Previously on Doctor Who, “Kerblam!”
With two episodes to go, Doctor Who has spent much of the season taking a closer look at how regular people are affected by the current expectations of their societies. While the Doctor name drops a famous character or two every episode, whether the tale featured a big celebrity name, billionaire, war hero, or fantastical alien, her concern remains with the little people, so to speak. Joy Wilkinson, writer for this episode and the next, “It Takes You Away,” joins director Sallie Aprahamian. Like Aprahamian’s last episode, “Arachnids in the UK,” “The Witchfinder” shares a similar setup with a contained drama and limited cast punctuated by a marquee actor. Alan Cumming costars as King James I, playing his villainous role akin to Chris Noth’s laughable-but-horrible Trump Lite. Besides stoking our love for the Nightcrawler and Cumming’s considerable acting chops, Team TARDIS learns how the witch trials in 17th Century Lancashire torment one small family. Unlike her last two forays into the fixed historical events of “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab,” the Doctor intervenes directly and experiences the downsides of being a woman in the 17th Century.
Chibnall’s first season isn’t light on social commentary, taking stabs at capitalism’s flaws, billionaires in office, racism, corporate greed, automation-related unemployment, and more, and “The Witchfinders” follows that trend, reminding us exactly what the recently-abused term “witch hunt” really means for women. While Bilehurst Cragg is made up, Lancashire and more specifically Pendle Hill was indeed the site of witch trials on the scale of Salem with similar motivations–land disputes, grudges, scapegoating, resistance to feminine power, and paranoia in a time of massive political upheaval prior to the English Civil War. Thanks in part to a trip to Denmark where the theory of demonic pacts was in vogue followed by a stormy trip to Scotland where one ship was lost, King James I was so fearful of plots, both natural and supernatural, that he wrote a book called Daemonologie, featured in this episode on Becka Savage’s bedside table, outlining his preferred methods on finding, catching, and prosecuting “witches.” Under his reign, hundreds of women (and some men) were executed to assuage his fear of violent death, including alleged plots to call the sea down upon him on his honeymoon, melting effigies of him, and plotting against him en masse.
Second guessing the Doctor again, the TARDIS avoids Elizabeth I’s coronation and dumps them off in a 17th Century street fair. The party vibe is shortly interrupted by Mistress Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) presiding over a witch trial, where an old woman is chained into a “ducking stool” tree and drowned in the lake after bidding farewell to her granddaughter Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele). Despite the Doc’s opening lecture to never historically interfere, the second Granny Twiston (Cerys Watkins) hits the water, the Doc goes in after her. It’s too late, but thanks to her psychic paper, the Doctor declares herself the Witchfinder General. Mistress Savage accedes authority, at first seeming reasonable but horrifically noting she’s shot all the local horses for being Satan’s creatures. Graham says despite all his knowledge of area witch trials, Bilehurst Cragg was never mentioned, and yet Savage claims to have executed three times those in the infamous Pendle Hill trials, so something is definitely amiss.
The Team keeps questioning what’s spurring Becka’s crusade, and for now she claims Satan is scourging the crops and causing visions. When the Doctor tries to convince her that King James wouldn’t want her to murder anyone, the man himself bursts through the door dramatically and disagrees. This time the psychic paper betrays her, naming her Assistant Witchfinder (perhaps James is incapable of believing she’s in charge), so Graham steps in as lead while James dismisses the Doctor as a woman and flirts with Ryan. Mistress Savage is excited:
“Together we shall save the souls of my people, even if it means killing them all.”
After Yaz has to save Willa from some kind of bog tendril as she buries Granny, she fetches the Doc, leaving Graham and Ryan at the Savage estate to distract King James. At the Twiston cottage, Willa reveals Becka is her cousin, raised by their herbalist Granny. Yaz’s understanding of Willa’s anxiety due to bullying wins Willa to their investigation, for now. When the Doctor looks into the bog mud’s strange properties, an alien force fills and reanimates Granny Twiston’s body and all the other bog bodies. Ryan works his easy manner and sympathizes with the King’s family tragedy by way of humanizing him, but King James is only reinvigorated and sends his bodyguard to his death against the risen bodies. The Doctor realizes there must be a connection between Becka’s witch hunts and the bog incursion, causing Becka to point the finger at her and pressure Willa into agreeing the Doctor is a witch while Team TARDIS is away following the bog bodies.
Under arrest, the Doctor makes more progress into the origins James’s fear, but just like modern social media arguments, every win only causes him to double down. He condemns the Doctor to the ducking stool, where the Doctor continues pressing Becka for answers. As the sentence is carried out, mud leaks from Becka’s eyes, but only the Doctor sees. Fortunately she escapes under the water as the bog creatures approach. Finally Becka admits she was infected when she chopped down Granny’s favorite tree and executed her to hide the infection. The creature then fully takes her body, calling itself a Morax. The Morax army was imprisoned in Pendle Hill for war crimes and released when the tree, a disguised billion years’ old lock, was cut down. Blasting the team to unconsciousness, the Morax kidnap King James to embody their own king who rises in tentacle form from the stump when the Doctor and team approach with green-flamed torches made from the same “tree.” The Doctor simply lights the creature on fire and recharges the Pendle Hill prison, re-incarcerating all Morax except the one inside Becka, who she tries to bring back. King James interrupts and kills her to the Doctor’s dismay. At their departure, the King promises to wipe Bilehurst from the books, confirming Graham’s earlier suspicions.
With its dependance on familiarity with Whovian possession tales, “The Witchfinder” played me at times. Although I know the Doctor won’t be harmed by humans, this is a new Doctor Who era behind the scenes and nothing is guaranteed. Further, when she was arrested as a witch, my self-preservation instincts kicked in, making me wonder how much of the Doctor’s survival luck thus far is due to alien nature vs. appearing as a white male. As I questioned this, I was annoyed to think she might be saved by Graham and Ryan’s influence on King James, then equally relieved when she popped up under her own power, cheekily citing a weekend with Houdini. Apology accepted.
The Morax possession recalls one of my favorite Ninth Doctor episodes, “The Unquiet Dead,” featuring the terrific Eve Myles who later starred in Torchwood thanks in large part to her performance as a maid possessed by spirits leaking through a dimensional crack in Cardiff. The possession effects themselves resemble “The Waters of Mars,” a horror tale from the Tenth Doctor era. Unlike those deeply affecting tragedies, nobody is sorry when Becka dies, the Morax mob is accompanied by a Friday the 13th style CH CH CH AH AH AH soundtrack, and the tentacle king rising from the trunk is, sadly, the worst special effect so far this season. The makeup artists turned out excellent work on Granny-turned-Morax equivalent to the Witnesses and Tzim-Sha. When the Doctor described re-entombing them as scrambled oil goo, however, I was unable to resist the comparison to infamously cheesy scifi villain, Armus from Star Trek: TNG‘s “Skin of Evil.” The high point of “The Witchfinder” undoubtedly remains Jodie Whittaker and Alan Cumming’s act-off with him accusing the Doctor of hiding behind her handle and her accusing the King of mommy issues. Although this episode was filmed early this year, the accusation is beyond timely. Wrapping up with an appropriate hiring note, like King James, Cumming is also bisexual and Scottish.
Quotes, Trivia, & Questions
- Previously witches featured in “The Shakespeare Code,” which was also an older Elizabeth I episode where the Tenth Doctor had to flee her wrath after, believing she was a Zygon, he married and left her younger self in “The Day of the Doctor.”
- Siobhan Finnernan, playing Becka Savage, is yet another Happy Valley alum.
- “These are hard times for women. If we’re not being drowned, we’re being patronized to death.”
- Random: “I haven’t had a hangover like this since the Milk Wars of Keston 5.”
- “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
- King James flirts extensively with Ryan, even asking him to come back to London with him. Historically, King James was rumored to be bisexual, having both a queen and mistress along with several alleged male lovers including the Duke of Lennox, the Earl of Somerset, and the Duke of Buckingham.
- I could swear that the Witchfinder General hat changes sizes at least twice this episode. On Bradley Walsh’s head, it looks enormous and comical, but it seems smaller and more suited to Jodie Whittaker’s head, not unlike Rick and Carl’s “shared” cowboy hat which changes sizes at least a dozen times on The Walking Dead.
- Fun fact: A riff of the jazz tune “My Baby Just Cares For Me” appeared in “Kerblam!” The artist? Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Spitzer Orchestra. Yep, that Jeff Goldblum.
Doctor Who S11E8 Review Score
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Alan Cumming, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Siobhan Finneran, Cerys Watkins, Tilly Steele