SCARVES AND CELERY – Extra Post – “Always Mercy”: The Subversion of the “The Killing Joke” and the Power of Compassion in “The Magician’s Apprentice/ The Witch’s Familiar”

To kick off a series of Dalek themed posts that will be posted on the website this week, I’m sharing an edited version of a post that I originally wrote for my personal blog. Original content will be shared in my slot next Friday. – Scarves

“The Magician’s Apprentice/ The Witch’s Familiar” is a marvelous start to series nine. It’s probably the Moffat two-parter I like the least, but it’s still a great story. As in series six, we start a series with a pre established TARDIS team, and no new introductions to make, so Moffat dives in with a big kitchen sink two part story to set up a season that shakes up the current format of a Doctor Who season, this time by giving us a season that is largely comprised of two parters (although this is complex, and we’ll get to why in a couple of posts time). There is a shameless parade of deep continuity, as we get an opening featuring The Shadow Proclamation, the Maldovarium, The Sisterhood of Karn, and UNIT, before diving into a story that focuses on the dynamics between the Doctor, Davros, Clara and Missy, and this may be a little much. But the story makes the continuity work, handling the references in a thoughtful and non-alienating way, and giving us a character focused pair of episodes that get less showy and more thoughtful the further we go towards the story’s climax.

One of the most interesting things about this story are its parallels to the very influential Batman comic “The Killing Joke”: The Doctor and Davros have very similar roles to Batman and the Joker, but first I want to talk about the other significant parallel: the one between Clara and Barbara Gordon. In “The Killing Joke”, Barbara Gordon’s back is broken when she is shot through the uterus by the Joker (it is also implied that the Joker), meaning she is no longer able to be Batgirl (never mind that when Bane breaks Batman’s back, Batman recovers and becomes stronger, no sexism here, none at all). Then Barbara is sidelined, with her trauma being used to motivate Batman and commissioner Gordon – Clara’s apparent death at the end of part one, just as she was becoming a capable apprentice Doctor, taking on his role as UNIT’s advisor seems to parallel the rightly criticized textbook fridging storyline Barbara gets in “The Killing Joke”.

But Clara’s parallel storyline is subverted, as Clara gets a heck of a lot more agency than Barbara: instead of being killed to give the Doctor angst, she survives being shot by the Daleks, Doctorishly figures out how Missy saved them, and gets her own joker-esque figure to spar against in the form of Missy. The text even emphasises the subversion of the fridging trope by having the Doctor rant about how sorry the Daleks will be for killing Clara while Clara and Missy, who are perfectly alive and well, listen in and comment on the speech (Peter Harness pulls off a similar trick in his adaptation of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” in the episode “Arabella”, although I think it’s done better here).

The Doctor’s speech demanding the Daleks bring Clara back is also an important note in the context of the season: his protective paternalism towards Clara, and the undermining of this paternalism, will be a pattern that is explored and developed throughout the season. Not that his protectiveness towards her is a simplistically bad thing, or that the dynamic between the Doctor and Clara is him being overly protective and controlling towards her: there are actually parallels between the Doctor’s speech in the Witch’s Familiar, and an exchange in the cell at the end of “The Magician’s Apprentice”, where Clara outright demands that the Doctor, who thinks he’s going to his death, survives to make up for lying to her about Missy’s survival. Both Clara and the Doctor’s behavior is incredibly similar, as they push each other to extreme behavior, demanding the impossible to ensure the other’s survival, a dynamic that is simultaneously exciting and dangerously codependant. This is a story about the thin dividing line between enemies and friends, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Clara and the Doctor’s friendship is a very dangerous one.

On the subject of dangerous friendships, also significant is Clara and Missy’s uneasy alliance over the course of this story. It’s a new thing for Clara to do as a character, and the kind of material that justifies her getting to do a third season on the show. Having become more and more Doctor-like, she can’t just be his companion in the traditional sense (although of course the new series has been questioning the Doctor-companion dynamic since “Rose”, and the classic series did with some companions, this is a new approach to doing so). When she treats Missy like an enemy, Clara has the measure of her, successfully talking her down from killing all the people in the square by calling Missy’s bluff. However, when treating Missy as an ally, Clara lets her guard down at several key moments, realizing she needs Missy when threatening to kill her in the Dalek sewers, and having to back out as a result. Handling Missy is also harder because Missy periodically tries to kill her, and unlike the Doctor, Clara hasn’t had time to get used to that kind of friendship yet.

Also interesting is Clara being trapped inside the Dalek casing in “The Witch’s Familiar”. At least visually, it’s a callback to “Asylum of the Daleks”, the beginning of Jenna Coleman’s time on the show being echoed at the start of her final season. It’s also the most significant exploration of the Daleks in the story, looking at the way they hijack human language and emotion. Clara’s speech is restricted, as her expressions of love and self identification are turned into Dalek speech patterns, and the resulting fear at her lack of control leads to her shooting at people, or, as Missy puts it “That’s why they keep shouting ‘Exterminate’. It’s how they reload”. It’s also an approach that we will see repeatedly for Clara’s characterisation throughout this season. Clara is a character who greatly values her control and agency over a situation, so she is repeatedly placed in situations where she is restricted, and has to fight to reclaim her agency. Here, she escapes from the Dalek through her part in a classic Moffat time loop: she expresses a sentiment of mercy in spite of the Dalek’s language restrictions, causing the Doctor to realise he has to go back in time and save Davros to enable her to do so.

While also being the source of an interesting commentary on Clara’s character, the monsters in this story also continue a repeated motif of the Capaldi era, of the things that lies beneath the surface. The Hand Mines drag their victims beneath the earth, and the Dalek sewers represent the hidden, undying underclass of the Dalek civilization, that rise up to the surface to overthrow Davros and the Daleks at the end of the story.

Now, let’s move on to the Doctor and Davros’ extended exchanges, a concept based on Moffat’s belief that the Doctor and Davros are always electric together, and that giving them a really extended amount of time together would make for a really great episode. And to his credit, it works, and becomes the defining feature of the story. This material is the source of the other major parallel to “The Killing Joke”, as the Doctor and Davros basically get the same roles as Batman and the Joker, with the story seeming to be about how they both sustain one another, yet must inevitably kill each other in the end, a revelation that the hero had a hand in the villain’s origins, and a scene of both breaking into laughter together after their conflicts have apparently come to an end. However, this parallel avoids the problem Alan Moore, writer of “The Killing Joke”, highlighted in his own commentary on why he doesn’t like the comic: it’s a story about the Batman and the Joker, but there are no real people like the Batman and the Joker, so it’s not about anyone, or anything real. Similarly, there are no real people like the Doctor and Davros, but the episodes work around this when the Doctor explicitly admits that he’s “just a man in a box, telling stories”, and that that’s all the Doctor really is, a story that he tries to live up to. That’s a deeper note than “The hero and the villain are perfect mirrors of each other”, which the episode avoids by having the Doctor and Davros’ bonding be a mutual attempt to trick the other: as with the role of the Doctor, the idea that the two of them aren’t so different is also a performative one.

Probably the one completely sincere moment between the Doctor and Davros in the story, comes when the Doctor angrily tells Davros he saved the Time Lords, prompting Davros to be reduced to tears of sympathy and pride for the Doctor, a moment that rings true even though it could seem incredibly wrong, as the episode doesn’t make Davros less of a villain, or try to convince us that underneath it all, he’s a good person: “a man must have a people” he says, only empathizing with the Doctor through his racial purity obsessed ideology. And it’s fair to assume that even this is something of a ploy, with Davros using his sincere joy at the Doctor’s success to make his plan to ensnare the Doctor work. That’s probably the most fun that can be had with the Doctor and Davros’ exchanges in this story: watching again and trying trying to figure out what they’re plotting at different points in the episode.

And ultimately, even the artifice the Doctor and Davros employ is cleverly undercut by the story’s conclusion. “The Friend inside the Enemy, the enemy inside the friend. Everyone’s a bit of both. Everyone’s a hybrid” says Missy at the end of the story, a pretty heavy clue that this is what the Hybrid arc is really about: the prophecy is a throwaway line by Davros, but the themes about friendship, hatred, and the thin dividing line between the two is at the centre of this story’s themes. As with season eight, the underlying mystery is just a meme, a Macguffin: the real arc of the season lies with the development of the characters.

So the Doctor ultimately concludes that even trying to figure out the difference between friends and enemies is meaningless “as long as there’s Mercy. Always Mercy”. This is the other central theme of the season: the choice of Mercy over revenge, an idea explored in this story through the twist on the implications of the cliffhanger. When the Doctor says he is saving Clara’s life the only way he can, he is not attempting to murder young Davros and change the past so that Clara isn’t vapourised by the Daleks, but ensuring Clara will be able to communicate with the Doctor from inside the Dalek shell by saving Davros, thus ensuring that mercy is always in his design of the Daleks, in spite of the impossibility of Davros being outright redeemed. Mercy, compassion, and empathy, even in the darkest, most confusing of moral quandaries, are the most powerful and important things to fight for.

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