Doctor Who: 11-08 “The Witchfinders” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
As much as I’d like to, I’ve just never got around to reading as many Doctor Who books as I’d have hoped. While I’ve read a good number of novels based around the show’s revival, there’s at least five I haven’t read for every one I have- and the less said of the classic Target novels and miscellaneous other novelised stories the better. One book that I’ve been meaning to read most is the First Doctor novel The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons, which is supposedly one of the more dark and challenging slices of Who around. So seeing promotional material for the eighth story of Doctor Who Series 11, The Witchfinders, I had high hopes that we’d have our third historical cracker in a row for this series.
While the aforementioned First Doctor novel was set around the Salem Witch Trials, The Witchfinders takes place a lot closer to home (well, if you live in or close to Britain!) in the sunny locales of Lancashire. Expecting to find themselves at the coronation of Elizabeth I, Team TARDIS find themselves instead wandering through a street party, all set for a jolly jaunt through Northern England. There’s happy people, dancing, and The Doctor even gets to indulge her love of apple bobbing. The jovial party atmosphere lasts about sixty seconds though, as the truth of the party is revealed- it’s the weekly Sunday Bilehurst Cragg witch trial celebration. The tone of the story quickly turns sour to match the mood, while a mysterious cloaked figure stalks The Doctor and the gang to the trial.
Presiding over the trial is Becka (Siobhan Finneran), widowed land-owner of Bilehurst, who commands the screen from her first line. It’s been a while since we’ve had a villainess, and a Doctor Who villainess is usually memorable. Becka is no different, a cruel but morally grey, corrupted soul who has completely caved to the paranoia of witchery and Satan (which many had in the real happenings). Becka has been sentencing everyone and everything, even horses, to death such is her sizeable fear of Satan closing in. While her story ends poorly for her, she at least is allowed to be sympathized with throughout and allows a nice tie in with the theme of there being no true black and white moral.
The Witchfinders is another success for this series in regards to creating a real feeling time and place. The production design is exemplary, as is the location work, with the imposing figure of Pendle Hill looming occasionally amongst the tightly filmed forests. Bilehurst Cragg is all mist and gooey tentacles in the mud, with barren trees as far as your eyesight stretches. As a vision of where evil could plausibly have flourished, it sells. Segun Akinola’s score develops the atmosphere in almost every scene (this is becoming a recurring theme for Segun!) , a recurrent low bass of a score filled with dread. Eerie almost cackling noises (surely not coincidental) are built in as a recurring motif, leaving the score for The Witchfinders as a true highlight.
This is a story I could see fitting in multiple eras of the show. Not least with the stumbling mud zombies being strangely reminiscent of the Haemovores from 1989’s Seventh Doctor yarn The Curse of Fenric, but the base story and feel is paced in such a way that just a number of tweaks would allow essentially any Doctor to step comfortably inside this, not least thanks to the universally unnatural and terrifying nature of the real life basis in the past. The Witchfinders still has enough of a unique Series 11 feel though, as is the way that Doctors writer Joy Wilkinson and director Sallie Aprahamian have crafted it as only the third female director and writer combo on the actual Doctor Who show (following 1983 Fifth Doctor story Enlightenment and 1985 Sixth Doctor story The Mark of the Rani) and together they allow Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen to flourish.
Jodie is really allowed to spread her wings a bit in this story. While there’s still an annoying tendency to have her overexplain or exposit merrily, Thirteen has to come face to face with her female appearing form for the first real time. The way the gender change has been handled so far has been perfect, so to see her face it head on in a situation that now becomes truly dangerous being a new woman offers a wealth of possibility, and The Witchfinders showcases some of Jodie’s finest moments so far. She’s got her usual energy, yet she appears even more keenly empathetic with more emphasis placed on her expressions, and seeing her robbed of her usual power to talk her way out of anything in this situation as she pitches off against the governess and King James I is frustrating but perhaps necessary. Hat’s off to Jodie too for being absolutely soaking wet for much of this and being as good as this. Given filming took place in March (which in Britain there was a lot of snow) she is a better professional than I could ever be!
I was wondering how long I’d take before taking on Alan Cumming’s performance as King James I, but it’s time. The atmosphere built up in the opening section of the story is wonderfully spooky, and when Cumming arrives on the scene unveiling as the cloaked figure that tone is largely shattered, for better or worse. Bursting into the scene and chewing up a buffet worth of scenery, Cumming is having the time of life clearly as he gallivants around, occasionally fawning at Ryan. Yet his performance actually grows increasingly more understated, shockingly toning back a bit.
Ever the showman, watching Cumming square off with Jodie Whittaker as Thirteen is about to be dunked is one of my favourite scenes of the series so far, the plea to King James to start investigating “the mysteries of the heart” rather than witches falling on deaf ears. Still, as the music rises, it’s terrific, making it ever more irritating that King James doesn’t listen. This is Thirteen with passionate steel about her. One of my favourite bits of the show pops up once more, with the idea of The Doctor hiding behind a title contrasted with King James hiding behind his bravado.
Whilst prior historicals Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were careful about setting out their stall of “no involvement” and careful treading early, The Witchfinders refreshingly begins to set this up, and then tosses it all away following the emotional initial witch dunking of an innocent grandmother. I loved seeing Team TARDIS at last in a situation where they can be moved enough to be able to change history, and then actually be able to follow through on it. Graham’s admittance he’d never heard of Bilehurst Cragg sowing that seed of doubt early on that this moment is fixed, despite Thirteen’s insistence to again not affect the fabric of history. It’s a truly well earned moment when the gang finally do get to be properly stuck in to a situation like this, remotely less time spent not interferring. Though with the mystery of Bilehurst Cragg, there is still a “hidden thing” revealed (such as Umbreen’s initial husband to be in Demons) that The Doctor and friends see vanish from history.
While Mandip Gill is afforded a nice moment with Jodie and guest star Tilly Steele as the kind, good hearted and brave Willa as she recounts being bullied at school to help ease Willa’s own bullying pain with Becka, who is her now estranged cousin, Tosin Cole is sidelined rather again this time around. As is largely Bradley Walsh, despite maybe one of my favourite Doctor Who visuals as Graham potters about the story in the Witchfinder General’s hat, occasionally barking some silly lines.
The eventual reveal that the evil occurring in Bilehurst Cragg is actually thanks to an escaping alien genocidal army called the Morax brings the story down rather, keeping an innate sense of silliness but just generally feeling rushed and un-needed. Could we not have maybe left it as some unexplainable force of pure malice? Some may have enjoyed this development (the make-up that Siobhan Finneran wears is…choice, to say the least) I just felt it added clutter to a story I was genuinely invested fully in. At least Jodie was wearing the Witchfinder hat then (I love that hat so much). The story’s prior seeming climax, built around The Doctor being ducked, is superbly staged with plenty of expressionate close ups and strings blaring (with a fantastic shot of poor Jodie crashing into the water for the second time!) but what follows is only downhill from there.
While we get a lovely, whimsical little punchline of the TARDIS vanishing in front of a bewildered King James and Willa (Those moments are always brilliant) the story had already been brought down a notch for me sadly.
The Witchfinders still manages to be a solid entry into this series, with never less than entertaining guest performances and a couple of series highlight moments, with a sprinkle of initially interesting villains and a consistently great look and sound for the duration. Still, I wonder about the alternate future where the tone of the opening minutes stayed throughout minus an alien villain. Plus, I had to fight the temptation to give this story full marks for Bradley Walsh in the hat anyway. Now next time though, I might get my wish for a bit of horror…