“The Witchfinders” Advance Review – Witch is it?
Note: Doctor Who TV’s pre-air episode impressions aim to be as detail-free as we reasonably can while still offering a critique, but as everyone’s spoiler sensibilities are different, we advise you read on at your own discretion.
Witch-hunting may have been a practice originating from a long time ago now, but it’s something that will always be pertinent. Perhaps even more so today, in the social media age where a mob can form quickly and harass and/or bully someone off a platform.
“The Witchfinders” marks our third trip back into a historical period this year, this time closer to home in 17th century England. Team TARDIS have already arrived when we first see them, experiencing the local flavour and apple-bobbing. However, things soon turn grim when they’re forced to watch a very public witch trial. Despite the Doctor once again promising not to interfere, she may find that harder than ever this time.
New to Who writer Joy Wilkinson’s first effort is a strange one. All of the historical episodes this year have been very serious affairs dealing with weighty themes. “The Witchfinders” deals with some big issues too, but it also wants to have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a delicate tonal mix that is tough to get the balance right. And the episode doesn’t always achieve it.
Playing into that, guest star Alan Cumming is a great actor, but much like Chris Noth in “Arachnids in the UK”, he plays the pseudo-villainous role of King James I here as a bit too much of a caricature. Months before Series 11 aired Cumming described his take on the real life monarch as a “dandy, foppy, coward”. Too fleetingly do we get to see something that makes him anything more than that.
Faring much better is Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage. Her portrayal of a strong, but ultimately conflicted character is immediately more believable. Tilly Steele is good too as the young Willa Twiston, a character suffering a personal tragedy as a result of witch trials.
Indeed, the episode shines when it looks into the ramifications and horror that witch hunts had on the populace. It’s also the first historical this year where the Doctor takes noticeable action, rather than having to let events play out (although it does raise a question of where exactly Thirteen’s boundaries lie). This allows Jodie Whitaker some meatier material to play with.
As long-time fans will remember, “witches” have already been tackled in modern Doctor Who, more notably back as the main foe in 2007’s “The Shakespeare Code”. The episode doesn’t repeat those beats. The actual monsters of course are much more alien in origin, though they end up resembling another very familiar pop culture monster instead. Like last week, they’re a more “traditional” threat, but they end up a bit undeveloped as the episode hurtles towards its denouement (this being the shortest episode yet).
“Arachnids in the UK”’s Sallie Aprahamian returns to direct an episode that’s again set in dark and gloomy England, and this time that really works for the episode. The foggy locale providing for a strong and creepy atmosphere throughout, especially when the monsters are roaming in a misty forest.
Sometimes a serious drama about the witch-hunts, sometimes a caper with a panto-villain and monsters. When the mash-up works, it’s an entertaining enough time, but it doesn’t always get the balance quite right.