Each week the Blogtor Who team give their first thoughts on the latest episode of Doctor Who. Here’s what we thought of series 11 episode 8, The Witchfinders.
Needless to say, this article contains massive spoilers, so only read on if you’ve already watched The Witchfinders.
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So this week the Doctor and her companions were in Lancashire during King James’ reign (the First, I am assuming) in the middle of a witch trial. Given the number of historicals shown this year, you would be forgiven for thinking this was another lesson from the Doctor about the past. Nope. Instead, it was more like Capaldi’s Robot of Sherwood where the spoon fight laugh was replaced by who gets to wear the silly hat. Alan Cummings was a complete delight as the over the top camp witch-finding King. And Graham had the best line of the episode with his Quentin Tarantino quote as Team TARDIS left 17th century England. The Doctor had a good whinge about how she wouldn’t be ignored if she was still a bloke but she still delivered some typical Doctor-y rants. Don’t take this one too seriously.
The Witchfinders keep us this season’s trend of very strong historicals. However, while Rosa and Demons of the Punjab kept the focus firmly on the history lessons, this week’s episode felt much more like a traditional Doctor Who adventure with the history more seamlessly bled through the action. It got a great (and intended) laugh from the way Wilkinson’s script and Cumming’s performance to make a massive infodump about James’ personal history seem perfectly in character. We got not just one but two great sneering villains for the price of one. Becka may be misguided, but she’s undiluted human evil, too. While the Queen of the mud people is evil at the galactic scale. All that we were missing this week was a good old “Doc-TORR!” from the baddie. It also feels like the first time all the companions are pushed aside to let the Doctor herself step to the fore and it results in Whittaker’s most impassioned and Doctorish performance yet. With guest star Alan Cumming oozing effortless star quality as easily as the local dead ooze mud, The Witchfinders gives us that perfect Doctor Who combination of scares, laughs, and heart.
It’d be wrong to say that The Witchfinders was a slow burn since the first two-thirds of the episode has a lot going for it. But none of these elements really coalesce until towards the end. Alan Cumming is predictably oozing and foppish as King James, and he has the best scene with the Doctor as she tries to talk him round. Splitting Team TARDIS up to investigate could be interesting but it’s slow and lacks the characterisation that has been plugging the more languid parts of each episode this series. There’s just not enough driving the plot forward to give it any sense of momentum. However, once the Doctor goes for a dunking the plot kicks into overdrive for a breathless final act. All the concepts crammed into the last 15 minutes whizz by and the conclusion seemed a bit too quick and easy. A solid story but the final act needed more time to breathe.
After two stellar historical episodes this series, The Witchfinders feels rather different in comparison. It’s far more similar to the historical adventures of previous series – it’s in a very similar vein to Series 2’s The Shakespeare Code. As strange as it might sound, I was happy to see the Doctor’s gender finally play into the events of an episode, as she’s nearly ‘patronised to death’ by King James I, and even tried as a witch herself. Speaking of the king, Alan Cumming (of course) portrayed him brilliantly as a tragic and thoroughly paranoid man, but also as someone with a flair for the dramatic! His character was played for laughs far more than I expected he would be – not that this was a bad thing, as it gave him a more human quality I felt. Siobhan Finneran and Tilly Steele also gave fantastic performances. Unfortunately, it did feel as though this week’s villain the Morax were somewhat tacked-on at the end. The re-animated mud corpses were undeniably creepy. However, it would have been good to have seen more of Becka in her ‘true form’, as then I feel they would’ve felt more threatening. Otherwise, I did enjoy this episode, although I feel I might be biased since I’m a History student studying witchcraft! The Witchfinders did share the strength of Rosa and Demons of the Punjab in that it drove home the reality of living through such a harrowing event as a witch hunt, and just how much the fear of Satan preyed on the inhabitants of seventeenth-century England.
The guest stars in this series have been very impressive, but I believe that Alan Cumming’s self-righteous and gloriously camp King James has just won the…ahem.. crown. This episode definitely belongs to Cummings and Jodie Whittaker as they face a horrifying enemy we’ve become very familiar with in series 11 – human beings. Lancashire in the early 17th Century is awash with witch trials and the Doctor in her female form faces her first significant gender problem at the worst possible time; a time when being a clever woman – a healer, a Doctor – could end in death. The scenes of the Doctor and a King James gleefully romping around the country fighting Satan are standouts in this episode, perhaps even in this series. The rest of the TARDIS team prove that they really do have “a very flat team structure” as they do a fine job of dealing with the alien-inhabited corpses of the drowned ‘witches’. Speaking of aliens, I said it last week and I’ll say it again now. I’m really missing a good old Dalek/Cybermen/horrible old foe story. The Morax (this week’s alien) will, I feel, not be on many kids’ Christmas ‘want’ list. But overall, I found The Witchfinders to be a jolly good episode with a fair bit of genuine peril and Alan Cummings was an absolute hoot! More of this, please. Comedy highlights: King James’ utter resistance to the idea that a woman could be anything but a witchfinder’s assistant. And Graham in his witchfinder hat.
While it didn’t pack the emotional heft of series 11’s other historical episodes The Witchfinders was nonetheless still an enjoyable adventure. The highlight, by far, was Alan Cummings fabulous portrayal of King James. Cummings was clearly having an absolute ball in the role and it shows, from his glee at the prospect of a witch hunt to his fascination and flirtation with Ryan, he was incredibly watchable. There were some great tense moments throughout the episode, seeing Siobhan Finneran’s Becca Savage turn on the Doctor to protect her secret and then watching as Willa Twiston’s Tilly is forced into a position of denouncing The Doctor to save herself from being accused of a witch was one such moment. This was all balanced with a nice amount of humour throughout (and who couldn’t love Graham in that hat). I must admit I was slightly disappointed that this wasn’t a pure historical and the last 15 minuets turned into a fairly by the numbers alien invasion plot which I think was a shame. Even at that point though it was enjoyable and fun.’
Alan Cumming was excellent, his performance nicely judged between self-satisfaction and vulnerability. There were some good ideas – the Doctor tested as a witch – and some good visuals. But The Witchfinders suffered from the usual malaise of this season. Far too talky, telling not showing, lots of yakking (the King’s word) until a rushed climax in the final fifteen minutes. Again, a generic scary monster voice for the Morax, and zombies – is this really the best the show can do? The evocation of the seventeenth century was far less convincing or well researched than The Shakespeare Code back in season three: anyone being as insolent as Yaz or the Doctor to the King would have been dispatched at once, and for Team TARDIS to give Jacobean locals speeches about democracy and equality and there’s no such thing as Satan, and for the locals to listen and take it seriously, was absurd. The Doctor started the episode by warning everyone how they must respect history. The show could respect it by showing the period for what it was. Oh dear. Lumbering dialogue, no pace, dull monsters and the regular cast playing it really earnestly in an attempt to inject drama into a flagging script…there was so much talking it seemed to have been originally written as an audio. We seem to be passing through a fallow period in Doctor Who’s history. It appears that the writers, directors and designers have only a passing acquaintance with the show and what we are being given looks like people trying hard to do Doctor Who when they have never seen it, but are working from a summary written on a page of A4. I’m afraid I found it dull.
In the week that Doctor Who turned 55 we were transported back into a classic who era style of episode. Firstly the choice of time period was incredible, Doctor Who has always had strong ties to the 16th and 17th century in England and so in was great to see this rekindled. I thought that James I was played incredibly by the talented Alan Cummings. As an A level history student I have been studying James I and so I have been in anticipation of this episode for a long time now and it did not disappoint. It was nice to see Doctor Who again not only focusing on the era but some key figures from that too like in Rosa. I thought the Morax was extremely effective as a villain and the mystery and intrigue surrounding them kept me on the edge of my seat. I was also overjoyed Joy Wilkinson brought the psychic paper back into the Doctor’s array of items. Again we were forced to consider gender inequality in history. The ideas communicated by the Doctor will have resonated with many fans both male and female. All in all an amazing episode and one that will be difficult to top.
You can watch The Witchfinders now on BBC iPlayer.
The next episode of Doctor Who – It Takes You Away – on BBC at 18:30pm on Sunday 1st December.