Fans of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who are used to looking to his earlier work for signs of Who to come.
But increasingly, it’s his 1999 Comic Relief skit, ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’, which looks less like a parody of the programme and more like a template for where it would head under his stewardship.
The Doctor regenerating into a woman; the Master teaming up with the Daleks; the Doctor’s instruction to ‘Look after the universe for me. I’ve put a lot of work into it,’ …. and now, with Saturday’s transmission of ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, we can add a fourth component to the list. Yes, the sewers of Terserus have found their reimagining in a series of deadly sewers under the Dalek city.
But then, as viewers of ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ will know, this two-parter isn’t just a greatest hits of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, it’s Now That’s What I Call Who (sic), 1963 – 1976. The remix.
Last Saturday’s episode may have delighted in throwing cameos and conceits at the screen, giddily sidestepping the question of how the plot threads would coalesce, save for the assurance that it would involve a boy with a destiny on a battlefield.
However, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ ditches much of the scene-dressing to deliver a tighter and more emotional plot. UNIT doesn’t appear at all, supporting cast members are ushered off the stage, and, in their place, the story revolves around two key relationships: Clara and Missy, and the Doctor and Davros.
Aah, Davros! Let’s pay a tribute to all those preview writers who managed to spin word upon word about this story without mentioning his name once.
Now we can. Phew! And it’s a necessity to do so, because what Steven Moffat does with the character – and what Julian Bleach delivers in performance – is at the heart of what makes this episode so special. We are all used by now to the sass of Steven Moffat’s writing: the jokes; the smut; the dancing, serious-minded frivolity of it all. But it’s less usual to expect lyricism.
Here, however – in lengthy scenes of two old men, each facing death, just talking – Moffat delivers poetry… and shows Davros doing three things you won’t have seen him do before.
It isn’t just talking, of course. The knowledge that Davros, no matter how frail, will always be a shifty old bastard is what pulses through these scenes like the twisted heartbeat of a Dalek mutant. You can’t take your eyes off either of them – Bleach, silken-voiced, never missing a beat, and Capaldi, simultaneously flippant and lugubrious, eyes filled with the horror and the wisdom of the Time Lord.
The title ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ may reference the episode’s second plot strand; but, in tribute to this series’ punning, misleading titles, we’re going to call it ‘Genocide of the Daleks’. Just because.
As for Missy: despite the events of the cliffhanger, it’s surely no spoiler to say that she appears in this episode, nor that her mania – in its Cockernee-Glaswegian spitballing – serves as gleeful contrast to Davros’s sedentary desiccation. But if you think that the Master’s sex change has only amped up the campness, think again. Michelle Gomez, too, gets her moments of malevolence, as Missy is prepared to be as callous and brutal as ever the Master has been.
It’s a great story, this – really a great story – and in the stillness and thoughtfulness of its best moments, it is a riposte to those who have come to regard Moffat’s writing as all punchline and no punch.
We can’t wait to see what the reaction is on Saturday night!
Airs at 7.45pm on Saturday 26 September 2015 on BBC One.
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