek, just as Ian Chesterton did (this is a smart double-nod, in fact, also riffing on the fact that we first saw Jenna Coleman as Oswin, the girl inside the armoured casing in “Asylum Of The Daleks”).

But the episode adds to Dalek lore as much as it recreates it. The revelation that the bodies of old Daleks are left to fester in the city’s sewers is just the kind of creepy, imagination-firing factoid that brightened the pages of 1960s Dalek annuals. We also learn that the cry of “Exterminate!” reloads a Dalek gun, a discovery that suddenly makes sense of 50 years of crazed squawking. Cleverest of all, the ancient playground chant of “I-AM-A-DALEK!” is revealed to be a heartbreaking howl of inarticulacy by the creature inside the shell, unable to express free thought. Again Moffat takes something familiar, cuts it open, shows us what’s really inside.


Julian Bleach is the fourth actor to play Davros, following Michael Wisher (1975), David Gooderson (1979) and Terry Molloy (1984-1988).

There’s some assured plotting among the knowing nods and riffs. Yes, the episode wastes no time in showing how Missy and Clara escaped certain extermination. But the resolution of last week’s true cliffhanger – the Doctor seemingly poised to kill the boy Davros – is kept until the closing moments, finally allowed to impact after stalking the entire episode. It’s an audacious move by Moffat and a typically precise bit of narrative jigsawing, not so much baiting the audience with an unanswered question as allowing the moment its proper, resonant place in the story, informing everything that came before it.

We’re told Doctor Who is exploring the dramatic possibilities of two-parters this series. On the strength of this particular two-parter it’s a welcome thing. Scenes are allowed to breathe, nowhere more so than in the two-handed exchanges between Capaldi and Julian Bleach. Both are on terrific form here – Capaldi rarely more Doctorish, nailing the Doctor’s beautiful admission that he’s prepared to die of compassion; Bleach bringing Luciferian guile and a genuinely startling vulnerability to Davros. There’s some meaty material in this episode, some of the best character stuff we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who, in fact, the two old foes seeming to share a moment of real connection before it’s all revealed to be dupe and counter-dupe and the great, eternal game goes on.

And Davros, of course, is one of the few villains with the stature to challenge the Doctor’s claim that he fled Gallifrey out of nothing more than boredom, something that’s always been one of the foundation stones of the show’s myth. We’re clearly being set up for a series-long arc involving the confession dial and the Doctor’s secret. In the red corner, Steven Moffat. In the blue, everything you knew to be true. Seconds out…

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Yes, that’s someone togged up as the Fourth Doctor in Missy’s story – but did you spot the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by the First Doctor too? We guess that officially makes this “The Three-ish Doctors”…

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Good to see the Special Weapons Dalek get some screentime. This no-nonsense bruiser was first seen in 1988 Sylvester McCoy story “Remembrance Of The Daleks”. It was known as “the Rambo Dalek” by cast and crew. As far as we know it has never undertaken black ops missions in Afghanistan.

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We’re told Missy and Clara escape extermination by some clever teleportational trickery – and yet we clearly see the extermination effect on their bodies. Is that entirely playing fair with the audience?

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Meet the Hostile Action Dispersal System, clearly a cousin to the Hostile Action Displacement System, a TARDIS defence mechanism introduced way back in 1968 Patrick Troughton tale “The Krotons”.

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Davros: “There is a question, Doctor, one I have longed to ask.” Doctor: “If you’re going to put your hand on my knee it’s not going to end well.”

Doctor Who airs on Saturday evenings on BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the US.

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