Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Oh, how accurate those words are. The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and friends find themselves amid an old-fashioned witch hunt. Wait, is that “old-fashioned” or “contemporary”?
For The Witchfinders, the Doctor was accused of black magic, there was some mud, and Graham wore a hat. In his review, Simon Danes wasn’t so sure those things were enough to celebrate:
“[The TARDIS crew are] okay. They’re nothing very special. Bradley Walsh is clearly the best. But Yaz and Ryan are never going to join the A list of the best companions (which, I’d suggest, would include Ian and Barbara, Sarah, Donna, and Bill). I’d suggest that Bradley Walsh isn’t A list standard either; he’s just much better than the others. If he’d been in Capaldi’s last season, he would have been consistently outshone by the depth and subtlety of Pearl Mackie’s performance (though admittedly he would have been given better material to work with; the writing was hugely superior in the last season). The current TARDIS crew, to be honest, verges on the dreary.”
But we’ve got loads of writers knocking about the DWC, trying to find the fire escape or at least a window so they can see their homes in the distance and shout for help. We’ve all got different opinions that we’re happy enough to express (I like to think that’s what makes the DWC special), so we asked a few contributors what they thought of The Witchfinders…
Where do I start? In no particular order of importance: the monster is yet again humanoid with similar bodily absorption properties to the Gelth but with poor CGI tentacle extras (did anyone else see it jerk like it was being pulled on a string?). The storyline was very one-dimensional, the background story had touches of Shada (aliens imprisoned, an invisible ship – okay this time it was a hill – and human minds taken over).
We then get insufficient roles, again, for three companions; very inactive and unconvincing extras as villagers; a totally unfeasible role for King James VI & I (travelling hundreds of miles from London with no carriage or entourage and only the one bodyguard – come on) and finally a dodgy historical fact (Mary Queen of Scots abandoned James at 57 weeks not ‘under one year old’).
As an overall story, it lacks plausibility, it lacked direction, and was dull as the mud the Morax were hidden in. I tried to find something positive but even the setting of Little Woodham Living Medieval Museum, as the village, was underplayed and failed to make me realise it was not just a set.
Final Verdict – episode eight – Just when I think Series 11 cannot get any worse, we get The Witchfinders. The lowest point of the season (so far).
A story with a traditional Doctor Who feel, I would have loved to have seen this done as an old-style four parter, where the Doctor and her friends spent more time in this rather bleak historical period (the bad weather on location may have made life difficult for cast and crew but it did add to the atmosphere), a setting that proved the past can be just as dangerous for the travellers as any alien world.
With more time to tell the tale some of the elements that didn’t ring true could have been ironed out. It was jarring that the TARDIS crew didn’t attract any attention or comment as they mingled with the villagers early on, and the idea that the King would travel with no entourage felt similarly unlikely. Perhaps these are the kind of moments that we’ll always have to suffer in a story of the week format.
Besides, I heartily enjoyed The Witchfinders; the combination of an unsettling, dark folk tale with a gloriously ripe turn from Alan Cumming as King James worked well, I thought, although on reflection I do have some sympathy with those who felt uncomfortable at the camp villain lusting after an attractive younger man. But at least the writer provided depth to the relationship between Ryan and the King, and Ryan was shown to be skilful in dealing with the monarch.
There were some very effective scares (which may have been too effective for some younger viewers?) and, not for the first time this series, death was shown to be final; in the previous showrunner’s era, the grandmother would surely have been saved by the Doctor, and maybe even Becca would have been redeemed.
For me, this was a third strong historical of the current season, atmospherically filmed with good performances all round. As with the previous stories set in the past the sci-fi element felt a little unnecessary, and I’d love to see the production team have a go at a proper pure historical next time around.
Yes, I enjoyed that.
It was a fairly typical adventure, and, as with Kerblam!, if you put it into a different series, it wouldn’t be a stand-out episode – but surrounding it with the rest of Series 11 and it’s cause to celebrate. Joy Wilkinson actually wrote the Thirteenth Doctor as the Doctor! Jodie doesn’t cut the mustard because there’s no depth to her performance (a massive shame as she was great in Broadchurch), but at least there was some meatier material there. She does go on a bit, and much of it is nonsense, yet that speech she had with King James I showed potential, given a decent script.
I felt there were elements shared with Knock Knock and Eaters of Light, which, I wonder, might be why it was good – it reminded us, or at least this viewer, of Series 10. Ah, that was a great series. Oh, how I miss Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, and Matt Lucas.
The ending got a bit muddled (heh), but on the whole, The Witchfinders was solid enough. It’s just sad that the concept of witch hunting is alive and well in fandom. Whereas they had hanging, burnings, and drownings, we have #SocialMedia.
So, what’s not to like? We had silly zombies, anodyne aliens, and a crazy king all adding to the fun Sunday’s 1600s episode of Horrible Histories. In fact, the only part I didn’t really understand was why some of the cast were running around in modern clothing. Did the costume department run out of 17th Century peasant clothing? Yes, Horrible Histories was back and in full form, giving a light-hearted look at those nasty witchfinders who made all those women take early baths in the quest to rid the country of Satan! What japes!
Oh. You mean that was actually the latest episode of Doctor Who? Oh again. Was that Doctor in it? Was that what the wand (I mean sonic) waving was all about? Was there any doubt the Doctor would end up in the lake?
Well, we managed to get some character from Jodie’s Doctor, and camp James I was a triumph for Alan Cumming, but beyond that and a well-conceived Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) just what was going on? Even Bradley Walsh’s Graham seemed only part-engaged in a story without anything for the companions to get their teeth into, beyond dressing up in daft hats and running around between scenes padding out the story. There’s probably a quite decent romp here, and it is meant to be a programme for children, but the story telling is proving weak in places.
The habit of connecting companion backstory to events is getting overused as well, with Graham conveniently recognising the local geography and having been in a witch walk in the area as well.
Is Alan Cumming’s performance as James I enough to give this episode kudos? Perhaps, especially if he comes back in another series and we get a decent gunpowder plot episode. His scenes with Jodie did have some spark of character and our latest Doctor really is lacking in authority in many of these stories, almost relegated to the status of companion who happens to have a time machine. Here is a key problem – without authority, the Doctor is ready victim to the mob. After all these years/ centuries, the Doctor still gets locked up or tied up with monotony. No amount of righteous anger, indignity, or moral highground is going to protect her from cold steel (or as McCoy’s Doctor found, a random bullet from a criminal). Is the Doctor still plagued by the same death wish we saw hints of when Eccleston was tortured in Dalek back in 2005? Where am I going? I’m not sure, but then neither it seems is the Thirteenth Doctor.
Back into history again and I enjoyed the cold open of this tale with its gloriously soggy and doom-laden air as well as another restatement of the dichotomy between the Doctor’s non-interventionist stance and inability to stand back and watch. There is also a mention the TARDIS being stubborn for some reason and in previous episodes we’ve had mentions of her struggling to control the ship. Is this part of something greater? Perhaps if the controls weren’t quite so goofy eh?
As the story developed there was an entertaining mystery set up – where is Bilehurst Cragg in the present? – and with pagan vibes around, I fully expected the suppression of religion to play a part. Doubtless those themes are there if you are looking for them, but this was a subtler affair as we focussed on King James’ personal motivations for his crusade against the witches and this made excellent use of the guest star.
There was a pleasing tension in the tone, the flamboyance of the King offsetting the gruesome mud zombies, the tentacle, the dunking, and lines about shooting all the horses. Where it all crumbled for me was in the resolution, with a rather perfunctory monster reveal that seemed hurried in a story which had otherwise taken its time and built tension nicely with some smart direction and an evocative score – I’m a sucker for strings!
Alan Cumming’s turn was indeed stellar, a historical celebrity in the mode we have become accustomed to since 2005; he was deliciously camp with a theatrical manner and a rarefied, aristocratic Scots accent. Bradley Walsh might ordinarily be the scene-stealer but he had nothing on Cumming here.
I enjoyed the fun with the psychic paper, demoting the Doctor to match the King’s preconceptions; it was inevitable that the Doctor’s presenting gender would be a plot point somewhere and it was nicely handled. Among the friends, all three seemed well used this week: Yaz befriending Willa, Ryan alongside the flirtatious monarch, and Graham looking rather splendid in that hat.
For me, the strongest scenes here were in the confrontation between the Doctor and the King and it showcased this Doctor at her best, seeking to bring him on side with reason rather than the shouty dominance of previous incarnations. I would have loved to have seen her prevail in that regard, and indeed prefer her in her less wacky moments, but from the outset story logic demanded that she would be taken for a witch and ducked… and who can resist a Houdini reference?
Fun fact: in this week’s episode the word ‘Satan’ is used thirty-nine times. Thirty-nine. I know this because I checked the SRT file. It’s almost as bad as the overuse of ‘fungus’ in the Mario movie. Of course, Satan doesn’t make any sort of appearance and the witches aren’t really witches at all. But you knew that before they’d finished rolling the opening titles, didn’t you?
There’s a lot of reacting going on in The Witchfinders. Graham wears a hat; that is about all you can say for him. Ryan’s job is to look uncomfortable, but Cole does this extremely well and thus it seems fairly pointless to bring it up. Whittaker, for her part, is snooping around examining the mud like a caffeine-fuelled archeolologist and mostly getting wet, at least during the scenes when she’s not sending Yaz off to do a bit of family liaison – real police work for the second time in two weeks. (Why is it only the guest writers who remember Yaz’s career choices? Did Chibnall forget his own brief, or does he simply not care?)
Then there’s Alan Cumming – an extremely talented actor who is clearly having a ball with this cacophony of mud monsters and pitchforks, although it is frankly difficult to see him as anyone but Alan Cumming. Playing James, I like an effete pantomime baron – or at the very least a supporting character in Casanova– he is a braggart and a poseur, condescending to the Doctor (who stomps away complaining about being ‘patronised to death’) and flirting with Ryan. It’s a warm and memorable performance but there’s something off key about it: something that hearkens back to Graham Crowden in The Horns of Nimon, a serious part rendered utterly ridiculous. Is this a good thing? It depends whom you ask, surely?
Still, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps the lesson we’re learning from this Brave New World that is Chibnall’s Who is that it is capable of good things when it is worthy and serious, but even greater things when it is not. Would The Witchfinders have worked better had it been graced with serious performances, or more elaborate social commentary than the brief monologue that we were given? It seems doubtful. 45 minutes is not long enough, and the world does not need another Crucible. In many respects, this week was as wobbly and precariously balanced as a house of cards, but I spent most of it laughing. I’m honestly not sure, this morning, just how much of that was intentional. But nonetheless I was laughing. That’s not a bad way to spend a sabbath.
A slightly mixed bag, but the majority enjoyed The Witchfinders – the second Doctor Who episode running!
Next time: A-ha!