Monday 26 November 2018

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 11x08 - The Witchfinders

Doctor Who 11x08 - The Witchfinders

When it was first announced that Jodie Whittaker had been cast as the 13th Doctor, it opened up all kinds of story potential for Doctor Who. Suddenly historical tales could have a whole new spin on them, and there were plenty of ideas available that just wouldn't have worked had the Doctor continued to be a man. The first thing that immediately came to my mind was "what if the Doctor travelled back to there 17th century and was tried as witch"? And by the looks of it I wasn't the only one to think that, because that's exactly what's going on in series 11's eighth episode, The Witchfinders. This one was written by Joy Wilkinson and directed by Sallie Aprahamian, and inadvertently released early when Amazon Prime accidentally uploaded it to their service instead of previous episode Kerblam!. Guess that's what happens when you try to critique the mighty Amazon...

Landing in 1612 Lancashire in a small village near Pendle Hill, the Doctor and friends quickly find themselves in the middle of a witch trial being led by its landlord Becka Savage. The Doctor tries to pass herself off as the Witchfinder General to prevent any more deaths, but the arrival of King James I on the scene just complicates the matter - not believing a woman could have such a role, the King believes Graham to be the real Witchfinder General.

As the Doctor deduces that Savage is hiding something, she herself is accused of witchcraft and made to face trial by dunking. An alien force at work is causing the dead to rise, and the Doctor is the only one who has any chance of saving the village.

The general consensus seems to be that this series of Doctor Who has particularly excelled at its historical pieces, and after two strong entries in Rosa and Demons of the Punjab it makes it three for three with The Witchfinders. The Pendle witch trials was also the perfect period in English history to set a story that could feasibly combine the two elements of the shows, and as previously mentioned such a setting suddenly has so much more potential now that the Doctor's a woman. While the fact the show hasn't made a habit of consistently addressing the gender switch has definitely worked to its advantage, a situation such as this was going to turn up sooner or later and this was the perfect one to handle it. The fact the Doctor is the cleverest person in the room takes a new spin when no one will take her seriously, and in some ways seeing her in this position is the first time we really get to see what she's made of. Though the stories have been generally very good the Doctor has never really felt truly challenged in any of them, so seeing her frustrated and having to arguably work harder to be heard was a nice change of pace as well as having both historical and current relevance.

But despite this being the perfect opportunity for the show to jump on its soap box, The Witchfinders works so well because it's a fairly light-hearted adventure. Some have complained that this series of Doctor Who has been overly preachy and while arguably the show has always had particularly strong sense of social justice and morality, it's undeniable that these ethics have been at the forefront more so than ever before. This episode is equal parts silly as it is serious though, feeling in more lines with romps like Robot of Sherwood more than it does the other episodes that have aired in this series thus far.

A lot of this silliness comes from the ever-wonderful Alan Cummings, who completely steals the show as the most hammed-up version of King James imaginable. But despite his performance being loaded with pantomime theatrics, there's still a subtlety Cummings brings to portray a King torn between being the swashbuckling hero he wants to be and the murderous hysteria he's allowing in the name of religion. Wilkinson also draws on some of the more speculative parts of James' life too, not just limited to his sexuality but also his father's murder and the numerous attempts on his life. Moments like his exchange with a chained up Doctor add a lot to his character as well as giving Whittaker an opportunity to finally make a dramatic Doctor speech, and you almost feel bad for him at the end of the episode despite how his actions' lead to the Doctor's ire. There have been a fair few notable guests in Doctor Who this series, but with this performance Cummings is by far and away the best.

On the opposite side of that is Siobhan Finneran's performance as Becka Savage, who fits nicely as the story's conflicted villain figure. The seriousness to the character is a nice contrast to Cumming's pomp, and the reasoning behind her witch hunts gives the story a nice little mystery element that builds up nicely. Savage has a great dynamic with the Doctor, as she's the one that holds the power and authority in the village - shooting down the Doctor's arguments on that basis alone. Less notable but also a good addition to the cast is Willa, adding a much needed civilian element to the story to give it better context as well as grounding to illustrate the effects these witch trials had on families.

If there was anything letting The Witchfinders down, it's the fact that the episode is almost entirely set up. The story is much more interested in the setting and character exchanges than it is developing, leading the alien element to be both revealed and foiled in the space of about ten minutes. It's also fairly sad that "alien mud" has been the most impressive extraterrestrial threat the series has had so far, especially when the actual reveal transformed the Morax from a low-key but effective zombie affair into something that dialled up the camp a bit too much. As soon as the Morax took over Finneran's performance leaned too far the other way, no longer working as the appropriate foil to Cumming's pomp. The fact that it was all revealed far too soon was the much bigger issue though, barely allowing time for the Morax to come across as anything more than generic.

Despite its obvious pacing issues, The Witchfinders is another great episode to add to this series' rather solid historic repertoire. Between addressing the Doctor's new body in a way that effectively contributes to the story, the setting, the humour, Alan Cumming's show-stealing performance and of course Graham's fantastic hat there's plenty the story has to offer before the fact it's running out time becomes all too apparent. It's not just three for three on the historical stories now, it's also three for three on the non-Chibnall episodes as well. As we draw ever closer to the end of the series, next week  the Doctor and co head to Norway for some cottage-based horror in It Takes You Away.

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