Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (S11E08) Review
Shirt Watch: Blue (I’m the only person doing shirt watch, aren’t I?)
If last week’s episode was a move towards Doctor Who orthodoxy, “The Witchfinders” positively revels in Doctor Who tropery and it’s all the better for it. I found myself hunting for something to snark about and being thwarted at each turn by episode writer Joy Wilkinson as she ticked off the things I was missing, just not necessarily in the order I was expecting them.
Having arrived in 17th Century Lancashire while aiming for the coronation of Elizabeth I, The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz become embroiled in a witch trial, run by the local landowner Lady Savage (Siobhan Finneran). As fear stalks the land, the arrival of King James I (Alan Cumming) complicates matters but witchcraft may not be the only threat to the village of Bilehurst Cragg.
At first I was irked that the gang were just wandering around 17th Century rural England in their normal clobber without anyone batting an eyelid, although I was cheered by the return of the TARDIS taking the Doctor not where she wanted to go, but where she needed to go (fortunately it wasn’t too long before fey King James I turned up to critique their outfits and begin blatantly grooming poor, oblivious Ryan). There’s also a clumsy but endearingly 13th Doctor-ish gear change as she concludes her lecture to her companions about never, under any circumstances, interfering in historical events by doing exactly that. From that moment on, though, the episode gallops along as a folktale/ sci-fi horror hybrid dripping with murky, muddy atmosphere. This would have made a cracking Halloween episode had the series returned just a bit sooner and the banter about Sundays was a nice metatextual nod to the series’ controversial move to the end of the weekend.
“The Witchfinders” plays out as mist-laden creepy horror movie, although nobody seems to have told Alan Cumming as his cheeky, wink-at-the-audience performance feels more suited to a [four-poster] bedroom farce, but he shows his skill and power as an actor in those moments between the Doctor and the King where his mask of affected insouciance slips and he lets us see the darkness below the bravado and bonhomie. The series is still struggling to accommodate its regular cast, particularly Yaz and Ryan who haven’t really managed to develop beyond their character outlines in the series’ writing bible and this time Ryan has little to do apart from – shall we say – distract the King.
Filmed in Little Woodham, just down the road from where I live (makes mental note to arrange a family day out when it reopens in 2019), the production values here are top notch, as you’d expect from the BBC producing a costume drama. Admittedly, the series’ new faux cinematic look still leaves me a bit cold, coming off as trying to make things look expensive rather than, say, providing a more generous budget but in this episode, it worked well. The initial appearance of the mud zombies was startlingly scary, especially for a family show, but terrifically effective and reminiscent of Fenric’s Haemovores emerging from the sea mists nearly thirty years ago/ in three hundred years’ time. Perhaps some of the newly minted Whovians may have bridled at the intrusion of a sci-fi MacGuffin into this folkloric chiller but it absolutely felt authentically “Doctor Who” and the Morax finally gave us a viable new Doctor Who monster race.
Of course, aside from the featured creatures, the episode had a lot of fun deconstructing witchcraft as a feminist issue. Yaz’ equating of witch-hunts with bullying and schoolyard ostracisation is a nicely relatable touchstone for the target audience and there’s a nod to the archetypal witchcraft hierarchy with the Twistons providing the maiden and the crone and Lady Savage providing a darkly subverted version of the village’s ‘mother’. It was always inevitable the Doctor would be accused of being a witch given her propensity for striding around waving her sonic screwdriver at all and sundry and her wry lamentation that had she still been a bloke, she could have sorted all of this out by now belies the fact that this is a well-constructed Doctor Who story which would have worked for pretty much any Doctor. It’s a bit odd that the Doctor claims not to be a big believer in Satan given she’s met him on “The Impossible Planet” but I guess things slip your mind after hundreds of years and four regenerations. It would have been nice to namecheck the respiratory bypass system during the escape from the ducking stool, though. Just saying. By the time Lady Savage has mud on her face, her big disgrace revealed for all to see, the Doctor is firmly in charge of things, as it should be.
All-in-all, a terrifically creepy Doctor Who instalment with just the right amount of whimsy to keep things from getting too dark. Smart and scary enough to make the Littlest Craggling have to fight to keep watching the episode by peeping through Mrs Craggus’ overprotective fingers, this has been my favourite episode of the series to date, even if it owes a small debt to another famous Doctor to have a monster called the Morax turn up because someone chopped down a tree.