Saturday, October 10, 2015

Mercy Me: An Overanalysis of "The Witch's Familiar"

Maybe if I stand in the most effeminate position possible, they won't see me...

I guess I have some apologies to make.  I've got some catching up to do, which is partially due to some slight ambivalence about this blog, but also partially due to being somewhat busy with a new relationship starting up.  And I've been trying to get her caught up on Doctor Who as well so we can watch it together but, ironically, she kept falling asleep during "Last Christmas."  I spend the whole of my weekends with her, so I won't really be able to watch the new episodes on the day they come out until she's caught up, which she will be soon.  Until then, I'm going to play a little catch-up.  So sorry that this blog is about a week late.  I'll work on that.  For now, on with the show:

The Daleks have always been a moral quandary for the Doctor.  The Doctor is the ultimate pacifist, at least in his philosophy if not always in his actions. His goal is always to prevent as many deaths as possible, including the deaths of his enemies.  The Daleks have shown up to throw a wrench in this philosophy more than once, because if your enemy serves absolutely no purpose in the Universe other than destruction, should your pacifism extend to them? He's been fighting the Daleks for almost 2,000 years now, and he has still failed to come up with a definitive answer to this moral dilemma.  Each regeneration seems to attack the problem again and each regeneration comes up with a slightly different answer.  That can be expected, as there isn't an easy solution to the quandary that the Doctor faces.  But when the option comes up in the shape of the opportunity to murder a young boy who hasn't done anything yet, the Doctor finds the question even more troubling than usual.

Could you kill baby Hitler!?  Look at him!  He's adorable!
My new go-to question whenever I have the honor of meeting one of the actors that has played the Doctor is to ask them what they think is consistent across all the very, very different incarnations.  I didn't think of this question until after meeting Colin Baker, so I never got to ask him, and when I asked Peter Davidson and Sylvester McCoy the question McCoy copped out and avoided the question with a "Well, that's the writers' job."  (You do Shakespeare, McCoy, I know you give more thought than that to your characters!)  However, Davidson gave a very interesting and insightful answer about the Doctor's recklessness.  If you ask me, the two traits that are consistent to all of the Doctors are curiosity and compassion.  That second one is big, even with regenerations like 6, 9, and now 12 who are notorious for how rude and pompous they can be to other people.  Their compassion may not be the first thing you notice about them, and they may not be the kind of person to stick around and put a blanket around you after they've saved you, but it's still very important to them to rescue all living creatures and ensure their survival.  Even when the Doctor's not particularly nice, he's still full of love and compassion, even for someone as terrible as Davros.

I've said before that I think the 12th Doctor is embarking on the redemptive arc that the writers originally planned for the 6th Doctor, the one that was never carried out due to Colin Baker's era nearly getting the show cancelled.  The low ratings, combined with the fact that the average fans were starting to agree with the conservative fanatics who thought Doctor Who was too dark and violent, led the production team to quickly cancel their plans and scramble to find solutions to save the show.  Their first solution was the bizarrely nonsensical "Trial of a Timelord" story arc, which only made things worse.  The abrupt firing of Colin Baker and hiring of Sylvester McCoy bought the show a few years of mercy from the BBC, but not much, and the show only lasted a few more years.  In the meantime, the long redemptive arc that was planned for the 6th Doctor never got carried out.  At the same time, though, I wonder if Jonathan Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward had the talent to carry off such a delicate arc.  Steven Moffat, on the other hand, does, and "The Witch's Familiar" is the episode that really makes it clear that we've set off on that path.  The Doctor is really trying to figure himself out, what his morals are now, if he is a good man, and if he's stronger than the darkness in his heart.  Never is that put to the test quite as much as it is in this 2-parter, and thankfully, the Doctor passes with flying colors.

Missy is having a big ball of fun in this episode, and we finally get to see how she managed to survive the end of "Death in Heaven."  Considering her quick return, I can only assume that Steven Moffat has been planning this for quite a long time.  The only real complaint that anybody (anybody with taste, anyway) had about Missy in "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" is that there wasn't nearly enough of her, especially considering that we got a chance to get to know John Simm's Saxon Master over a 3-part episode.  Granted, he only showed up at the very end of the first part of that episode, but it still means we got much more of him, as the reveal that Missy was the Master didn't even come until the end of the first part of her two-part introduction.  Finally, "The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar" gives us some time to get to know Missy.

Doesn't she just look so inviting?  Don't you want to get to know her better?
As delightfully warped as Michelle Gomez's performance of Missy is, she also proves herself to be incredibly intelligent.  She has a very different moral compass from the Doctor, but that's about the only difference between them, as Missy demonstrates that she has as much intelligence and ingenuity as the Doctor.  Clara, in this episode, serves more as a companion to Missy than the Doctor, hence the title of the episode, making it the first time since the 1996 movie that the Master has truly had his own companion.  Missy's explanations of the Dalek homeworld and how it functions sound quite like the Doctor's explanations, but with the added danger of being willing to murder anyone without a moment's hesitation.

Michelle Gomez brings out a very interesting aspect of the Master that we've never really seen before.  We've known since back in the 3rd Doctor serial, "The Sea Devils," that the Doctor and the Master had been friends once at school, and we've seen glimmers of that friendship before.  There's been a begrudging respect between them, and a few temporary truces so that the two former friends can put their heads together to defeat a common foe, but Missy is the first version of the Master to make it absolutely clear how much the Doctor means to her, and is adamant that her multiple attempts to murder him over the years do not change how she feels about him.  Perhaps it's that her last regeneration (presumably) met his end trying to protect the Doctor (a long lost 3rd Doctor era plotline that Davies finally brought to fulfillment), but Missy genuinely cares about the Doctor.  In "The Magician's Apprentice" she expresses her friendship with the Doctor and explains why it isn't a contradiction to two people as ancient as herself and the Doctor, but it's only in "The Witch's Familiar" that she puts her money where her mouth is and mounts a rescue mission to save the Doctor.  In a way, she almost becomes a second companion in this episode, which is extremely refreshing.

Now, some people may have had a moment of hesitation that the Doctor is surprised at Clara's ability to get the Dalek tank to say the word "mercy."  Most notably because of this famous scene, which was also written by Steven Moffat:

This made me do a double take as well, because clearly, River gets the Dalek to say the word "mercy" a long time ago.  However, it occurred to me, the Doctor wasn't present for this scene, as he was busy wiring his vortex manipulator into the Pandorica.  (That might be the nerdiest sentence I've ever written.)  River is a brilliant woman, who knows a lot about the Universe, and certainly more than the average companion, but in many ways she is still a companion.  It makes sense that she wouldn't know as much about Daleks as the Doctor does, and that she would not notice that it was strange for a Dalek to know this word.  There's a good chance that she never got around to telling the Doctor about the time she made a Dalek beg for mercy, as whether or not he approves of this will largely depend on what mood he's in.  Even if she did tell him, it seems likely that he wouldn't have believed her.

The bigger discrepancy is this, which is also Steven Moffat's writing:

We don't actually see a shot of the Dalek from the outside saying the name "Oswin Oswald," but we do get it saying "I am not a Dalek" and a few other things which it seems, from Missy's demonstration, would be impossible.  Similarly, "Into the Dalek" features a Dalek saying a lot of things that "The Witch's Familiar" implies would be impossible for a Dalek casing to be able to interpret.  It's worth noting that Moffat is also credited as a co-writer on "Into the Dalek," although I do believe that's largely because Moffat gave himself partial credit for every episode in Series 8 where he threw in a little bit of story for the overall plot arc.

So yes, Moffat has created a bit of a plot hole here.  There are ways to rationalize this away.  We could say that this is a trait particular to the newly revived Daleks from after "Victory of the Daleks," but more likely than not it's just because Moffat decided that it was convenient to the plot, so fuck all those scripts he wrote in the past.  Personally, I think Moffat and Davies together have patched up almost every major plot hole leftover from the classic series, including the bizarre prophecy that the Valeyard would appear between the Doctor's "12th and final incarnations," and because of that I think Moffat can be forgiven for leaving a few very small holes of his own.

I got the distinct feeling that this episode was setting up the season-long plot arc for Series 9.  It would be very unlike Moffat to leave the series without a larger, overarching plot, and the stuff about the prophecy of the "Hybrid" sounded far too foreboding and interesting to leave it where it stands right now, especially considering that Missy continued to reference the prophecy after the Doctor had already defeated Davros.  At first, I thought the prophecy sounded too mystical for as scientific a race as the Time Lords, much like their "Visionary" from "The End of Time," but I decided that a time travelling race could have many non-magical or mystical ways to predict the future and see a "prophecy."  The fact that Missy said that she had just come up with a very clever idea once she was cornered by the Daleks seemed like it was also pretty clearly Moffat setting up a larger plot arc, with a return for a Dalek attack led by Missy later this season.  Remember, the Master has teamed up with the Daleks before, and last time the plotline was cut short due to the untimely death of the actor, Roger Delgado, so we never really got to see what comes of a Master/Dalek team-up.  Perhaps this is another lost plotline that Moffat intends to finally bring to fruition.

I've decided to do a little thing that's fun for me.  This series, I'm naming every Overanalysis after a punk song I like (that I think is appropriate) then putting the song at the end.  So, enjoy!

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