2nd Opinion: “The Witchfinders”

Connor Johnston & Gustaff Behr give their takes on the eighth episode of Series 11.

Connor’s View – Enchanting Storytelling

Our first definitive ‘Doctor’ moment for Jodie Whittaker in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” saw our hero assert herself as the enemy of foul play throughout the universe. Throughout the series so far we’ve seen this personal mission take on a number of different roles depending on the situation. In episodes such as “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” we’ve seen her forced to witness acts of horrific oppression and discrimination but unable to act against them. In “The Ghost Monument”, “Kerblam” and “Arachnids” we saw glimpses of conflict with abusive points of authority that were enough to cement our understanding of her ethics, but possibly not enough to exhibit them. “The Witchfinders” is perhaps our best example yet of the Thirteenth Doctor playing a vehemently active role in sorting out foul play and making a brutal stance against murder, intimidation and fear mongering.

The theme of standing up to bullies is one that’s strewn through the episode’s narrative, both on a personal scale in the experiences of our characters and on a larger scale in reference to the attitudes and behaviours of the 17th Century society of its setting. For Becka Savage, her treatment and murder of the villagers is one motivated by selfishness and enabled by her position of power. For King James, the literal ‘witch hunt’ he endorses is one he justifies with his faith, but one that truly stems from a fear of difference and permissible by the sexism rampant in his time. Though all these behaviours are presented in the context of a 17th Century historical, comparisons to Yaz’s childhood and modern day prejudices are mentioned subtly but thoughtfully.

Despite quite a dark point of focus and the presence of some very topical and worthwhile discussions, the episode doesn’t lose touch of the adventure and humour integral to the audience’s experience. A lot of the charm and charisma of the episode comes down to Alan Cumming’s memorable and suitably ridiculous portrayal of King James – offering perhaps one of the most charming and charismatic historical figures we’ve ever encountered. Siobhan Finneran’s firm and ruthless Mistress Savage offers a great adversary for the Doctor which transforms into a vindictive and rabid Morax Queen when paired with the filled corpses towards the episode’s conclusion.

Sally Aprahamian’s return to the director’s chair this week doesn’t make as much of an impact as her earlier work in “Arachnids”, with the overuse of the fog framing the episode running the risk of distracting from the setting rather than enhancing it. Regardless, she proves herself once again the master of tone and pace – allowing for scenes to jump between action, horror and comedy with ease. Segun Akinola’s score continues on fine form this week with a striking use of strings and sweeping orchestral moments helping define the episode’s atmosphere.

Joy Wilkinson’s debut Doctor Who script achieves a sense of wonder and energy reminiscent of some of the most cherished episodes in the show’s past. She achieves the fun and life of a historical romp without sacrificing the opportunity to make important and valid political commentary on both historic and contemporary double standards. Her work is elevated by an array of strong performances that helps “The Witchfinders” be both a character-driven piece and a setting centred adventure. While it may not be the standout of the series, it certainly isn’t in short supply of Who magic.

Gustaff’s View – Another mixed bag

Given how much I enjoyed the stupidest named episode in Doctor Who history last week, I had high hopes for “The Witchfinders”. The prospect of the Doctor’s new gender playing a prominent role in a time period where being different and a woman is a dangerous combination promised to be an enticing one. But like most episodes this season, it’s a mixed bag. This is especially sad as Legends of Tomorrow already tackled the witch trials just a few weeks ago with an incredibly over the top, but super entertaining romp of an episode. If I had to compare the two I’d say the Legends wins this fight easily.

I will praise this episode for looking the part though. The locations really looked rundown, dirty and right out of a horror movie. The grey and dreary setting painted a perfectly bleak atmosphere that set the mood.

I also deeply enjoyed Alan Cumming’s performance as King James. Cumming is a national treasure. I know he’s Scottish-American, but we’re still claiming him. King James isn’t utilized nearly as much as he should’ve been, but thankfully the episode spends a good chunk of time exploring his psyche, his struggles and his otherworldly obsession with besting Satan. Cumming’s flamboyant, over-the-top showing, coupled with the seriousness of his more intimate scenes with the Doctor and Ryan saved this episode for me during its not-so-good moments.

Moments which include me deducing that Becka Savage was not only the antagonist, but also an alien (well part of her anyway) the mere second her name was spoken. Becka Savage? Really Doctor Who? You couldn’t have made that a little stealthier? It also didn’t make much sense that Savage would be in charge of the witch trials given her status as a woman, even if she is a land owner. Sexism in the 17th century is still sexism in the 17th century.

I’ve had several complaints about lacklustre villains this season (tooth fairy, evil dishrags, Stitch, discount-Trump and discount-Testimony) but for the first time I genuinely felt as though there was no need to include an alien threat at all. Much like “Rosa”, “The Witchfinders” had all the ingredients of a great historical threat in the exploration of killing innocent people in the name of faith and religion. This topic alone has enough material for a two-parter, but is poorly juxtaposed with scenes of awkward levity such as when King James first arrives. At times it felt as though this episode wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be: A pantomime or a serious study into human cruelty.

Series 11 is still struggling to balance having a four-person TARDIS crew. It doesn’t help that most episodes feels as though you can cut half of them out and maybe even tell a better story. Once again I praise Bradley Walsh. He continues to bowl me over with his charm as Graham. He might even overtake Evelyn Smythe and Wilfred Mott by the time Series 11 ends. Ryan didn’t get a lot to do, but his scenes with King James felt genuine and I liked the bond that they formed. It helped humanize James and also allowed Ryan not to feel unnecessary to the plot.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Thirteenth Doctor. Her actions confused me somewhat last week, but this week I have no idea what’s going on. Her actions contradict her words (“We mustn’t interfere”). This wouldn’t be a problem since EVERY Doctor does this. What every Doctor doesn’t do is declare that they’re not going to interfere, then change their mind 30 seconds later.

Not only this, but the Doctor stupidly puts herself in unnecessary danger by waving around her sonic screwdriver, an item that to everyone else would look like a magic wand. She declares that the mud monsters are not witches, but ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ or ‘unknown’ but never bothers to properly explain what she means. She just expects these ordinary, very paranoid people to accept that ‘foreign’ and ‘alien’ do not mean supernatural, but instead extraterrestrial.

Worse if you tell someone something is ‘unknown’ to you, you’re basically implying you don’t know either. So why can’t it be the thing they’re saying it is? What makes you an expert? This is perhaps unintentional on the part of the writer, but blending in has also been a staple of Doctor Who. In “The Shakespeare Code” the Doctor quickly gibbered a sciencey term for why someone is killed because he didn’t want to cause a panic or draw attention. When compared to that, the Thirteenth Doctor comes across as incredibly ineffective.

On the plus side, Jodie Whitaker finally delivered a truly ‘Doctory’ speech. Pleading with King James whilst awaiting her trial, the Doctor’s words resonated with me and made that particular scene the highlight of the story. More scenes like that please.