Dear Steven Moffat: The Witch’s Familiar


Dear Steven,

I had thought last week’s show was an ill-conceived mess; forty-five minutes of television that did to BBC viewers what Eric Gill did to his dog. But apparently I was alone. Serious journalists loved it. Patrick Mulvern, writing in the corporation’s old propaganda rag, the Radio Times, said boy, you delivered. Ben Travis in the Evening Standard thought it was “gripping” and “never over stuffed” and Den of Geek called it a “layered opener”. Well Steven, that told me. It told me something. I started to think very seriously about whether I’d mistaken focus for lack of focus, plot for fan service, and nerve shredding tension for stunt complications. And that was before I got to viewers’ tweets.

Perhaps, thought I, tuning into “The Witch’s Familiar” would clarify matters. If indeed “The Magician’s Apprentice” was a blockbuster opener, as the Radio Times claimed without prejudice, then the second part would pay off on all the good stuff set up in episode one. The Doctor would escape from Davros’s clutches, fight Daleks, escape into the void, meet his friends in the past and manoeuvre to prevent their deaths – perhaps daring to kidnap the young Davros and re-educate him, hoping to prevent the Daleks and his genocidal nemesis from ever existing.

The Doctor would have a clear goal. He’d have to wrestle with his conscience when dealing with Clara and how much of her fate he could reveal. There’d be the ethical and temporal dilemma of whether to strangle the Daleks at birth. The story would be full of tension, because as he was coping with an increasingly suspicious Clara at an earlier point in her timestream while trying to befriend the young Davros, the Daleks would be chasing the Time Lord throughout the universe, conscious their very existence was at stake.

But I should have known you’d have a better plan than that, Steven. Why go through that rigmarole when you can resurrect Clara and Missy with a technical cheat in the first thirty seconds, then spend the rest of the show with Davros and the Doctor engaged in a weird game of double bluff, in which each character’s in competition to see how many of the other man’s moves they’ve successfully predicted? Oh and let’s not forget Clara and Missy wading through Dalek shit. I have to say I never thought I’d see the murder droids attacked by their own sentient excrement, or indeed learn that they turn to crap when they don’t die. Given the impression some people had of last week’s story – not professional critics you understand, but bloody internet fanboys – it was brave to make “The Witch’s Familiar” about faecal matter. Lucky for you you’ve got so many fans who get paid to watch TV. Imagine what a detractor would do with a gift like that.

So even though this was a better story over two episodes and “Familiar” was more focused that the first part, I got the sense that overall this was the proverbial tale told by an idiot. What, ultimately, was this two parter about? Instilling the concept of mercy in the Daleks’ core vocabulary? THAT was the game changer?

Well no one could argue that such an idea, again, in another example of an ontological paradox, only occurring to the Doctor because of something he’d experienced as a consequence of something he’d already done in his future, wasn’t the most effective thing he could have achieved. Last week I suggested, like a cock, that young Davros should have been subject to a prolonged and, forgive me, merciless programme of character building, with the Doctor’s ethics, compassion and long-cultivated appreciation for humanoid life and dignity hotwired into the sprite before war brutalised him and made him a madman. But no. Talking about mercy so he’d internalise the concept (without acting on it) and walking him home (so he’d be safe to develop his fascist army) was thought to be enough. Thus ended the Doctor’s best ever chance of defeating his worst enemy without firing a shot and saving Gallifrey from the horrors of the Time War, restoring it to normal space, enabling him to go home and be happy at long last. But then we wouldn’t have had the “only other chair on Skaro” gag.

If the story was about nothing and amounted to a long game of ‘I thought you’d do that so I…’, then was our stay on Skaro enjoyable? If you boiled the episode down to its bare bones, which wouldn’t take long, then “Familiar” had two things going for it – the cold, foreboding atmosphere of the Daleks’ homeworld and an icy and sometimes moving performance from Julian Bleach. Had you gone with a less tricky plot – a script that wasn’t punctuated with the phrase, ‘ah ha, but…’, then his portrayal of an ailing Davros, looking into the abyss and wondering if it had all been worth it, might have carried real weight. But by making his exchanges chess moves in an odd game of one-upmanship with the Doctor, it undercut the drama of those scenes. How, exactly, could Davros have guessed the Doctor would offer him regenerative energy? That, given their history, seemed to me the longest of long shots. And how did the Doctor, who’d only learned of his predicament hours earlier, anticipate this oddball scenario?

Our Time Lord, it seems, always knows what’s going to happen these days and has the perfect out-of-the-box solution ready to go, including teleportation devices that simulate death by Dalek laser, a means to make the TARDIS fragment on command, and a convenient pair of sonic sunglasses. Steven, for the sake of getting impressionable teens to punch the air, you’re prepared to dress up contrivance as clever plotting. Why not take a risk on a clever plot with some real story and character development potential? Go on, we’ll wait.

Finally, the Daleks. Only two things to say. First, I wondered if Clara’s imprisonment inside one of the pepperpots was a forerunner of/echo of/parallel manifestation of her other self’s fate in “Asylum of the Daleks” but I suppose it was just a reused idea, as there was no allusion to the episode at all. Second, you added the Doctor’s enemy to the long list of show staples that you’re determined to Moff-splain using cod-psychology. The Doctor chose young faces in the past because he had body issues and now we learn his enemies say “exterminate”, not because they mean exterminate as we supposed, and they’re hellbent on murder, rather it’s an imperfect articulation of high emotion. That, and not the “anyone for dodgems?” joke, was the moment I wondered if your creative energies are focused on the right things.

Yours in time and cyberspace,


P.S: Clara’s giant eyebrows: were they larger in this episode, or am I going mad?

P.P.S: When Davros asked if he was a good man, I started to ask myself some searching questions. Not least, are you fucking kidding me?

P.P.P.S: So Davros programmed respect into the Daleks as a genetic defect; deference to a father figure. This is a quality that Davros understood to be essential when cementing his authority. As he’s internalised such a thing, it’s an even greater pity that the younger version wasn’t brainwashed – I mean, tutored by the Doctor. He’d have really listened to him. Could have saved a few billion lives. Still, onwards and backwards.

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Published in: on September 27, 2015 at 00:37  Comments (3)  
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  1. I’m less concerned about the technical cheats- it’s the exposition that shows Moffat at his laziest. Retconning in character motivations and history to curve-fit into a new backstory when he needs to propel the plot onwards for a couple more episodes. There was a reference to Missy’s daughter here too, I’m assuming this is why the Master and the Doctor have been best buddies all of a sudden (I’m further assuming will be Maisie Williams’ character). Given his penchant for exposition, telling these things instead of showing them, it’s jarring.

    The hybrid thing has been done before (Daleks in Manhattan), as has Clara as a Dalek (Asylum of the Daleks).

    Also, wait: had the Doctor not just left Davros to be killed on the mine-field, none of this would have happened? So teaching Davros the virtue of Mercy is what made the Daleks in the first place? For fuck sake?

  2. Well it’s obvious Davros survived the mine field because he exists in the future, so leaving him there would be a waste of an opportunity, but ultimately, having had the luckiest break in the universe and encountering his future nemesis as a vulnerable, impressionable child, the Doctor blew it anyway. All the races and individuals who found themselves looking down the business end of a Dalek will be grateful the Doctor was content to just introduce the young Davros to a concept he clearly didn’t take to heart – even if it ended up buried in the Dalek’s collective sub-conscious. That’s why I say he should have saved him, borrowed him for say, ooh, ten years, and turned him into a humanitarian like the Doc’s other companions. That, surely, is the intellectual and non-agressive way of preventing the Daleks being created. In “Genesis of the Daleks” the Doctor was concerned about a) actively wiping out a race and b) the ethics of going back in time and killing a kid, but if you took that kid on instead – planted a few good seeds, that seems to me a virtuous and noble compromise. Plus, would the mutated Kaleds really curse the Doctor for preventing their wretched, enslaved existence? A Dalek’s just a miserable squid really, programmed to be deferential and psychotic at the same time. Perhaps the most merciful thing you can do to a race of slaves bred to kill is to prevent them being enslaved in the first place…especially if they’re going to live forever but decay anyway, eventually turning into sentient shit. But fuck it, it’s obviously easier to do nothing instead.

  3. Even though i don’t fully understand why you keep watching the show if you dislike so much, i actually find your articles quite interestings. Life is strange.

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