Okay, the first thing to say is that I was totally wrong about how Missy and Clara would survive. I expected some sort of reappearance of the Nethersphere, with Missy having herself uploaded and then redownloaded, and bringing Clara along for the ride. Far too overcomplicated for Steven ‘Mr Simplicitypants’ Moffat to use, it seems. Instead we got something far more straightforwards which, while uninteresting in itself, allowed Moffat to do a scene in which Missy and Clara have a conversation rather than needlessly overcomplicated, self-referential plot tricksiness. Yay, etc.
I was also wrong about what ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ would do with the trolley problem cliffhanger. I predicted that it would take up loads of our time rehashing the Series 8 obsession with the morality of killing via a reiteration of the contentless ethical dilemma from ‘Genesis of the Daleks’… which it didn’t do. Instead it pretty much blithely said something sensible, i.e. “Yeah, kill fascists if you have to, and don’t worry about it, I mean they started it. In fact, get the contents of the sewer - the rejected, disavowed, lowest of the low - to rise up and kill the fascist ruling class. That’ll be funny.”
I thought we’d get loads of stuff about how the Doctor killed little Davros and that makes him a hypocrite, or didn’t kill little Davros and that makes him a hypocrite, or tried to kill Davros and in the process created Davros and that makes him a hypocrite… (and yawn because of course he’s a bit of a hypocrite, so what? Are we supposed to not be social actors because to get out there and do stuff means that we pretty much have to embrace a degree of ethical compromise? Fuck’s sake capitalist media, will you please stop flogging the dead horse of complicity in an attempt to paralyse people’s will to action?!?) …with the whole thing eventually side-stepped via a bit of narrative trickery which means the Doctor ultimately gets to not act either way, but without the redeeming virtue of ‘Genesis’, i.e. that the Doctor did reach a decision but was prevented from putting it into effect because of circumstances out of his control.
I also thought we might loads of soppy bollocks about the poor little Davros bonding with the Doctor, and feeling sad, and being a lonely scared child the Doctor bonds with, and all the usual attendent feels.
To Moffat’s credit, we didn’t get any of that. Though, sadly, he only dodges the soppy Doctor/Davros bonding session by making the whole thing incredibly brief and glib instead. Reminiscent of how the only way he seems able to avoid making Clara the butt of jokes about her appearance is to lock her in a Dalek casing for most of the episode.
2. Zombie Crap
I still love the handmines. I’m sorry, I’m still on about them. I was fascinated to learn from Jane (in her recent guest appearance on Pex Lives) that the handmines recall an ancient Middle Eastern symbol - the Hamsa - which brings protection against evil. An image then turned into a horrific weapon in the Thal / Kaled race war. Makes me think of the swastika, a symbol used for good fortune in Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Appropriated and repurposed to symbolise supposed racial superiority by a culturally illiterate Western imperialist nation. Unfortunately, Moffat doesn’t do anything with this masterstroke. Which is a shame because Moffat can do masterstrokes that work.
For instance, as alluded to above, we learn in ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ that the ultimate terminus of all Dalek life is shit. Yes, I know the stuff in the Dalek city sewers isn’t literally Dalek shit, but it’s still brown gloop in a sewer. If it isn’t actually shit, it’ll do until actual shit comes along. This is what all Daleks become. Shit is entropic in the sense of being matter shuffled into featureless predictability. Time does this. Entropy homogenizes Daleks into diarrhoea. Sentient diarrhoea that just hangs about, seething with rage and bitterness and resentment. And the Doctor motivates this disavowed, expelled, excrementa. He sends some jolts of life back into it. He reanimates the byproducts/revenants of the whole Dalek experiment. The industrial waste of the entire Dalek project becomes zombie crap. He rouses it from its powerless stupor and allows it to make the gothic move, to return, to crawl back up the pipe. And, as a result, the Daleks drown in their own turds. The turds that are also them. The brown stuff oozes and pours out of their casings. The great bed-shitters of the cosmos proceed to shit themselves to death. This is absolutely fucking perfect. It hooks into the particular truth about fascism that it obsesses over hygiene while generating entropy, decay and filth, which then subsumes it. This is legitimately, properly, brilliant. No caveats. Especially since the spectacle of the Daleks’ gothic zombie crap (the return of the excreted) is also laced with a class war subtext. The bottom rises up to attack the top. Oh me, how I loved that bit.
I also loved the bit where Davros seems to sincerely congratulate the Doctor upon recovering Gallifrey, sounding genuinely moved. (It’s a testament to either Phil’s judgement of character or my predictability that Phil knew in advance that I would love both these elements of the story.) “A man should have a people,” say Davros. This is perfect. Davros has something that resembles a decent reaction for a split second, and then we realise that he feels this way because of his racialist view of life, and his nationalism. A truly great moment. Davros goes back to why he was so compelling to begin with: because he is motivated by a real worldview that is as internally consistent, and as real for him as it is insane and twisted. It mirrors a genuine Nazi viewpoint: the idea that the life of the individual is subsumed within the life of the nation, which is itself an expression of race, and that life is inevitably a struggle between races, and every individual must fight for his own race, and this represents the highest virtue. As specious and spurious and evil as these ideas may be, they were actually promulgated by the Nazi party, and probably felt deeply and sincerely by many Nazis. It makes perfect sense for Davros, who is still essentially Nazism reiterated in SF terms, to be moved by the Doctor’s recovery of his ‘nation’, his ‘people’, his ‘race’. As cynical and opportunistic as he may have been, Hitler was personally motivated by a racialist and nationalist ideology that he found inspiring and moving.
To anticipate an obvious question, I have no doubt that Davros is being sincere here. Indeed, I’m quite prepared to believe that a great deal of what Davros says to the Doctor is perfectly sincere. He surely knows that his only hope of convincing the Doctor is to be truthful. He is counting on the Doctor’s compassion. His idea is that compassion is a weakening vice that the Doctor cannot help indulging. And he may have a point, if we take the Doctor’s word for it that he came to Davros because Davros apparently needed him (and I see no reason not to). But, of course, the Doctor has a more nuanced view of things than Davros. His approach basically boils down to offering compassion warily, while keeping his brain switched on.
I’m rather inclined to admire what Moffat does here (I know, I’m a rubbish token Moffat-hater… I’m like the Colmes to Phil’s Hannity). I mean, I don’t think you can really boil that Doctor/Davros conversation down to them being honest or dishonest, either or both. I think it depicts something very true about life: that sincerity and insincerity are by no means polar opposites and mutually exclusive, and that people can be both sincere and insincere all at once. It is perfectly possible to create false impressions through telling the truth, or vice versa. Moreover, sincerity is not something we flick on and off like a switch, with us always in perfect control and perfectly cognisant of perfectly consistent motives or feelings.
If we take Davros and the Daleks to be metaphors for fascism (and, as imperfect as this metaphor may be, the episodes do nothing to reject this longstanding subtext in Doctor Who) then Moffat is resolutely saying that the fascist insistence upon ruthlessness, pitilessness and mercilessness are wrong and stupid, and yet fascism itself cannot be shown any mercy, precisely because to do so is to engage in moral relativism that ignores the content of fascism, equates fighting fascism to fascism itself, and permits fascism to get the upper hand. The Doctor seems to have gone to Davros with a guarded openness, heard him out, decided he’s bullshitting (albeit bullshitting via some tactically deployed sincerity), and acted with according decisiveness. This makes a lot more moral and political sense than a lot of previous Moffatian engagements with similar situations. It makes it clear (which it wasn't in the previous episode) that Davros' pathetic challenge is meant to be pathetic.
Fucking hell, is that progress I see?
Other aspects of the story work less satisfactorily for me, I’m afraid. For instance, the business with the Dalek occupant/machine interface actually altering meaning and intention as it travels from the brain or mouth of the occupant to the machine’s voicebox… though this is based on a superficially fascinating idea.
I wonder: is the interface actually altering the thinking of the Dalek creatures themselves, narrowing their range of thought by restricting the extent to which they can conceptualize thoughts and feelings? This makes me think of Orwell’s Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newspeak is an attempt on the part of the state to regulate thought by narrowing the range of expressible meaning. The goal is to make language a series of reflexes, like coughing. Words come from the throat rather than from the brain. Opinions become autonomic. A related goal is to make it impossible for you think 'Big Brother is ungood' because the sentence is semantically meaningless. It becomes like trying to conceptualize the meaning of the sentence ‘my hamster is February’. It makes dissent surreal. Ideological orthodoxy is thus enforced by language itself. (As with much of what Orwell gets up to in that book, the exaggeration contained in the totalitarian extreme hides a satirical intent applicable to capitalist democracies.) You might have the emotional sense that Big Brother is bad, but there’s nothing you can do with it. It is forced to stay in the unconscious. You can’t make it make sense to yourself, let alone to others. To state it is to sound like a lunatic, even to yourself. And so, in practice, it becomes impossible to say.
‘The Witch's Familiar’ clearly implies that Daleks might be able to feel certain things (and full props to Moffat for correcting the wrongheaded notion that Daleks are emotionless) but they get lost somewhere between the feeling and the articulation. And it seems as if the episode is saying that it's the range of language programmed into them - or into the interface between their brains and the machinery - which regulates what they can express. Even if you feel like you have an identity, this is edited out when you try to say it. The software that translates Dalek thoughts into Dalek words also translates the meaning into an ideologically orthodox one. Similarly, it translates fear - and most other strong emotions, apparently - into the impulse to kill.
This is a potentially powerful idea, redolent of the ways in which ideologically-loaded structures of communication discipline and punish attempts at stepping conceptually outside of the logic of a social system. It acknowledges fascism’s need to use and channel chaotic/libidinous/ecstatic emotions while also strictly controlling people, to engage their imaginations and ideals while also forcing them into orthodoxy.
But this doesn’t seem to happen to Clara. Perhaps, rather than being mentally affected, the Dalek creature is trapped inside a kind of prison which refuses to translate its actual thoughts and desires? This hinges on the degree to which the Dalek is a unified entity, materially part organism and part machine. Do they exist in a fuzzy, inter-penetrating unity with their shell and its onboard computer? Judging by the evidence of Clara inside the Dalek machine, it appears not. It appears that the Dalek is separate and distinct from its shell. It begins to look as if the loss of individual identity, the homicidal behaviour, and all the rest, is directly imposed upon the Dalek creature by technological force.
Does this mean that all Daleks are actually slaves, imprisoned within shells that strip them of identity, and manipulate and regulate their thoughts? They begin to look even more like the Borg than the Cybermen do, even down to mention of nanotech. If this were the case, surely the proper thing for the Doctor to do would be to try to free them. They become a population of prisoners rather than an evil species. It vitiates the race essentialism that has always made the Daleks an oddly ambivalent denunciation of fascism, but also makes the Doctor’s decision to drown them all in their own shit decidedly queasy.
And yet this doesn’t work either, because someone within a Dalek shell - i.e. Clara - can apparently retain their individuality and free will. So we have arrived back at the notion of the Daleks as voluntarily evil, which leads me to wonder what any of that stuff with Clara’s words being translated actually meant?
4. And then we have the obligatory timey-wimey
Nice as it was to avoid the scenes I feared involving the Doctor and little Davros bonding, I can’t help thinking what we got instead was very rushed, nonsensical, and glib. And it’s really only in there so that the episode can pull off a half-hearted time-loop reveal in the closing minutes, which doesn’t have much to say about anything.
If the story had showed the Doctor significantly affecting Kaled history, or even just the personal history of Davros, this would link up with the two episodes’ apparent concern with resurrecting old stories and reinterpreting them, both diegetically (with the shoved-in business about the Gallifreyan legends about a hybrid) and extra-diegetically (with all the continuity references to ‘The Daleks’ and ‘Genesis of the Daleks’). But it doesn’t really happen. Instead we are simply informed that one day the Doctor introduced little Davros to the concept of mercy. This very clunky notion is really only there so that the Doctor can realise something is up when Clara!Dalek is able to say the word “mercy”, which he alleges Daleks shouldn’t be able to say, thus solving a plot point with a paradox.
But… well, where do we start?
Moffat is pushing the idea that the Daleks do not know - or cannot vocalize, or possibly even conceptualize - concepts that we might think of as morally admirable (though, as noted, he gives no clear account of how this works). So, by this logic, why and how are the Daleks able to say ‘mercy’? Why is it possible for Clara to make the word come out of the Dalek voicebox? Why does the Dalek machine translate it properly? I think we’re supposed to assume that the Daleks can say the word because Davros knows about it, and they get it from him. But in order to make this work, Moffat has to unceremoniously dump into the story a clunky concept of the Daleks being psychologically linked to, and dependant upon, Davros. And if Daleks can say the word because of their link with Davros, why does it prove anything that the Dalek the Doctor is looking at can say the word “mercy”? They can all say it!
Why does little Davros need the Doctor’s intervention in order to learn the concept of mercy? Remember, the claim isn’t that the Doctor’s intervention teaches him to feel or appreciate mercy. Indeed, the story makes a meal of the fact that, pretence aside, he doesn’t. The story’s claim is that the Doctor teaches him the concept, and maybe even the word that goes with it. So little Davros has no concept of mercy before the Doctor shows up? Why does he think other Kaleds are trying to help him? Why does he think to ask others for help? I’m eliding the concept of ‘mercy’ with altruism generally, but then so does the episode.
And since when have Daleks not even known the words for things they dislike or disdain? That’d be like me not knowing the words ‘Trident’ or ‘coleslaw’ or ‘Piers Morgan’.
5. Miscellaneous Points