The Witch's Familiar (Podcast/The Alchemist's Pupils)


Phil, once again atop someone else's post to announce the second episode of the Eruditorum Press Doctor Who Series 9 podcast, this time featuring a conversation between me and Jane on The Witch's Familiar. You can grab that here, and I hope you enjoy. Meanwhile, here's Jane with her own take on the episode in our very own Eruditorum Press version of her famed mirror threads at GallifreyBase.

Jane's Thoughts

First and foremost, I look at the various mirror-shots within an episode as a skeleton key for unlocking my interpretations. So, for The Magician’s Apprentice we start with shots of Missy reflected in her compact, and Clara reflected in the Doctor’s sunglasses; in The Witch’s Familiar we have both the Doctor and Davros reflected in an eye-shaped window in the Infirmary on Skaro.

Given the titles of these episodes, the mirror shots are strangely reversed. We’d expect the pairing of the Doctor and Davros in reference to The Magician’s Apprentice, in no small part because Bors refers to the Doctor as “Magician,” while the shots of Missy and Clara most easily translate to The Witch’s Familiar, both given the contemporary gendering associated with “witch” and how Missy likens Clara to a couple’s puppy, as pets are generally consider the “familiars” of witches.

But there are all kinds of student/pupil relationships in this episode, depending on your point of view. Clara could be the Doctor’s apprentice. So could Missy, given she steps into a Doctorly role here. Or maybe Kate is an apprentice to the Doctorly Clara. Hell, the Doctor could be Davros’s apprentice, given the cliffhanger, with the Doctor now wielding the Dalek equivalent of a sonic screwdriver. Colony Sarff, partaking of an animal motif, could be a “familiar” to Davros. And so it goes. All this is to say that I don’t think there’s any singular correspondence to elicit; rather, the general aesthetic of the Magician/Apprentice and Witch/Familiar relationships are highlighted here. Relationships which are rooted in a particular power dynamic, which we’ll get to eventually.

Anyways, the word “apprentice” is rather interesting, given the new monster that appears at the beginning of The Alchemist’s Pupils (my title for the two-parter as a whole). Here we see Hands with Eyes in their palms, which is actually a rather ancient symbolic motif: the Hamsa, primarily from Middle Eastern culture, is considered a talisman that wards off or protects against the Evil Eye. It’s particularly notable for being a matricentric symbol to ensure a healthy and successful childbirth. But in this episode of Doctor Who the monster is demonstrably portrayed as malevolent, sucking a soldier down into the ground.

But in mythology, which Doctor Who most certainly is, a trip under the earth isn’t synonymous with death. Rather, it’s symbolic (or more properly metaphoric) of a journey through the subconscious mind. So it’s in this context that I’m interpreting the story’s exploration of, for lack of a better word, nostalgia. For the story is obviously concerned with the past, from the plethora of continuity references to a classic time-travel trope whereby the Doctor is presented with the opportunity to kill boy-Davros well before the creation of the Daleks.

The thing about Mythology is that it’s a literary form that we can’t take literally. There are no monsters, there is no time-travel. As such, I’m generally disinclined to consider interpretations that hinge on reading the text literally. So I don’t see the Doctor’s pointing a Dalek weapon at the head of Boy Davros as a philosophical trolley-problem. Rather, as so much of the story suggests, I see it as meditation on our relationship to history and memory. Which is rather more alchemical, in the sense of material social progress, because it’s something to which we can all relate. We all have relationships to material history, and to our own memories.

And of course we have relationships to each other. And as this episode demonstrates, the roles we play in those relationships can and will change over time.  Clara, for example, has already demonstrated her ability to be Doctorish.  I wonder if this season we'll see her becoming Missyish, as suggested at the beginning of The Witch's Familiar when she asks for her own pointy stick.

But the really poignant metaphors, as far as I'm concerned, has to do with how the Doctor and Clara take on aspects of the Daleks themselves -- it's always about the monsters, not as scares, but what they represent.  When reading mythological texts, monsters primarily represent our inner fears and our inner demons; they can also represent the underbelly of society. 

Here we see the Doctor in the Chair of Davros (I'll be writing about The Chair Agenda next week) and of course this represents him grappling with what he feels is his complicity in the creation of the Daleks.  It's also a way for him to manifest his rage. 

While the Doctor's demons are embedded in the role he's played in history (and by the way, I love how his solution to his complicity is to foment class revolt), Clara's are more intimate.  Familiar, we might say.  For Clara is a control freak, and that includes tamping down those emotions which do not fit her own self conception.  The episode spells out the underlying issues -- Clara's still coping with Danny's death, but now she also has to deal with her negative feelings regarding the Doctor, specifically with regard to his suspecting (and likely hoping) that Missy had in fact escaped at the end of Death in Heaven.  So the Dalek casing becomes a metaphor for Clara's psychological process -- encasing herself in armor so the world can't see her face, and only now can her own negative feelings get channelled into acts of violence. She finally has a pointy stick.

And this whole process is kind of pointed at through other esoteric images conjured by the show.  In The Magician's Apprentice we see a reference to LOST, for example (the threat of crashing airplanes, and the establishment through dialogue that Boy Davros is "lost") and LOST is very much concerned with how we deal with our own regrets and personal traumas, which in time-travel terms is expressed by the desire to go back and change the past.  Interestingly, this reference is coincident with a couple of other recurring symbols, namely the Circle in the Square (which represents the union of the Divine and the Material Body) and the X Motif, which is centered on a circular axis mundi in the middle of a square, where Missy presents the Doctor's "confession dial" (a circle) to Clara by placing it on a square table.  This is done in shadow -- it's only our shadows that need confessing, not our light.

This icongraphy is repeated at the end of Witch's Familiar, when the Doctor grabs the confession dial from the Davros's box, another Circle/Square image. 

But the whole point of this is really about psychological integration.  "Let in the shadow, let in the light of your bright shadow," went Abigail's song in A Christmas Carol.  Which is to say, we are wont to reject the darkness that is part and pacel of every human being.  But that desire to reject the shadow can lead to the false belief that the darkness is not (or no longer) a part of who we are.  And often that leads to a certain kind of egotism, which often manifests as a kind of perfectionism, especially in regard to how we present ourselves to the world.  Which is Clara in spades. So the X, the Circle in the Square, it signifies integration, and this too is a thematic thread in this story.  Missy spells it out for us in the end:

"This is why I gave her to you in the first place.  To make you see.  The friend inside the enemy.  The enemy inside the friend.  Everyone's a bit of both.  Everyone's a hybrid."

And we even get one more image at the end to drive this home.  The Doctor and Clare stand upon a circle in the Dalek headquarters, but when the Daleks fire, an invisible force field protects them.  A force field that's square, of course, because it's the TARDIS.  And so our heroes escape, but look at the image presented us as it disappears: a union of Square and Circle, yes, but also the image of a Dalek inside the ghostly shell of the blue box. 

Finally, I really like that the Doctor's sonic is now embedded in his wearable technology.  Just the juxtaposition of an aural device with something that assists our vision is delicious in of itself.  But, moreso, I love the idea that the magic wand is now in the form of something associated with perception, the ability to see, which is ultimately a receptive action... as opposed to a screwdriver, which is a tool for manipulating objects, for gaining control, for exercising power-over... and which also happens to be a phallic symbol. 

So, yeah, I liked this one a lot, the second half much more than the first. 


ScarvesandCelery 5 years, 3 months ago

"I wonder if this season we'll see her becoming Missyish, as suggested at the beginning of The Witch's Familiar when she asks for her own pointy stick."
This is the possibility I find most intriguing - it seems that lots of fans want Clara to die in her departure from the series (that may just be my skewed perception of fandom), but this episode has the aforementioned "Pointy Stick" line and the line "You are the last person I would ever kill", which by implication suggests there are people Clara would kill.
The show's creators are saying Clara's departure will be heartbreaking, but I don't see why that has to mean death for her - what if she kills someone else, or does something that she considers "going too far", and leaves to protect herself and/ or the Doctor?
I mean, personally, I'm clinging onto the hope of a happy departure, but I think something like that would be more interesting than "Companion Death".

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Frezno 5 years, 3 months ago

I like this a lot, and not just because I picked up on the mirror symbolism in Series 8 on a rewatch and then wouldn't shut up about it. That series was all about Clara becoming a mirror of the Doctor, and it was all a scheme from the original mirror of the Doctor (at least when she first showed up in the 70's). Clara becoming a mirror of Missy? Now that would be a fall from grace, and though I adore Clara now I can't say it wouldn't be interesting to see.

I really like the reading about Clara hiding her face, not with a hug but with a Dalek casing. That makes up for my biggest gripe with the episode, which was that Clara did jack shit and existed to be Missy's "familiar"/punching bag for 45 minutes. I like the proactive Clara from Flatline, and sidelining Clara don't sit right with me.

As for the sunglasses... well, they're both silly and rad. Your reading is in stark comparison to a friend of mine's, who simply yelled "Fuck Moffat" over and over in review space. So yeah. Rad.

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Simon 5 years, 3 months ago

Ok, elephant in the room time. I know this site can't be arsed with any "hero's journey" readings, but what about the villain's journey? I think Moffat has shown us too many parallels this time to then politely sweep it under the carpet.

Davros is Vader. "But of course he is!" say both fandoms at once. Yes, but he's totally borrowed wholesale from Lucas in writing his origin story.

The "1138" reference in The Magician's Apprentice set off some major squeeing on Tumblr.
The child in the desert, we eventually learn is rescued by his future "enemy". He's born into conflict in this case, Skaro's endless war. As Anakin is born into slavery. Both are shown "another way", specifically by being shown the value of mercy (that's slightly a stretch, but the way of the Jedi is merciful). Both Davros and Anakin will have to rely on life-sustaining pods and "armour" to function. Their eyes will both be shielded or closed. They will raise unstoppable armies to forge their own empires, that aren't really their own. Their worst enemies will be their own friends.

Oh, and if the point wasn't hammered home enough, Davros paraphrases Vader with "I want to see with my own eyes".

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SeeingI 5 years, 3 months ago

I was intrigued by the vampire / cannibalism references in these episodes. You had vampire monkeys (seen only as glowing eyes), the Doctor accused Davros of "vampiring" off his creations, and then Davros exults that his Daleks "shall drink the blood of Gallifrey." The Dalek remnants emerge from the catacombs, and the hand mines thrust up as if from graves. Then of course Missy implies she may very well eat Clara, and Clara is, in a sense, eaten by the Dalek shell as well. And we already know from "Into the Dalek" that Daleks eat people. And of course, the whole story was a cannibalization of various bits of old Dalek stories!

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Ger of All Trades 5 years, 3 months ago

Combined with the stuff about ancient Gallifreyan legends of a terrible hybrid creature, this makes me wonder if we'll see the Great Vampires return in some form. It could all get a bit Faction Paradox.

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SeeingI 5 years, 3 months ago

Oh, YES please!

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UrsulaL 5 years, 3 months ago

Some random bits:

The hand mines might be considered a mirroring of the birth process - not expelling something into life, but drawing something down and in to death. An interesting attribute for a matricentric symbol.

Missy's "pointy stick" does seem rather like a magic wand, doesn't it?

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Jane Campbell 5 years, 3 months ago

Another interesting bit: Missy's story functioning as synecdoche. The first half of the story is about how to teleport away from danger, which is how she and Clara escaped. The end, on the other hand, involves falling into the Underground and confronting "vampires" -- which is how the Doctor describes Davros's feeding on Dalek heartbeats. And of course, Missy and Clara end up in the Underworld, too. :)

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Azure b 5 years, 3 months ago

Another point about their inverse arrivals/positions in pt1 and pt2. When Missy and Clara first arrived in pt1 the is camera peering down on them but then we see they're actually on high ground above the Doctor who is 'down low.'
Later Clara has a moment when she meets him, saying "This isn't you." Mirroring the moment in pt2 when The Doctor finds her in the Dalek and he is looking down on her.

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Azure b 5 years, 3 months ago

Oh, and both the Doctor and Clara appear to each other from their underworlds on, or in, a kind of "Tank", hiding their faces, and having inverse expressions of emotional catharsis. Both while trying not to do harm while being egged on to kill or do battle.

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Anton B 5 years, 3 months ago

Loving 'The Alchemist's Pupils' as an overall title. Guessing the pun on pupils as both students and eyes is deliberate. I'm racking my brain for a chance to use the phrase 'eyes as big as sorcerers'. Oh, I just did.

The Dalek gun is nothing if not a high tech pointy stick isn't it? "Don't get emotional it fires the gun!". What a perfect encapsulation of the Dalek's dillema. Daleks are (contrary to opinion and some lesser writers) not emotionless beings but creatures of strong emotions. Indeed they almost display signs of being what used to be called 'highly strung' and is now accepted as signnifiers of the autism spectrum. Their propensity to wave their arm around, scream and spin on the spot when distressed. Horrifically, their only outlet for those emotions is to lash out with deadly force.

I suppose this touches on the whole 'ableist' debate. Was the Doctor right to tip Davros out of his chair? Is he right to mock, as he always does, the obviously mentally deranged Daleks? Why has the "my vision is impaired" line now become a recurring jokey meme?

I'm not interested in a 'political' debate around this but I'd certainly like to hear opinions (Jane and anyone else) on the symbolic significance of the 'disabled' as both other, monster and magical entity.

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Azure b 5 years, 3 months ago

I love these interpretations. This stuff is like candy for my brain, thank you!
Couple of thoughts: Missy essentially calls Clara a pet, in Pt. 1, which of course foreshadows her role as the "Familiar" in Pt2. A 'Familiar' was believed to be demon or animal spirit that assists the Witch by changing it's shape to divine information for her and act as her spy (thus any old lady with a black cat, frog or stray dog as a pet was suspected of being a Witch). Clara the 'pet dog' in pt 1, becomes the Dalek in pt2 to help Missy get to The Doctor.
This transformation only occurs after they've gone below ground, after Clara attempts to threaten Missy.

Further thoughts on the meditation theme: In pt1, The Doctor says, "It's my party and all of me is invited..." then we hear him enact a number of different accents while confronting Davros. As "Davros remembers" so does The Doctor, by literally conjuring up past selves in this conversation. Meditation is acceptance of the whole self, dark, light, etc.

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SeeingI 5 years, 3 months ago

More mirroring - Clara is "a good Dalek."

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5tephe 5 years, 3 months ago

Alright Jane - so you like the sonic sunglasses, because they are mirrors. I get what you are saying, but think that unfortunately sunglasses themselves have far too much semantic weight of male, cool, aloof, bluster to let them be used subversively by the Doctor.

So a question: If the sunglasses go, and a screwdriver is too obviously phallic, then what should we have? What will Tamsin Greig wield during her tenure? Would a sonic wrench be still too "wave aroundy"? Matron Cofelia used a sonic pen, what does that say about her?

You're going to go for a Sonic Mirror, obviously. Is that what Missy is holding in that top image?

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