Continuing season 11’s tonally mixed bag, the latest Doctor Who has a bit of Halloween-creepiness and also feels very much like a lighter, 1980s-era episode of the classic series (the Peter Davison-era stories “The Visitation” and “The King’s Demons” come to mind). Not an inordinately important or deep-message story, “Witchfinders” quickly sheds much of its gravitas in favor of fun.
****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS! *****
The story sees Team TARDIS arrive at early 17th century Lancashire at what looks like a autumnal festival, complete with apple-bobbing (Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor loves apple-bobbing). The merriment quickly turns dark as they witness an infamous witchcraft trial-by-drowning. The local witch-hunter/land baroness Becka Savage (Siobhan Finnerman), uses a giant gnarled, severed tree trunk of her own design as a giant lever to dunk the accused grandmother (Tricia Kelly) until she is dead, proving of course, that she isn’t a witch (which is a bit like curing chronic sinus allergies through beheading). The accused leaves behind a bereaved granddaughter named Willa (well-played by Tilly Steele), who once shared a connection with with the now tyrannically overzealous Becka.
As Team TARDIS gains the locals’ trust (the ever-handy psychic paper), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Willa set about investigating the muddy hillside of “Bilehurst Crag” (ye olde name for the village) for anything out of the ordinary. Step one involves collecting local mud samples for the Doctor’s analysis. As they collect a sample (which seems to frantically jump inside of the collection jar), a muddy tendril reaches out from the ground and nearly snatches Willa. The Doctor is fascinated by the animate mud sample and wants to see more…
Complicating matters is the arrival of a wildly flamboyant King James I (played by character actor Alan Cumming, who couldn’t be more over-the-top if he used a catapult). The King arrives at Bilehurst to help rid the community of its little witch problem, and continue ‘God’s work’ of drowning innocent women. King James is also quite taken with Ryan (Tocin Cole) whom he refers to as a ‘Nubian prince.’ His infatuation with Ryan leads to a nice little scene where they open up to each other about their difficult upbringings (the King’s story of his comically treacherous family wins). What could’ve been a cheap (and nearly homophobic) laugh at the King’s brazen sexuality is given unexpected substance.
In a twist that could only happen with Whittaker’s Doctor, her new gender proves to be an impediment in this unenlightened era, as the King doesn’t seem to recognize the Doctor’s presumed authority as he might’ve if she were still male. Graham (Bradley Walsh) is assumed to be the actual witch finder in charge of the group, with the Doctor as his “assistant.” Graham looks simply hilarious donning the ridiculously oversized period hat (which the Doctor is, of course, wearing herself by the end of the story).
Eventually, the Doctor learns that the tree used in the witchcraft trials is actually a sophisticated piece of alien technology that was used to keep alien prisoners called the Morax within the muddy banks. The aliens manifest as living mud and take over fresh corpses (in this cases, the dozens of local unjustly executed witches) and wreak havoc on the townsfolk. The zealous Becka herself was infected with the living mud and tried desperately to keep it a secret.
The idea of aliens animating mud also reminded me of writer Paul Cornell’s “Family of Blood,” which saw aliens manipulating scarecrows into an army in the early 19th century.
The Doctor eventually reasserts some measure of authority over the group (including King James!) after surviving her own near-drowning when she too, is accused of witchcraft (thankfully she mastered the art of art of underwater escapes under the tutelage of Houdini, no less). The fact that most accused witches in the 17th century were women also makes this a grim but perfect fit for Whittaker’s Doctor. She reactivates the alien tech within the tree, and reasons that burning branches from the execution tree (with green flames) will will force the dangerous Morax back into their confinement. The village is quarantined and evacuated as the Doctor makes the King promise that he will end the witchcraft trials (too bad a similar witchcraft panic resurfaced in the American colonies a few decades later…).
The King and Willa watch as the Doctor departs…vowing to keep this particular bit of magic safely out of history books.
“The Witchfinders” works its charms.
With witchcraft trials, reanimated muddy corpses, period costumes and the overall autumnal look of of Bilehurst, this episode just screams for Whovian Halloween viewing…hell, it even has apple bobbing too! I realize that Halloween is probably far more important to me personally than it is in the UK (or to the BBC), but it’s too bad this wasn’t the Halloween episode instead of “Arachnids in the UK.”
Some cute dialogue keeps things breezy enough, such as Graham’s warning to the King that he and his powerfulTARDIS colleagues “will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger” if he doesn’t keep his promise to end the witchcraft persecutions. The chastised King recognizes the Biblical passage from Ezekiel, to which Graham corrects, “No, Tarantino.” The allusion to “Pulp Fiction” is the cherry on top.
I enjoyed “Witchfinders” considerably more than last week’s “Kerblam!” which, despite some biting satire on Amazon (and other fulfillment center retail jobs), had a morally compromised ending that undermined the courage of the satire. “Witchfinders” has a similarly camp-yet-serious tone (or rather tones), but the ending is much clearer and less confused; the Morax are irredeemable, and the witchcraft hysteria must end. These are clear objectives that aren’t muddled or copped out of, as the Doctor and the King reach an understanding. And historically speaking, it seemed to work with the subsiding of England’s witchcraft mania.
Alan Cumming is clearly having a great time camping it up as King James I, while Tilly Kelly is much more muted (both in attire and performance) as the grieving Willa, who is moved to action following the horrific death (and ghoulish reanimation) of her unjustly murdered grandmother.
Kudos to writer Joy Wilkinson for the Morax mud corpses as well. While not quite as terrifying as say, the Weeping Angels (nothing is, really), they’re effective enough. Director Sallie Apahamian does a nice job of creating mood and atmosphere as well. Once again…this story was just begging to be the Halloween episode! This is a rare episode with a female writer, director and lead… it also one of the best offerings of this season.
“Witchfinders” makes for a perfectly satisfying episode that meets its objectives with aplomb. This is the kind of Doctor Who story that could make for a good gateway episode to entice a new viewer into the show.