This week saw another return to history for Series 11, as the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan face The Witchfinders. But does it find the magic?
It would be fair to say that so far this series the historicals have been the stand out episodes. In fact there seems to have been a definite divide between the frothy fun of future set episodes like The Tsuranga Conundrum and Kerblam! and deeply emotional, character led episodes like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab. It’s also probably not very controversial to say that those historical episodes have been unusual in one way. With both the villainous Kraskow and the Thijarians, the explicit science fiction element was relatively sidelined. It’s wasn’t only that it was it a small piece of the action. It also didn’t seem particularly important to the story the writer wanted to tell.
So, the first question when it comes to The Witchfinders is obvious. How big, and how well integrated into the story, is the science fiction element this time? The answer is that this week’s adventure felt much more like a traditional Doctor Who story intersecting with the true horrors of history. James I is present and correct, yes. And it’s made clear that these type of atrocities were really committed by him and in his name. But the educational remit – including a hysterical infodump about James’ family history that works due to the cheekiness of the script and the twinkle of Cumming’s performance – comes as simply one side to a story about big bog monster zombies from space.
In Becka Savage and the Queen of the Morax, we get two villains for the price of one
It also gives us our first real, unambiguous villain since Tim Shaw way back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. In fact, it’s a veritable menu of villainy. Becka Savage may be misguided insofar as her terror of the forces of Satan being honestly held. But she still unapologetically murders thirty-six people — including one she knows isn’t a witch. The Queen of the Morax, when she takes over the villain’s role, is pure cackling evil and the cosmic level. She’s only short of throwing out a good old classic “Dock-TORR!” to complete the image. Only King James gets off a little lightly. The decision by Cumming and the team to slant him in more of a comically foppish direction is well judged, though. It just about justifies the wiggle room in him not getting a comeuppance in the end.
And, for what it’s worth, history does record that James quietly scaled back and then ended his witch hunts about this time. Most historians think they became an embarrassment to him. But I guess they didn’t know the Doctor shamed him into it.
This wouldn’t have happened to the other fellas
Another great strength this season has been the diversity brought to the writers’ room. Malorie Blackman and Vinay Patel were the first woman and man of colour to ever write for Doctor Who in its entire fifty-five year history. But Chris Chibnall didn’t just dispatch them to write scripts of Daleks invading the planet Zog. Instead they used own history, experience and point of view to tell stories important to them. But crucially to tell them in a way which only Doctor Who could.
Joy Wilkinson can’t claim to be the first woman to write for Doctor Who. But she nevertheless has a powerful voice on feminist issues. Her theatre work as a playwright has included this year’s The Sweet Science of Bruising, about the strange, surprisingly world of underground women’s boxing in Victorian England. And previously Wilkinson wrote the true story of World War One’s Best Recruiting Sergeant Vestra Tilley, the music hall star and male impersonator.
The Doctor’s new gender is, ultimately, simply a fresh wrinkle in her usual trouble overcoming local authority
So the appeal of King James I’s mania for persecuting witches is clear. In the end, though, Wilkinson keeps it relatively low key. James is depicted as a fool, and a coward, and a religious zealot. And he’s certainly patronizing and sexist (possibly more than you’d expect from someone who grew up in the shadow of his distant cousin Elizabeth I). But he’s not depicted her as much of a misogynist. That Becka’s victims are entirely made up of women is almost incidental to the plot. Sure, the Doctor, inevitably, gets accused of being a witch and complains that people wouldn’t have been as dismissive of her previous thirteen faces. But it’s colour added to the eternal dance of the Time Lord – constantly accused of the crime they’re trying to stop, and having to escape to save everyone while winning over the local authority.
Doctor Who has always faces a dilemma when dealing with the supernatural
The subject matter this week raise the spectre (so to speak) of a dilemma Doctor Who has frequently faced before. Traditionally, the Doctor is the first to scorn superstition and the supernatural. They’re a person of science, after all. But that often doesn’t make for the most exciting story. So in stories like The Daemons or The Shakespeare Code we get firmly told that the supernatural doesn’t exist… just something exactly like the supernatural. So it wold seem a story like The Witchfinders has a choice. Emphasize the pointless cruelty of James I’s penchant for burning women to death. Or give us real witches, or something indistinguishable from them, to thrill the viewer but potentially justify James’ policies, even if only slightly.
The Witchfinders, too, manages to just about square this circle. Again, it’s thanks to the wittiness of Wilkinson’s script and the warmth of the performances. When Whittaker’s Doctor tuts to James that obviously it’s not ‘witches’ but ‘the bodies of the dead animated by sentient alien mud’ (or words to that effect’) it’s similar to the lines Pertwee gets in The Daemons. But it’s done here with a wink to the audiences about the ridiculousness of it.
All in all, The Witchfinders feels like a classic Doctor Who adventure in the true sense. It feels like it could have had a mad eyed Tom Baker romping around these woods, yet also adds to it everything great that the current creative team have brought to this series.
Simply put, an episode of Doctor Who, of sufficient quality, is indistinguishable from… Magic.
The adventure continues…
Doctor Who continues this Sunday at 6.30pm GMT on BBC One and at 8pm EST on BBC America with It Takes You Away by Ed Hime. For further broadcast times in your region, check local listings. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien) and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).
It Takes You Away guest stars Kevin Eldon (Ribbons) and Eleanor Wallwork (Hanne) and is directed by Jamie Childs.
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?