The Doctor and Davros have always enjoyed a little chinwag, ever since they first crossed swords in 1975. Back then, the Doctor was all boggle eyes and big scarves, and Davros didn’t seem to be quite as sturdily constructed. Compared to a good majority of Doctor Who’s villains (for there’s little scope for enlightened debate when you’re yelling death threats) Davros is a conversationalist on a par with Gertude Stein. Whether they’re discussing hypothetical killer viruses or the trouble with kids, the Doctor and Davros’s little chats have been both a mainstay and a highlight of the series. The Witch’s Familiar, following on from last week’s hyperkinetic opener, put a lot of faith in the appeal of such dialogue, and what we ended up with was a morality play forty years in the making.
Last week’s episode was stuffed with bold, broad ideas – electric guitar solos, a man made of snakes and a tank in the middle of medieval Essex. Anyone tuning in this week expecting similar hijinks may well have been disappointed, as this was an episode firmly dedicated to dialogue. Whether it was between the two aforementioned old enemies or Clara and Missy’s catty back-and-forth quips, The Witch’s Familiar admirably proved that Who is often at its best when it ditches the spectacle and concentrates on character. We certainly delved deeper into Davros’s murky psyche than we ever have before on screen, and we even got to see what he looks like out of his chair when the Doctor shanghaied it for a quick spin.
And while that particular joyride might not have come to much, the whole thing was greater than a sum of its parts. Soon enough the Doctor was back in a dying Davros’s clutches and Clara was trapped inside a Dalek casing, shouting to get out and struggling to be heard. Naturally, the crafty old devil had a trick up his sleeve, banking on the Doctor’s sense of compassion to heal him and give every Dalek on Skaro a bit of a regenerative boost – a development that came with hints of hybrid warriors and dark Gallifreyan legends that sound like they’ll tie up with the Doctor’s ominous confession.
Compassion may well be the Doctor’s weakness, but in the end it turned out dodgy plumbing would be the undoing of the Daleks. Being consumed by your own sentient sewers is hardly a pleasant way to go, and while that particular resolution felt slightly pat it hardly seemed to matter – this wasn’t an episode overly concerned with plot, preferring to put character, dialogue and performance at the forefront.
That’s certainly no bad thing when you’ve got a performer of Julian Bleach’s calibre on board. The Shockheaded Peter frontman first appeared as Davros in 2008’s The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and while he was at his ranting, universe-threatening best back then, in these two episodes he brought an altogether different and far more intriguing take on the character. Weak and dying, Davros was as pitiable as he’s ever been. Steven Moffat’s dialogue was on top form this week, but it shone thanks to Bleach’s superb performance. It’s incredible how much physicality he brought to the role considering how limiting the costume is, utilising body language and facial expressions to maximum effect and pairing them with a powerful vocal performance that easily mixed pathos, pain, and even a little Alan Moore-inspired humour. To have Capaldi’s spiky Twelfth Doctor face off against him without laser beams and the threat of universal domination getting in the way wasn’t just electrifying to watch, it was a welcome change of pace.
Sci-fi is often at its best when it puts concepts over spectacle, and it’s gratifying to see some of the themes explored in The Witch’s Familiar are firmly grounded in Doctor Who’s humanist and ultimately optimistic worldview. The Doctor and Davros’s philosophical discussions might have grappled with the meaning of home, the importance of friendship and the nature of mortality, but it all ultimately boiled down to the quality of mercy. A quality that definitely wasn’t strained (which is more than can be said for the contents of a Dalek sewer), leaving viewers with the image of the Doctor taking the hand of one of his greatest enemies and leading a scared little boy off through the mist. Redemption is a pretty meaty theme for Saturday teatime viewing, and here it was deftly explored in an accessible yet intelligent way – hardly a bad way to get kids thinking critically about ethics. Whether Davros will ultimately atone for his sins remains to be seen, but now the old rascal’s back to full health (or as close as he gets to it, anyway) a future confrontation seems inevitable. With Julian Bleach back in the big black chair, the next chat between these time-honoured rivals is definitely something to look forward to.