Doctor Who – “The Witchfinders”

“The Witchfinders”
Doctor Who: Series 11 – Episode 8
Written by: Joy Wilkinson
Directed by: Sallie Aprahamian

Synopsis: In 17th-century Lancashire, the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham become embroiled in a witch trial and the arrival of King James I.

Delving deeper into the past than its previous historical adventures, “The Witchfinders” used the Doctor’s new female form to touch upon the misogyny of medieval times. Once it was clear that there was a witch-hunt on, it seemed inevitable that a time-travelling female speaking beyond her years and carrying about a “wand” would become the prime suspect. Whereas “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” focused on the Doctor’s companions relating to the injustices of the past, this episode acted as an opportunity for the Doctor to realise how differently she would be treated by others due to her female form, even mentioning how this wouldn’t have happened in any of her male bodies. The series has been relatively coy in addressing the gender-switch thus far, and I think this episode was probably the most we’ve seen the Doctor herself address the situation, which is exactly how it should be – only mentioned when relevant, otherwise it becomes too gimmicky.

Alan Cumming was sensational as King James I, fuelling the episode through its middle act with his delightfully camp scenery-chewing and flamboyance. Aside from his role as the target in the Gunpowder Plot, I knew little about the King himself and it was great to see the character given a bit more motivation and depth, instead of making him a secondary antagonist. Also brilliant was Siobhan Finneran as Miss Savage, cruelly subjecting innocent women to the “dunk test” in an effort to cleanse Pendle Hill of the evil that inhabits it. As with all the episodes this year, the cinematography was amazing and really captured a sense of location with the creeping mist and eerie woodland acting as a backdrop for this 17th-century Gothic horror.

The concept of supernatural mud infecting corpses and attempting to spread amongst the populous was very similar to the Flood in “The Waters of Mars”, but I must admit that I loved the visual of the muddy-faced women traipsing through the village to find their leader. It did lose a bit of the spark once the Queen of the Morax made her appearance, and events seemed to wrap themselves up relatively easily. I guess that is the problem when most of the episode is used to set up the scene, and the big reveal of the supernatural threat is pushed towards the end. I personally would have loved to have seen more about the tendrils of mud attacking villagers and spreading the Morax DNA throughout the innocents, as the tendrils were probably the most original element of the Morax. That said, I thought that the women playing the “mud zombies” were really creepy and I’d have loved to have seen them get more screen-time.

This episode also seemed to highlight one of the issues with this year’s crowded TARDIS as it felt like the three companions were barely given anything to work with. Graham and Ryan were paired off together, and while they had some fun lines attempting to dissuade King James I from witch-hunting, they weren’t really essential to the storyline. The same is true for Yaz and her attempts to befriend Willa at the graveyard – it seemed like there was enough “material” for two companions, but it had to be stretched across the three of them. I’ve come to enjoy the three of them working together, but only when they are given distinct and separate roles and a bit of character development. One of them could have been chilling out in the TARDIS and it probably wouldn’t have made much impact on the final plot. Making sure that all three have some agency and importance to the story has been a tricky balance to achieve, especially in episodes featuring plenty of supporting characters, but for the most part, it has been achieved.

As with “Kerblam”, this episode felt reminiscent of Doctor Who episodes in the recent past, rather than the more drama-led style seen at the top-end of this series. The idea of having the Doctor run into an historical figure and thwart an alien invasion has been seen time and time again in the new series, in episodes such as “Tooth and Claw”, “The Shakespeare Code” and “Vincent and the Doctor”, and so it was great to see “The Witchfinders” continue in this longstanding tradition. There were moments of great characterisation, as mentioned earlier with King James I and the Doctor having a surprisingly meaningful conversation before she was hauled off to be tried as a witch. The same was true from Willa Twiston, who evolved as a character throughout the episode, going from timid and scared to brave and self-assured at the episode’s end. Even, King James I underwent some journey and left the Doctor’s company as a better man.

While this episode might not go down in history as the most memorable of the season, I found it a solid and enjoyable dip into the past. As much as I enjoyed the “mud-zombies”, I do think that the final transformation into the Morax was a bit too much and undermined the serious drama that had occurred up until then. Ultimately, this episode was a bit of a mixed bag with some hits and misses – the performances were all definite hits! I’d love to revisit Alan Cumming’s King James I again in another episode, possibly a Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot episode? However, I was less convinced about the alien threat, or even the decision to make it an alien threat – I’d have preferred it if it had actually been a supernatural monster rather than forcing an alien backstory to it, however, this is a common route for the series – remember “The Vampires of Venice”, the werewolf in “Tooth and Claw”, and even the ghost harpy in “The Curse of the Black Spot” – all supernatural on the surface but revealed as alien in the episode’s end.

As the third, and final, historical episode of the series, “The Witchfinders” proved the versatility of the format and how the series can create both drama-led trips to the past as seen in “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, or use the backdrop as a setting for a monstrous invasion. There’s benefits to both approaches and I certainly hope that Series Twelve maintains this split focus on past, present and future locations.

Score – ★★★ ½

Next Episode – “It Takes You Away”
On the edge of a Norwegian fjord in the present day, the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz discover a boarded-up cottage and a girl named Hanne in need of their help. What has happened here? What monster lurks in the woods around the cottage – and beyond?

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