Doctor Who (Modern): S11E08 “The Witchfinders”

Series 11
Directed by Sallie Aprahamian
Written by Joy Wilkinson

We still can’t stick the landing all that great, but all in all, the episodes have been rather enjoyable the past few weeks and this season as a whole.  We haven’t quite had a breakout episode and even though I feel I have been pretty soft in terms of grading on the show, it has been remarkably consistent, peaking when someone else has at the very least contributed to the writing.  We are also heading back in time and the historicals this season “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” have likewise been among the best.  While those tackled American and Indian history, Doctor Who finally gets to tackle the long neglected area of British history.  All joking aside, while it’s been nice to see them expand outside their comfort zone, I don’t begrudge them a trip into their own nation’s past instead of just that one of the nations that wanted them gone.

Someone on the writing staff evidently was a big The Good Wife fan as we have our second alum from the show in Alan Cumming playing the long reigning King James VI.  It’s a far more interesting (and British) get for the show than Chris Noth in “Arachnids in the UK“.  Also making an appearance in this episode are Siobhan Finneran (the sister of the lead on Happy Valley) as Becka Savage and Tilly Steele (who recurred on Victoria) as Willa Twiston.

I’ve long been someone who is a bit wary when it comes to the subject of witches in fiction.  There are certainly great films to be had in the genre (we just had one in Suspiria which I didn’t get to review but will surely be near the top of my year end list) and the stabs made at reclamation of the genre for feminism, but as a whole, it is hard for the genre to escape the history that the fiction is inspired by which was both a persecution by religious fundamentalists and most evidently, heavily misogynistic.  It’s an essential horror and fantasy subgenre and theme that nevertheless will often wind up coming off more distasteful than is intended to me.  It’s why I’m interested to see the show tackle the subject from a historical and feminist perspective considering it has essentially used witches before in “The Shakespeare Code”.

Somewhere in Lancashire in the fictional town of Bilehurst Cragg, The Doctor and her companions stumble upon an early 17th century witch trial.  The Doctor’s policy of non-interference is tested during the trial as she can’t stand to see a woman drowned and jumps into the water to try and save her.  She is unable to though as the woman drowns in the lake, but the “trial” is still disrupted before a “sentence from God” can be carried out.  The psychic paper identifies The Doctor as the Witchfinder General (which despite the barbarism inherent in the position, is still a badass name).  Witch trials have become a weekly event complete with celebrations with the usual lands blighted, animals suffering, etc. that comes with any purging of “witches”.

The Doctor promises to fix their problems without killing, but she faces quite a difficult resistance as King James’s new bible promotes the killing of witches and King James himself has shown up in the small town.  It’s the first time The Doctor’s gender has become a notable thing as King James laughs off her assertion that she’s the General since she’s a woman.  I’m both glad that the show has waited this long to tackle the issue and that it has come up eventually.  Shrugging off and making joking remarks to the change is all well and good, but when you travel in time, there’s inevitably going to be more than a few dealings with patriarchal societies.  I can accept The Doctor’s blowing into a situation and usually being accepted into it because they are a fantastic talker and suspension of disbelief, but sometimes it’s fun and/or necessary to see it subverted.

Graham has to step up and take the “position” and once again Bradley Walsh is a delight seeing him out of his depth trying to fake the position of power but being far too lovable to be one.  The Doctor instead gets demoted below him in the eyes of King James (who seems to view even Ryan with more fondness) with her intelligence and investigating treated as feminine wiles and the apparent ability of women to deceive.  Ryan claims the ability to do paperwork which is a very Ryan thing to be able to claim.

King James has a flair for the theatrical and camp and Cumming plays him as a man who covers up the darkness of his troubled upbringing and all the killings with an outwardly positive and joyful demeanor.  He plans to purify the land by any means, starting with the first (well thirty-something-th) victim’s granddaughter, Willa.  While Ryan and Graham seek to delay the Witchhunters in comically inept fashion, The Doctor and a barely there Yaz (not that any of the companions are stars this time, but she feels especially invisible) investigate alongside Willa.

Turns out its mud tentacles which would be my third guess.  The mud has been filling the murdered “witches” and even attacking Willa who is decidedly still alive.  It’s really pathetic with the mud zombies just kind of standing there squawking at The Doctor when she takes one their own and in general not doing much in the way of menacing.  Their presence is more of an existential than a real threat.  Becka, the local woman heading up the crusade against the witches, has seen things but refuses to speak of them and just blames everything on witchcraft, desperately trying to hide something even as she has an electric touch when she touches a dunking stool (which no one seems to question and call her a witch).

It actually takes a while for the inevitable to happen and The Doctor to be accused of witchcraft, what with her “magic wand” (her sonic screwdriver), her speaking of strange things, propensity for stumbling in on the suspicious occurrences including the apparent raising of the dead, and of course the most unforgivable of sins to the accusers, being a woman.  It evokes memories of “Midnight”, a fantastic Tenth Doctor episode which did a far better job with the idea of paranoia as well as with people turning on The Doctor.  That episode was genuinely hard to watch at times and there are moments here where the episode seems to hint at wanting to do something with The Doctor’s suspiciously extraordinary knowledge, but nope, the episode has to backpedal it a bit out of fear of making King James too evil and make her knowledge of events she shouldn’t know about almost make her trustworthy.

As the episode made so incredibly obvious, Becka is the key to all of this having in an attempt to cut down a tree on Pendle Hill that was blocking her view, accidentally disturbed the alien army (the Morax) it was imprisoning.  Which let’s be honest, is absolutely bonkers.  One of the alien tentacles came from the ground and attacked her, making her ill and now she can control the mud people and she’s been killing all the people to cover it up.  Now that she has been confronted, it takes over her completely and the Morax kidnap King James as they try to infect and take him over with a giant alien mud tentacle sprouting from the stump with a face straight out of The Mummy.

They may plan to spread fear and hate around the world (or just kill everyone, it’s so chaotic their exact manifesto isn’t exactly clear), but at this point the episode has long since lost where ever the hell it was going.  They are easily defeated when The Doctor reactivates the prison by… I don’t know, smacking it with fire and everything goes flying back into the portal and the head creature screams hilariously like it’s some goofy ’80s horror movie.  I watched it twice and still couldn’t tell what set it off since it was so unclear.

Once again, The Doctor is upset with someone for killing and while it’s very easy to chalk up that to continued anger over you know trying to have her killed, for once King James was attacking something that deserved it and which The Doctor was essentially doing herself.  He may have called her a witch as he killed her and was probably no longer a thread, but there’s no way for him to know that, and as even The Doctor quotes “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke’s Law).  I’m getting really tired of this recurring pattern too.  It’s been a case of diminishing returns and like the last time an ex-cast member of The Good Wife was involved, it’s even a debatable position whether they did something all that cruel.

It’s yet another ridiculous ending that betrays all that came before, but I can’t even say it was shaping up to call it all that great even beforehand.  Cumming was an entertaining presence and there are some decent morsels in the story, but that’s about all.  Chibnall’s reign hasn’t been great at integrating the historical and sci-fi elements even as the historical elements have succeeded and finally that flaw has come home to roost.  The historical side underwhelms in its telling, which is especially galling as this is exactly the episode that the series set up with Whittaker’s casting while the sci-fi side is incoherent garbage.

Grade: C-

Stray Observations

– No, I obviously did not watch this episode when it “leaked” on Amazon.  That would have been much more convenient to have this done.  Probably could have tracked down the inevitable bootlegs of it, but I couldn’t be arsed.
– This is apparently the second time The Doctor has been accused of witchcraft as Ten was in “The Christmas Invasion” after regrowing his hand.
– Also, the second time for aliens possessing dead bodies after “The Unquiet Dead”
– This Week in Cliffhangers: King James promises to erase all mentions of Bilehurst from existence and offers to make Ryan his personal bodyguard.  He declines the request.

Next Up:  Doctor Who Classic will hopefully return on 11/26 with “The Seeds of Death” (I’ve been busy and been unable to finish it, so we’ll see if it goes up tomorrow) while we will continue with the Thirteenth Doctor‘s era next Sunday with “It Takes You Away”.