Doctor Who, “The Witchfinders”
Series 11, Episode 8
Written by Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Sally Aprahamian
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh
Guest Starring Alan Cumming, Siobhan Finneran, Tricia Kelly, and Tilly Steele
Original Broadcast 25 November 2018 (49 minutes)
Thanks to a terrific writing staff assembled by showrunner Chris Chibnall, Doctor Who’s Series 11 has been unusually good even for this excellent program. The first six episodes are as strong a run as Who has posted since it returned to our television screens in 2005, with its two historical adventures (Malorie Blackman’s “Rosa” and Vinay Patel’s “Demons of the Punjab”) qualifying as masterpieces, while the other four—all written by Chibnall—have offered new riffs on old patterns to secure Chibnall’s vision of Doctor Who as distinct from predecessors Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat (even as Series 11 pays homage to the franchise’s entire 55-year history, especially the Series 1 journeys of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor).
This run did not exactly falter with last week’s “Kerb!am” despite that entry’s slightly wrongheaded sympathy for giant corporations, but Series 11’s quality nonetheless wobbled. “Kerb!am,” despite many enjoyable moments, comes off as more tired—or perhaps “less fresh” is the better formulation—than its six forerunners. So the eighth episode, “The Witchfinders,” has work to do, particularly since it chronicles Series 11’s third trip to the past. If telling you that “The Witchfinders” helps stabilize Who’s forward momentum, but only slightly, please don’t find this judgment churlish. Thanks mostly to the regular cast’s good work and a tremendous guest performance by Alan Cumming as King James I, “The Witchfinders” is never less than compelling, but also never as engrossing as “Rosa” or “Demons of the Punjab.”
This criticism should not suggest that first-time Who writer Joy Wilkinson’s script is mediocre, or even merely competent, since she brings intelligence and passion to this story of Team TARDIS visiting 17th Century Lancashire (rather than, as intended, attending Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation), only to discover witch trials more ferocious than their famous cousins in Salem, Massachusetts. Doctor Who’s fascination with Britain, therefore, remains undiminished in Series 11 despite a premise that allows the program to travel anywhere in space and time. Wilkinson, indeed, honors Who’s history while offering a mostly inventive spin on the franchise’s historical adventures.
The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) warns companions Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) not to interfere with the events they witness for fear of upsetting established history, then almost immediately interferes by trying to stop a character named Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly) from being drowned at the behest of Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran), the imperious landowner of Bilehurst Cragg. Drowning, of course, is the prescribed method of determining how true are accusations of witchcraft against Twiston, and the fact that this scene occurs only four minutes into “The Witchfinders” gets the latest adventure off to a rollicking, yet sickening, start. Director Sallie Aprahamian continues mining the horror-movie conventions she so expertly included in “Arachnids in the UK” to show just how terrible this test of witchcraft is: If Twiston drowns, she is innocent of all charges. If she lives, she will be executed as an enemy of the people.
Viewers who find this method of administering justice unfair will be happy that the Doctor agrees. She jumps into the lake where Twiston—tied to a large and ominous tree trunk—has been dunked, promptly drawing Becka Savage’s wrath for interfering with what she claims is divine justice. So, we might say, just another day at the office for the Doctor and her companions, but “The Witchfinders” avoids the troubling political stance that its predecessor “Kerblam!” indulges by refusing to bow to the majesty of overwhelming authority (corporate or royal), even if this entry’s representative of political power is Alan Cumming’s impressively mustachioed King James I.
Cumming is one of Scotland’s great living actors, as everyone who’s seen him on stage (as the Emcee in Caberet’s 2014 Broadway revival), on film (as Boris Grishenko in Pierce Brosnan’s first James Bond film, 1995’s Goldeneye), or on television (as Eli Gold in Michelle and Robert King’s 2009-2016 series The Good Wife) knows. Even his current lead role, as Dr. Dylan Reinhart in Michael Rauch’s CBS police procedural Instinct, so firmly captains this lesser series that Cumming’s performance elevates its proceedings at every turn. His King James is a charming, slightly dotty man whose ingrained sexism leads to the most extensive acknowledgments of the Thirteenth Doctor’s gender switch yet seen in Series 11.
This plotline runs throughout the episode, particularly after the masked James I silently observes events during the opening scenes, but then reveals himself to Becka, Ryan, Graham, and the Doctor after the Doctor (in a wonderful callback to Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor) uses psychic paper to convince Becka that she (the Doctor) is the realm’s Witchfinder General, or the highest recognized authority on site. James I, however, takes command since he considers the Doctor to be a “wee lassie” who, in his estimation, must be Graham’s assistant and “underling” because, as the King says, “a woman could never be the General.” The Doctor suppresses her outrage at this remark, but when Graham hilariously tells the sovereign that the Witchfinders have “a flat team structure,” the Doctor replies that their strategy is to “set a woman to catch a woman.”
James I’s reply, masterfully delivered by Cumming, says it all: “A cunning ruse, using your innate aptitude for nosiness and gossip.” Whittaker’s, Walsh’s, and Cole’s silent reactions to this pronouncement are priceless, as is Cole’s befuddlement when James refers to Ryan as “my Nubian prince.” Considering that Team TARDIS has landed sometime soon after the year 1611 (Becka Savage says that James I’s translation of the Christian Bible is a recent publication), the king’s retrograde views are perhaps expected, although Wilkinson’s teleplay plays them for laughs more than anything else. As “The Witchfinders” unfolds, however, the precarious place of women in English life becomes manifest. Becka Savage, the Doctor learns, is Mother Twiston’s granddaughter, having ascended the social ladder by marrying Bilehurst Cragg’s owner, only to inherit his responsibilities upon his death. Becka, in simpler language, forgets her roots, as Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele)—Becka’s commoner cousin—tells the Doctor and Yaz, who soon recognize how correct is Willa’s comment that Mother Twiston’s work as a healer gets the older woman condemned to death for supposedly practicing witchcraft.
All these strands are intriguing, thoughtful, and intelligent (Becka and Willa’s contentious relationship, to choose one, nicely underscores the class inequities afflicting British society then and now), yet “The Witchfinders” goes awry when Wilkinson tries knitting them together. Becka—in an unsurprising development—accuses the Doctor of witchcraft, chains her (the Doctor) to the dunking tree, and tries to drown her in the lake, just as she did Mother Twiston. Yet the ever-clever Doctor, citing (in one of Jodie Whittaker’s best line readings so far) “a very wet weekend with Houdini,” holds her breath long enough to escape her bonds and to unravel the mystery of Becka’s commitment to stamping all evil from Bilehurst Cragg, even if that means, in Becka’s chilling words, “we shall save the souls of my people from Satan even if it means killing them all.” This vicious determination proves that Becka’s surname is no accident and no joke, while suggesting that Becka purveys the same bloodlust that’s made the Salem witch trials not merely famous, but infamous the world over.
Doctor Who, however, rarely allows religious mania to explain away human insanity, and, on this score, “The Witchfinders” doesn’t disappoint. The Doctor discovers that Becka, far from simply forgetting her roots as a commoner, is the victim of what initially appear to be evil trees. Yes, dear reader, evil trees whose muddy roots menace Yaz and Willa in an early scene, but then reveal themselves to be emissaries from the extraterrestrial Morax, a sentient species imprisoned inside Bilehurst Cragg’s Pendle Hill by unknown captors. The Morax, condemned centuries ago to eternal captivity for war crimes, find, in their many attempts to escape, that they can reanimate dead human corpses. As Mother Twiston and the other female victims of Becka’s killing spree rise from the grave, King James sees Satan at work, but the Doctor grasps how unnecessary religious explanations are. The Morax have been reduced to their basic DNA—“scrambled down to their primal form,” in the Doctor’s words—for storage inside Pendle Hill, the area’s most famous geographical landmark.
This barmy possibility leads to the episode’s most hilarious exchange. When the Doctor says, “Pendle Hill is the prison for an alien army,” Graham replies, “Ah well, it’s obvious when you put it like that.” Touché, we might think, but there’s barely time because the disembodied Morax still pose an existential threat. Becka Savage, now possessed by the Morax Queen, intends to kill King James so that the Morax King can rise from his earthen prison and help his people escape. How? Becka helpfully explains that the Morax will slaughter and then reanimate every human being they can find, starting with King James, so that they might live again. Attentive Whovians at this point realize they’ve seen this story before, no matter how crazy it sounds, for Wilkinson’s script here replays the basic premise of “The Unquiet Dead,” Series 1’s third episode and, significantly, the first installment penned by longtime Who contributor (and Sherlock co-creator) Mark Gatiss.
In “The Unquiet Dead” (first broadcast on 9 April 2005), the Ninth Doctor, his companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), and no less than Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) himself discover the disembodied, extraterrestrial Gelth haunting the buildings of Cardiff, Wales on Christmas Eve 1869. The Gelth, a once-corporeal species, were rendered bodiless during the Time War, that all-consuming conflict fought by the Doctor’s fellow Time Lords and their ancient nemesis, the Daleks, not long before New Who begins. The Ninth Doctor realizes too late that the Gelth, in their fury at becoming casualties of a conflict they didn’t start, now intend to kill as many human beings as they can, then use their corpses as hosts to enjoy life on a new planet.
Seem familiar? Doctor Who may have taken thirteen years (and ten additional seasons) to get here, but the program once again offers its viewers an imaginative slant on possession tales that’s not as fresh as it should be because Joy Wilkinson and Chris Chibnall can’t engineer a better denouement. Chibnall’s tenure as Series 11’s showrunner has included many lovely hat tips to Series 1’s best moments, but, despite “The Witchfinders” being as superbly acted and produced as “The Unquiet Dead,” this episode is neither as bracing nor as effective as its earlier counterpart. The cast and crew give their all—Whittaker is wonderful as the Doctor, Alan Cumming is redoubtable as King James I, Sallie Aprahamian takes another outstanding turn as director, while cinematographer Tim Palmer’s and composer Segun Akinola’s contributions are aces—but this installment, although nobly struggling to scale the heights of New Who’s finest work, cannot quite reach these summits.
And yet it nearly does. Wilkinson’s witty teleplay takes viewers on a wild ride that, by all rights, should become a runaway narrative train. Thanks to her good work, “The Witchfinders” never escapes Wilkinson’s authorial control, so even if this outing will not satisfy longtime viewers as much as “The Unquiet Dead,” it still has many satisfactions to enjoy. That is not everything, of course, but it’s enough to recommend “The Witchfinders” as a pleasant diversion that, in its best moments, flies high indeed.