This is a spoiler-free review, though by its nature it contains spoilers for last week’s episode, The Magician’s Apprentice
Throughout the history of popular culture, the most cherishable aspect of any hero/villain dynamic is the opportunity for a chin wag. Those quieter moments when two foes put down their swords and have a chat. True of Holmes and Moriarty and Batman and The Joker across all incarnations, Steven Moffat knows this all too well; for The Witch's Familiar, episode two of Doctor Who's ninth series, is more or less just that.
There were fears that last week's The Magician's Apprentice, part one of this two-part adventure, didn't demonstrate focus or clarity enough to convince us that the extended running length was worthwhile, and that this follow-up would meander with just as much uncertainty as its predecessor. Without hesitation it is safe to say that these concerns are more than alleviated; turns out part one was, while imperfect, a necessary stage-setter, getting the four principle players in place to ensure that part two has plenty of space to breathe and flaunt its mastery. And boy, does it.
The Witch's Familiar is a tale of enemies and friends, and specifically about how those lines can be blurred, even in a rollicking fantasy universe such as Doctor Who. It ties the bad guy to the good guy twice over; with Jenna Coleman's Clara teaming up with Michelle Gomez' devilish Missy in one corner, and Peter Capaldi's titular hero with his other arch-nemesis Davros, played with show-stealing finesse by Julian Bleach, in the other. And that’s really it; it hits the ground running and sprints to a glorious crescendo with faults so few and far between you’ll have to look twice to notice them, but that’s all the episode is; two people that don’t get along, having a chat.
It’s a bafflingly simple premise given epic grandeur by Moffat’s weighty dialogue, Hettie MacDonald’s grim, funereal direction and of course the central enmity of the two star players, the Doctor and Davros, who remain side-by-side for virtually the entire episode. The highlight of any Davros story, above and beyond the exploding Daleks, corridor-chases and eleventh-hour plot resolve, is the oft-fleeting sequence in which the Doctor gets to talk to his foe; so with such a treat robbed of its brevity and stretched out over forty minutes, do the effects suffer? Short answer, not a jot.
Of course, somebody has to draw the short straw, and unfortunately that falls once again to Clara, who, while making for a serviceable punch bag to Gomez’ hilariously cruel Missy in the early stages of the episode, is then quite literally boxed-up and put to one side until the story needs her again. One continues to hope that Coleman’s moment is still to come, rather than banished to the depths of past series, but evidence pointing toward that hope is yet thin on the ground. Gomez suffers no such fate; she was excellent last week and she’s twice as good now – relishing in repeated, random acts of utter maliciousness just when you might be lulled into thinking she’s been downgraded to cuddly companion (one last display of treachery, during the episode’s climax, could well be the most sinister thing the Master has attempted in a long while). In an episode that she’s arguably superfluous to, she’s still almost the best thing in it.
Why almost? It all comes back to Davros. Last week’s surprise skyrockets to being the highlight of the overall story; Bleach turns in a performance unprecedented in its nuance, its intimacy and sheer quiet terror, rolling through waves of pathos, malevolence and – dare we say it – camaraderie with nothing short of total control over the character. Time and again this feels like a genuine send-off to a character that has been terrifying kiddies since the early seventies, and Bleach outshines the iffy prosthetics weighing him down, making Davros his own more than anyone who has graced the Dalekanium-lined wheelchair before him. There is no debate; Bleach is the greatest Davros and this is the greatest Davros story. Reverence it may have to the inspiring, Tom Baker-led original, but it – respectfully – outruns it with every superb development.
Nothing is perfect and The Witch’s Familiar is no exception – as well as the aforementioned wasting of Clara, the inevitable resolution is questionable (though gloriously “Classic Who” in execution), the Daleks are given some eyebrow-raising revisions to their Modus Operandi that we are asked to accept as though they were always there, and one of the Doctor’s favourite toys is given an unflattering makeover. But these are minor quibbles; it’s a streamlined, simple success led by three invincible performances, each a defining take on a decades-old character. There are lingering threads that promise an exciting, intriguing series to come and, as quite easily the best opening story since the show’s 2005 return, The Witch’s Familiar sets the bar sky-scraping for the remainder of series nine.
Classic Doctor Who stories don’t often get twenty-first century sequels, but if they’re all as good as this, then lavish them upon us.