Whoops, I missed a week. Events such as college, college and college prevented me from writing a Kerblam! review but in short: loved it, most fun episode since The Crimson Horror, bring Twirly back as a companion, Pete McTighe needs to write more episodes and it should have been episode 5. Now onto this week’s episode, The Witchfinders, which I’ve been anticipating for a while. I love historical episodes and the witch trials are a fascinating period of English history. With a female Doctor this premise promised great things and the episode even secured probably the biggest guest star since John Hurt with Alan Cumming (known to nerds like me as Nightcrawler from X-Men 2) as King James I & VI (it’s complicated). Fortunately this episode lived up to the hype by being a return to traditional Who- monsters, history and horror combining in a gloriously entertaining episode with one amazing guest role. Chris Chibnall may be an excellent showrunner, but he should really leave the majority of the writing to guest writers. Joy Wilkinson gets Who.
The episode wastes no time in establishing the TARDIS team in 17th century Lancashire observing the witch trials of Pendal Hill- very real events by the way. Despite the Doctor’s no interference policy she tries to save the life of an accused witch, kickstarting the plot. I’ve heard people say this is out of character but the Doctor does still remember Donna’s words of “save someone”. History may be fixed but saving one life is nothing in the grand scheme of things, and the Doctor does it because it’s the right thing to do. She couldn’t help Rosa Parks on the bus as that is part of history but one falsely accused woman… the Doctor can definitely bend the rules a bit to help. This episode was an episode that had to be done with a female Doctor, and honestly I think it should have been placed earlier in the series. Whilst any of the Doctor’s previous incarnations would have had free reign to battle the aliens, Thirteen is accused of witchcraft and is in more danger than she would normally be. This is the first episode to address the gender change full on and it adds a unique twist in the narrative, forcing the Doctor to use more than her brains to escape. This episode gave Jodie Whittaker a huge variety to work with and I agree with the consensus that it’s her best performance yet. Some episodes have had her in the background but in The Witchfinders she is front and centre of the action. I liked how the episode didn’t stop to try and justify the witch trials or point out the obvious fact they were wrong and treat them as the status quo which the Doctor must work against to save the world.
Once again the historical attention to detail is amazing and the costumes are stunning. My favourite gag of the episode is when King James gives Graham a witchfinder hat and Graham keeps it on for the rest of the episode, with no one addressing or bringing it up. It’s subtle comedy that’s sometimes the best. The three companions were great this week, and I got a massive Peter Davison era vibe from their explorations away from the Doctor. The dynamic between Graham, Ryan and Yaz is simply brilliant and I had so much fun watching them solve the mystery. The other characters were fine, with Becka being a fascinating sympathetic villain and Willa being a down to earth and relatable supporting character. One of the strengths of this series has been how the side characters have all been brilliantly fleshed out and layered when so often in the Moffat era they would be blank slates. There is one other major character but he needs an entire paragraph to discuss so I’m saving him for later. This episode was such a fun mystery with a sense of intrigue and threat permeating throughout- last week had an intensely complex and well thought out conspiracy and whilst this week was simpler it was still full of fun twists and turns with everything- the witch trials, King James, Pendle Hill, the mud, the zombies, Becka- all tying together wonderfully. Speaking of the zombies- what a menace. I can imagine them sending nightmares to children and it was so nice having some genuine enemies this week. I agree the Morax were a bit cliche but honestly I just wanted an alien threat this season and it was nice to have one which was genuinely evil and allowing the Doctor to defeat them in a burst of victory. Jodie Whittaker holding a torch of green flame repelling the Morax… yep, that’s the Doctor.
OK, let’s address the scenery chewing, camp yet eloquent elephant in the room- Alan Cumming as King James I and VI (conveniently just named King James so the episode doesn’t have to address why he’s the sixth Scottish James but the first English one… again, it’s complicated). Here’s a question- has a guest actor in the revival ever had this much fun before? Cumming’s iconic performance threatens to steal the episode entirely in all its outstanding, flamboyant glory. He redefines James I in the same way Tony Curran did for Vincent van Gogh. Alan Cumming is now one of my all time favourite guest actors on the show, along with Simon Pegg, Anthony Head, Toby Jones, Mark Sheppard and Warwick Davis. Despite his over the top nature my favourite King James scene is the magnificent scene between him and the Doctor when she is about to be tried, where both characters become more subdued and multi-faceted. This scene is wonderful, as the Doctor asks James to let her go but James wants to know her knowledge. There’s multiple layers to this as we have the Doctor as an all-knowing being with no authority vs the King who has all the authority but wants more knowledge. It’s simply brilliant and one of the best executed scenes of the series. I would love a Gunpowder Plot episode in Series 12 which serves as a sequel to this episode where Thirteen and the King team up again.
Like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab I love how the subject matter was taken seriously thematically, as none of the accused who later rise from the dead are actually witches. Instead they’re the victim of hysteria and finger pointing, led by Becka who believes herself cursed and tries to distract people away from her infection. It would have been so easy to have the villain be alien witches like the Carrionites or something like that but that would have taken away from the themes of the episode. The witch trials in England and later colonial America were the result of fear and paranoia. Based on this I would have liked to see this episode as a pure historical but the alien mud infecting Becka and causing her victims to rise from their graves brought the themes around full circle. And yes, I wrote that sentence knowing the visual similarities between this and Full Circle. I’m a genius. Speaking of references-
- The Visitation from 1982 is from the same century and features paranoid villagers in fear of what they think is the supernatural but is instead aliens.
- The Fifth Doctor connections continue (seriously this series has so much in common with Seasons 19-21) as for the first time since Enlightenment we have a story written and directed by women.
- I found it funny how Becka and the villagers yelled about Satan when the Doctor met what claimed to be Satan in, well, The Satan Pit. Granted the Doctor refused to believe it then so her dismissal is consistent with past stories.
- The Doctor’s respiratory bypass system, helpful in stories like Pyramids of Mars, Four to Doomsday and Oxygen, comes in handy again.
- Going off television into the expanded universe, but a First Doctor novel saw him get caught up in the Gunpowder Plot and meeting James I whilst another one, called The Witch Hunters, deals with witch trials in Salem in the US. There’s also an Eleventh Doctor Adventure Game about the Gunpowder Plot but I still want to see it on television.
- Like the werewolf in Tooth and Claw, the Morax believe possessing the monarch will give them power. Possessing King James would actually have given them tons of influence as he had a lot of control over England and Scotland, whereas Victoria was a constitutional monarch so the werewolf kinda messed up that idea.
In conclusion, this episode was another success for the outstanding second half of Series 11. Guest writers are this era’s strength so far and we have another great historical episode to join the other two this year. Did you ever think Rosa Parks and James I would ever be mentioned in the same sentence? Neither did I but they join the pantheon of historical characters featured in the show and I’m glad this feature of past seasons have returned. Next week looks fascinating. I’m going completely spoiler free and based on early reactions it literally cannot be missed. I can’t wait.