This review contains no spoilers for Episode 8, but mentions plot details from the rest of Season 11 so far. Read on for our additional spoilery observations, after you’ve seen the episode.
“Evil be to him that evil thinks.” Witchcraft is the subject of this episode of Doctor Who – or, rather, historical witch hunts are. Arriving in Bilehurst Cragg, a Lancastrian village that has apparently been forgotten by history, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor runs up against superstition and misogyny in a way that frankly wouldn’t have affected her other, blokier selves.
Posing as the titular officials after witnessing a fatal witch trial, Team TARDIS encounter the prejudices of Mistress Savage (Siobhan Finneran) and the king himself, James I (Alan Cumming), as they try to find out what’s really going on with the deceased’s family. To save her granddaughter, Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele), they have to find out what’s wrong with the living earth around Bilehurst Cragg, while also avoiding suspicion themselves.
Eight episodes into Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor, we haven’t really had much cause to talk about the character’s gender change, and that’s as it should be. But it’s also interesting to see her get into a scrape where her gender affects the story. In this superficial regard, it’s the first episode of the season we have to say wouldn’t fit into any other era.
But more than that, this season’s strengths are on show in other ways. Joy Wilkinson’s script finds plenty for the entire gang to do, making it an enjoyable ensemble piece. Yaz bonds with a local girl and shows her mettle as a copper in the process. Ryan deals with someone’s unrequited crush on him in a friendly and compassionate way. And there’s Graham, delightfully marching around in his over-sized witchfinder hat, looking like Windy Miller.
If behind the scenes scuttlebutt is to be believed, the original episode order for Season 11 would have placed this adventure earlier in the run. That would make sense, because it’s a story in which the Doctor puts her best foot forward, verbally sparring with the pious king and the mysterious Mistress Savage as the Doctor always should. Those who have criticised Season 11’s other historical stories, like Rosa and Demons Of The Punjab, for a newfound non-interventionist stance will be pleased to find that this is more of a traditional period romp, complete with some fabulous scenery chewing from both Cumming and Finneran – Cumming is having a whale of a time as the paranoid monarch, and he’s highly entertaining to watch.
It doesn’t take this particular injustice any less seriously than segregation or Partition, but here, there’s an extraterrestrial element that some have missed in this season’s previous historicals. That said, the eventual arrival of some textbook Doctor Who monsters somewhat overbalances the measured pace of what goes before, with a lot of exposition crammed in before the climax.
Bolstered by some wintry and overcast location shooting, The Witchfinders sets a certain mood and then strides between its two major forms effortlessly, looking more like a standard New Series episode than anything else we’ve seen this season, without forsaking any of its particular vision. Even if it arrives at its finale a bit out of breath, it’s an episode that should please both new and newer fans.
Doctor Who Season 11, Episode 8 is available on BBC iPlayer until 9th June 2019.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– “I am not a witch.” Naturally, the Doctor gets accused of being a witch. Frankly, anyone who goes about waving a sonic screwdriver like a magic wand is going to look a bit suspicious in this setting. As well as Thirteen observing that this wouldn’t have happened to all the other fellas, we get a tacit admission from Savage (Becka, if you like) that it’s essentially to shut women up.
– The late reveal of the Morax comes much later than you would usually expect it, making this more an episode about the reality of living in the 17th century than about the particular monsters who interfere in that society. The idea of Pendle Hill being a prison is very Who, but that information is dispensed at a sprint, after the long walk in Willa’s shoes. Nevertheless, they and the mud-filled witches look properly spooky throughout.
– Give it up one more time for King James. It’s just like Alan Cumming to almost steal the show, with his terrifically funny and frightened performance. He could have been the Doctor himself once and he seizes his turn at guest-starring with gusto, whether fawning over Ryan or revealing his fears and insecurities in conversation with the captured Doctor.
– Callbacks have been thin on the ground this season, but the episode opens and closes with a couple of allusions to the Steven Moffat era. Graham says that Team TARDIS was supposed to be going to see Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation when they realise they’re in Bilehurst Cragg – Elizabeth was last seen in The Day Of The Doctor, becoming the Tenth Doctor’s missus. Meanwhile, Thirteen remarks in parting that a great man once said that any sufficiently advanced form of science is indistinguishable from magic. She means Arthur C. Clarke, but her previous self also used that quote in Season 9’s The Girl Who Died.
– “Otherwise, we’ll come back and strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger.” “Ezekiel.” “Tarantino!”