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Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Doctor Who 11-08: The Witchfinders (Quick Review)

Episode:848|Serial:284|Writer:Joy Wilkinson|Air Date:25-Nov-2018

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm sharing my thoughts on The Witchfinders, episode 848 of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who's had female writers and female directors before, but it's rare for an episode to feature both like this. In fact its only happened twice before in the series' history, both in the classic series: Enlightenment and Mark of the Rani. And Mark of the Rani was co-written by a guy.

Here's some other trivia which will get more interesting years from now when people have started forgetting it: Amazon Prime subscribers accidentally got to see the episode three days early in place of Kerblam!, which just happened to be an episode criticising Amazon. I guess now we know that the company's not run by witches at least.

There will be SPOILERS for the episode and earlier ones below, and if I'm feeling particularly precognitive I might even spoil future stories too! For instance, I'll tell you now that the long awaited four-part Star Trek: Destiny / Doctor Who crossover in series 15 will be a bit of a let down, but The Fourteen Doctors will be the best multi-Doctor story since Day of the Doctor.

If there's one thing this series of Doctor Who has been consistently (and surprisingly) good at, it's the way it's handled the introduction of the very first female Doctor. Sure it's perhaps less than ideal that it coincided with her being the most empathetic Doctor yet, but they've avoided all the cringe-worthy obvious jokes and generally not made a big deal out of it. But it was inevitable she was going to face sexism at some point, so I'm glad that they finally made an episode where her sex matters and I'm also glad they waited this long.

They also picked a good time for it, seeing as this is the first episode of the modern series to be both written and directed by women. Plus it's about 17th century witch trials, which weren't exclusively targeting women with a tendency to be aggressive and argumentative, but sure killed a lot of them. Incidentally, I was really hoping the writer would let the Doctor get out of her dunking all by herself using her escapology and breath holding skills, and then she did and I was happy! She was on good form in general this episode, yelling at authority figures and diving into freezing water to save a woman's life. Might not have been the best of times for her to be waving a wand though.

For a while it looked like the story was going to be the first true historical in 37 years of Doctor Who, and I would've had no problem with that at all, but as soon as that mud tendril came up it became obvious that there was something a bit witchy going on for real. This could've been a bit dodgy, seeing as you don't really want the folks dunking women to have any leg to stand on in these kinds of stories (unless it's by Monty Python), but they cleverly swerved around that by having the witch trials be a way for the real culprit to deflect blame away from themselves.

At first it seems like there's a chance Becka might be doing terrible things out of ignorance and good intentions, but the truth somehow makes her much worse and somewhat sympathetic as her murder spree was driven by desperation and panic over her own possession.

But when the truth came out things suddenly got a bit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the makeup department at least, and the shades of grey went out the window. Once the rubber mask was on it was quickly decided that the mud witches were bad people who needed locking away for a billion more years. Which seems kind of excessive now that I see it written down; the Doctor more than anyone knows what being locked up for billions of years feels like and I'm surprised she was so quick to inflict it on them again.

It was actually a nice change though for the Doctor to have straight up villains to defeat instead of having to set up a protest, or catch perfectly normal giant spiders, or feed a gremlin, or let a man get shot. Sure the real villain was also humanity again and the Doctor couldn't hope to put a stop to all the witch trials outside the village, but this feels like a satisfying win.

Incidentally the way the alien war criminals were distilled into a mud-like substance that could possess people and give them super powers sure seemed a lot like what happened to the Master in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. It worked better here though, partly because they bothered to put in a line to explain it. Plus the way the episode shifted into a goofy alien monster story at the 38 minute mark should've been really jarring (especially as it was all wrapped up 5 minutes later) but it worked for me as well, as the damage was already done when King James appeared and turned it into a goofy witch-hunting king story at the 8 minute mark.

When I saw Alan Cumming's face show up in that upcoming guest star trailer at the end of episode one I assumed he'd be playing the role of King James fairly seriously. I assumed wrong.

The guy's basically the Jack Robertson of the story (you know, the Trump clone from Arachnids in the UK), as he's a weird and powerful celebrity that's somewhere between antagonist, ally and victim. He even gets his close friend killed near the start and ruthlessly murders the main creature after they were already defeated at the end in a similar way. But his weirdness seemed to fit the story better I thought, plus he didn't feel like such a loose end afterwards as they gave him a bit of an epilogue. Also the fact that he's a historical character helps. I've no idea how accurate he was to the real person, he definitely came across like more of a cartoon character than Rosa Parks did, but the season's had a good track record so far so I'm willing to believe that the real King James would've tried to hit on Ryan all story as well. Plus they got the beard right.

He might not have been all that receptive to the Doctor's attempts to broaden his mind, seeing as he tried to drown her and everything, but at least he was fun. Plus we got a little more insight into the Doctor's beliefs, as she flat out says that she doesn't believe in Satan.

Doctor Who 2-09: The Satan Pit
Possibly because she killed him back in The Satan Pit. Or a demon claiming to be him anyway. Man that was a surprisingly good two-parter that one. Better than this story I reckon.

But this wasn't bad I thought. For one thing I liked how it successfully kept me guessing what was really up all the way up to when the rubber mask of exposition came on. Though it can't take all the credit for that, as after watching Kerblam! I can't even trust the friendly people who just want to help anymore. But the nice girl with the mysterious ritual and suspicious medicine turned out to be exactly what she claimed to be, a little bit of forgiveable betrayal aside, and she even got to survive the story as well.

I didn't even predict that Team Tardis themselves would be the eponymous witchfinders, or that Graham would get a cool hat with a bullet hole in it.

Graham maybe wasn't the most dominant companion this story, but he had his moments, deducing that berries lying far from a bush meant they were on the right trail and somehow figuring where they were in the universe by the shape of a hill. Though to be fair it's apparently a fairly famous hill, notorious for the witch trials that took place nearby in 1612, which is about when this episode took place. That puts this around a decade after that other episode with witches, The Shakespeare Code and 80 years before the better known Salem witch trials. The Pendle witches were hanged though, not ducked like they were in this. In fact the internet seems conflicted on whether witch ducking was ever really a thing, as ducking was generally used to punish rather than execute.

Anyway, overall I thought that for the most part this was very much a Doctor Who episode and then when the alien monsters came out it became even more of a Doctor Who episode, so I can't complain really. For me it was high-tier 'alright', and I'd rank it up near Kerblam! and The Ghost Monument. It ain't Blink, it ain't Sleep No More, it's not even The Christmas Invasion, it's just solid average Who with a stand out guest star and a cool hat.

Doctor Who will return with lots more mud and trees in It Takes You Away.

Comments are appreciated, even if I can't reply to any right now because the site broke with absolutely no clue to why and I haven't fixed it yet especially now that I fixed the reply button.


  1. Man that ["The Satan Pit"] was a surprisingly good two-parter that one.

    Yes, but it cost us a little bit of our souls because it's why they made "Love and Monsters".

    1. One of the benefits of starting Doctor Who with the Matt Smith era is that I know what David Tennant episodes to never watch.

  2. I thought this was one of the better episodes this series. It was quite grim and scary -- until the undead were explained, anyway -- James I was a hoot, and the Doctor was great. I predicted the Houdini bit a mile off, but I still loved it when it happened. One hundred percent classic Doctor.

    (And what a great episode that would be. The Doctor and Houdini!)

    The zombie witches reminded me of The Curse of Fenric too, and I always like to be reminded of The Curse of Fenric.

    When the Doctor said she didn't believe in Satan, I was sort of hoping she'd say something like "I know, because I've met him" but I can see why they didn't go that way.

    I am a bit surprised that the Doctor was trying to get to Elizabeth I's coronation, given their history, although I suppose from Liz's perspective the Doctor hasn't upset her yet, and -- it's just occurred to me -- maybe the Doctor deliberately led Team Tardis astray so as to avoid any possible awkwardness.

    1. One thing I like about the Doctor as a character is that she learned all her science from her alien education on Gallifrey, but all her skills from regular humans during her travels. She learned archery from William Tell, swordfighting from Cleopatra's bodyguard, Venusian aikido from... human nuns on Venus maybe?

      Also I think that as long as she avoids looking like David Tennant and keeps the number of people who know she's the Doctor to a minimum she'll be safe from Liz I from now on. Same with Queen Victoria and any other royalty that the Tenth Doctor pissed off. Plus I have to assume that any apparent Tardis weirdness that leads directly to an adventure to save the world from aliens really does have to be all the Tardis's fault, as my poor brain can't handle the coincidences otherwise.