Welcome Whovians, to the new incarnation of Who·ology here on Reel World Theology. Unlike the return of Missy to this season of Doctor Who, we have reasons for the regeneration of this weekly feature from podcast to written review, but suffice to say, we still love Who and still plan to bring you our take on it each week to hopefully stir some discussion. So let’s get to it!
Here we are after the conclusion of the two-part opening to series 9 and let me just go ahead and put this out there: I am happy that I was wrong. Yes, I was very down on the potential of this season and what we would see from “The Witch’s Familiar” (still no concrete reason for the episode titles, but I have made peace with it). However, I found myself pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed what became a mostly well-rounded conclusion to part one. We were finally given solid themes to grasp, a look into the Doctor’s character, and even some new, daring choices for the tone of the season ahead.
Missy: “…the friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend. Everyone is a bit of both, everyone is a hybrid.”
The primary theme of the episode is the idea of hybrids. That is to say, because of the complexity of human nature, we are all “hybrids” of many characteristics. We can be a friend, an enemy, or both. Doctor Who has always tackled this complexity head on. Just look back at the second episode of last season, “Into The Dalek.” Much like this episode, we dove (literally) into the mind of a Dalek and were shown for the first time the potential that a “good” Dalek could exist. Here we see that even the ruthless killing machines of the Dalek race are capable of mercy. The Doctor’s mortal enemy could be his ally.
The Doctor is, of course, the greatest mystery of the show. He has many natures, not just from regeneration to regeneration, but within the core of himself. The Doctor likes to put on the face of danger, yet the truth of who he is always tends to come out.
The Doctor: “Admit it, you’ve all had this exact nightmare.”
He likes to stroll in, riding in the chair of Davros to scare the guts out of the Daleks. I loved this moment, by the way. It’s one of the best moments we’ve seen yet from Capaldi’s Doctor. It’s quintessentially the Doctor, because although he is waving a blaster in the faces of his enemies, we know he isn’t going to fire it. Why do we know this? Because the Doctor is The Oncoming Storm. He is not the storm itself.
Davros: “Compassion, then?”
The Doctor: “Always.”
Davros: “It grows strong and fierce in you like a cancer.”
The Doctor: “I hope so.”
Davros: “It will kill you in the end.”
The Doctor: “I wouldn’t die of anything else.”
The Doctor plays the part of the rolling thunder, the dark clouds hanging overhead, the storm blowing in. He is powerful enough that you don’t truly know what he is capable of. But he’s never the consequence- the flood from the rain or the lightening that strikes you down. The Doctor, as Davros points out to him here, is compassionate. Davros considers this a critical flaw. The Doctor sees it as his greatest strength. How is it, then, that the enemies of a compassionate helper always end up defeated? Because the Doctor uses compassion as a weapon.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! -Psalm 81: 10-14
This parallels the meta-narrative of scripture. God’s wrath can be defined as compassion. He loves us so much that ultimately he would let us have what we think we so badly want, even though it may destroy us. The Doctor is never a perfect parallel to God, of course, but this is an undeniable similarity.
God in His omniscience knows what is best for us, yet we so often will not listen. He pursues us in love until the point of no return. As C.S. Lewis put it, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
We see in this episode the Doctor use compassion in this way. By knowing what Davros was planning all along, the Doctor gave him a choice- to use his regeneration energy for good or for evil. We can’t be sure the Doctor knew exactly what Davros was going to do- he’s just a bloke with a box telling stories, after all. But the choice proves his compassion. He made himself vulnerable in order to give Davros a gift that he knew could destroy him, as it ultimately did (for now, anyway. We’ll see Davros again some day.)
The Doctor is therefore the true friend and enemy. While Missy the Master’s threats against the Doctor are never really carried out (she is the enemy acting as the friend), the ultimate consequence of one who denies the Doctor’s compassion can be very real and lasting (in that timey wimey kind of way.) He is the friend who could become the enemy in such a case. It’s why we see him offer a helping hand to even his greatest and coldest enemies like the Cybermen, before eventually letting them destroy themselves.
These core characteristics of the Doctor are currently wrapped up in the guise of an aging-rockstar type of personality, a picture we are starting to see a bit more clearly with this episode. The Twelfth Doctor’s persona is further defined for us here as the older guy still hanging on to his younger traits who still has the ability to rock.
We come now to the moment that I calculate roughly 95% of Who-fans will hate with a burning passion- Sonic Sunglasses. I can almost hear the collective “Uuuuugggghhh” of the majority of Whodom. And you know what surprises me most? I liked it. Yes, it’s gaudy. Yes, it continues the over indulgence of Moffatt that will probably never end. And worse, it will ultimately date the show. But I can’t help but like it. It works on some level that only this Doctor could pull off. It’s not quite a cool bowtie, but for now, for reasons I haven’t yet understood myself, I’m ok with it.
If you find yourself hating the idea of the Doctor having wearable sonic technology instead of a screwdriver, here is some background I found via BBC America’s website on the long history of sonic devices in the show:
“Sarah Jane Smith had sonic lipstick in ‘Journey’s End;’ Captain Jack Harkness had a sonic blaster in ‘The Empty Child;’ the Sixth Doctor used a sonic lance in ‘Attack of the Cybermen;’ the Silurians used sonic lanterns to herd dinosaurs in ‘Deep Breath;’ the Eleventh Doctor had a sonic cane in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler.’” There are even more examples at the link at the bottom of the review. I still would prefer a screwdriver, and I think we will see a new one at some point, but this gives some grounding for the idea.
Finally, I feel that I should end this review by briefly addressing the Moffatt critique of my previous review. After giving us a lot of bad in part one, we got a lot of good out of this episode. It doesn’t excuse part one, but I’m glad I can at least look at its conclusion fondly. I still long for a better showrunner, and hope for the stakes to once again be real and lasting. But we’re stuck with Moffatt for now. He’s both a bad writer at times and a good writer at times, and sometimes he is both. Hopefully we’ll get more good than bad from the most enigmatic hybrid of them all.
Next time on Who-ology: Be careful what you wish for. We will start to see what this pre-season talk of the Doctor and Clara out for adventure was really about. Clara wants “monsters, things blowing up.” Will we get real danger with gravity to it? Or will Clara continue to get what she wants out of the Doctor without consequence? I hope we start to see the beginning of how her story will end. Not looking forward to another two-parter, but I’m wishing for the best, carefully.