Directed by Jamie Childs
Written by Ed Hime
The consensus for last week’s episode tended towards fine to enjoyable with the now expected added proviso that show sort of fumbled the end. I, on the other hand, was of a quite different opinion. As much as I enjoy a chance to see Alan Cumming hamming it and thought the episode offered the potential for greatness, I was left disappointed. The niggling flaws that had been building up over the season, the inability to close out an episode, the poorly integrated and often unnecessary feeling sci-fi elements, the out of focus companions, and the identical lecture about not killing all bubbled together for me and proved to be too much.
While other episodes have compensated in other areas to make up for these deficiencies, “The Witchfinders” seemed to think Cumming was all it needed and thanks to the writing, his portrayal of King James felt noncommittal, as if it was meant to be a condemnation of the man but Standards & Practices stepped in and said “maybe it isn’t such a great idea to portray the man who gives your country’s church’s holy text (which factors into the plot) its name as a murderous, misogynistic fop. It also answered the big question of “How are they going to address The Doctor’s change in gender” with lackluster results.
While not making me pessimistic for tonight’s episode, the final of the season not written by Chris Chibnall, it did rob the series of both the measure of consistency it has had and drawn everything into sharper focus. We stay on Earth for this story, but we have jumped forward to the present day this time to Norway in the winter. At a remote cottage with no smoke (I don’t think the lack of smoke is ever actually explained by the episode), The Doctor and her three companions find it barricaded up with someone inside. They investigate the house and find a young woman hiding, bundled up and wearing sunglasses. Hanne is blind and has been left alone by her father who has been taken by some “thing”. It’s never seen, but it always comes out at the same time and makes a loud noise off in the distance with her dad putting the bars and locks on the day before he disappeared.
Ryan, who has experience with dad’s abandoning their kids, jumps straight to telling her that her dad probably left her and assumes that she is making up the stuff about the monsters (despite all he’s seen) because Ryan is the worst. Granted, he’s right about the monsters not being real, merely ropes wired to a sound system around the perimeter set to play monster effects, but not only does it make him out as a jerk, the fact that he made that immediate jump here makes him seem less smart and more like a contrived bit of writing.
That’s not to say there’s nothing amiss as the fake monsters (which having just watched Dogtooth, the father’s actions this episode seem all the more unintentionally creepy as hell) are a mere distraction from the real mystery. For the house possesses a mirror that isn’t a mirror. It’s one which doesn’t show their reflections and vibrates loudly, serving as a portal to a strange other world, bathed initially in orange light. The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz go through the portal to investigate, leaving Ryan to protect an uneager to be left behind Hanne. The portal takes them to the dangerous Anti-Zone. Granted, I say dangerous, but Hanne’s father seemed to pass through it just fine and after some early troubles with flesh moths which are hyped as something terrible, seemingly akin to “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, can later be seemingly outrun like this is Scooby Doo. Heck, Hanne navigates a bunch of it by herself after knocking Ryan out when he lies to her, seeking to join the others in looking for her dad.
The first group finds her dad alive and shacked up with a woman, it’s just that the woman is Hanne’s dead mom, now alive and seemingly indistinguishable from the real version. Considering his SLAYER! t-shirt is visibly reversed, the obvious solution would be “Rise of the Cybermen”/”The Age of Steel” style parallel universe, but only in mirror form, but this version recalls her death and it is clear that she is either the same person (not likely considering the show’s stance on the afterlife) or reconstructed somehow (such as in “Forest of the Dead”). The added twist being that she’s not the only ghost who’s inhabiting that world, The three also find Grace who of course died way back in the premiere. Shockingly, The Doctor isn’t visited by any of her ghosts (just think of how “happy” fans would be to see certain Moffat characters return), but I know it’s tied to the fact that Graham was the one initially tempted by the lack of reflection in the mirror.
The alien being behind this all is the Solitract, a consciousness that had formed a separate parallel universe in the hopes of making a friend. I don’t think that is the best way to go about making friends, but I am hardly an expert on that subject. While it’s a pretty obvious (and hardly original sci-fi/fantasy) trap to lure in people with the promises of lost loved ones, it’s hard not to sympathize with their desires to stay. Watching Graham and Grace together, even if for a moment is so sweet, as Graham gets all excited talking about all he’s done and about how he’s missed her.
Hanne is the only one who immediately recognizes that her loved one isn’t the loved one although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why she was able to so quickly recognize there was something off about her. It could be chalked up to the portal responding to her dad and not her, but it’s hard not to look at the episode, which to that point had avoided disability based superpowers, from indulging a bit. As the world destabilizes, The Doctor forces them one by one to reject the Solitract until only she remains as the new BFF for the Solitract. But even that is not enough to stave off the inevitable as their shared, stark white world continues to destabilize and their new bizarre, yet oddly genuine friendship formed under duress must sadly end.
It’s a deeply weird episode and this season, that’s enough. It’s one that I could feel was very obviously making up for the stretching of the budget in the early episodes (which made them look great), but instead fills it with better than average writing and the most complete feeling story to date. We still can’t escape “the thing that seems like a monster isn’t really a monster” theme, but every other issue was addressed. It felt well-paced at every step of the way (broadly from cottage to Anti-Zone to mirror cottage), with a conclusion tonally in line with everything that came before including that wonderful heartwarming moment where Ryan finally calls Graham Grandad. The sci-fi elements were essential to the plot (“reverse the polarity” gets used unironically). Ryan and Graham both got plenty of time in the spotlight (Yaz is also still there) thanks to the episode paring down its supporting cast, while using that time to draw attention to them as people (even if we are still retracing the same character points for Ryan). There also wasn’t a single lecture from The Doctor thanks to only one character dying and from greed, not murder.
The acting from Hanne (who seems to be forcing out her every line) and her family was pretty poor, but overall, it’s a contender for the Series 11’s best thus far. I’m inclined to be charitable towards it for the way it stands out, the clever bits it threw in, and most importantly the way it effectively handled the emotional component of its companions. If the show is going to keep things on a smaller scale (as it seems to be trying to do in comparison to Moffat), I’d love to see more of these dabblings in the stranger side of Doctor Who.
– Fjord is truly one of the greatest words known to man
– There’s promise of a future Wooly Rebellion between sheep and humans, likely when the humans finally stopped needing anything they produce (like we need them all that much now).
– Graham carries a cheese and pickle sandwich with him every time he leaves the TARDIS which is both a delightful touch and something that it feels like an iteration of The Doctor would do.
– I’ll give the show credit for casting a blind actress (Ellie Wallwork) in the role of a blind girl. This is only her second role and first named role.
– Comedy vet Kevin Eldon makes an appearance this week as Ribbons, their guide on the other side of the portal who offers to give them information (and a giant floating glowing orb to serve as a lantern) and lead them along in exchange for The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.
– The Doctor had seven grandmothers which I’m not sure if they are distinct people or incarnations.
– The Solitract taking the form of a frog talking with the voice of Grace made me unreasonably happy
– Sorry this is up late, I was just going to post this intro at like 9:30 but decided to just finish the whole thing while I was at it first since I was so far behind and my intro felt lacking. I’m not in my home country right now, so you’re lucky I made time to track down a copy and write this up at all.
Next Up: Doctor Who Classic did not return obviously last week and I was not able to get it done before I left so it will not be up until at least a week from now, so you’ll have to wait a bit longer for “The Seeds of Death” (the few dozens of you who read them are no doubt crushed). I will however be able to get the review up in a more timely manner next week for the finale (not counting the special) of the Thirteenth Doctor‘s first series next Sunday with the awkwardly titled “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”.