Doctor Who: 11.08 The Witchfinders
Last week's Kerblam certainly offered old school thrills (if old school is Tennant-era Doctor Who), but the strength of Doctor Who series 11 certainly lies in its trips to the past. Rosa touched upon the sensitive subject of racism, while Demons of the Punjab gave its audience a tragic love story in the Indian Partition. This week's The Witchfinders was a great little historical tale, packed full of atmosphere, horror and mystery as the Doctor and her companions found themselves caught up in early 17th Century witch trials of Lancashire's Pendle Hill, a place infamous for witchcraft.
This was the strongest episode of the series yet. The first Doctor Who to be written and directed by women, it interestingly was the first episode to address how the Doctor's role as a woman might see her encounter things differently to her male predecessors. A woman with a magic 'sonic' wand, charging around, taking charge in the middle of a witch trial? It was only a matter of time before she found herself charged with the crime and sentenced to the ducking stool.
There was a great guest cast this week; Siobhan Finneran had a fearsome presence as Lady Becka Savage, a woman whose determination to uncover Satan's evil ways saw her responsible for the execution of thirty innocent women. Willa Twiston had a vulnerability as Tilly, the grandaugher of the woman murdered by Becka in the opening scene, who found herself taken under Yaz and the Doctor's wing, eventually taking the path of a doctor herself when she left to start her new life.
Alan Cumming was one of the first guest stars announced for series 11 and he didn't disappoint as King James I, a man hiding behind masks as he travelled across England in search of witches. He had plenty of charm and a big dose of arrogance and male entitlement as he scoffed at the idea of the Doctor being a witchfinder general, acknowledging for the first time that being a woman in the past might make things harder for the Doctor ""If I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself." But despite his treatment of the Doctor, Cumming still made James I an engaging character full of wit and ruthless zeal. His attempts to coerce Ryan into becoming his protector were rather amusing too.
This episode had a lot going for it from the start. The foggy woods of the Pendle district, the gothic manor of Lady Becka's home and the village of Bilehurst Cragg felt very real and atmospheric. There was an intriguing mystery in why the village was forgotten from the pages of history despite its very active and prolific witch trials. Director Sallie Aprahamian really made the most of Joy Wilkinson's script in the scene where Tilly's dead grandmother was resurrected and the haunting, zombiefied, mud-covered corpses of the dead witches lumbered through the woods. Forget the spiders from Arachnids in the UK; this was the biggest moment of horror that series 11 has done yet.
The unravelling mystery of what happened to Bilehurst Cragg and the alien mystery of the mud witches, coupled with the Doctor's trial and the delightful moments of Graham and Ryan trying to delay King James culminated in the chilling alien reveal that took a real historical setting and overlaid Doctor Who's great brand of alien menace. I rather liked the twist, that Pendle Hill, known as a place of witchcraft for centuries, was in fact an ancient prison for an alien race known as the Morax. Finneran really let loose as Becka was consumed by the Morax queen as she attempted to take over the Earth with a possessed King James at her side. The final act could have been silly and overblown but it felt like a real moment of Doctor Who 'save the world' heroism. And being a story about witches, the flaming torches used to defeat the Morax was a nice touch too.
There was a lot to love about The Witchfinders, from the Graham and his terrific witchfinder general hat to the awkward interplay between Ryan and King James. Jodie Whittaker continues to be a confident Doctor, full of conviction, though I wasn't always sold on her delivery. She's at her best when she's more patient and focused - her scene with James as she was tied up was well scripted and delivered. I think when she's fast and erratic it all feels a little too much at times.
Was this a classic episode? Not quite, though it was the best of the season. It was executed well, full of atmosphere and tension, but there's still something missing from series 11 to really make it great television. Maybe it's because of Chris Chibnall's desire to play it safe and simple with the storytelling, but there's something that's stopping me from loving the show right now. Still, with episodes like this and Kerblam, Doctor Who is certainly on the right track...