Tonight’s Doctor Who episode continues the show’s recent trend of deconstructing the Daleks, his armored “space Nazi” adversaries. And just like with the recent “Asylum of the Daleks” and “Into the Dalek,” we discover that Dalek nature is both sadder and more complicated than we’d previously thought.

Spoilers ahead...

At the heart of “The Witch’s Familiar” is two situations we’ve seen before: 1) The Doctor talks to Davros, the mad scientist who created the Daleks, and they debate the ethics of survival and whether the Daleks are a force for good or evil. 2) The Doctor’s companion climbs inside an empty Dalek casing to impersonate one of the metal bastards, in order to pull off some kind of prisoner-and-escort ruse. But the episode turns both of these scenarios sideways.

In both scenarios, the original idea was more or less plot-based. The Doctor tries to influence Davros not to go forward with the creation of the Daleks, or to put a stop to some other evil scheme before it’s too late. And the companion usually climbs inside the Dalek to escape, or to rescue somebody. But this time around, these tropes are primarily used for their thematic value. And the theme that’s being explored, most of all, is compassion, the missing element in Dalek psychology.

Davros tempts the Doctor first with revenge, then with kindness

Davros, on the verge of death, seems to be fascinated by the Doctor’s capacity for compassion, which turns out to be the real reason why the Doctor has gone to see his old enemy. Yes, the Doctor feels badly about leaving Kid Davros on the Skaro battlefield to die—to underscore this, we see his nightmare/flashback of Kid Davros when he’s knocked unconscious at one point. But the main reason the Doctor decided to (in essence) throw his life away to go visit Davros was because “you were sick, and you asked,” he says at one point. The Doctor can’t help but care about someone who’s in distress, even if it’s the source of the greatest evil in the universe.

And Davros plays on the Doctor’s kindness, asking to see the Doctor with his real eyes (the ones that have never opened before, as long as we’ve seen Davros). And he asks the Doctor if he’s a good man, something the Doctor clearly can’t give an honest answer to. Finally, Davros offers the Doctor a chance to destroy all of the Daleks on Skaro, using the cables that keep Davros alive by connecting him to the lifeforce of every single Dalek. This is clearly a trap, but also Davros seems genuinely curious to see if the Doctor will choose to commit genocide in cold blood.

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At this point in the story, the Doctor still thinks the Daleks have exterminated Missy and Clara, and destroyed the TARDIS. He’s even gone on a desperate mission to confront the Daleks, in Davros’ own chair, to try and hold them accountable or force them to reveal that Clara is somehow still alive. But he still never even seems to consider Davros’ offer of a chance to wipe out a whole planetfull of Daleks.

But when Davros manipulates the Doctor into thinking that he’s about to die without seeing one last sunrise, and this is tragic and awful, the Doctor doesn’t even hesitate before trying to give Davros a jolt of his Time Lord regeneration energy, to pep him up so he can stay alive a little longer. (Let’s not get into how many other people have been at death’s door over the years, whom the Doctor chose not to help in this way. It’s a story. Whatever.) And then, of course, Davros springs his trap and the Doctor is suddenly being drained of all his regeneration energy to turn the Daleks into super Time Lord-Dalek hybrids. (Did anybody else picture Klaus from Vampire Diaries and The Originals when Davros was talking about this? It doesn’t help that Klaus always talks a bit like old school Michael Wisher Davros.)

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So all the Daleks become super-Daleks, and the Doctor is only saved from being drained completely by Missy’s intervention. But then, not surprisingly, it turns out the Doctor has turned the tables and Davros gets destroyed by his own trap. Because under the Dalek city is a ton of “sewers,” where the rotting remains of old Daleks are kept. Daleks are unable to die, so even after they’ve started to liquefy, they’re still alive and angry. And the Doctor’s regeneration energy also goes into those poopy old Daleks, who decide to take their revenge on the rest of the Daleks, apparently destroying them all. (Although at the end of the episode, Missy runs into a few survivors and tells them she has a clever idea.)

So the Doctor wasn’t willing to destroy all the Daleks directly—even if Davros’ offer wasn’t an obvious trap—but he’s perfectly willing to trick them into destroying themselves. This is sort of a Doctor Who trope. He won’t commit murder (usually) but he’ll happily set things up so that people’s own bad behavior causes their destruction. He’ll save people, but he won’t save them from themselves. (See: “Remembrance of the Daleks,” where he has access to a fancy super-weapon that could easily wipe out the Daleks in seconds, but he insists on setting up a complicated scheme so that the Daleks will try to use the super-weapon and destroy themselves. It has to be Their Own Fault.)

And of course, this is also the Doctor’s way of winning the usual “compassion is a weakness/no it’s not” argument, which he has earlier in the episode with Davros. The Doctor’s compassion (with a huge dose of cunning mixed in) turns out to be a huge strength, if not a deadly weapon.

That this storyline works as well as it does is pretty much entirely down to Peter Capaldi, who is in rare form this time around. He portrays the Doctor’s desperate grief over Clara’s “death” and his willingness to open up to Davros with a fierce humanity, and he makes every conversation with Davros seem to matter. Given some really off-kilter material, he basically acts his hearts out.

Inside the Dalek

And meanwhile, there’s the Missy-Clara pairing, which is even more fun (and interesting) this time around than in last week’s first part.

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Clara spends almost the whole episode off her game, thanks to Missy first tying her up, then shoving her into a sewer, and finally maneuvering her inside a Dalek. Missy taunts Clara with her pointy stick and her insinuations of quasi-cannibalism, but also teaches her and keeps using her as a kind of decoder ring for the Doctor.

And the episode’s opening sequence is all about Clara figuring out just why it is that the Doctor always survives deadly situations (like the one Missy describes, where he’s being hunted by killer androids and his teleporter is out of power.) It’s because the Doctor always knows he’s going to win—or more precisely, he always knows there’s a way out of every situation.

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This is pretty much what the Doctor tells Kid Davros at the start of last week’s episode—even if there’s only a one-in-a-thousand chance, that one chance is all you need. The Doctor’s main crime, the episode keeps hinting, is not just that he abandoned Davros to his fate (because Davros did survive), but that he offered Davros a vision of hope and resourcefulness, and then cruelly snatched it away. And now, Missy hints that the Doctor (having deprived Kid Davros of this sense that there’s always a way to win) is now bereft of it himself, because he made a will and threw himself a goodbye party before going to Skaro.

If that belief that there’s always a way to survive is what makes the Doctor the Doctor, then their emotional limitations are what define the Daleks. We already saw in last year’s “Into the Dalek” that the killing machines have a device inside them that prevents them from accessing all their memories or expressing a full range of feelings. And now, when Clara gets inside a Dalek (at full size this time), she gets to experience what that’s like.

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Instead of just impersonating a Dalek, Clara sort of becomes a Dalek, thanks to a kind of neural interface. And she finds that when she says something like “I love you,” or “You are different than me,” it becomes “Exterminate.” Also, she can’t say her name—anything about her own identity she says becomes “I am a Dalek.” And Missy gleefully points out that all of Clara’s rage and frustration is what fires her Dalek gun—saying “Exterminate” is a way of reloading.

It’s cool that the Daleks are getting back to their roots as creatures of pure hate and anger, after some stories over the years where they were treated a bit more like killer robots. (Looking at you, “Destiny of the Daleks.”) Where Russell T. Davies tended to fixate on the racism inherent in their premise—the Daleks see all other living things as inferior and prize the purity of their own genome above all else—Steven Moffat has tended to fixate on the Daleks as emotionally stunted products of war. (Although the notion that “You are different than me” translates to “Exterminate” is kind of perfect.)

Clara is trapped inside this Dalek, being led around by Missy, and then she comes face to face with the Doctor, who’s just triumphed over Davros. And Missy tries to convince the Doctor that Clara is dead and that the Dalek in front of him (which actually is Clara) is the one that killed her. The Doctor actually seems tempted to shoot Clara for a minute, because she keeps shouting “I am a Dalek” and “Exterminate,” in a vain attempt to communicate.

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But, just as the Doctor triumphs over Davros by having compassion (that only becomes a Trojan horse when it’s misused), Clara is saved because she’s able to make the Dalek say “Mercy.” This is such an un-Dalek thing to say that it tips off the Doctor that something is messed up here, and then he helps Clara to get out of the Dalek. (This scene sort of plays like a mirror of the climax of 2005’s “Dalek” where the Doctor is ready to shoot a Dalek until Rose intervenes, and then it opens up its casing to look at the sun.)

As with the Doctor having the opportunity to kill Davros as a child, and later to wipe out the Daleks in one go, the thing where the Clara-Dalek says “Mercy” is a callback to “Genesis of the Daleks,” the very first Davros story from 1975.

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In “Genesis,” the Daleks turn against their creator, and just before they (apparently) kill him, he begs them, “Have pity.” To which they respond, “Pi-ty? I have no understanding of the word. It is not registered in my vocabulary bank.” So this episode turns that idea on its head—because Clara wouldn’t be able to make the Dalek say “mercy” if it didn’t already have that word in its vocabulary bank.

This helps the Doctor to realize that just as compassion was the better choice than revenge in that scenario with Davros, he can choose to do something better than just leave Kid Davros alone in the minefield, back in the past. So the Doctor zips back to the time before the Daleks and helps Davros escape the minefield, so he can introduce the young Davros pointedly to the concept of mercy. And then Davros can somehow inculcate that concept into the Daleks, leading to Clara being able to say the word and save herself. So it’s a big timey wimey circle—but also, it shows once again that kindness is more effective than hatred.

So now we know this season’s big idea

Last season, by now, we had a pretty good idea that people close to the Doctor were dying and going to “Heaven” to meet Missy. And now, we have a pretty good idea what this year’s big over-arching mystery storyline will be, too.

The Doctor pointedly refuses to say what’s on his “Confession Dial,” which is some kind of mash-up of will-and-testament and final confessional. Is there another crime that the Doctor needs to get off his chest, after the Time War? Davros seems to think it’s something to do with the real reason why the Doctor left Gallifrey, all those centuries ago. And it connects up, somehow, with this Gallifreyan prophecy that predicts the creation of a “hybrid” combining two warrior races. So is the Doctor destined to bring Klaus Mikaelson to life?

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Probably whatever the Doctor is actually destined to do, it’ll be something similar to the way he was destined to say his name on Trenzalore—i.e., it’ll be a destiny that he can wriggle out of. But maybe the fun will be in seeing how he pulls it off. And I’m happy to see Klaus come to Doctor Who—as long as he brings Marcel with him.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com and follow her on Twitter @Charliejane. You can also follow her on Tumblr!