Remember back in the old days of Doctor Who, when cliff hangers were a regular part of the formula? Sometimes they were awesome, sometimes they were lame. But there were so many of them that even when they were lame, there was always another one coming around the corner.
One of the occasionally funny things about the show’s cliff hangers, especially back in the 70’s, was that occasionally they showed you the recap in the following episode, they would add in more footage than you saw before. I don’t mean in a way that “cheated” with the cliff hanger (though that might happen as well), but I mean in a way that simply made it seem like the previous episode was running over time and they had to trim out a bunch to actually get to the cliff hanger before the episode ended. I remember in particular an episode in the middle of Jon Pertwee’s swan song, Planet of the Spiders that several minutes of story prior to the cliffhanger scene.
Well, the current series’ most recent episode, The Witch’s Familiar, took that trope and turned it up to 11 by inserting 40+ minutes of story before it reached the cliffhanger scene!
But the conceit works because the effect it has upon the story is cool. The cliff hanger of the previous episode was so compelling that I completely accepted being kept in the dark as to what was really going on when the Doctor was doing when he appeared to be threatening the life of an up-to-that-point innocent boy.
And that was just one thing that there was to love about the episode. Another was the focus of the psychology of the characters. The plot was sort of thinnish but it gave time for many interesting discussions of the mentality of all sorts of aspects of the series. The Daleks, we learn, channel their hatred into a weapon and are genetically programmed to hate and destroy anything that is unlike themselves. (Of course, we knew some of that already but this episode highlighted it in a new way). Davros, we see not only as an insane genius but also as a terrified little boy. With Missy, we get hints of her perverted jealousy for the Doctor’s attention in her cruel manipulations of Clara.
And with the Doctor himself, of course, we get insight into how he sees the problems he encounters: there’s always a way to win, if you can think fast enough; and if anyone can think fast enough, it’s the Doctor.
All the while, the episode delivered the moments of high creeps, high cools, and high laughs that we want from the series. The sewer made up of living Dalek remains that were still ready to kill if given half a chance was at once terrifying, confusing, and ridiculous. Their appearance at the close of the story was for me the weakest part of the episode, but that was small price to pay for all the other awesome stuff we got.
Some of the other highlights for me:
• Davros has eyes! He just doesn’t normally open them. Who knew?
• Missy’s story of a representative adventure of the Doctor – at some undetermined point in his life. That was so much fun, and a great conceit to show us what might have been an adventure of the Fourth Doctor or the First Doctor or the Whatever Doctor, but still using Peter Capaldi in the part. The brief glimpse of the Fourth and then the First–who based on their frequent callbacks, would have to be considered by writer/producer Steven Moffat to be the “most important” Doctors by the frequent callbacks to them that we get–made it even more delightful. In my mind, the scene would have only been improved by a third “past Doctor”–maybe the 9th, who though brief in his tenure was surely one of the indispensable ones.
• The dichotomy of what Clara tries to say and what comes out of the Dalek’s, er, mouth. “OK, that was a bit weird.”
• The resolution to the cliff hanger (and the story as a whole), with the Doctor temporally inserting just a bit of mercy into the Dalek psyche. Young Davros was maybe a companion to the Doctor for a bit!
• The way the story hints at things to come (without just setting up an obvious mystery which looks to be dragged out over the year and then explained in the finale). I’m thinking of Missy’s predicament with the Daleks at the end, the Daleks awareness of Gallifrey’s return, the prophecy of the hybrid, and so on.
Anyway, all that to say that it was a strong episode that built upon previous mythology to continue to push the show to someplace new–ultimately what we want.
Next time, we get Under the Lake – the beginning of a new two-parter, I believe? Will the first non-Moffat episodes of the season live up to the promise of the opening story? The answer in just a few days!