The Witchfinders

Posted in Episode by - November 26, 2018
The Witchfinders

Aired 25 November 2018
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Doctor Who’s renewed focus on historical adventures has provided two lasting classics with ‘Rosa’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab,’ offering intimate and deliberate character pieces that explored true tragedy, weakness, and strength in equal measure. As the TARDIS lands in Lancashire during the seventeenth century and its notorious witch trials, however, the purposeful restrain the Doctor has shown while begrudgingly letting history run its course is abandoned, putting the focus more on fun and adventure within this dark and dangerous time in Joy Wilkinson’s ‘The Witchfinders.’

King James I, going by the English title, is a figure who rarely focuses prominently in drama, overshadowed to some extent by Guy Fawkes who attempted to assassinate him and by his famous mother Mary and son Charles I. However, given his fascination with witch trials he acquired while traveling and that he soon instilled back home, he is a logical inclusion in this story so rife with prejudice stemming from gender and religion, paranoia, and hidden dangers. Fortunately, Wilkinson does not shy away from the complexities of this man, and his devotion to God and obsession with Satan make for a captivating foundation upon which his personal inclinations, ability to sympathise, and paranoia can quickly develop. Historical monarchs do tend to be larger than life figures in dramas, and Alan Cumming certainly brings this tumultuous mix of characteristics to life in a captivating fashion, but in so doing he also creates something of an oddity in this darker world since it is difficult to know if he is deliberately being hammy and if James is accordingly meant to be a sympathetic or hated figure. While it’s true that his actions have to be judged as a product of his time and surroundings, it’s also clear that he is an insightful man who pays attention to every detail around him, but the shift in tones surrounding him does make for a bit of an unsteady view compared to the constant darkness around him.

Jodie Whittaker has done a superb job with dispelling any notion that the Doctor’s gender change would somehow limit her ability to fight evil in its many forms even while starring in a larger ensemble cast, but ‘The Witchfinders’ is the first episode to truly present a situation in which gender is a complicating factor. As accusations of witchcraft abound, it was all but inevitable that the Doctor would find herself the subject of ire and paranoia given how she waves her sonic screwdriver around and boldly takes command of any situation that seems to kick into overdrive when she arrives. And although she gets out of a tight bind quite easily when submerged as part of a test to prove her guilt or innocence, it is still nice to see that historical attitudes towards women- that still persist to this day to some extent- will not always be completely ignored. Still, the Thirteenth Doctor’s tendencies to get rather distracted and caught up in a single aspect do manifest again, and while this is a unique quirk that has worked quite successfully while allowing the expanded core cast more to do, this characteristic is quite glaring in an episode that likes to point out how limited women are.

This is a story, then, not with glaring faults but with certain strange choices that stick out all too blatantly, and this applies to the threatening Morax as well. Without question, the buildup surrounding the witch trials and then the living mud that slowly manifests and possesses the bodies of those proven innocent through death is dark and tense, but these beings are defeated far too quickly and easily without any real sense of danger being allowed to develop. This threat is not fast and clearly is not the most intelligent given how easy it is to hide from them, and the proclaimed King that comes without any previous mention makes this menace all too generic in a series that has shied away from significant alien threats like these. Siobahn Finneran delivers a strong performance as Becka Savage who is so integral to events, and it seems like it would have been far more effective and emotional to allow her to give a face to this menace through to its defeat.

In the end, ‘The Witchfinders’ is an odd tale, favouring its alien threat and atmosphere over character and in-depth exploration of its setting. Unfortunately, with its message about women being empowered quite muddled amongst prejudice and its aliens the epitome of one-dimensional beings that are all too easily disposed of, there are several missed opportunities to make what amounts to an enjoyable tale all the more profound and impactful.

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