It Was On The Planet Skaro (The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar)
|The hand mines were understandably agrieved that nobody had ever asked if they wanted chairs.|
It’s September 19th, 2015. Justin Bieber is at number one with “What Do You Mean,” while Sigala, the Weeknd, Ellie Goulding, Calvin Harris and Disciples, and Rachel Platten also chart. In news since the whole Dream Crab infestation got cleared up, gunmen killed twelve in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened in the civil war in Yemen, FIFA was rocked by a corruption scandal when US officials arrested a host of officials leading to the farcical scene of Sepp Blatter handily winning reelection as FIFA President and then stepping down a week later, the newly elected leftist government of Greece held a referendum on whether to defy the European Union on debt repayment and then immediately ignored the result. In the week before the story aired Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister in Australia, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, and it emerged that Volkswagen had been cheating on emissions tests, while over the week it aired John Boehner announced his resignation as Speaker of the House.
On television, Doctor Who is back. Last time we spoke about an actual episode, we noted that there would inevitably be some sort of price paid for the show’s arrogance, and particularly the decision to avoid changing things up at the end of Series Eight. Here, off the bat, we see it: 1.1 million viewers shed from Death in Heaven to The Magician’s Apprentice, and another .8 million for The Witch’s Familiar. This is the first time in the new series that a season premiere hasn’t broken the top ten, and the first time since The Eleventh Hour that a season premiere failed to top the previous season’s finale, and that was following the rather special case of Journey’s End. The previous nadirs of the new series ratings were, numerically, The Satan Pit with 6.0 million and Silence in the Library in 27th. Series 9 would see those records broken twice apiece, with The Witch’s Familiar and Under the Lake both notching record low numbers (5.7 and 5.6) while Sleep No More and Face the Raven came in at 28th and 30th place respectively, resulting in the first-ever season with no top ten episodes whatsoever. And the damage would continue into Series 10, which bottomed out with The Eaters of Light pulling just 4.7m viewers. (Which is actually the fewest viewers to tune into a Rona Munro episode ever, episode two of Survival having managed 4.8.)
It is easy to overstate how big of a problem this is, and numerous threads on GallifreyBase devoted to exactly that. A show that’s never dropped out of the top 30 and continues to produce massive international sales and significant merchandising is in no meaningful danger of cancellation. Doctor Who is simply too important to the modern BBC’s finances to be cancelled without some genuine efforts at improving it. (Consider their willingness to continue trying to make Top Gear work.) And it’s easy to unreasonably lay the blame on matters of quality. There’s reasonable evidence that the public didn’t take to Capaldi to quite the extent they’d taken to Tennant or Smith, but there’s no comparison to be had to, say, the Man in the Awful Coat. In the end, Moffat’s hypothesis that maybe having an unusually sparsely aired season trailer that climaxed with the declaration that the season was “same old, same old” was not the wisest promotional move ever is likely correct. And more broadly, the resurrection of John Nathan-Turner’s Earthshock logic whereby the return of Davros was kept a secret so that it became impossible to actually describe the premise of the opening two-parter beyond “it’s got Missy and the Daleks in it” was probably a bad call. (Ben Cook is left to spend three and a half pages of Doctor Who Magazine confirming that the Daleks are neat.)
But while the ratings drop is by no means a crisis, it does mark a clear transition to a new cultural role for Doctor Who. From the start it’s clear that Series Nine is geared towards core fans in a way no series has been before. The preponderance of two-parters alone makes it clear that this is a season catering to dedicated viewers who tune in every week or binge watch. And the opening of The Magician’s Apprentice is similarly uncompromising, starting with a Genesis of the Daleks homage that’s going to be genuinely incomprehensible to anyone who can’t identify the name “Davros” off the top of their heads, then jumping into a rapid fire series of callbacks to The Pandorica Opens, The Stolen Earth, and, perhaps most audaciously, an unaired web special. This isn’t “too much,” and complaints that it’s incomprehensible are going a bit far—Colony Sarff clearly explains who Davros is, for instance, and it’s as much explanation as he got in The Stolen Earth. But it’s wildly more than the series has done before, and certainly more than it’s done in a season premiere.
If this were simply a turn towards Saward-era fanwank with Moffat serving as his own Ian Levine this would be one thing. But leaning hard on series mythology isn’t inherently bad any more than it’s inherently good. When Missy talks about her friendship with the Doctor as something “older than your civilisation, and infinitely more complex,” she’s only slightly exaggerating the nature of a friendship that’s been portrayed in five different decades with eight different actors on each side. There’s an immediate density and richness that can be accessed with nothing more than a backward glance, and there are things you can only do when you have that sort of foundation to work from.
In many ways, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar is about this on multiple levels. The story is essentially about the Doctor’s relationship with three characters, all of whom had already been substantially developed prior to this episode. This story simply wouldn’t be possible if you had to build the relationships up from scratch instead of jumping in with them already formed. We talked about this a little already with Clara, who ends up having barely any scenes with the Doctor this story (indeed, a persistent oddness of the season is that Clara and the Doctor are somewhat aggressively kept apart), but whose scenes with him are predicated on how richly worked their relationship already is. Her brief scolding of him in the jail cell, with its pivot to “now you have to come back” is delightful and only works because she’s already established as a character who’s capable of so decisively playing a social situation, to the point where the tension when she’s squaring off with Missy earlier in the episode isn’t over whether she’s capable of single-handedly facing the threat but on what Missy actually wants, such that Clara’s “make me believe” turning of the scene plays as the anticipated delivery of a hero moment as opposed to the resolution of tension.
The fact that Clara and Missy are so well-developed is also where the story earns its basic structural trick of pairing them off so that the Doctor can sit in a basement with Davros for most of the story. It’s not even their existing antipathy over Danny, a point that’s basically squared away in two lines; it’s the basic dynamic of two forces of nature sharing screen time and pulling in vaguely similar directions. In this regard, the fact that Clara is more or less a peril monkey in the second episode is a bit of a letdown, giving Missy all the actual autonomy in the story while Clara gets tied up, shoved down a hole, handcuffed, and stuffed into a Dalek. But the conceit turns out to not actually need to resolve in order to be satisfying; pointing a camera at Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez works on a basic level that doesn’t really bother with things like “meaning.”
That end of the story is left to be held up by the Doctor and Davros, who do it with aplomb. Moffat has said that his basic concept for The Witch’s Familiar was that the Doctor and Davros were always satisfying when just talking to one another, so he figured he’d build an episode around them doing just that. And while that setup results in expected levels of showboaty Moffating (“the only other chair on Skaro” is endearingly sublime) the basic substance of the exchange is electrifying. Moffat engages in his usual metatextual whirlwind, explicitly acknowledging the basic sterility of the “was I right to create the Daleks”/“would I be right to destroy them” debate and doing the Killing Joke Batman and Davros share a laugh set piece, but when it comes time to settle accounts he pays up with aplomb, dropping “a man should have a race, a people, an allegiance” at exact right moment so that the Doctor and Davros’s moment of empathy happens coherently on Davros’s terms, in a rhetoric of pure, unbridled fascism. It does exactly what so many “the hero and the villain are mirror images of one another” stories don’t and actually bother to draw a line and say “here is the actual moment of reflection.” Indeed, it’s the one time the whole “Gallifrey is rescued but lost” plot actually justifies itself, turning the Doctor’s triumph in Day of the Doctor into horror by finding entirely reasonable grounds on which to say “which is exactly what Davros did.”
This sets up two things. The first is the absolute delight of the Daleks’ defeat in this one, literally drowning in their own shit because their sewers are revolting. This is a key moment of balance that makes the earlier tearing down of the Doctor work. It’s worth comparing to The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, a story Moffat essentially spends all of Series Nine lovingly picking at. When we covered that story we noted the fundamentally unsatisfying way in which Davros’s furious attempts to equate himself with the Doctor worked only because the Doctor did not deliver the obvious retort “fuck off you genocidal tosser.” Here Moffat deftly fixes the problem from both directions, giving Davros a killer line that actually cuts while still being unequivocal about the fact that the Daleks are full of shit.
Another way of putting this is that Moffat presents the Doctor and Davros not as mirror images but as a cracked mirror—a reflection that highlights differences. This is, of course, the key to the whole episode and indeed season; the reason Peter Capaldi is going to be exploring the full range of ways to deliver the line “like a hybrid” this year. It’s a downright fractal structure in the season, with its array of two-parters and nearly two-parters, but nowhere is the scale more dizzying than in Moffat’s scripts. Here the Doctor and Davros, the Doctor and Missy, Davros and Missy, Missy and Clara, and Clara and the Doctor all work together to form a cavernous hall of cracked mirrors in which every new concept can ricochet, finding an infinitude of new forms and resonances.
From this labyrinth, one key thing emerges: Capaldi’s Doctor. After a season in which he was largely buried under the particular expectations of casting an already well-known actor in the part, Capaldi and Moffat have gone back to the drawing board on him. Moffat talked in interviews about Capaldi reaching the point where he’s no longer “the Twelfth Doctor” but simply “the Doctor,” and in practice this means a substantially loosening up his performance. The costume is the most obvious part of this—the t-shirt and hoodie ensemble is scruffy and low-key in a way that veers suddenly from Pertwee to Eccleston. But that look in turn wouldn’t have worked with any of Capaldi’s Series Eight performances, and he accordingly modulates away from austere crankiness and towards something a bit more “goofy space dad.” Moffat and Capaldi sell the change in a single stroke with the guitar-on-a-tank entrance, but the deftness of the maneuver belies the scale of the transition. It’s absolutely essential, though, not just because it finally gives Capaldi room to breathe, but because large swaths of the story, particularly anything in the basement with Davros, simply wouldn’t work without this new slouching, meandering Doctor who can lurk mercurially around the edges of the room in a way that never lets us forget the inherent danger of the setup.
And so we’re off again, with the clearest vision of what Doctor Who is and what it’s for since Moffat’s first season. It’s a more insular vision, yes—this is Doctor Who for Doctor Who fans. But eight seasons of work have gone into ensuring that there are enough of those to make something catering exclusively to them still be a modest, respectable hit. It’s nowhere near the biggest thing on television and it’s not trying to be. What it’s trying and, this week at least, succeeding at, though, is being brilliant, weird, unlike anything else, and something only Doctor Who could be. That’s always been the point of the exercise, and the world would be a far poorer place if it hadn’t tried being this for a year.
July 9, 2018 @ 10:15 am
Superb, as usual. Unsurprisingly given the Capaldi renaissance, these newest Eruditorum entries are a real leap up in quality from an already high bar. Always a joy to read.
Might I ask, Dr Sandifer, if you are intending to cover “Sense8”? Seems pretty essential to me if one intends to talk about science fiction in the 2010s and what it means to be a properly diverse show. It’s a long way off actually being one, of course, and the Wachowskis’ reliance on racist tropes is well-noted, but it is further ahead than Capaldi Who for sure, and fascinating to analyse as an effort from those so rooted in a Western cultural background to step outside of it and engage with various other cultural milieux (I’d have preferred the different segments in different languages, but this is why I’ll never succeed in making a popular TV show, even an idiosyncratic one). It also has to my (disclaimer: cis) mind the most flat out positive trans representation in an SF show, with no lazy transmisogynist tropes in it that I could see (again, no authority on the subject though).
Plus, of course, Sylvester McCoy’s in it.
July 9, 2018 @ 3:05 pm
“Sylvester McCoy’s in it.”
This probably shouldn’t be the thing that makes me watch it, but it might be.
In a similar vein, only yesterday did I realise that Jenna Coleman is in the first Captain America film (for about two minutes as Bucky’s date, but she does get lines).
July 9, 2018 @ 7:54 pm
Sylvester McCoy was in it, in the sense he was introduced and then the show was cancelled.
I do find that sadly hilarious.
July 9, 2018 @ 10:23 am
The Witch’s Familiar gets better on rewatch, when you realise that this is Capaldi’s Doctor, or at least a version of him, whereas at the time it felt so different it was startling.
These episodes for me are so hard to quantify. I find The Magician’s Apprentice a dull, over-long, underplotted episode, and The Witch’s Familiar a taut, well-constructed episode. Really however, this fails to argue for it being a two-parter, instead of an hour-long episode. However, this is partly because the highs of Series 9 are so high the relative low of The Magician’s Apprentice feels lower than it is.
It’s also interesting that “Doctor Who for Doctor Who Fans” is also so aggressively against much of the trappings. It’s the season with Sonic Sunglasses, Sleep No More, a parody of the RTD-style arc in the Hybrid, and Hell Bent. It’s for fans, but not the “Fans” of Gallifrey Base.
Ultimately, it’s a good thing this season exists, and also a sign that a return to the headline-grabbing approach Chibnall seems to be going for is not only inevitable but desperately needed.
July 9, 2018 @ 11:14 am
It must be far the biggest gap in quality between the episodes of any two-parter. And it’s really startling that an episode with as little in it as TMA gets an extra-long running time.
July 9, 2018 @ 10:57 am
This two-parter is a really weird one for me. I definitely enjoyed it but I spent the entire story feeling that I must’ve missed an episode – or a season – somewhere. The Doctor thinks he’s dying – again? (What was that about, anyway?). Davros is dying? Skaro is back? Missy is alive? And now she’s the Doctor’s friend and has always been? What the hell is going on and why am I watching highly emotional scenes between the Doctor and Davros with no build-up to them whatsoever?
Having read this essay, I now realize what I was missing was the context of DW lore. I’ve never watched Classic Who and although I know my facts, reading about a relationship on a wiki is not the same as experiencing it on-screen. (I’m still not sure why the “we’re on Skaro!” reveal was supposed to be such a big deal – Eleven visited Skaro in “Asylum of the Daleks”…). For me this new DW for fans didn’t quite work and so I can understand why .8 million viewers didn’t bother to watch the second episode.
Having said that, the scenes between the Doctor and Davros were amazing and watching Missy and Clara is always a delight. The new Twelfth Doctor was a welcome change after the spiky old one and I like how this warmer persona only emerged after he realized in “Last Christmas” how much it would hurt him to lose Clara.
This two-parter was also the first story, I think, to really showcase this Doctor’s propensity for self-sacrifice. Willingly using your regeneration energy to help your arch-enemy? Previously he only did it for River (and she did it for him) so this scene was really something else. Even if he secretly planned to use it to defeat the Daleks, that’s still a remarkable willingness to risk your literal life force.
Fan question: so what was the deal with the confession dial anyway? I feel like it was never properly explained (or explored) and so when it turned out to be the Doctor’s prison in “Heaven Sent”, the supposed impact of this device being misused as a torture chamber by the Time Lords was lost on me. Why did the Doctor suddenly decide he needed it? And what was he planning to do with it?
July 9, 2018 @ 11:35 am
I assume the Doctor was afraid that answering Davros’s summons would result in his death. And he was afraid of landing on Scaro because he was worried about Clara – a planet full of Daleks tilts the balance of power to such an extent that he was worried he wouldn’t be able to protect her. That was my reading of the situation anyway.
And personally I didn’t think the Classic Who lore was required to appreciate the Doctor/Davros introductions. Remembering Stolen Earth/Journey’s End was enough, and even without that, Moffat tries to implement all the necessary context into the episode itself with the child Davros segment.
July 9, 2018 @ 12:24 pm
Neither of those worked for me. Child Davros was a new invention and, barely having any characterization and being a very obvious plot device, left me a bit cold. The Doctor-Davros relationship in “Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” was one of arch-enemies (with some not very successful mirroring) so when they acted like almost-friends with a long and painful history here, I was mostly confused (and that’s knowing they have a long and painful history).
I think the emotional scenes work because there’s decades of continuity establishing Davros as Important Enough To Matter That Much… but absent actual relationship-building on-screen, it doesn’t fully work for me. I have the same reservations about “reforming Missy” arc in Series 10. It’s just not developed enough to support all that emotional weight and character development.
July 9, 2018 @ 10:59 am
“Here the Doctor and Davros, the Doctor and Missy, Davros and Missy, Missy and Clara, and Clara and the Doctor all work together to form a cavernous hall of cracked mirrors in which every new concept can ricochet, finding an infinitude of new forms and resonances.”
As Elizabeth says, this era is increasingly for Doctor Who fans, and so assumes an audience more aware of the twisting, meandering strangeness of Doctor Who history – and hence have a larger pool of meme material to draw on.
Between ‘like a Hybrid’ and ‘Don’t forget to subscribe to the official Doctor Who YouTube channel,’ Capaldi’s Doctor is defined much more strongly by memes than any of his predecessors, which adds some interesting context to the #DoctorWhoOnTwitch phenomenon, imo.
Basically what I’m saying is… was Peter Capaldi’s hair the Hybrid, and did it remember to subscribe?
July 28, 2018 @ 10:23 am
“Between ‘like a Hybrid’ and ‘Don’t forget to subscribe to the official Doctor Who YouTube channel,’ Capaldi’s Doctor is defined much more strongly by memes than any of his predecessors, which adds some interesting context to the #DoctorWhoOnTwitch phenomenon, imo.”
Interesting points William – I like the connection of the hybrid idea going beyond the TV show itself. Could it be the case the the show that was historically a TV show is no longer one now strictly, and has itself like its characters mutated? ? Is the show the hybrid?
I watched a lot of the show on the Twitch marathon, which was quite a brilliant experience. I always had the chat stream on to the side (essential!) and it was near impossible to keep up with it at times as it went so fast, especially when interesting moments happened onscreen. It felt like the show through this experience had morphed into something else, something new. I look forwards to seeing if El covers Twich Who here at some point.
July 9, 2018 @ 11:06 am
I really like the observation about mirroring, and I’ll be interested to see how that pattern plays out over the remainder of the season (beyond the Zygon Inv’s obvious profusion of yokefellows).
July 9, 2018 @ 7:41 pm
Is the season a mirroring of Series 4? The penultimate go, but one that becomes quiet and sombre, not grandiose. Which uses Daleks and Davros immediately, as the set-up for a joke, in a story with a counter idea of Davros, whilst still making him as monstrous? And ends with ditching the Time-War instead of remaking it? And rejects the ending of the entire Series?
This feels both surprisingly well-thought out in parts.
July 9, 2018 @ 11:27 am
I think the best thing in this is easily the detail of Clara’s words being changed while she’s in the dalek. “You have a race now” and “your sewers are revolting” are great, but they’re just moments. But the idea of people being shaped by the limitations of what their environment allows them to express is intriguing, and it’s certainly a more satisfying idea for what makes daleks the way they are than “their genes are evil”.
(That’s how you tell a better story. Just tell the better story. Simple.)
Otherwise, I find the idea of meaningful long-term relationships between the Doctor and the Master/Missy/Davros just doesn’t survive the way different writers have been writing these characters in very different ways to fulfil very different purposes. The best depictions of them beyond their initial conception, seem to me to work by creating what’s essentially a new character, but which gets these extra resonances and position in the narrative by kind of reflecting ideas of the old character. When Davros does his “everyone should have a race” thing, what you need for that is just “fascist” and “has a long-term relationship with the Doctor”. But if you invoke much more detail, then I don’t know whether I should be thinking of the corruption at the centre of the web of Revelation, or the ineffective side attraction of Remembrance, or…
July 9, 2018 @ 1:57 pm
But the idea of people being shaped by the limitations of what their environment allows them to express is intriguing, and it’s certainly a more satisfying idea for what makes daleks the way they are than “their genes are evil”.
I’d agree up to a point on intriguing, but I’m not so sure about satisfying. It’s too mechanistic and restrictive. Instead of the harmonious parallels between the physical and mental nature of the Daleks and the psychological and cultural rationale and resonances of their outlook (“their genes are evil” is a prominent concept in the tradition, but far from being the whole of it), we get “the machine they’re locked inside intervenes to stop them saying or doing anything else”. (The electronic “secondary brain” in Into the Dalek was a less imaginative take on the same approach, and I didn’t like that either.) It has some passing interest as a one-off loose metaphor, but I don’t think has much in the way of legs on it.
And the idea that Daleks talk and act like Daleks not because they think like Daleks but because they’re mechanically prevented from doing otherwise, regardless of what’s going on inside, is basically incompatible with the dramatic and emotional logic of all existing Dalek stories. I know, there-is-no-continuity-in-etc-and-so-forth, but still.
(Also, getting down to literal trivialities, “emotion fires the gun” is just hilariously daft from a practical point of view. Their guns would be going off unintentionally all the time. Any group of Daleks would have to operate like Weeping Angels, at all times meticulously avoiding facing towards each other, because otherwise as soon as one of them felt anything it would shoot another, triggering a chain reaction of alarm and anger that would leave few survivors. Quite apart from the effect on their buildings, spacecraft etc.)
July 9, 2018 @ 2:16 pm
I may not have communicated successfully. The scenario I’m thinking of is one where daleks really do think and act exactly how we’ve always thought they think and act. But what teaches them to all think and act that way is that any attempt to do otherwise… just doesn’t work, there’s no way for it produce any positive feedback. They’re full of hate because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn anything except hate. The machine hardly ever needs to intervene, the certainty that it will causes them all to internalise its logic to cope with their environment.
July 9, 2018 @ 4:39 pm
How would you tell whether that was going on or not though, or how pervasive it was? When non-compliance is automatically screened out, any such conditioning effect becomes rather redundant. And the very existence of the system implies that non-compliance is quite common, or there would be no need for this apparatus to override it. We are left with no particular reason to suppose that thinking in un-Dalek-like ways is a rarity among Daleks.
July 10, 2018 @ 10:34 am
If the scenario from Resurrection where a dalek creature is outside of its machine and it still tries to kill people happens reliably, then you know daleks do reliably think like classical daleks, Since there should be billions (at least) of daleks getting into fights, and some of them ending up like that, there should be plenty of data. And that sort of thing can be reliably known by the Doctor from historical records, consistently reported by everyone the daleks have fought throughout history.
But it’s a fun area for ambiguity too. What if all those consistent reports are actually propaganda? Is that possible? Good exercise for the “analysing war as a concept” mental muscles.
July 11, 2018 @ 9:53 am
My favourite thing about this idea is the way that it makes the Daleks work like actual fascists do. Fascist societies aren’t built out of inherently evil people but normal people whose worldviews have been so warped by the society around them that they’re willing to be part of a system that does hideous things. So if the Daleks are to be read as the Ur-Fascists of Doctor Who, it’s neat to have them be a race of people who aren’t just inherently evil but to have them be a race which, due to the way their society is built, have no choice but to be evil.
(Which also ties in neatly to the idea of the episode revolving around Davros, the person who figured out how to make a race of people dedicated to extermination and racial purity not by breeding a race of blobs who inherently hate but by breeding a race of blobs and cutting off their ability to do anything but hate from them. This episode really manages to sell how Davros’ ideologies directly fed into how he created the Daleks and made them who they are.)
July 16, 2018 @ 4:47 pm
Such systems, though, only take hold in the first place because they have something to offer people, and only endure by keeping a critical mass of people actively on-side. The social “machine” shapes and coerces those inside it, but ultimately it only works because of human choices, and this metaphor cuts across that responsibility. (Admittedly, surveillance and automated enforcement technology may be approaching the point where tyranny can effectively dispense with its dependence on human decision-making, but we’re not there yet, and that’s an issue that warrants being approached more directly in a sci-fi context.)
To me it’s more engaging to consider how thinking like a Dalek makes a kind of sense if you are a Dalek, rather than in terms of outside constraints that bypass thought. They are the logical extension of a society traumatised by war and optimised for war at the expense of everything else, a person reduced to a vestigial form to serve as the controller of a weapons system, through which alone they can interact with the outside world. They are flesh without any of its pleasures, a sentient living thing made part of an engine built for killing, doomed to spend their lives in a mechanical cage, which protects them and provides for them and makes them powerful, but locks them away from movement and variety, sensation and contact, and leaves them fearful of how vulnerable they would be without those fortified prison walls around them.
Imagine then the temptation, the readiness, the need to believe and embrace and proclaim what you have been told, that this deliberate mutilation, constriction and instrumentalisation of your life elevates and ennobles you, is a thing not of horror but of glory, that it makes you more and better than anyone else. And implicit in that is the drive to detest and disdain all those others who live as you might otherwise have done, with their fun and games, their aesthetics and indulgence, the open possibilities of their lives. To declare that all that has been taken from you is decadence and softness, that value lies only in the steely power and purpose which has been given to you and for which you have been shaped. To drown out all murmurs of envy and yearning, sadness and self-disgust with loud and strident affirmations of superiority, superiority of a kind that can be made real only by its enaction through the defeat of those who cross your path and whatever alternative ways of being they represent. To silence in death or mute servitude every voice that speaks of other kinds of worth, that does not echo and affirm your claims in the same shrill note. A silence which serves as the most eloquent demonstration of the cosmic principle you embody: that strength is above all else because it can sweep away all else, and that all that does not serve the ends of strength breeds weakness and invites humiliation and destruction.
Whatever its problems, I find that sort of directly psychological and cultural notion of what makes a Dalek more satisfying than one that outsources causation to an automated process, even if this approach is also not wholly consistent with the way they have sometimes been represented in the series. But all this is as much a matter of taste as anything.
July 9, 2018 @ 5:03 pm
When humanity finally hacked DalekNet, the first thing we did was send countless spam messages asking “Do you suffer from premature extermination?”
I did like the scene, though. Yes, it doesn’t make sense if you apply continuity to it (not only do Daleks That Learn To Not Be Daleks not work, neither do Daleks That Attempt Any Kind of Deception Where They Pretend To Not Be Daleks), but for this particular scene it’s perfect. The Doctor faces a Dalek which has Clara inside it, but this time, she can only talk Dalek at him…
July 9, 2018 @ 2:57 pm
These episodes blew me away at the time, and this has been a typically excellent examination of them :-).
July 9, 2018 @ 6:08 pm
Never commented before, but have absorbed and loved every aspect of the Eruditorum since I discovered it. What prompted me to comment now is to add my voice to the request that Elizabeth does a side trip to comment on Sense8. I have been thinking this since Netflix first posted season 2. But want it even more after I watched the series finale (which I think turned out to be an entirely different beast to the show I fell in love with. The show was one that I really hoped had legs, but never really found a sufficiently large audience to justify what must have been enormously expensive to produce. And, not only does it have Sylvester in it, but a much larger role for Freema (who we haven’t commented on since the revised Doctor Who seasons 3 and 4). Amongst an ensemble cast, the Neets (Freema) and Nomi relationship stands out as the first amongst equals. Please E, give us that Pop Between Realities.
July 9, 2018 @ 6:31 pm
No current plans for Sense8, but I’ll consider it for the book.
July 9, 2018 @ 7:53 pm
Genesis of the Daleks was my first Doctor Who story, back in 2007. Lance Parkin’s Davros was my first Big Finish. And I always felt betrayed by the lack of proper classic and Special Weapons Dalek action in Asylum of the Daleks.
Basically, Moffat would have had to seriously fuck it up for me not to love this, and instead, he delivered the “brilliant, weird, unlike anything else” part of the equation beautifully. One of my favorite new Who experiences was realizing that he’d pulled The Witch’s Familiar off, a fantastic start to NuWho’s most ambitious and rewarding year outside Series 5 itself. (In some ways, 9 is better, but I have a real soft spot for Series 5 as the season that swayed me that actually, this NuWho stuff was a worthy successor to the cheesy and brilliant old sci-fi show I’d fallen in love with after all.)
July 10, 2018 @ 4:09 am
A lot about The Witch’s Familiar reminds me of the classic series, and not just the overt visual homages. There is a deceptive, fable-like unflashiness to its story and how it ultimately wraps up – Davros was lying but hoists himself by his own petard, Clara is freed from her predicament after a bit of a self-contained standoff, then the Doctor has the Daleks fooled and neatly exits on a wholesome gag (the sunnies, which have been quietly set up since part 1). No earth-shaking sacrifice, no big action sequence, no startling revelations or plots set in motion, no grand speech, and very little in the way of time-travel twists, it’s almost the anti-NuWho episode…but, tucked away in the crevices, all sorts of idiosyncratic and curious little details existing mostly unto themselves. It feels like Moffat experimenting in paring down his style, and in the process coming up with a slightly askew design that seems to beg to be explored.
Even the titles, which may have been little more than a visual joke on Moffat’s end, are dizzying in their possibilities (how often do Dalek stories even bring up magic? Apart from that one about alchemy, of course). Clara as both apprentice and familiar, Davros as first apprentice then witch, Dalek-Clara versus Sarff as familiars, the sonic versus the sharpened stick/Dalek gun as ‘magic wands’, Missy versus the Doctor as stewards of Clara… several of these also having their own implications for the series theme of the Doctor and Clara’s destructive relationship.
Then beyond all that we have the unspeakably evil colony of snakes smugly declaring itself to be a democracy (hmmm) and constructing a visual performance of humanity, funhouse-mirroring Davros who constructs his own performance of humanity so he can greedily exploit more of the naturally occuring resource in the Doctor’s veins than his society can even handle, thanks to its being built atop layers of forgotten restless dead. The Dalek city pulled down into the earth as if grabbed by a giant Handmine from its own past.
Daleks as direct extrapolations of Davros’ own psyche, and that in turn expressed as a linguistic field, which defaults in the face of big ideas like affection or understanding, but in which something he heard as a child once might pop up somewhere if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, the entire fake-ethical-dilemma of abandoning young Davros quietly punctured by the fact that the Doctor is completely wrong about what Davros is really shaming him for until the end of the story when he actually does it. The glib save-the-children ending ever so slightly undercut by the fact we know the Doctor’s setting up Clara to free herself in the future.
The breathtaking perversity of Davros’ emotional congratulation of the Doctor stemming from the former’s own fascist beliefs, but nonetheless being played like a sincere tearjerker bit with Murray Gold’s encouragement, absolutely delighting in the dozen or so competing responses this provokes from the viewer in a span of a few seconds. It’s not even clear if this is television that wants to accuse us, accuse the Doctor, accuse itself, encourage pity for Davros, encourage us to take a step away from the show’s own audiovisual logic to assess Davros coolly, or some hopelessly knotted ball of all of the above while we stare into the screen pulling the same face as Capaldi after the final punch of the diamond wall.
And that’s just the overview… It makes some mild plays at being a bombastic series opener, but is more bizarrely dense and rabbit-holey than most of Moffat’s entire catalogue. Not everything comes off, but it simmers with potential.
A curious and amusing phenomenon from not long after the premiere – the BBC did a special airing of this story in an uninterrupted 90-minute omnibus edition, inserting a white-text-on-black “Part 2: The Witch’s Familiar” title card inbetween the two episodes. I don’t believe they repeated this for any of the subsequent two-parters, possibly because hardly anyone watched, but it was a fun idea while it lasted.
What stuck out there was how much it improved the balance of the story; the wheel-spinning of Apprentice plays more sensibly as the opening act of a feature-length than as its own episode, and the cliffhanger/resolution snaps perfectly into place as the midpoint status quo change (whereas it somewhat tried the patience with a week’s wait inserted). It’s like a return of Moffat’s cinema-screening pacing from Deep Breath, but without the cinema screenings.
July 15, 2018 @ 1:14 pm
Indeed. Sarff’s smug declaration of “We are a democracy”, as though it makes him less morally repugnant, might be the most pointed jab at neoliberalism Moffat ever put in a script.
July 14, 2018 @ 10:38 pm
The mercy “implantation” doesn’t work. If Davros had grown up knowing mercy and programming mercy into the Daleks, then the Doctor would be familiar with Daleks knowing about mercy all along. But if he hadn’t been shocked by Clara’s pleading, he wouldn’t have gone back in time.
July 15, 2018 @ 1:24 pm
That’s debatable. Both times Moffat invokes “the Dalek concept of mercy” (The Big Bang and here) it’s played as a surprising, uncharacteristic moment i.e. something we don’t normally hear. TWF justifies this by suggesting it’s “a /tiny/ bit of mercy in their DNA” so something that’s not normally evident, but rather subconscious. The logic of how it got into the Daleks is quietly set up earlier on in the episode when the Doctor remarks to Davros, “everything you are, they are”. The Daleks are here portrayed as emanations of Davros’s own personality, so it doesn’t even have to be as literal as Davros intentionally going out of his way to specially program mercy into their vocabulary.
July 28, 2018 @ 10:31 am
Love these episodes and the weirdness present in them and the imagery and as you say El, in this season from early on the fractal mirroring of all the possible iterations of the concept of the hybrid is quite lovely. And those scenes with Capaldi and Bleach – electric.
October 13, 2018 @ 4:16 pm
While I agree that the new, season nine Capaldi makes for an interesting sparring partner for Davros, it would have been something to see the take-no-prisoners season eight Capaldi get in Davros’ face, and not humour or pity him as previous Doctors have done.
March 7, 2020 @ 12:19 am
Very late coming to this, but there is one thing I can’t quite figure. How did that ordinary looking boy suddenly transform into a Davros who is described as a mutant in Genesis of the Daleks? I would have thought he would have been unusual looking from birth, not suddenly changed to have a single eye and all those other alterations. A small point, but it bothers me whenever I watch that opening sequence.
March 26, 2020 @ 11:22 pm
Bit late to the party as well but unless I’m mistaken, Davros is not a mutant, he was a normal Kaled man but he got in a terrible accident that crippled him and rendered him the way he is now