Another historical episode of Doctor Who Series 11. Yikes, right?
Hold on. Don’t run off just yet. This story is better than the historicals we’ve had so far, and is quite fun and engaging for the most part. However, it still ticks the obligatory social-justice boxes, which will inevitably put off quite a few viewers. So while I enjoyed it, I still can’t deny that it’s a part of the problems plaguing the current era of Doctor Who.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
The Witchfinders uses a creepy setting, an intriguing historical period, and renowned guest actors to good effect, creating a tale which is well worth watching for the most part. The few political notes it does strike, however, serve as jarring reminders of the recent downward trend of Doctor Who.
Content and Themes
This is The Episode Where the Doctor Talks About Her Gender. Granted, she only does it briefly…but it’s tiresome. It’s the standard, cringeworthy, “If I were still a man…” line that we’ve been hoping we wouldn’t hear ever since the casting of Jodie Whittaker was first announced. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but it would have been far more forgivable if the series as a whole had lacked a strong social-justice bent. As we all know by now, this is not the case. In fairness, the whole story is not built around the concept of “men are evil and women are awesome.” Sexism is not the core threat to be defeated. There’s a rather nebulous message about fear being the enemy, but in the end, the episode’s monster isn’t really a direct allegory for anything.
King James I, whose sexuality is a matter of lively debate among historians, is strongly implied to be gay in this episode. He openly flirts with Ryan (who politely rebuffs him), and seems to have a relationship with his bodyguard. A few double-entendres are tossed around.
What I Didn’t Like
I’ve already touched on my feelings about That Line above, as well as the feminist themes of the episode. Not all this content is bad, and I’ll explain why in the next section. In fact, none of it would really have been that problematic if it weren’t for the rest of this series being problematic.
The main issue with The Witchfinders is that’s an unbalanced story. For some reason, it’s significantly shorter than the other episodes this season, 45 minutes instead of 50. That might not seem like a big deal, but given that the story already puts ninety percent of its emphasis on atmosphere, character drama, and philosophizing, and ten percent on what the monster actually is and what it wants, those missing five minutes make a big difference. The central conflict itself is quite interesting, but once the mystery of the strange events plaguing Bilehurst Cragg has been solved, the story wraps up far too quickly and neatly via rushed exposition and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it final battle.
Ryan and Yaz are back to feeling superfluous in this entry. There’s a weak attempt to give Yaz a connection to the story via a hazy off-screen tale of school bullying in her childhood, but it ultimately falls flat. Ryan’s role is mainly that of straight man (no pun intended) to King James’ goofiness, so all he really does is ask questions and react without getting any real arc of his own.
What I Liked
Alan Cumming’s King James is…well, let’s face it, he’s basically a cartoon brought to life, but at least he’s a funny cartoon brought to life. The campy gay overtones of Cumming’s portrayal are cliche, but the dismissal with which he treats the “wee lassie” (a.k.a. The Doctor) was actually kind of hilarious. Jodie Whittaker did a great job portraying the grumpiness we’d expect from the Doctor under these circumstances. Perhaps I was meant to feel righteous anger at King James rather than amusement, but regardless, I enjoyed the scene. Graham also got some great comedic material in this episode as he was forced into the spotlight due to the Doctor’s battle with sexism. He was the only one of the three companions who actually got to stand out in The Witchfinders.
One of the best things about The Witchfinders was its inclusion of a female villain–a first for this series. More important than Lady Savage’s gender, however, are the nuances of her character, explored through her personal connection to her own victims in this story. There’s a bit more going on in her character arc than mere religious fanaticism–she’s simply trying to cope with things she doesn’t understand by drawing on her limited perspective of the world. This makes her slightly more sympathetic than your average two-dimensional Bible-thumper. The brief discussion of King James’ past serves his character in a similar fashion, as does his conversation with the Doctor prior to her “execution”. Also, on the subject of moral grey areas, I liked that there were apparent moments of doubt on the part of both the Doctor and her companions that the alleged “witches” were as innocent as they seemed, even if this was not foreshadowing for some major twist in the tale. Such a twist would have done wonders for this episode, but failing that, at least neither the heroes nor the villains were presented as one hundred perfect perfect or despicable. Even the sweet and innocent Willa falls from grace as she succumbs to pressure and betrays the Doctor.
Despite the episode’s hurried resolution, the alien threat was really quite interesting, which makes it even more unfortunate that we didn’t get to find out more about it. Also, the effects used to bring the mud creatures to life were exceptionally good. Whatever this series may lack in quality of writing, it still sports some of the best cinematography and special effects ever featured on Doctor Who.
I rate “The Witchfinders” more highly than both of the other historical episodes we’ve had this year. Unlike “Rosa,” it features the Doctor taking charge and being proactive instead of simply allowing history to happen. “Demons of the Punjab” completely sacrificed science fiction in favor of historical fiction, but “The Witchfinders” does include an actual alien menace–even if that menace only lasts about five minutes after the big reveal.
All that said, is this really a triumph for Series 11? If it had come earlier in the season, I might say yes, in the hope that there were better things in store later on. But since this is Episode 8 of 10 in a lackluster season, I can’t say that anymore. This is a good sci-fi story, but it’s not up to the standards Doctor Who needs to reach for if it is to go on being successful. A CW show can get away with a fair-to-middling episode. Doctor Who, especially now, cannot take that kind of risk.
Tomorrow I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Episode 9, “It Takes You Away.” For now, I’ll say that it was actually one of the best episodes of the season–perhaps even better than “Kerblam!” But what about the fact that it was also totally bizarre in spots? You’ll have to read my full review to find out…