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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.

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