Steven Moffat’s track record with two part episodes is dodgy at best, but “The Witch’s Familiar” manages to be a decent and mostly inoffensive, if largely expected, follow-up to last week’s “The Magician’s Apprentice.”
From a storytelling standpoint, the episode isn’t great. The plot is slim, and the episode spends most of its time trying to make its ostensibly high stakes feel real. Unfortunately, there’s never any real sense of danger, and the single major unanswered question of the episode–what happened with baby Davros on the battlefield in the past?–is answered at the end of the episode in a typically (for Moffat’s Doctor) Pollyannaish way.
The biggest problem I had with both this episode and the last one is that Clara and, albeit to a lesser extent, Missy have very little to actually do, and yet they do it very, very noisily–both figuratively and literally. Neither Missy nor Clara truly contributed anything to the Doctor’s story in these two episodes, and Clara’s job in “The Witch’s Familiar” was entirely to exist as an object for the Doctor to have feelings about. Missy, of course, exists to torment Clara, presumably for our amusement, but her shtick is already wearing thin. Missy is also a veritable fount of useful but clunky exposition that could have easily been left out if Moffat was simply willing to go with a less absurd plot.
This episode, though, even more than last week’s, is really the Doctor’s show, and Peter Capaldi gives a virtuoso performance. His interactions with the elderly and ostensibly dying Davros are well-written, and their centuries-old rivalry was believable enough that the flashback scenes with young Davros feel kind of unnecessary and only serve to further show how amazing the Doctor is. Moffat continues to tell us that the Doctor has a dark side or whatever, but the Moffat era of the show has seen a sort of systematic stripping of the Doctor of any and all moral ambiguity. It’s too bad, really, because these Davros flashbacks provided a perfect opportunity for the Doctor to do something dark. No such luck, however.
That said, this is still the most interesting the Doctor has been in a good while, and it was nice to see Peter Capaldi given some decent material to work with. I only wish Missy could be less of a caricature and Clara could be less of a piece of furniture.