I really wanted to like The Witch's Familiar.
The opening half of the story, The Magician's Apprentice, had been a rapidly moving bit of fun that fleshed out Moffat's take on the Doctor Who universe and made good use of both its leading man and its two biggest guest stars. This episode was never going to be that because the modern approach to writing two part stories is (sensibly) to leave the first half with a cliffhanger that changes the way the plot as a whole is approached by the audience, giving the second episode its own identity. That didn't mean it needed to be the frustrating, underwhelming and continuity-happy mess it was.
Which isn't to say there weren't good things in The Witch's Familiar. Julian Bleach and Michelle Gomez were both excellent, as was Peter Capaldi. Jenna Coleman, getting to do more than stride around being the inexplicable uber-boss of UNIT, was good too. The clever use of a limited number of sets1 was impressive if you're into that kind of thing (I am). The emphasis on conversations helped to disguise that we were actually getting a relatively cheap episode only one week into the new series.
Said conversations are actually my biggest gripe about the story. The basic idea, pairing the Doctor with Davros and Clara with Missy, was a good one. It gave the two regular characters new people to play off and the chance to tackle topics and roles they wouldn't get to take on with each other. This also benefited Gomez, who'll presumably be a semi-regular throughout Capaldi's tenure and will get more scenes with him in the future, and Bleach, who, as a character far less likely to return in the foreseeable future, absolutely should have spent the majority of his time on-screen with the show's lead character.
The execution let the idea down. This isn't a complaint about Missy's plan being to trap Clara inside a Dalek and have the Doctor kill her. That fit perfectly with everything we know about her and of her previous incarnations, dating all the way back to Delgado's Master. It's not a complaint about Davros's plan being to steal regeneration energy from the Doctor to revitalise the entire Dalek race either. While that was daft it was no more ridiculous than any of the other plots involving him. Let's not forgot that his last story saw him attempting to bring about "the destruction of REALITY ITSELF-UH!" Davros and Missy are characters that have absurd plans.
Where the pairings failed was in Moffat not doing anything interesting with them. And the worst part here is that he clearly thinks he did do something interesting with them. If he didn't these episodes would have been rewritten until they were better. Coleman and Gomez were landed with a load of expositional tosh about Daleks never dying and being pasted on the walls of sewers and the lengthy sequence of Clara discovering that she couldn't express her personality after she'd been placed into a Dalek. The former took up too much time considering the simplicity of it while the personality stuff felt like a waste. Being denied the right or ability to express will is a big theme and could have been played with far more. Coleman was great with what she was given on this, really getting across her frustration, panic and eventually fear, but it felt like a theme that should have been developed more rather than being a small part of a ninety minute story. The rest of their scenes were mostly about Missy proving she knew the Doctor more than Clara, which had already been sufficiently covered the week before. Jokes about pointy sticks weren't enough to paper over these gaps.
The Doctor and Davros stuff was better but that was at least in part because Moffat was channelling one of the most famous scenes in the show's history, the confrontation between Davros and the Fourth Doctor in Genesis of the Daleks. Steven Moffat is a clever, talented writer (for all my bashing of him I do recognise he's a clever, talented writer) but his strength is not in emotional exchanges like this. Someone like Russell T Davies could have done something marvellous with the Doctor and Davros debating the merits of their respective compassionate and aggressive approaches to dealing with others. Moffat couldn't, because his strength lies in plot twists, disguising exposition and creating cool visuals. Are we really expected to believe that the Doctor, believing Clara to be dead, would share a laugh and a joke with the creator of the most dangerous race in the universe? I can believe he'd have helped cure Davros, because he's a good, kind and compassion man (the point of the scenes) but laughing with him over nothing was too much to accept and a mistake I can't imagine RTD making. Once Davros's plan became apparent and he started ranting things improved (and for the record this was my favourite stuff from Bleach even though I enjoyed his more sombre, restrained performance) but that was only the last ten minutes or so and we'd seen it before.
The last failing the pairings gave us was a lack of a satisfying meeting between Missy and Davros. What could have been a great mad versus mad scene was instead cut down to a couple of lines from Missy in the midst of the episode's action-packed climax. Having seen Bleach's previous performance in the role and writing Missy's introductory story last series it's baffling as to why Moffles didn't capitalise on this meeting and give the two something to do together.
Other complaints are relatively minor. The sonic sunglasses are daft. Moffat's continual hammering at continuity (Missy has a daughter, reminders about Gallifrey returning, all those additions to Dalek lore and all the other extraneous references) were annoying. What I assume were references to the Faction Paradox series that most people reading this won't have ever heard of2, irritating because it's Moffat either being snide or blatantly raiding ideas (again). The Daleks renewal essentially being meaningless, additionally annoying because Moffat has never bothered to pick up on the Progenitor device thread from Victory of the Daleks3. The reduced role of Colony Sarff, the best new element MOffat's given the series in a very long time. Daleks saying "Mercy" being such a big deal when they've said it before. The title making even less sense than last week.
Ultimately the most interesting thing I took from the script was the tease of Missy teaming up with the Daleks in her final line of the episode. Which indicates that, sadly, series nine will be business as usual for Moffat's Who. A great pity after the promise of last week.
1 There were three: the Dalek Supreme's control room, Davros's lair, and the sewers.
2 Last week it was the almost too enigmatic line "There's just The War" and this week we had mentions of The Enemy, both in the young Davros scenes.
3 Using the Progenitor device as Davros's way of revitalising the Dalek race would have been far more satisfying than having a talking snake dangling from the roof.