WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.
If there was one thing I really didn’t expect in the latest series of Doctor Who, it was to extraordinary degree that I would love the historical episodes. Doctor Who has been no stranger to historical episodes in its now fifty five year tenure, but as with the overall lapse in quality in the show during the latter half of Moffat’s run as head-writer, so too did the historical episodes suffer. It’s a real shame, too, since the historical episodes have shown themselves time and time again to be some of the best episodes of the show. There’s the Unicorn and the Wasp, The Family of Blood two parter and even a Moffat written heart-wrenching story about Madam De Pompadour, The Girl in the Fireplace, just to name a few. So, it’s with the upmost joy that I confirm that Doctor Who historical episodes are phenomenal once again. Each new step into the past has been brilliant. From Rosa to the The Demons of the Punjab the historical stories have only gone from strength to strength. The Witchfinders stands as another worthy addition to this season’s fantastic historical stories.
The episode begins with the Doctor and Team Tardis exploring the village of Bilehurst Cragg. In an apt development, considering Bilehurst Cragg sounds like a place straight out of Dungeons and Dragons, the local populace are on a witch-hunt led by the local lady of the land Becka Savage. As the witch trials escalate in violence and the Doctor wades through a mystery conspiracy of tree roots and monstrous zombies, Team Tardis find themselves in the company of the greatest witch-hunter of them all: King James I.
Right, let me start with this: Alan Cumming’s performance as King James I alone makes this episode an essential watch for this series. Cummings is loving every second he’s on screen and I loved watching him. In his role as the King of Scotland turned King of England, Cumming excels, creating a humorous exaggerated persona of a suspicious and profoundly curious man, seeking answers in faith and meaning in a world that seems to be surrounded in magic. However, the performance also shows a deep respect and understanding of James’ inner turmoil and struggle, something that really feeds into his speech with the Doctor and his strong relationship with Ryan.
Speaking of James and Ryan, this episode is really great for the level of darkness and mature themes it throws at the audience. Within the first ten minutes, we watch a woman drown and learn that Lady Savage has murdered over thirty five people and has had all the horses in the area shot. I love the unflinching look that the writing team have brought to the historical settings this series, refusing to shy away from the darker issues of history like this. Speaking of, King James even calls Ryan a ‘nubian prince’ which, whilst incredibly questionable, really does deepen the relationship between the two characters, especially at the end of the episode, where he asks Ryan to join him. Seriously, I can write an essay on how great James’ character is.
Just like I’m sure a lot of people will be writing an essay on this episode finally touching on something many other Doctor Who fans considered when Jodie Whittaker was first cast as the Doctor: a plot-line involving sexism. When starting the series, I was indeed expecting a few sexist jokes at the Doctor’s expense or the audience’s, mainly relating back to my memories of Moffat’s own cringe-ridden dialogue (‘skirt that’s a bit too tight’ anyone). To my relief, the series had handled Whittaker’s transition very well and this episode was actually improved by a direct focus on this. It shows the Doctor being hindered by sexism, but it’s handled well enough, with James I being just too entrenched in the ways of the time to think any differently and the Doctor’s character remaining consistent throughout. It turns the sexism into less of a generic preach about the follies of man’s pride and more another obstacle which the Doctor beautifully somersaults over with her usual intelligent demeanour.
Plus, can’t hate the story all that much when it gave us the line of the Doctor being ‘the most evil witch in Christendom’. That was awesome. Admittedly, only a slightly better title than ‘the oncoming storm’ but still, very nice.
Speaking of evil witches, Siobhan Finneran is perfect as the villainous Lady Savage. Developed, respectful and cruelty whilst still being portrayed in a human light. I loved Finneran’s performance in Happy Valley and here, she shows just how versatile she can be as an actor. The real villains of the episode are also, finally, monsters. In an actual twist that works in the light of past episodes, Becka has been infected by the monstrous spores of a warrior race named the Morax. From there, sadly, the episode does descend into a generic conclusion but the journey to the final moments is still worthwhile.
I’m actually surprised to say I have very little bad to talk about with this episode. The conclusion does feel rushed, the monsters are underwhelming and the cliff-notes for the episode probably seem like a palette swap repeat of the plot for The Unquiet Dead, another historical episode with Charles Dickens. Despite all that, however, coming away from the episode I had a big grin on my face and gleefully confessed that it was Doctor Who. It was Doctor Who in the exact way Doctor Who should be. Sure, there’s monsters that are defeated really easily by burning torches but there are actually monsters and the conclusion, whilst rushed, still had a final statement regarding character and actions: James I burning the Queen of the Morax resulting in the Doctor refusing a chance to teach him about the universe.
As far as episodes of Doctor Who go, The Witchfinders feels like a quality of Doctor Who that should be aspired to every week in the new season in that, despite its flaws, it still proudly bear the mantle, giving great lessons on history and an exploration of character’s fears and faiths. Most of all, though, Witchfinders is a fun romp, a great outing for the Doctor and a near perfect story.
The Witchfinders: 4.5/5