Dying of the Past, Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar, Reviews, 27/09/2015

And so the rotted, grotesque horrors of the writhing undead exploded from their mass graves in an earthquake of slime and terror to drown and choke their descendants in bubbling ichor. Honestly, there are few better endings than that.

Much has been made of the seeming meaninglessness of
the titles of this story, The Magician's Apprentice and The
Witch's Familiar
. Here's my take. Part One sees Clara
taking on a Doctor-ish role as she tries to track him down.
The child Davros eventually learns about mercy and
compassion from the Doctor. They're apprentices. Part
Two sees Davros and the Master carrying the show as
the Doctor and Clara draw out their malevolent natures.
They're each the familiar of a villainous witch.
It was much better than the actual last moments of the episode, where the Doctor returns to grant the child Davros a moment of mercy. It’s been done many times before, the idea that the Doctor can rewrite the past of the Daleks to make them just a little less malevolent or a little less brutally powerful. According to Phil Sandifer, this idea has recurred in Doctor Who since Genesis of the Daleks.

I find it very appropriate that The Magician’s Familiar two-parter has transmitted the week that I’ve started reading Phil's book of TARDIS Eruditorum essays on the Peter Davison and Colin Baker eras of the show. That book collects the essays that cover the decline of Doctor Who in the early-mid 1980s.

There are many reasons why Doctor Who declined in that era, which Phil explores in depth. The reason most important for this story is that the show’s producers thought that what the popular audience wanted was the ersatz return of old monsters and continuity porn.

For the whole story of this collapse, and Phil’s quite brilliant diagnosis of the mess, you should just buy his book. The epub version is only US$5 from Smashwords.

But I thought at first that The Magician's Apprentice was starting to slip down this hole. The first episode this season was filled with a ton of continuity points and echoes to past iconography, most of which didn't really serve much purpose and cluttered the story with images and plot points that a non-superfan audience would have trouble picking up on.

Images of the long-dead William
Hartnell haunt Doctor Who today.
The first episode included sound clips and images of the Doctor's classic-series confrontations with Davros going all the way back to Tom Baker in Genesis, including Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. The Daleks themselves included designs from the whole history of the show. William Hartnell’s image appears in the Master’s story segment that opens The Witch's Familiar

Even Davros' talk of creating a Dalek - Time Lord hybrid evoked the ideas of the most beautiful catastrophe of the Davies era, Evolution of the Daleks.

The dead past of Doctor Who still lives, and it bubbles up from forgotten margins and joking sequences to drag the show underground with its gravity.

The first episode worried me that, having unified the classic and current series in The Day of the Doctor anniversary special, Steven Moffat was letting his inner fanboy leak too much into the show's production. 

He's now a lifelong fan who’s held the chief producer’s role longer than anyone except Nathan-Turner. His story and philosophical ideas are already starting to repeat themselves. And if he isn’t careful, the continual insertion of nods to the past will overcome any creative impulses that can push Doctor Who to new directions.

The continuity and imagery of Doctor Who's past is part of its legacy, but its re-emergence without having been transformed to fit what progress would be in the present will only choke the show's own creativity and originality. That happened once already, in the mid-1980s. And it can happen again, so we must always be on guard in case it does.

But it looks as though Moffat already understands that his time is limited. At least judging by that ending, whose meaning is pretty clear to me.

I've also been impressed with the casual grotesque body
horror thrown around Doctor Who this season. I don't
have any profound reason for liking it. I just do.
The Hamza landmines that menace the young Davros on the battlefield warn of danger. In our mythology, they’re wards to protect you from evil. Diegetically, they’re markers of death. They haul you into a muddy, slimy ground. Burying you alive.

As Clara and the Master break back into the Dalek city, they go through tunnels whose walls are made of the living dead. Corpses that have decayed to slime, but still live. Although Skaro is a planet of creatures who are made to kill, its society and its earth are made of creatures that can never die.

The past made real, given the energy of life, rises from the muddy wastes of decimated, zombified earth, and drowns all hopeful life in its ocean of liquified flesh. That energy comes from the Doctor, a character who is essentially a living beacon of hope, progress, and optimism.

Remember what Clara says about the Doctor as she and the Master begin their trek back to the city. The Doctor survives because the first thing he does is assume he's going to live.

Davros’ scheme – overcomplicated and slightly insane in the grand tradition of Doctor Who supervillains – is to trick the Doctor into donating some of his regeneration energy (the magic of the Time Lords, as he says, the transformative nature of progress) to fuel his own regeneration and that of the Daleks.

A running theme with Davros is that he always tries to
convince the Doctor that they're basically the same,
which they aren't. While Russell T Davies' Journey's
End
 let Davros' challenge stand, The Witch's Familiar
shows how ultimately empty it is. Not only with its
conclusion of the Doctor's magic burying the Daleks
in an assault from their own enraged dead. But
because the moment where the Doctor sits in Davros'
chair has no significance besides a quick action
aside to pad out an episode running short on plot.
So that last moment of their conversation pits the Doctor's hope, love, and optimism* against the nihilistic nationalist rage of Davros. The result is the grotesque collision of two utterly incompatible and contradictory ways of life. 

* It’s no wonder the New Democrats pepper the ad slots on the Canadian catchup streams with their election ads. 

When Clara is sealed in the Dalek, she can only communicate on Dalek terms – every emotion is expressed as "Exterminate!" and every action unfolds through a prism of rage. When the energy of transformative progress and optimism hits such a creature, of course the whole system would destroy itself. 

When "I will live!" is the same concept as "I will kill!" then an infusion of such energy will inevitably destroy itself. The Witch's Familiar explores that fundamental philosophical opposition of Doctor and Dalek from a new, grotesque, Lovecraftian perspective.

The past – and the dead – are never really dead. Memory of trauma, violence, and death can drown you if you let it have the energy. Only when driven by compassion and optimism can life become genuine progress.

2 comments:

  1. "When "I will live!" is the same concept as "I will kill!" then an infusion of such energy will inevitably destroy itself. The Witch's Familiar explores that fundamental philosophical opposition of Doctor and Dalek from a new, grotesque, Lovecraftian perspective.

    The past – and the dead – are never really dead. Memory of trauma, violence, and death can drown you if you let it have the energy. Only when driven by compassion and optimism can life become genuine progress."


    Brilliant Adam, brilliant. Really enjoy your readings of the show and what you bring to it. Love the Lovecraftian ideas here - the rising up of the dead Daleks is kind of a dark ascension - and the last paragraph is beautiful.

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    1. Glad you enjoy the posts! I'm quite into this season already – especially the recurring theme of ghosts and malevolent echoes of the past. The next story looks especially as though it'll play into that theme. I'm interested to see what Whithouse is going to do, though I'm underwhelmed by his more recent work and public statements about the show (Games' mediocrity, his no-female-Doctor stance). There's a lot to do when you mash up the futuristic base-under-siege with what looks like a Victorian ghost story.

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