Doctor Who Recap: Steven Moffatt’s Biggest Idea Yet?
“Say ‘You are different from me’.” “Ex – ter – min – ate!”
Doctor Who is often mocked for being largely about running down corridors — but although the corridor-running quotient is undeniably high, its devoted following and enduring success clearly comes down to the mind-bending fun of its ideas. If Westerns are about settings, noirs are about mood and romances are about relationships, science fiction is a massive, “What if?”
In last week’s recap, we briefly glanced back at the 1976 classic Genesis of the Daleks, in which the Doctor tries to stop the Daleks at the very moment of their creation. It’s been canonised for its central idea – “Do I have the right?” the Doctor asks as he’s about to kill them all off – a moment of drama, tension and philosophy. But let’s be brave: Genesis is a six-episode story, and this is one single scene buried within nearly three hours. I know Genesis is a sacred cow, and I honestly adore it to bits, but by god, it has an awful lot of running down corridors.
One thing that marks the era of current showrunner Steven Moffat is his devotion to the idea. Every single one of his episodes, whether you consider them successful or not, pivots on a single unique concept. From A Christmas Carol (where the Doctor must help redeem a miserly old man to save the life of his friends) to The Time of the Doctor (in which the Doctor spends nine hundred years defending a town from invading forces, parallel to Clara spending a single day trying to cook a turkey), Moffat always has an idea he’s determined to prosecute.
So why does Genesis get praised for its singular moment of high-conception, while Moffat’s episodes are damned despite their many? There are numerous answers to that – all of which are currently being screamed at computer screens by hardened fans – but I’m fairly confident that nostalgia plays a bigger part than most are prepared to admit. Nostalgia is a very powerful weapon in Doctor Who, and it’s one that Dalek creator Davros wields against the Doctor in this week’s episode, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’.
“Am I a good man?” asks Davros, echoing the question the Doctor posed throughout last season. The central tenet of this story is that the Doctor and the Master and Davros and so on are all foes who are determined to destroy one another, but with a great deal of affection. Friends-with-detriments. Frenemies.
Fans tend to resist the idea of adding shades to a good arch villain, but Davros is beautifully rendered here. We get a tremendous sense of his humanity (Kaledity? Skaronity?), even if much of it is a ruse to trap the Doctor. The moment of connection between the two – Tears! Laughter! Original eye sockets! – is far from contrived: thanks to its careful set-up and switcheroo pay-off, the emotion in this scene is completely earned.
Although the idea of hero and villain being simpatico is a familiar one, it feels fresh thanks to the presence of Missy/The Master, whose own relationship to the Daleks has alternated between ally and enemy. As all three exhibit behaviour that is heroic one moment and horrific the next, we see that this is just one of dozens of ideas stacked in this rich, dense episode.
Clara physically and mentally entering the Dalek was both an ingenious setup for the emotional climactic scene with the Doctor, and a real insight into the Daleks themselves. Clara tries to say the words “You are different from me” and it comes out as “exterminate” — in what may be the most potent and overt comment the show has ever made on the Daleks’ fascist parallels.
We may have known that the Daleks are powered by hate, but the revelation that they shout “Exterminate!” to recharge is new, and the best kind of retcon: one that papers over a fun 1960s sci-fi trope with the sort of fascinating motivation that you’ll no longer be able to shake when you next hear it uttered.
Meanwhile, the Doctor gets under the skin of Davros by nicking his chair and motoring about in it. It’s almost a shame Tom never got to try that in Destiny.
But the idea that the Doctor is defined by compassion is getting us back to first principles. His compassion may kill him, Davros says, and the Doctor is fine with that. And it’s his compassion that Davros turns against him in the end, playing it like a mousetrap. But ultimately, it’s that same compassion that saves the day. And that’s the real idea at play here.
As the previous week’s cliffhanger is masterfully twisted into a resolution that resolves both narrative and character, the two frenemies hold hands and walk off into the distance. Compassionately.
Questions to Ponder
— Is this new origin story for Davros compatible with I, Davros, the four-part audio series from 2006 that also explored the character’s childhood? Nothing is contradicted, but a nice piece of canonical connective tissue explaining how he went from a war orphan to a well-off teen from a wealthy family wouldn’t go astray.
— Notice that Jenna Coleman ended up the way she began in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, holed up inside a Dalek? Actually, it’s her third go-around. Had they chosen to write Coleman out here, it would have had a nice symmetry to it.
— There’s so much great stuff in here, I’m willing to overlook the use of the word “prophecy”, the laziest concept in science fiction/fantasy. But context is always key, so we’ll see where they go with it.
— The living Dalek sewers are a nice touch, but are they perhaps introduced a shade too late in the day for the pay-off? It recalled the whole Mels situation from ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’.
— “The Doctor gave it to me when my daughter — ” Missy’s uncompleted thought reminds us that teasing out massive revelatory moments of backstory is now officially a sport.
— Those sonic sunglasses are a touch Men In Black, no?
— Enjoy the brief-yet-appropriate Fourth and First Doctor cameos? Very nice opening sequence, that.
— “Can I just say, it’s been an absolute pleasure to meet you.” Don’t pretend you didn’t get a thrill from the Master finally meeting Davros.
— Missy’s request to inform the Dalek Supreme that “The bitch is back” not only hints at previous tantalising stories, but also the idea that this may not be the first time the Master has been female. The 2013 novel The Harvest of Time by Alistair Reynolds suggests that prior to the Roger Delgado version of the Master we first met, he was indeed a woman.
Did you enjoy having both the Master and the Daleks in the same story? Want to see where their paths have intersected before? Then you should pick up Dalek War, featuring 1973’s ‘Frontier In Space’ and ‘Planet of the Daleks’.
The Third Doctor is in the 26th Century, trying to prevent a war between Earth and Draconia. But the Master is there and is keen to spark tensions, and he’s working on behalf of an interested party who would benefit from such a war.
Spoiler alert: it’s the goddamn Daleks.
Doctor Who screens at 7:30PM Sundays on the ABC, before reruns at 8:30PM Mondays and 12:15AM Tuesdays.