I have to confess to be slightly disappointed by “The Witch’s Familiar” on my initial viewings. Neither half had the slightly mystical vibe implied by the titles. Clara was frustratingly passive throughout the episode. The Doctor/Davros plot didn’t really end up going anywhere in particular: Davros remains unrepentant, and both were playing each other the whole time.
In hindsight, these episodes may fare better once we know the plots that they seem to be setting up:
- the notion of the Hybrid, and the Doctor’s role in creating it
- the Doctor’s confession
- whatever Missy is up to
This opening two-parter does a fine job of initiating those seasonal arcs, I’m sure, but I’m not sure it stands alone quite as well as some of Moffat’s previous season premiers, such as “The Eleventh Hour” or even “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.”
There are silver linings to these criticisms, to be sure. My frustration with Clara’s passivity just further proves to me how unusual a phenomena this is in New Who. The companions, including and emphatically Clara, are usually not pushed around quite so much. Sure, watching Missy push her around is fun, especially in the comedic moments such as when she daintily shoves her into the pit to test its depth. In that way, pairing Clara with Missy functions much the same way as pairing her with the Twelfth Doctor: Combining the control freak with an aggressive and pushy Time Lord who knows how to ruffle her normally carefully-groomed feathers. That said, after being hung upside down as bait, pushed down a hole, handcuffed to a wall, and trapped in a Dalek shell, I was ready for Clara to take more agency in her own rescue by the end than just pleading the Doctor for mercy. Again, this is hardly damning for the character. This will surely remain and anomaly in the overall journey of Clara Oswald as we approach the end.
Speaking of the Dalek shell, I can’t also help but feel the slight wasted opportunity for further exploration here. The Dalek shell seems to translate Clara’s emotions and pleas for help into violent outbursts and the trademark imperative, “Exterminate!” Did the show really just imply that the Daleks are all inside their suits bursting with emotion due to their inability to communicate their fear and pain? That’s quite a bold assertion if so, and I hope the show goes back to explore this idea in the future.
To come back to Davros, it’s largely because his scenes with the Doctor are so touching and unsettling that I find it slightly disappointing to have it all have been a ruse in the end. In fact, I think I’ll keep the head-canon that it wasn’t all fake just to satisfy myself. As others have said, his genuine happiness at discovering the Time Lords were saved and his earnest assertion that the Doctor should protect his people are quite fitting and in keeping with Davros’ nationalist ethos. I think it’s much nicer to think that, not knowing whether his trap would work on the Doctor, Davros allowed some true emotion and fear of death to come through in order to strengthen their kinship and sweeten the pot.
One thing that I do think is worth spending a few moments on before leaving off is the symbolism of Clara’s hanging upside down. As noted by others, Clara’s position is conspicuously reminiscent of the famed Hanged Man. Now, I’m no tarot expert, so I’m relying on google here. I’d love to hear some thoughts from others in the comments. However, in some brief searches, the symbolism seems quite suggestive to me. This website talks about the Hanged Man in relation to surrender. Key words are letting go, accepting fate, giving up control. It’s a card of suspended action and sacrifice. This all seems quite relevant in light of Clara Oswald, the self-described bossy control freak. In fact, I think that’s largely what season 8 was about: Clara learning that she can’t control everything, that life will happen. Fittingly, the opposing cards listed below are all about action, assertion, struggle, control. Interestingly, the Magician is listed as one of these opposing cards. Where does that put the Doctor in regard to Clara’s arc? Is he still struggling to hold on and act (he is quite desperate to save her in a very un-Twelfth-Doctorish way), or will he facilitate her process of letting go?
Knowing that we’re coming to end of Clara’s story, I can’t help but read a lot of resonance into this description of the card:
The main lesson of the Hanged Man is that we ‘control’ by letting go — we ‘win’ by surrendering. The figure […] has sacrificed himself, but he emerges the victor. The Hanged Man also tells us that we can ‘move forward’ by standing still. By suspending time, we can have all the time in the world.
If I’m being really generous, maybe this zen approach to life’s struggles even justifies Clara’s seeming passivity in the episode. She’s learned to win by accepting loss. Like the Doctor, she has learned compassion and wouldn’t die of anything else. No longer will she take the Doctor down with her in the flames of a volcano just to protest the death of loved one. Now, he’s “last person she would ever kill” and she merely asks for his mercy and friendship.
I may have just talked myself into liking this episode a lot more. That either says a lot about me or Doctor Who, and I think I’d like to go with the latter.