After last week’s rip-roaring adventure, it was probably inevitable that the conclusion to this two-parter would be a bit of a letdown.
There’s no way around this one: this climax was dumb. Daleks turning on one another is fine enough, but the sludgey poo of not-quite-dead Daleks attacking their comrades was just… dumb. It wasn’t quite the level of dumb the writers apparently think the show’s fans are, though. Just as we knew the Doctor would never fall for Davros’ nefarious plan, anyone who’s spent even a short amount of time watching Dalek-related episodes knows that Davros would never have shown this kind of weakness and it was surely a trap. As with all things Doctor Who, some suspension of reality is required, but at some point the show’s writers also need to respect their audience’s intelligence.
As I mentioned in my review of the premiere, there’s only so much the series can do with the Daleks because they are a one-dimensional enemy that hates everyone and everything that isn’t like them. They cannot be manipulated and they cannot feel anything other than hate, which the series illuminated with all the subtlety of punching one in the face when Missy put Clara inside one of the Dalek’s metal shells and had her words and thoughts filtered through it. As their creator, Davros is no different. I know this, you know this, and the Doctor knows this, which was the only reason I didn’t throw my TV off the roof when the the Doctor appeared to fall prey to Davros’ sudden attack of humanity.
At the same time, the plot needed viewers to believe the Doctor was in danger. The existence of the Confession Dial and his three-week-long party last week further emphasized the Doctor’s imminent demise, but there still were no real stakes in this setup. It’s hard to feel anything when an intelligent character finds themselves in a predictable situation of their own making. And so even though the Doctor claimed he knew Davros was attempting to siphon his regeneration energy for himself and therefore the rest of the Daleks, it simply didn’t make for an interesting or clever “trick” when he revealed it as such. The Doctor’s subsequent reaction felt more like a character we know and love tripping and saving face by saying something like, “I meant to do that!”
This, of course, was not to say everything was bad about the story, as for example, according to the Den of Geek review:
Hettie MacDonald’s direction is smart here, and unfussy, as it was in the exquisite Blink. So it means that when we get to the part when Davros opens his real eyes, it actually means something. Julian Bleach’s performance of Davros deserves credit, too: it’s not always easy to articulate a character under layers of posh, expensive prosthetic stuff. Bleach delivers, though.
Going back to the TV.com review is another thing I simply wasn’t sure about:
Further complicating this scenario was the implication that it might not have been the bits of the Doctor’s energy that were absorbed by the Daleks that allowed them to understand the concept of mercy. That would have been an interesting resolution, but then the series also implied that by the Doctor going back and rescuing the younger version of Davros that he’d left stranded on a battlefield all those years ago, he taught him mercy and therefore the Daleks came to understand it.
As seen in The Big Bang, when River Song confronts the Stone Dalek, it begs for mercy. Although this scene helps showcase how (potentially) dangerous she is (the following season would be all about her), it also seems as though this scene was somewhat retconned (lessened in impact) by the events of this particular story. This is quite normal of Moffat to do this sort of thing regarding something else seemingly unrelated. Not pleased.
Certainly, as if I found The Magician’s Apprentice to be the standard off-the-wall, overly-busy Moffat material, I have rather not become fond of (see A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, The Time of the Doctor, The Angels Take Manhattan, A Christmas Carol, and Deep Breath), as this episode includes three deux ex machinas, which are, according to Tor‘s article, “I’m Probably Going to Have to Break Up With Doctor Who“:
Many of us have been complaining that Clara reminds us of previous companions. Is she like Rose? Or is the whole mystery thing more like River Song? But then again, we’ve got some Amy Pond action too, since the Doctor has visited Clara as a child. In the end though, it doesn’t matter how funny or fast-talking Clara is, she doesn’t seem that different from characters we’ve seen before. Add to that, I feel like any explanation of how she manages to die and come back to life all the time will be a bit of a letdown, buried underneath a pile of hastily-written nonsense. It would be nice to lay all this blame at the feet Steven Moffat’s reset-button tendencies, but Russell T. Davies had his fair share of deus ex machina shenanigans on Doctor Who. And I’m not alone on these last-minute fixes being annoying, back in 2010 author Terry Pratchett wrote:
The unexpected, unadvertised solution which kisses it all better is known as a deus ex machina—literally, a god from the machine. And a god from the machine is what the Doctor now is. A decent detective story provides you with enough tantalising information to allow you to make a stab at a solution before the famous detective struts his stuff in the library. Doctor Who replaces this with speed, fast talking, and what appears to be that wonderful element ‘makeitupasyougalongeum.’
Pratchett ended up letting Doctor Who off the proverbial space hook with his piece however, by declaring it “pure professionally-written entertainment,” and in 2010, I would have agreed with him. But, at this point, the deus ex machinaare feeling less like a quirk of the Doctor and more like a deep-rooted personality flaw. I can already hear fans telling me that the show is just “fun,” and I shouldn’t expect much from it, but in the mind of a critic, that’s a fairly reductive attitude that can lead to a slippery slope of everything being excused away as “just entertainment.”
The specific first two deux ex machinas are covered in the Doctor Who TV article, “The Witch’s Familiar: The Good, The Bad And The Nerdy“:
No episode is without sin and boy am I going to sin. Two! Two! TWO deus ex machinas in one freaking episode! Really? I mean come on we had a flashback ex machina – regardless of how cool it looked – it still came out of nowhere and at just the right moment as well, much like the flashback ex machina we got in Deep Breath last year. I’m sorry. Sin!
And then we got the second one – TARDIS ex machina in the form of the HADS, but not the usual Hostile Action Displacement System. No! The Hostile Action Dispersion System. Way more controlled and way more effective than the HADS we’ve come to know and love. And while I have no doubt we’ll see the Displacement system again on the show, I am sure this is the first AND last time we’ll ever see the Dispersion variation in action, it being written into the plot solely to take the TARDIS out of it with no chance of the Daleks detecting and recapturing it. How convenient? Though disappointing resolutions to last week’s cliffhanger, the ex machina siblings were more of an afterthought in my mind as I’m used to ex machinas resolving second parters.
Also, the TARDIS disperses itself in the room and no Daleks bump into its force field or detects that there are some weird TARDIS particles in the room with them? That’s just weak considering how on the ball the Daleks were last week. Anyone who denies that the plot moved that one decimal point of intelligence I awarded them last week back to its original position AND then moving it back even further away is deluding themselves.
The final one is the ending as according to Warped Factor‘s article, “Doctor Who: THE Witch’s Familiar Spoiler Filled Review“:
When you push the stakes too high, you’re left with either an RTD-style deus ex machina, or something enormously convoluted and clever, or you’re left with ‘I’m the Doctor, just accept it,’ as a way of carrying on beyond the point of ultimate cliff-hangery.
So Missy’s not dead, Clara’s not dead and off they jolly well pop, allies with a pointy stick against the heart of the Dalek empire. The pre-credits sequence of The Witch’s Familiar has a sense of existing merely so Missy can be enormously…Missy about things, and in terms of drama, it’s not a patch on The Magician’s Apprentice’s pre-credit sequence, but it does at least take the trouble to explain both the deus and the machina not only of why she and Clara are not dead from Dalek weapon fire, but also why she didn’t die at the end of Death In Heaven. And with that, and with the weirdest alliance forged, off they skip, with nothing but a pointy stick and some self-belief, to take on the Daleks.
Before it was open to the world’s scrutiny, those who’d seen the two parts tended to agree that most of the things that stopped it from ending up on the All-Time Classics List were in the second part, and for me, the whole Dalek sewers thing is one of them. It feels not only like convenient creation, but also a slightly unfortunate re-writing of Steven Moffat’s Curse of the Fatal Death, with the Master spending centuries crawling through endless sewers while the Doctor hopped back in time to assure his own ultimate victory. This time though it’s played for drama, rather than outright laughs. It’s also slightly unfortunate, when dealing with sewers, for the liquid that occupies the Dalek you murder to be brown. You can call it ‘decayed Daleks’ all you like, but on the playground next week, The Night of the Dalek Poo-Storm will be played out up and down the country.
It’s a concern that resonates of course in the ending, as the whole Dalek city is consumed by Dalek sewage. There are some really interesting lessons on the way – the incapacity of a Dalek to see anything outside its species as anything other than an enemy to be exterminated, the idea of them continually screeching “Exterminate!” as a way of recharging, which is genius. Missy’s goading of the Doctor to kill the Clara-Dalek is gloriously mischievous, and her notion of Clara being ‘the friend within the enemy, the enemy within the friend’ should be enough to start the fan theories roaring, particularly as regards the way she ultimately leaves the Doctor. But sewage – even Dalek sewage – still feels like an unfortunate image as it vanquishes the greatest pepperpots in the galaxy.