WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD…
Reviewed by Paul Mount
First UK Broadcast: Sunday 25th November 2018
Writer: Joy Wilkinson
Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Guest Starring: Alan Cumming (King James), Siobhan Finneran (Becka Savage), Tilly Steele (Willa Twiston)
The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz arrive in 17th-century Lancashire and become embroiled in a witch trial, run by the local landowner. As fear stalks the land, the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But is there something even more dangerous at work? Can the Doctor and friends keep the people of Bilehurst Cragg safe from all the forces that are massing in the land?
Rumour has it that Joy Wilkinson’s pseudo-historical romp ‘The Witchfinders’ was originally slated to appear much earlier in the run of this latest, slightly anaemic series of Doctor Who episodes. We’re not privy to the reasons why the episode was shunted towards the end of the series but we can’t help wishing that ‘The Witchfinders’ had been allowed to do their thing a few weeks earlier as the pace and energy of the episode would have been a very welcome respite from the plodding, worthy and static run of stories which followed in the wake of lively series opener ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’. But here it is, materialising well into the back half of the series and, following on from last week’s likeable ‘Kerblam!’, it finds the series rousing further from its torpor and offering a few thrills and spills in amongst the inevitable and apparently obligatory moralising and hokey social commentary.
The TARDIS has arrived in Lancashire in 1612 (we’re spared scenes of the TARDIS landing and the quartet finding their feet and getting their bearings) in the vicinity of Pendle Hill. At a nearby village they find an old woman being dunked (it’s a witch-trial rather than a peculiar biscuit-dousing inspired ceremony) and despite her best efforts the Doctor is unable to save the poor woman’s life. The Time Lord uses her psychic paper to pass herself off as the Witchfinder-General (there’s a big hat involved) in an attempt to persuade ruthless local landlord Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) to put a stop to the barbaric practice which has already cost dozens of lives. But a mysterious masked figure is creeping about amongst the trees; it’s King James I (Cumming) who is – rather unbelievably – wandering around on his own without a retinue of heavily-armed guards and is clearly fascinated by talk of witches, witch-trials, witchcraft in general and ritualistic dunking (of witches, not biscuits). The Doctor and Becka exchange much meaningful banter about how difficult it is for a woman to be taken seriously (it’s pretty much the first time the Doctor has significantly addressed the issue of her own gender and sadly it amounts to little more than “if I was still a bloke I could get on with the job and not waste time defending myself”). King James busies himself being extremely arch and casting an admiring eye over the Doctor’s “Nubian” friend Ryan (Toisin Cole) and Yaz (Mandeep Gill) finds the old woman being buried by her granddaughter Willa (Tilly Steele) who is suddenly attacked by a writhing mud tendril.
Before long the recently-deceased are being reanimated as mud-zombies and the Doctor discovers that, as usual, alien devilry is afoot when she uncovers evidence of a long-buried extra-terrestrial prison ship whose prisoners are free and, for no readily apparent reason, hell-bent on taking over the world. These are the Morax and, not unlike the Gelth in 2005’s superior ‘The Unquiet Dead’, their modus operandi involves reviving the deceased and using the corpses as vessels of terror. They’re very much third-tier Doctor Who monsters who exist purely to be scary in a Sunday tea-time fashion and they do little but wander about eerily and utter vague threats about their vague plans. Full marks to Joy Wilkinson for the incredible – if not incredulous – line of dialogue which sees the Morax-possessed Becka shriek “Kneel before the Morax, feeble human” which seems unlikely to earn the script a BAFTA at next year’s glittering awards ceremony. But we’re not protesting too much; the Morax were at least a proper nasty alien presence in a season where the emphasis has been almost exclusively on the Evil That Men Do rather than “It’s a bug-eyed monster from outer space with a ray-gun, run away!” Ironically, for an episode which champions strong-willed, free-thinking, powerful women, the Morax masterplan can only come to fruition when the Morax King – a big wavy CGI tentacle-thing – has managed to possess King James and, somehow, spearhead the Morax conquest of the Earth. #moraxtoo, anyone?
‘The Witchfinders’ is something of a throwback to ‘classic’ Doctor Who insomuch as it actually resembles Doctor Who and delivers a workmanlike story which in an earlier era might have served as a throwaway romp but works here as a reassuring oasis of the familiar in a strange new era of stories which haven’t always felt quite like Doctor Who. Where this season’s previous historical yarns – ‘Rosa’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab’ – dealt with subject matter far too serious and important to be treated frivolously (hence the offhand nature of their respective tokenistic sci-fi trappings), ‘The Witchfinders’ lets its proverbial corsets out a bit and sets out to have some fun. Set in some fanciful, stereotypical depiction of a 17th century in thrall to the supernatural and bedevilled by Satan, the episode plays with our expectations of its setting and gives us everything we could reasonably expect, especially if we saw films like Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw through a crack in the door when we were time tots. Historical accuracy is resolutely not the name of the game here but ‘The Witchfinders’ gives us not just what we want but what we demand; groups of gormless, slightly grubby villagers, a ducking-stool for dunking (not biscuits), creepy shenanigans in crackling woods, wraith-like figures drifting through the mist, ruthless hard-nosed landowners with the added bonus of a guest appearance by King James I who has clearly stumbled in from the set of some unholy crossover between Blackadder and Are You Being Served.
Alan Cumming’s extraordinary performance is so arch and tongue-through-cheek that it almost unbalances the entire episode and yet he somehow gets away with it by reining it in when the chips are down; his face-to-face with the captured and restrained Doctor is powerful and affecting and gives Jodie Whittaker some of her strongest material yet. Elsewhere, as ever, she’s still firing on all David Tennant cylinders and the script lets her down badly in the tense sequence where she’s chained to the ducking-stool which plunges her into the icy water. The stool is brought back out of the water but – gasp – the Doctor is nowhere to be seen. What’s become of her? What wonderful bit of space alien trickery has she called upon to whisk herself out of mortal danger? The Doctor emerges, bedraggled, from the water. “I held my breath and got out of the chains,” she explains. Oh for a bit of timey-wimey. The script fizzles out again towards the end in a conclusion which involves the Morax being easily defeated by bits of burning wood which seems a bit humiliating for an alien mud-race who have survived for millennia inside a buried prison spaceship.
Like most of the episodes of this low-key, unfussy and unshowy season, ‘The Witchfinders’ is a fragile, simplistic thing which really won’t stand up to rigid scrutiny and it’s an episode best enjoyed as the larger-than-life romp it was so clearly intended to be. That, in itself, sets it apart from so much of what has gone before this year, in a season which has carried the weight of the world on its shoulders and whose metaphorical brow has been almost constantly furrowed. Sometimes Doctor Who just needs ridiculous monsters, corny plots, pantomime performances and some very silly hats.