Doctor Who travels back into the past once again, this time to 17th Century Lancashire, where the Doctor and her companions find themselves in the middle of an old-fashioned witch hunt. It’s an episode with a few too many moving parts, but which manages to be a lot of fun, especially by the standards of historical episodes, which I tend to not enjoy as much.
The Witchfinders reminds me a lot of series three’s The Shakespeare Code. The obvious connection is the setting; both take place in England (albeit one in the city and the other in the countryside), with less than twenty years between them. But there is also a fixation on witchcraft, magic which turns out to be the machinations of an ancient alien species seeking an escape from their imprisonment, and a famous figure of the era as a guest star. Also, both episodes are a bit of a mess.
Despite the similarities, however, The Witchhunters is vastly superior to The Shakespeare Code, which was really only tolerable because of the sheer hamminess of the three witches’ performances. Whereas Dean Lennox Kelly’s William Shakespeare was disappointingly bland, Alan Cumming’s King James is endlessly amusing, a figure so exaggerated and compelling that he can steal scenes right out from under even the Doctor herself. And whereas The Shakespeare Code‘s plot hinged on magical technobabble, The Witchfinders is driven by character, and even the alien threat wants something a good deal more immediate and menacing. Really, the only fault to be found with The Witchfinders is that there’s simply too much of it. Between King James’s troubled past, local landlord Becka Savage’s dreaded secret, a young woman persecuted unjustly for witchcraft, and alien mud monsters from the dawn of time, there are a few more moving parts than the story can sustain, and they don’t all fit together neatly.
Still, it’s a good time, if not a particularly exceptional one. This series continues its streak of being good whenever Chibnall is not credited on the script. This isn’t particularly surprising, but it does make me feel a bit vindicated as someone who dreaded Chibnall taking the reins.
The best thing about this episode is that while many historical episodes simply uncritically reproduce the settings and events of the past, The Witchfinders takes a stance, politically. This is the first time that the Doctor has been seriously impeded by sexism in the course of her duties, and she responds to it in exactly the way I would have hoped she would: deep exasperation. “Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job, and not have to waste time defending myself!” she exclaims as James insists on interpreting her every word and action as satanic. She barely even seems to notice him, she’s so fed up with how stupid this is. And this episode has the perfect topic through which to broach this topic; witch hunts were, of course, directed at both sexes, but the accused were predominantly women, and often women who had the temerity to live outside of proscribed gender roles (although, to be clear, the accusations were often made by other women – something else the episode gets right). It risks getting a little too on-the-nose about this when Becka asks the Doctor, whom she is about to chain to the ducking stool, if she knows that “[the ducking stool was invented] to silence foolish women who talk too much”, but this is disarmed when the Doctor simply responds “Yeah, I did know that. Which is daft, ’cause talking’s brilliant,” refusing to take Becka’s pronouncement seriously.
If anything, it may lean into this stance a little harder than the history really justifies, but I think that’s all right, because it provides the episode with thematic consistency and interesting hooks.
Alan Cumming’s King James is a delight throughout. He’s a despicable man in many ways, but everyuuthing he does is so charmingly theatrical that he’s a difficult man to hate altogether.
The Morax are a bit standard, but not in a bad way. I always love the trope of the alien menace imprisoned in plain sight, released by short-sighted humans. And while the Morax themselves are rather vague, what they want is very clear: having been deprived of their own bodies and transformed into living mud, they want to claim our bodies, filling them up and puppeting them from the inside like horrible meat suits. It’s quite satisfyingly grisly.
The Morax are barely in the story at all until the final act, at which point it essentially transforms, in the space of a scene, into a totally different story. The story of Becka’s infection and subsequent madness is compelling, but it’s barely in the story until it’s over. There’s just a bit too much going on, and it’s just barely not cohesive enough. Things just don’t come together in a satisfactory manner.
Also, was Yasmin even in this episode? I know she must have been, but I can’t from memory think of a single thing she actually did. Mandeep GIll continues to be badly underused.