Doctor Who S11 E8: “The Witchfinders” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

We’ve already discussed how new Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall has sought to rediscover and reinvent the ‘historical’, a strand of the show that effectively died out in the 1960s. He did so by seeking stories from modern political history like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” that could carry a relevant social message for the present day audience at the same time, rather than simply rehashing junior school classic texts on the Aztecs, Romans and the Battle of Hastings.

This week sees the third ‘historical’ story in eight episodes, which seems a little overkill. But this one treads a very different path by reverting to exactly one of those sort of textbooks you used to read as a child – or maybe a Ladybird? – on the witch trials of the 17th century. It’s not worrying too much about the details and doesn’t twist itself in knots making sure that history isn’t changed by the Doctor’s activities. Instead it takes the gist of the period, just a flavour, and then weaves a merry romp out of it.

“The Witchfinders” sees the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) arrive at a small Lancashire village during the God-fearing reign of King James I (or VI if you happen to be Scottish.) Even by the sovereign’s standards, Bilehurst Cragg is in the grip of particularly intense religious fervour with 35 people having already been killed as Satan worshippers in weekly trials mounted by local landowner Becka Savage, whose homicidal zealotry more than lives up to her surname. Downton Abbey star Siobhan Finneran makes the character a compelling and terrifying adversary, so certain in the righteousness of her cause that facts need not apply as they will never be allowed to sway her convictions: if a woman drowns in the ducking stool then she was innocent, if she survives then it proves she’s a witch and so she must be burnt at the stake. Either way she’s dead. As Becka says without a hint of irony: she’ll save all of the villagers, even if she have to kill every last one of them in the process. And as is so often the case with such human monsters, there’s a towering hypocrisy behind it all as she knowingly accuses others of crimes she herself is ultimately responsible for.

There’s a sense here of the all-too-real modern day tendency to simply discount inconvenient facts that we don’t like, to pillory experts and wallow in fake news while using fear and bullying to incite mob violence to our own ends. There’s certainly something very disturbing about facing an adversary like Trump who can’t be argued or reasoned with, who is that far gone from reality that not even seeing something right before their own eyes would ever change their pre-formed opinion. Added to all this, the first ten minutes is set against a dark, glowering backdrop which projects palpable fear and dread on a par with the old Hammer Horror movies. It’s all quite lovely, and the episode is definitely off to a good start.

And then King James arrives, in the person of Alan Cumming, whose performance is so loud it’s a wonder you don’t hear it coming in to land like a 747 jet. It’s enjoyably ripe in its own right, but at the same time it’s so oversized that it needs strong foundations and supporting scaffolding within the story to anchor it, and the rest of the episode around it provides neither. It means that King James stands out like the proverbial sore thumb, too silly to take seriously even as the rest of the episode demands to be taken straight and sober. The same problem applies near the end of the episode where Becka is ‘transformed’ into an alien version of herself, distinctive hairstyle and all, and the end effect is so risible that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry – so you’ll probably do both.

Cumming’s creation is the sort of wild non sequitur at the heart of the proceedings that is usually occupied by the character of the Doctor herself; perhaps it’s no coincidence that Cumming was reportedly offered the title role in the past but declined it. It has the same feeling as Graham Crowden’s guest role in “The Horns of Nimon” which was similarly shamelessly big and bold (Crowden had also been on the shortlist for the Doctor in the 70s). At least it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Paul Darrow’s notorious Richard III riff in “Timelash” or Joseph Furst’s immortal ‘nothing in the world can stop me now!’ declaration from “The Underwater Menace”. But it’s certainly close.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been quite a fan of Cumming in his many roles, going right back to when I first saw him a scrawny teen in a very early episode of Taggart. He’s certainly a good actor, as his later extended dialogue scene with the Doctor shows. The exploration of the demons driving King James’ obsessions which stem from his violent family history (although I wonder how many viewers will actually be aware of which famous historical figures are being discussed in this sequence?) allows Cumming to be deeper, nuanced and more contemplative.

It’s a shame that thereafter he’s relegated to being Becka’s rubber-stamping sidekick. At no time does he ever get to believably project the sort of majesty you would expect from an absolute monarch by divine right of all he surveys. Even the idea that such a figure would be travelling the countryside incognito with just one squire in attendance is itself absurd given that assassination plots were rife during this period and he wouldn’t have lasted a day outside the safety of a castle or palace.

King James is often overlooked in drama in favour of endless retellings of the Tudor legends. We know him for the Act of Union, the Gunpowder Plot and the edition of the Bible that bears his name but little else, so it’s particularly unfortunate that the script decides to present the historically rather questionable suggestion of bisexuality, which was the sort of scandalous rumour always circulated by political rivals after a powerful figure’s death around this period. It’s intended here as a comic accent but there’s something uncomfortably sleazy about his continual advances to Ryan, although the way Ryan deftly parries the King’s attentions reveals a rather gentle, sweet and touching aspect to Tosin Cole’s character.

It’s just as well, because there’s not much time spent on the companions this week: Graham wears a funny witchfinder’s hat and memorably describes the Tardis crew as having “a very flat management structure”, while Yas’ main contribution is to recall a year of being bullied at school. It says a lot about how underdeveloped the character remains even this far into the season that this brief moment shines as brightly as it does.

With the regulars relatively in the background you’d expect that this would leave room for some colourful, fruity, vibrant guest characters. But no: other than Becka and the King, and a healthy crowd of pondside extras for the ducking scenes, the only speaking role of import is young villager Willa. Her role is so disconnected – starting as grieving young child, before moving rapidly to being on the receiving end of a rousing cheerleading speech from the Doctor, to then immediately wobble and turn against her new friends, before finding her inner warrior to face the alien menace threatening the village, and finally being ahead of her time by contemplating a career as a healer – that it’s impossible to consider it a coherent character at all. It’s more of a sequence of impressions, just about held together by a laudably sympathetic performance from Tilly Steele.

One thing that the episode does do is address the elephant in the room of the Doctor’s recent change in gender. With the exception of some early wry one-liners, it’s the first time that the topic has been properly broached since Jodie Whittaker took over from Peter Capaldi. Here the Doctor laments that in an age of rampant misogyny, her freedom and ability to act in the way that she used to as a man is inevitably compromised. It suggests that she’d have this wrapped up in half the time if she still looked and behaved like Hartnell, Pertwee, Baker, Tennant or Capaldi.

It’s an honest admission but it feels strange for the show to be implying, in essence, that the Doctor has been weakened by her new female incarnation instead of being empowered by it. The criticism is made all the sharper given that the main adversary in the episode is herself a strong-willed woman clearly fully able to dominant and command all those around her. The Doctor comes out of this comparison looking particularly impaired in relation to her predecessors and those around her. It’s a curious situation given that the episode is written and directed by two women, Joy Wilkinson and Sallie Aprahamian who you would have thought would have had a strong grip on how to tackle this subject without diminishing the Doctor in the process.

It doesn’t help that the Doctor also takes a consistently ill-advised approach to tackling the situation. The tales she tells of alien invasion would have meant nothing to a 17th century villager, while belief in the everyday presence of Satan would have been simple everyday fact to them. For the Doctor to scowl at such superstitious nonsense immediately puts people off side and hands the advantage to Becka whose tales of demonic possession are immediately accepted as self-evident. Once the Doctor starts wielding her sonic screwdriver around like an all-purpose magic wand, it’s only a matter of time before she’s accused of being a witch herself and booked on a trip to the ducking stool. Even before the episode started, I assumed that this would be where the story was heading, and lo! it came to pass. It’s a shame as I’d hoped that the episode would be less obvious, but instead too much of the plot and dialogue tended to be obvious, plodding, leaden and expositionary before concluding in an explosion of technobabble that the actors have to rattle off really quickly before the audience can cotton on to how much nonsense it all is. (True, that criticism by no means unique to this episode, or even to this show; but it did seem particularly flimsy and obvious on this occasion.)

That wrap-up scene in which the mud zombies, sorry, the Morax are defeated takes place in pitch black conditions after dark. I expect the reason for that is that it makes it easier and therefore cheaper to do the CGI, which otherwise is very low key in this episode. In fact, after the effective first ten minutes, the remainder of “The Witchfinders” feels on the whole like it was done on the cheap. It’s largely filmed on location in an unremarkable thicket of woods with a brief visit to a period house that looks more Habitat chic than authentic 17th century manor. Although Aprahamian tries her best to liven things up with some interesting camera angles, the scenes in the woods have the flat-lit feel of a rushed outside broadcast production, as if the whole thing has had to be done on the reduced budget of a daytime drama like Doctors or Father Brown.

In that respect I kept having a nagging feeling that the classic story this resembled most was 1985’s “The Mark of Rani” which featured extensive location filming at the Blists Hill Victorian Town, but which was made at a time when the BBC was trying to squeeze the show out of existence by lowering its budget beyond the point of feasibility. Coincidentally that was also when the BBC was forever changing the format and time of the week that the episodes aired, while simultaneously shortening the number of episodes in a given series. That all sounds rather worryingly familiar…

Oh dear. This post has gone to a rather gloomy place of its own, so let me finish by trying to to exorcise a few demons before I close. I clearly didn’t like the episode as much as many others – the reception on social media was little short of rapturous, so it’s clearly me that’s feeling out of sorts this week – but I will cheerfully accept and state for the record that there were a lot of good individual parts of “The Witchfinders” to enjoy and admire. While I didn’t think Alan Cumming’s portrayal of the King worked within the context of the story, it was easily the most entertaining thing about the episode; Siobhan Finneran’s Becka was a really powerful presence at least until her ridiculous transformation; and the general sense of good old-fashioned action and adventure was refreshing, unencumbered by the show always straining for social relevance but at the same time providing a little food for thought about intolerance and mass hysteria.

So all the right ingredients were in place, which is to be applauded. It’s just that the overall recipe seemed to have gone missing, leaving everyone unsure about the quantities and how to put it all together into a satisfying cake mixture. Or to put it another way: the show was playing all the right notes this week, just not necessarily in the correct order.

Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 6.30pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.

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