Doctor Who: “The Witch’s Familiar”

I said last week that there was only one time travel story to be told about Hitler: do you go back and kill him before he attempts genocide? Well, that clever Moffat has proven me wrong again. Apparently there is also the time travel story where you meet up with him (or Davros, same difference really) just before he dies and share a good laugh and a cry with him, apparently just because it’s the polite thing to do.

Oh sure, there’s the Doctor’s lines about compassion, which he chooses “every time” and other than which he “wouldn’t die of anything else.” They’re great lines, actually, and Capaldi delivering them has never been better. And he does point out that he’s not doing it for old decrepit genocidal Davros, but for the young vulnerable Davros he left on the battlefield, temporarily abandoning compassion. It’s the line later on, after he’s resolved the handmine cliffhanger the only way he could have (yes, spoilers coming), that’s perplexing: the one about how the distinction between friend and enemy isn’t as important as there always being “mercy.”

So where’s the mercy in this story? Is it when the Doctor donates some of his regeneration energy to Davros, claiming afterward that he knew it was a trick and fully realized it would cause living Dalek sewage to rise up and attack all the other Daleks and presumably Davros too? Is it when he hesitates before shooting a roomful of Daleks just long enough for Colony Sarff to constrict him into unconsciousness? Is it when he says “Missy…run” and, instead of shooting her for nearly making him shoot Clara, leaves her to the Dalek sewage fate with no obvious way off Skaro? Or is it when the Doctor leads young Davros out of the handminefield, something which we know he does primarily because it’s the only way to ensure that the Dalek autocorrect will allow Clara to express the concept “I show mercy”?

The waters are muddy, is all I’m saying.

But it could be worse. My first time through I was so put off by the spectacle of the Doctor having a friendly chat with the progenitor of a universal holocaust (I’m pretty sure I said “oh come ON” out loud when the Doctor’s hand started to glow, and the less said about the Vaderesque “let me see you with my own eyes” baloney the better) that it was hard to notice all the good stuff. For example:

  • The aforementioned Dalek autocorrect, probably the best concept introduced here. In some ways this makes Davros worse, because even if there were a pacifist Dalek, it would have been unable to express its sentiments, and any frustration it felt would be channeled into extermination.
  • The Doctor in Davros’s chair might be a Dalek’s worst nightmare, but for us it’s good fun. Though “I’m the Doctor. Just accept [the teacup]” is cheeky even for Moffat.
  • “You can’t kill a Dalek with a brooch.”
  • The design of Skaro itself is pretty gorgeous, not just the elegantly rounded buildings but the faithfully retained (from 1964) asymmetrical corridors. What the Daleks lack in genuine menace they still make up in iconic style.
  • Capaldi spends a good deal of the episode, whether intentionally or not, doing a striking Tom Baker impression.
  • Julian Bleach finally had something to do as Davros other than taunt the Doctor, and so I finally can agree he’s fantastic in the role.
  • Missy’s not quite as consistently awesome this time as she was last time (her “bad neighborhood” riffing verges on embarrassing) but I’m still going to miss her next week.

I must say I’m curious whether the sonic screwdriver is really gone. Probably not — if nothing else it’s good for merchandising. But with all that corny talk about the Dalek/Time Lord hybrid (what would be the point of that?) and the even more off-putting notion that the Doctor really fled Gallifrey because he helped develop such a hybrid, AND the rumor that this might be Moffat’s last season, we may be in for a finale that makes “The End of Time”‘s continuity-fiddling look like a model of restraint and good taste. If I were forced to choose, I’d take a seasonful of sonic sunglasses over a finale like that every time.