Doctor Who #1003: The Witchfinders

"You want to know the secrets of existence? Start with the mysteries of the heart. I could show you everything if you stop being afraid of what you don’t understand."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Nov.24 2018.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor meets King James during a massive witch hunt.

REVIEW: I guess we've been waiting for this to happen. The Doctor goes into the past and is met with the kind of misogyny that's cramped women's style for centuries. New writer Joy Wilkinson picks the perfect historical event for it - the 17th Century's witch trials, during which many women died for the crime of assertiveness, or as vulnerable scapegoats for bad crops, plague, etc. The Doctor, standard-bearer for a science no one understands (cue Clarke's Third Law), is the perfect "witch" to primitive eyes, and in the metaphor of the story, a "foolish woman who doesn't know when to shut up" (the idea that talking is brilliant and a path to real solutions is apex Doctor). Wilkinson's script goes on to show how hysteria builds through confirmation bias, as finger pointers take everything as proof of witchcraft (the bit where King James makes the leap from "Doctor" to "Doctor Dee" and that historical personage's occult associations sums the phenomenon up well), and force the mainstream, as represented by Willa) to agree lest they be next. For the first time, Doc13 has to really deal with the curse of her new gender. She can't assert her authority on the situation, except while Becka, another woman, is still in charge. She's seen as an assistant rather than a leader (a clever use of the psychic paper). And she's eventually "ducked" as a witch. It's frustrating to watch because we're on her side, but a fraction of the frustration most women feel in a lot of situations. We're used to the Doctor making the right arguments, so her confrontations with King James should, according to Doctor Who tropes, change his mind. It never does. He thinks and thinks and still confirms his own world view. It bugged the heck out of me, but it may be meant to. Unfortunately, the episode glosses over the companions' ethnic make-up and their wearing modern clothes (no wardrobe in the new TARDIS?), taking away from some of the verisimilitude.

Three villains to choose from, this time around. The Morax are evil mud warriors imprisoned under Pendle Hill (aliens have GOT to stop using Earth as the Galaxy's Australia), but I've read/heard too many of these types to be all that interested. Won't be as much of a problem for people who don't range beyond the strict televised canon, but the extracanon is full of monsters made of dirt or water, and a lot of them are like this. And there's enough man-made evil afoot for this to be a pure historical. Their threat of "filling" people does have a nasty edge to it, especially in a story about the violence done women. Brrr. Then we have Mistress Becka Savage, played by Downton Abbey's villain, Siobhan Finneran. She's almost sympathetic at times, but given later revelations, there should be more nuance in her performance. Looking at it a second time, Becka must be a very good actress to appear so innocent in the early acts. Not that she isn't really death cult-y in her zeal to save her lands from what she thinks is Satan. King James is the one played as the celebrity historical figure, and thus sympathetic even though he's incredibly dangerous. Alan Cumming gives an energetic and frothy performance and brings a lot of the humor that's otherwise missing from the episode. So we like him, and his psychology is explored enough that we understand how he might have become a zealot, one who thinks of himself as favored by God, who doesn't trust or let himself be swayed easily. And so we like him in spite of his sadism. There's a lot of crafted ambivalence in this story.

Another reason we might like James is because of Ryan's humanity. James takes a shine to him (at one point seems to call him "Orion", would have been lovely if he really though this was his "Nubian prince"'s real name), and Ryan reacts with tact and empathy to the King's advances (he REALLY doesn't have any use for women, sorry Doctor, it's not just mommy issues). As we saw in The Tsuranga Conundrum, this kind of thing isn't anything to get uptight about. Yaz does more family outreach, and we find out what may be her secret origin. It's simple enough: She was bullied as a kid and decided to stand up to the bullies, leading her into law enforcement and TARDISeering. The element I find interesting is that she struggled with anxiety, something shown to be misunderstood in the 17th Century (Willa doesn't know why she feels sick). While this goes hand in hand with the theme of science vs. magic, I hope it's not the last we hear of it. Does Yaz still struggle with anxiety? Let's see it. It's common enough to be relatable. Graham is his own reliable self, good for a joke or a bit of truth telling even when he's not at the core of a story. As for the Doctor, I wish she'd shown more joy early on - a smile at the idea of bobbing for apples? - in contrast with the story's growing sense of dread. And yes, I know I just told a woman to smile, I'm not blind to the irony. She does get a lot of good bits - her reactions to the sexism, her passionate speech to King James, her swift escapology tricks, missing the mud zombies while she talks to an angry pebble in a bottle, being the better ones.

THEORIES: Many people have wondered if this was supposed to air three weeks earlier than it did, as a Halloween episode, and rightly so, I think. It's about witches and even identifies the holiday by name. It has several pieces of dialog that hark back to earlier stories, like the Doctor still trying to call the group her "fam", and warning the team not to interfere with history as if they hadn't already taken a hand in two historical episodes. Might this have been scheduled to take place even before the Doctor managed to bring her companions home? Say, in Rosa's place, or even Arachnids', perhaps in a scheme where they stayed "lost in time" for more of the season? I can't say that with any kind of certainty, and judging from the dialog in both this and Rosa, any scheduling change would have occured before filming (give or take possible reshoots, which don't seem likely with all the location work). Rosa expressly mentions the TARDIS hasn't brought them home yet, but in Witchfinders, it misses Elizabeth I's coronation, so the group is now visiting history, as opposed to angle for home. Graham does make a joke about being "close to home", but it's about behavior he recognizes, not the ship failing to get back to Sheffield. Maybe some of the offending lines are orphans from earlier drafts of the script when The Witchfinders was supposed to air earlier.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - I wish I could give it a higher score, but its natural ambivalence makes ME ambivalent. It's a good, respectable episode, but it's damned by its familiarity (mileage will definitely vary) and I'm never sure if the overall effect is achieved with purpose or accidentally.


snell said...

Historically, James I became more skeptical of witch hunting after taking the English crown, even advising his son "most miracles now-a-days prove but illusions, and ye may see by this how wary judges should be in trusting accusations." We could credit his experience with the Doctor as responsible for this change, perhaps? If only the script had found a way to mention this...

And at least James didn't turn out to be Kamelion...

LondonKdS said...

I wonder if this was meant to be on Halloween, but with the whole series broadcast earlier in the year instead of with a different order. It's been later than most people expected, and I wonder if having a special on New Year's Day instead of Christmas Day was simply to create more of a gap between the season finale and the special.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for the history lesson, Snell. I think that would have been interesting, or it may just have gone over my head.

KdS: That's a very good point.

Anonymous said...

I think we're all missing the elephant in the room: if they do manage to get to Elizabeth I's coronation, will we see David Tennant there as her consort?

LiamKav said...

I kinda felt like Cumming was playing James as if this was a RTD-era episode. Which is handy, as once Becka became Queen of the Mud Monsters it turned in to a RTD episode. Not that that's a bad thing... We've had two historicals this season that have been relatively "serious", so going a bit OTT is fine. Otherwise we are going to end up in the situation where the Doctor can only solve issues in Future stories and has to sit on her hands in Past stories.


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