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Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (Review)

The Witchfinders is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who was come to delivering a conventional celebrity historical.

It is an episode that is much closer to the traditional mode of science-fiction adventure than Rosa or Demons of the Punjab, and not just because it is the first historical episode to be set in British history. As with Arachnids in the U.K., the format of The Witchfinders harks back to the structure and rhythms of the Davies era, feeling like a companion piece to episodes like The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code or The Unicorn and the Wasp. (There are a handful of examples from the Moffat era, notably Victory of the Daleks and Vincent and the Doctor, but they are appreciably fewer.)

The King’s Demons.

This is a broad episode set in the distant path in a manner that evokes the popular folk history of the United Kingdom. It evokes a particular period of history that tends to be well known in a general sense, but less familiar in any specific detail. The Witchfinders focuses on the Doctor and the TARDIS wading into the witch trials that took place during the seventeenth century, overseen by King James I. There is even a nice tie-in to The Shakespeare Code, with the historical connection between those witch trials and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The Witchfinders often finds itself trapped between two extremes. The idea of sending the first female Doctor back into these witch hunts is ripe for social commentary, arguably even more directly than that with which the historical episodes like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab have engaged. Indeed, there is something slyly subversive in the episode’s portrayal of its celebrity figure – in this case King James I – as a deeply flawed figure rather than somebody to be venerated.

Screwed.

On the other hand, The Witchfinders is very much a typical modern-era historical adventure. The Doctor inevitably discovers that there are sinister aliens at work in a historical setting, plotting an invasion and threatening to derail the entire course of history. These aliens serve to provide an explanation for a historical event, and even allow the Doctor to have a more direct impact on the life of an important historical figure, before disappearing into the TARDIS. This is very much of a textbook example of the kind of story codified by The Visitation or The Mark of the Rani.

These two extremes pull within the episode, holding The Witchfinders back from greatness. It is too serious to be enjoyed purely as a fun runaround, but too winkingly mischievous to work as an insightful piece of social commentary. The result is mostly satisfying, even if it is hardly filling.

Apple of her eye.

To be fair, there is something immediately refreshing in seeing the Thirteenth Doctor standing up to an authority figure, particularly a historical one. Rosa and Demons of the Punjab made a point to emphasise the passivity of this iteration of the character. It worked better in Demons of the Punjab than in Rosa, but both episodes hinged on the idea of the Doctor being confronted with systemic injustice and doing nothing.

This is not merely a theme in the historical episodes; the Doctor saved a monstrous corporation in Kerblam!, refused to intervene in what could only be described as a “death race” in The Ghost Monument and declined to topple an evil politician in Arachnids in the U.K. When the Doctor informs her companions “do not interfere with the fundamental fabric of history” early in The Witchfinders, it seems like the script is setting up another plot along those lines.

As such, there is something thrilling in the Doctor’s refusal to allow Becca Savage to murder Old Mother Twiston, even adhering to the laws and custom of contemporary Britain. This feels like a return to the character’s historical willingness to put basic morality ahead of concepts like the integrity of history; the Twelfth Doctor punching a racist in the face in Thin Ice, for example. It is exciting to see the Thirteenth Doctor throw herself into the situation even before an alien threat is revealed to justify such intervention.

There are issues with this, to be fair, but they are issues that have long affected the archetypal celebrity historical template. The Thirteenth Doctor is allowed to condemn King James I for his ignorance and his violence, for the harm that he has caused and for the women that he has indirectly killed. This feels like a much stronger choice for the character than making her complicit in systemic oppression in Rosa or retreating from such horror in Demons of the Punjab, but it also demonstrates the limits of the form.

Cumming and Going.

After all, there is only so angry that the Doctor can be at King James I. She cannot topple him or depose him, because that would break the verisimilitude of the program. It would branch the history of Doctor Who from the history of the audience. Returning the companions to a radically different present day would serve as a plot point that might alienate casual viewers from Doctor Who. As a result, forces outside the medium place firm boundaries on the Doctor’s rage towards King James I. The Doctor cannot pull a version of The Long Game or The Christmas Invasion.

This leads to a somewhat awkward closing scene when King James I accompanies the companions to the TARDIS, but the Doctor is offering nothing but silence. “She still does not speak to me, Ryan,” the King laments, in a line that looks like it might have been a late addition via ADR. “Can you say something to her?” This is a decision that serves to make the Doctor seem very passive aggressive. It is in someways a gendered characteristic, as if the Doctor is giving King James I “the silent treatment.”

Of course, this is better than making the Doctor complicit in something horrific like the witch hunts or systemic racism, but it does in some ways illustrate the problem with trying to tackle big issues like this in the context of a celebrity historical. The Witchfinders does a much better job of understanding the Doctor’s moral core than Rosa, even if it lacks the elegance and effectiveness of Demons of the Punjab. There is a sense of the celebrity historical format straining against a show that finds itself increasingly socially conscious.

That said, there are some very clever touches in The Witchfinders that play off the expectations and rhythms of these stories. The Witchfinders looks like a celebrity historical and walks like a celebrity historical, right down to casting Alan Cumming as King James I. Cumming is a national treasure and a beloved actor. A Scottish performer with a host of awards and nominations – including four Emmy nominations, two Golden Globe nominations, two nominations at Cannes for The Anniversary Party – it is surprise that it has taken him this long to appear in Doctor Who.

A royal misunderstanding.

Alan Cumming as King James I belongs to a long line of “recognisable-British-actor-as-iconic-British-historical-figure” casting on Doctor Who that includes Ian McNeice as Wintson Churchill, Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh, Simon Callow as Charles Dickens, Pauline Collins as Queen Victoria, Dean Lennox Kelly as William Shakespeare, Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Christie, Tom Riley as Robin Hood. The format of these episodes is largely one of celebration of iconic British character. In most cases, the Doctor gets to hang out with an awesome famous person from history.

This is true even in those episodes where the Doctor and the guest star might find one another at odds. Tooth and Claw ends with Queen Victoria banishing the Doctor from her kingdom, but that is a judgment that only has moral weight because the episode treats Queen Victoria as a character deserving of respect and dignity. Similarly, the Doctor spars with Robin Hood in Robot of Sherwood, but the two reach a mutual respect by the end of the episode.

Of course, there is an inherent tension in these episode. In some cases, the Doctor’s friendship with these figures makes sense; the Doctor may be drawn to bohemians and artists like Van Gogh and Dickens, or outlaws like Robin Hood. However, it is harder to reconcile the Doctor’s fixation on famous leaders responsible for terrible decisions. What does the Doctor think of Churchill’s involvement with the Indian famines? This sort of disconnect is perfectly captured by the Doctor’s off-hand reference to Lord Mountbatten in Demons of the Punjab.

As such, there is something refreshing in the way that Alan Cumming’s guest appearance as King James I serves to deconstruct this romantic fantasy. King James I is acknowledged as having many of prejudices of his time. He refers to Ryan as a “Nubian prince”, and urges the Doctor, “Hold your tongue, lassie. Stick to snooping and leave the strategy to your King.” However, it goes further than that. King James I is portrayed as clinically and dangerously insane, somebody with a very limited grasp on reality but whose power makes him extremely dangerous.

“Kill the Beast! Er, the Witch!”

Handing Graham a snazzy witchfinder hat, James explains, “This belonged to my first witchfinder general, Scotty, who save my life in Berwick.” It is a cute moment, one designed to humanise the character, like having Queen Victoria say “we are not amused” or having Robin Hood spar with the Doctor. It is something that humanises the character. However, James quickly (and slightly sadly) adds, “Then he betrayed me, so I had him shot.” James is portrayed ultimately as weak-willed and emotionally-stunted, while still developed and explored as an individual.

There is a very strong push-and-pull back-and-forth about the character of King James I within the episode that is refreshing after so many episodes venerating complicated and troublesome historical figures like Winston Churchill or Queen Victoria. The “celebrity historical” is, by its nature, a passive endorsement of the so-called “great man theory of history.” Even Rosa. The portrayal of King James I serves as a long overdue corrective, particularly at a time when nostalgic narratives of an idealised past are being used to stoke hatred and resentment in contemporary politics.

Indeed, the portrayal of King James I in The Witchfinders is decidedly cheeky and subversive. Cumming plays James as decidedly camp. (Cumming is himself a relatively rare high-profile openly gay actor.) A lot of this is in the performance, but it draws from the script. Most notably the way in which the episode plays up James’ fetishisation of Ryan. “One more request,” James urges Ryan at the end of the episode. “Come back to London with me, Ryan. Be my protector.” It is not a platonic request by any measure.

The Witchfinders cannily avoids any obvious or overwrought gay panic in Ryan’s response. Ryan is perfectly comfortable being an object of attraction for another man, which avoids a lot of potentially awkward subtext. Instead, Ryan lets King James I down very gently. “It’s a kind offer, sire. But I’ve got stuff to do.” It should be noted that this portrayal of the historical figure has some basis in fact; there is some evidence that King James I was gay. It is refreshing to see this acknowledged in a series that has historically traded so broadly in British iconography.

“Oh sit down. Don’t worry. That’s a reference that won’t be contemporary for about four-hundred years.”

(That said, it does render the climax of the episode… a little awkward. King James I finds himself tied face-down to a tree trunk as he is menaced by an errant tentacle. In case the subtext weren’t clear, the alien that has (literally) taken root in the body of Becca Savage urges, “We will rule this kingdom, your body filled with my Morax king! Come to me, my love.” It is maybe not ideal to present a threat to a prominent gay male guest star in a manner that consciously evokes gay male rape. The episode pushes its subtext just a little bit too far.)

All of this feels decidedly political, consciously evoking contemporary politics. King James I is presented as an ineffectual tantrum-throwing manchild with very severe mother issues. Although more subtly than Jack Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K., this characterisation very consciously evokes the personality of Donald J. Trump. Of course, to be fair, even just featuring a leader prone to shout “witchhunt!” at random intervals all but invites such comparisons.

Indeed, The Witchfinders is perhaps the first episode of the eleventh season that offers something resembling a commentary on Brexit as well as Trump. While the portrayal of King James I as a bumbling buffoon who is also extremely dangerous inevitably evokes comparisons to Donald Trump, there is a sense in which he invites comparisons to Theresa May. Over the course of the episode, James repeatedly allows himself to be manipulated and driven by the radicals around him. He is clearly conflicted about dunking the Doctor, but simply listens to whoever shouts loudest.

There are obviously other aspects of the episode that play as broad political commentary. The monster in The Witchfinders is suggested to be the land itself, dangerous alien prisoners hiding inside the soil, unleashed by an act of vandalism committed by Becca Savage. This suggests a sort of dangerous and zombifying nationalism. The Morax threaten “to fill this whole planet with rage, and force, and hate, and worse!” They also literalise the connection between “blood and soil”, replacing one for the other in their victims.

Where there’s a Willie…

It is a more lyrical and abstract meditation on the dangers of nationalism than that featured in Demons of the Punjab. It instead suggests that an overly literal attachment to land can be actively dangerous. Indeed, as much as the characters in the episode might attempt to assert control of the land around them, they are ultimately forced to retreat from it at the end of the episode. It is much better to be a migrant than a nationalist in the world of The Witchfinders.

This engagement is more than welcome, particularly at a time when toxic nationalism is bubbling over into contemporary politics in the United Kingdom and the United States. (And many places besides.) The Witchfinders uses science-fiction allegory to demonstrate the danger of such ties to such strong and outdated notions of national identity where individual identity is literally and figuratively tied to the land itself. (Of course, given how the eleventh season has repeatedly engaged with Trump, it might be good to see it engage directly with Brexit.)

That said, these bold and overt political statements brush up against the limits of the form. This is most obvious in the witch trials themselves. The horror at the heart of The Witchfinders is explicitly gendered in a way that none of the other forms of system oppression in the eleventh season have been. The Ghost Monument was about capitalism as a rat race, Rosa was about racism. However, The Witchfinders is the first time that the Doctor’s gender has been a major issue for the series since her regeneration at the end of Twice Upon a Time.

The eleventh season of Doctor Who has largely avoided making too big a deal of the Doctor’s gender swap. There are a few awkward bits of subtext around the character’s ineffectiveness and indecisiveness relative to her male predecessors, but those are very much an accidental development that reflects the broader direction of the Chibnall era as a whole. The key message of the eleventh season of Doctor Who has been “business as usual” for the character, outside of a few tangential references in episodes like Demons of the Punjab.

Making a splash.

This may be the most practical approach to the situation, given the strange paranoia about the transition in the British press. Despite being relatively conservative in comparison to the Cartmel or Davies or even Moffat eras, the Chibnall era has repeatedly been derided as “too PC!”, seemingly for nothing more than casting Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. The show eager to avoid become embroiled in any potential rows by largely sticking to very centrist stances. Kerblam! is the most obvious example; a far cry from Planet of the Ood, the Doctor opts to save space!Amazon.

As such, it makes sense that the series would wait until its antepenultimate episode to engage with the unique challenges that the Doctor will face as a woman rather than a man. (Interestingly, a line early in the script and the episode’s content suggest that The Witchfinders might have been considered for the Halloween slot that went to Arachnids in the U.K.) When the Doctor inserts herself into the witch trials, she is inevitably accused of being a witch. “Honestly,” she complains, “if I were still a bloke, I could get on with the job, and not waste time having to defend myself.”

There is an obvious political subtext to any story about witch trials that gets at the systemic oppression of women, the manner in which institutions and societies seek to silence and control women, out of fear and paranoia. “She made medicines to help people,” Willa Twiston suggests of her grandmother. “She wasn’t a witch. Everyone knows that.” Similarly, the Doctor is condemned both for daring to know more of the world and for daring to speak out about it.

As with Kerblam!, there are a host of big ideas here. This is particularly true in the current #metoo moment, when society seems to be genuinely engaging with how it treats women. (Of course, the use of “witch hunt” in the context is rather loaded.) Jodie Whittaker was cast as the Doctor at a moment in time when Hillary Clinton somehow lost an election to Donald Trump, because she was seen as unlikable or shrill. Perhaps reflecting the security afforded by historical allegory, the Chibnall era has been willing to acknowledge these sorts of issues in its historical episodes.

Some heated online debate, eh?

There are moments within The Witchfinders that engage with these questions of oppression and violence against women. There is admittedly something uncomfortably “#notAllMen” in the way that King James I is portrayed as a passenger in this systemic oppression rather than a leader, ignoring his historical enthusiasm for these trials to focus on the violence perpetrated by Becca Savage. Perhaps wary of alienating male audience members, The Witchfinders touches on how women often perpetuate systems of oppression.

Becca Savage is portrayed as a woman who leverages her power from oppressing other women. Early in the episode, it is implied that these trials are a means for a woman to assert control over a local community following the death of her husband. “We were all close until Becca married up,” Willa tells the Doctor. Later, Becca uses the threat of execution to force Willa to denounce the Doctor so that she can be tried. The Doctor herself accuses Becca of “pointing the finger at others, so no one points it at you.” It is a system of self-reinforcing complicity.

Ignoring the way within The Witchfinders avoids too heavily implicating men in the act of perpetuating misogyny, the episode runs into trouble when it comes to integrating that template with the expectations of a time travel adventure with aliens. Demons of the Punjab very cleverly managed to feature an alien element without allowing that element to distract from the setting and the story, positioning these outsiders as witnesses to a grand human tragedy.

In contrast, The Witchfinders falls back on the old “celebrity historical” template by having aliens that can convincingly manifest as a supernatural terror with some association to the historical figure in question. The Unquiet Dead allowed Charles Dickens to come face-to-face with entities that looked like ghosts, while The Shakespeare Code found Shakespeare grappling with witches. Victory of the Daleks might have been a bit more allegorical, but it did think to pair Winston Churchill with the show’s long-standing Nazi stand-ins.

Witch is it?

So, inevitably, The Witchfinders finds a need to confront King James I with an alien menace that could mistakenly be interpreted as witchcraft. In this case, it is the Morax. While this is a move straight from the “celebrity historical” playbook, it massively undercuts the weight of the narrative and the themes of the episode. Any episode about historical witch trials or witch hunts that features actual witches needs to be very careful, because it inevitably risks justifying what was essentially weaponised systemic misogyny.

The Witchfinders ultimately argues that its human characters are right to be afraid, that this small community is entirely justified in turning to paranoia and uncertainty. There is a threat buried within their community, and that threat has attached itself to a powerful female figure. Given how instrumental Becca Savage is to the Morax plan, it could even be argued that the villagers in The Witchfinders were simply dunking the wrong women. At the end of the episode, King James I is confronted by a horde of monstrous demonic women, which ultimately validates his worldview.

There is a solid argument to be made that The Witchfinders would have worked better as a straight historical, something that may also be true of both Rosa and Demons of the Punjab. If the episode absolutely had to feature an alien menace, it would make for sense for it to be aligned with King James I than opposed to him. It throws the weight of the episode off-balance, and muddles the thematic through-line.

This imbalance between the desire to be a conventional old-school monster story and the urge to engage with bigger ideas also affects the plotting of the episode. This is most obvious at two points in the plot, when the script splits off key characters in order to create moments of tension that are handily resolved by bringing the cast back together. There is an awkwardness to this that extends even beyond the eleventh season balancing its larger ensemble in episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Heavy lies the head that wears the witchfinder general’s cap.

Around the midpoint of the episode, the Doctor is split off from her companions so that she can be accused of being a witch. It is a strange beat, one which feels like it needs more room in which to breath. It plays as a hypercompressed and very shallow version of Midnight, a story in which the Doctor finds herself unable to properly navigate the fear and paranoia of the people that she is trying to help. Luckily, the matter is (sort of) resolved when her companions hear the dunking and come to her rescue. They force a confrontation that pushes the episode to its climax.

More than that, this pivot point has its own issues. This all builds to a sequence in which the companions arrive, the Doctor frees herself from the chains, and Becca is exposed as a hypocrite. By all internal logic, this should be the climax of the episode. The villain has been exposed, the characters have escaped mortal peril, the institution at the heart of the story has been exposed as a farce. However, the episode then needs to build to the resolution of its science-fiction plot. So the Moraz show up, blast everyone, kidnap King James I and then our heroes have to rescue him.

The result is an episode that is awkwardly pacing, stopping and starting, shifting gears at several points. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a large part of the Moffat era was built around the idea of setting up one story and then delivering a commentary upon it. However, The Witchfinders never finds the right balance between the two extremes, between the historical social commentary about the oppression of women and the alien invasion narrative about aggressive mud tentacles. Those are two very different shows, and Doctor Who struggles to navigate between them.

The Witchfinders is enjoyable, taken on its own terms. It has a great guest performance from Alan Cumming, a wry subversion of the “celebrity historical” in its approach to its guest character, and a number of big ideas about systems of oppression. It also features a more proactive version of the Doctor, a welcome shifting up a gear from the rest of the season to this point. Unfortunately, it also struggles to balance all of this with the demands of a conventional alien invasion narrative that winds up obscuring a number of potentially interesting plotlines.

A crowning accomplishment?

The Witchfinders is functional, even if the most frustrating part of it is that it could work so much better.

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One Response

  1. Do you plan on doing a Series 11 overview? I know you haven’t done that since Series 8, but I think it would be useful here. Each episode frustrates me in, albeit in vastly different ways. Last week’s episode was both the best and worst of the season, while this was somewhere in the middle. I found it entertaining, but there were lots of issues with the plotting and tone.

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