'The Witchfinders' entices with the promise of an intriguing historical period, but deflates quickly with boring villains and a vacuous plot.
Before tonight, Doctor Who hadn’t really addressed the topical nature of Jodie Whittaker’s landmark casting as Thirteen. The latest incarnation of the Doctor becoming a woman has actually been glossed over in plot – and rightfully so. While her take on the character has yet to really light my world on fire, I’ve enjoyed her well enough moment to moment, and her gender has been absolutely at rock bottom of any concerns I’ve had about a series which has, frankly, been plagued with sub-par writing and character development. But ‘The Witchfinders’, penned by Joy Wilkinson, sets out to change that, with an episode that seems chiefly concerned with addressing sexual discrimination instead of telling an interesting story.
All of the components for a great story were there. Set in the early Seventeenth Century, around the era of witch hunting fervour, ‘The Witchfinders’ finds The Doctor, Graham, Yasmin and Ryan in a deeply-foreboding Lancashire village, where paranoia and fear run rife and the very earth shifts below their feet. To kick off with some praise, the episode is visually splendid. The rural woodland which comprises most of the runtime is hauntingly created, with an authentic damp and earthy aroma so potent you can practically smell it, and some gorgeous Silent Hill-esque fog. The period clothing, which ranges from peasant rags to the lavish cloak of King James I (guest star Alan Cumming; more on him later!), is dazzling, and Segun Akinola’s score once again underscores moments of tension beautifully. The creatures of the episode, the disappointingly one-note Morax, are pretty terrifying too – it’s just a shame that they weren’t very threatening. There were some standout scenes – basically any part which featured the witch-dunking trial, which felt painfully real – but on the whole it was mostly middling fare, let down by some truly toe-curling dialogue.
Our quartet were fairly weak this time around unfortunately, especially Jodie Whittaker, who stumbles on the heavy lifting as she finds herself accused of being a witch (with her waving around the Sonic Screwdriver like a wand, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner!). Even Graham didn’t get much to do apart from look mildly uncomfortable (and Bradley Walsh plays it like he’s caught wind of a particularly bad fart) as misogynistic remarks were flung all about the place. However, the guest cast was pretty strong, with the standout being Alan Cumming’s brilliantly hammy James I, a character who is simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, but never boring. Siobhan Finneran plays matriarchal villainess Becka with enough menace to make her sudden transformation into a hideous, prosthetic alien queen just about bearable, and Tilly Steele as local apothecary Willa provides the necessary straight woman to drive the plot. “Satan” is the buzzword of the episode, but I’d advise not playing the Doctor Who drinking game with this one – you will die.
A quick word on the social justice of the week (or SJOTW as I may start calling it). Whilst it was undoubtedly necessary to touch on the misogynistic connotations of the witch hunts, some of the Doctor’s dialogue to this end was patronising in the extreme. I don’t doubt for a moment that a male incarnation would have also fallen under suspicion for witchcraft, being as the Doctor is a literal alien first, and a gender second. As usual the message they were trying to peddle just comes across as overly laboured, and Doctor Who is starting to become a bit torturous to watch as a white male, because it seems like no matter who we are, we are somehow the actual villains of every episode. Perhaps instead of focusing on how history has set precedents for division, a show like this should emphasise the ways in which he can work together to co-operate for a better future? (So long as it’s not more pandering dreck like that pregnant man in Episode 5.)
But on the whole, ‘The Witchfinders’ was just a very average episode of Who. A stronger emphasis on action over activism would lift this series out of the doldrums, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sundays. Watch the trailer for the next episode, ‘It Takes You Away’, here.