The Witchfinders Review

(89 comments)

The cynical account would be that this avoided endorsing the idea that witch hunters had some valid points, and so is within the context of the Chibnall era borders on being a triumph. The more considered account would be that this retains many of the Chibnall era’s most annoying tics, but generally de-emphasizes them while succeeding at finding some new spins on old standards, which is to say that it works out more or less like the best case for the era.

At its heart it offers “what if spooky Doctor Who but with Alan Cumming camping it up throughout. The flaw here is that there’s not really a reason for these things to combine; King James’s arrival is only vaguely motivated and the plot really doesn’t particularly need him. His only role seems to be to keep the script from just being a kind of dreary mud zombies story. But while there’s a sloppiness to how Cumming is worked into the episode, he’s blatantly the best thing about it. Doctor Who works off of contrasts, and the gloomy folk horror of the plot along with Cumming’s wanton consumption of the scenery is an effective one. That it’s thinly justified isn’t a huge issue; something is always thinly justified in a fifty minute episode.

More to the point, the mud zombies kinda needed the help. They’re not bad, but it’s telling that their name, history, and plan are introduced and then dealt with inside of the last ten minutes, and that this, while slightly jarring, does not really feel like it detracts from them. They’re very “standard Doctor Who stuff,” and their abrupt reversion from spooky atmospherics to a completely standard explanation for this sort of thing is fine so long as they’re functioning as a platform for other things to happen. So the story needs a King James of some sort.

Thankfully, the King James it goes with is delightful. Doctor Who fans have, of course, known that Alan Cumming fits well with Doctor Who stuff since 1993, but at last we have him in the series proper. But he’s bolstered by the bold decision to have King James be, to put it bluntly, fucking terrible. The ideology of hero worship is probably the biggest of the millstones around the celebrity historical, and throwing the Doctor with a historical figure who’s revealed to be a complete shit is tremendously refreshing. Cumming, meanwhile, is capable of taking a character whose every trait is negative and making him entertaining without any redemption arc whatsoever. An episode built entirely around him would probably be annoying, but balancing him with mud zombies is exactly the sort of contrast that makes good Doctor Who, and ultimately if you stick the result you can handwave the setup.

This also marks the first time anyone has thought to handle Jodie Whittaker by giving her a talented co-star and letting her have a bunch of big scenes with them. While still waiting for an iconic hero moment, the exchange with King James when she’s tied up is easily her best scene this season, followed, really, by the scene of her about to be drowned. I’ve seen people claim Whittaker gets acted off the screen with Cumming, and that’s an entirely justifiable claim, but she’s also elevated by his presence. More to the point, though, she’s actually given an opportunity to act—to work in terms of character and motivation instead of “how should I stomp around a spaceship wincing in pain?” That she’s not the best actor on the screen pales in significance to the basic fact that she’s getting to play the Doctor as a person instead of as a plot function. In a shocking twist, taking the Doctor and a good actor and having them argue makes good television, and by shocking I mean “holy shit Chibnall, even John Nathan-Turner understood that how did it take you until your eighth fucking episode?”

So what we have is the awkward spectacle of Doctor Who being a massive relief when it manages to be basically competent and do the things that we expect from Doctor Who. This is the first season in memory whose trad instincts are its strongest ones. The Witchfinders should feel like a disposable filler episode with a good guest performance. Instead it’s a season highlight. That’s a dire state of affairs, albeit one that isn’t this episode’s fault. This is perfectly fine. There’s nothing major to complain about except for the fact that this is cause for celebration.

  • At last, we get a major incident of sexism directed against the Doctor. I say “at last,” but it’s not as though this is something I was looking forward to. Still, it had to happen and was done tolerably, being treated both as an aberration and as an annoyance more akin to the sonic screwdriver not working on wood. It also helps, I suspect, that it’s in an episode written by a woman and one in which there’s a narrative purpose. Obviously an episode called The Witchfinders needs to have one of the main cast be accused of witchcraft, and given that it has to be the Doctor. So gender-based discrimination is kind of baked into the premise here, and it’s thus good to get it over with.
  • I also largely liked how James’s homosexuality was handled: left clear without an actual “let’s talk about it” moment, with his pursuit of Ryan not being played as “ew the straight boy is being hit on by Teh Gays” while still being funny.
  • The standard irritations of this era are still in place, though. The companions bumble around without enough to do to justify three of them, leaving all of them feeling thin. The weird focus on making the Doctor an impotent figure continues, with her hero moment being immediately swallowed by her having to glare at James for killing the alien. Which, I mean, I’ll even accept that the Doctor can’t depose King James in a huff, but once again we have a focus on the Doctor as a powerless figure that cannot affect change beyond stopping monsters. This remains for me, an appalling choice for 2018.
  • Although this is maybe a poor episode to stage that complaint on given that the Doctor does actually take a clear moral stand against witch trials. Which, again, I mostly just feel disgust that we’re in such bad shape that “the Doctor takes a moral stance against witch trials” feels like a fucking accomplishment.
  • As delightful as her scene with King James was, the same problem afflicts it. Her efforts to appeal to him are weirdly devoid of a moral appeal; it’s based entirely on a rhetoric of personal improvement; “come to terms with your own damage and stop fearing what you don’t understand,” as opposed to actually standing up to him. There’s aspects of this I like; it fits in with the more empathetic Doctor, which I think is a good way to use the Doctor’s gender. But there’s still an underlying disinterest in confronting evil here that’s very clearly just a thing now, and I hate it.
  • One character trait I am kind of into is this Doctor’s interest and respect for spirituality and religion. Pity that this time it manifested by suggesting that Judaism is virulently anti-witchcraft and that it’s only the New Testament that fixed this.
  • The direction and music were nice, though. Akinola had fun with “moody rural shit,” and Sallie Aprahamian’s direction, while occasionally over the top with things like the mud spatters on camera, was often good—most of the pans across spooky trees and the like were delightful.
  • Podcast this week with Annie Fish, returning after her delightful appearance talking about Empress of Mars last year.
  • Also, if you haven’t checked out the new Eruditorum Press Discord server, it’s an utterly delightful place full of great conversations, and I highly recommend it.
  • My biggest regret this episode? The lack of any “I would like a hat like that” jokes around the Witchfinder General hat. Way to pass up the wankiest continuity reference imaginable, Chibnall.

Ranking

  1. Demons of the Punjab
  2. The Witchfinders
  3. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  4. Kerblam!
  5. Rosa
  6. Arachnids in the UK
  7. The Ghost Monument
  8. The Woman Who Fell to Earth

 

Comments

Simon Blake 1 week, 6 days ago

"Hey team, I've had a great idea! The Doctor is a WOMAN, right?"
"Right."
"Let's have her go to witchfinder times! And obviously we get to, y'known, tie her up. Mmm.. And DUCK her!"
"Where's that hill up north that had the witches? Pingu?"
"Google says Pendle. You there, knock us out a script. Oh, and put some aliens in it, nothing too expensive we blew the budget on that digital thing earlier in the season."

This is a conversation I would expect of the Doctor Who production team when they have solidly run out of *good*, creative, original ideas. What's next? A clip show?

Seriously at this point I wouldn't be surprised if the New Year "special" is a clip show of the best bits of the season so far. Should fill five minutes.

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Alex Watts 1 week, 6 days ago

I'm not sure that's quite fair - there's certainly stuff going on under the surface in the script. Points to be made about fear, and how it can make you cruel or you can try to understand it.

The tragedy of this series is not that the production team isn't trying. It's that they visibly are, and semi-regularly cock it up on a grand scale.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

Bit harsh. Joy Wilkinson is from Lancashire and grew up in the shadow of Pendle Hill hearing stories about the Pendle witches, so really this post reflects badly on you rather than on her.

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Simon Blake 1 week, 6 days ago

I explicitly wasn't criticising the individual writer. It's the crushing obviousness of the idea that grates. If I understand how the show works at all it's as the showrunner having the "shape" of a season in mind from the get go, then instructing their selected stable of writers to go away and deliver something that fits the brief, including doing rewrites large and small to maintain a consistent tone and build towards a climax.

But hey, if it's your contention that Chibnall isn't doing anything of that sort, and is simply filling the season with whatever unconnected stories he gets from the BBC-mandated box-ticking collection of writers with no particular overall authorial control, well, at this point that sounds depressingly credible.

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Andrew 1 week, 6 days ago

To be fair to the writer of this story, she says she had a kid's book about the Pendle Witches when she was 10, and always wanted to write about it.

It does sound as if Chibnall got a team of writers together and asked them what they'd like to write about, or what they'd do if they had a TARDIS. (Pendle witches! Rosa Parks!) Without really giving a moment's thought about whether they could be made into good Dr Who stories (and to be honest, visiting Rosa Parks is a really bad idea for a Dr Who story- although the general audience seems to have loved it. Mind you, the general audience loves 'I'm a celebrity' too, so that's saying nothing).

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

Doesn't seem a huge amount of point commenting on this now given that S.B. is no longer with us, but -- exactly. In the case of Vinay Patel's episode, too, it sounds like he pitched them Partition of India and then found out they had a similar idea in the works. So it's clearly, demonstrably not the case that Chibnall just hands ideas to people.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

This comes across as a shade snobby towards the general audience, it must be said. And I say this as someone who's no fan of "I'm a Celebrity" either!

I still maintain that if Rosa went down well with black communities and meant a lot to a lot of kids and parents, the rest of us don't really have a right to say it sucked donkey balls. We can criticise its politics, as we ought to do, in fact as we do even with the things we love most, but there've been comments week in week out about "I hate this programme and crave its death" or how every episode of the season has been morally bankrupt and I just think, have you guys *seen* how much episodes like Rosa and Demons meant to people?

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Andrew 1 week, 6 days ago

Yes, sorry, you're right about Rosa. My daughter (aged 6) seems to really like it. She has re-watched it endless times, and has most probably learnt a lot from it.

My clumsy point was aiming to say that Rosa doesn't work well as a Dr. Who story (i.e. it has no real agency for the Doctor because it all has to belong to Rosa; Rosa Parks can't do the usual 'team up with the Dr to thwart the bad guy' that celebrity historicals have hitherto done; the 'alien threat' seemed to be added on for the sake of adding the alien-threat-of-the-week; we know how the story has to end, and so on).

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

Glad to hear your daughter liked it & I'm sorry for snapping at you, especially as you make some fair points.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 6 days ago

"Rosa" did not suck. That's the point: it was one of the only ones which did not suck.

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Derik 1 week, 6 days ago

Doctor Who did a clip show. It was called Turn Left and I hated it on first viewing and have grown to love it more on every subsequent one.
(Technically not a clip show but definitely structured like one. Also structured like a Torchwood episode which... "Doctor Who without the Doctor.")

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Simon Blake 1 week, 6 days ago

In what sense was "Turn Left" a clip show? No footage from previously-shot episodes was used, it was all new stuff. That was, IIRC, rather the point. "Life without the Doctor - what would that be like?"
You bring up an interesting point: without the 13th, what would life be like?
- Karl would be dead, but Grace would be alive, and Tzim-Sha would be Prime Minister or whatever wherever he's from
- possibly one pilot rather than two would have won the race to Desolation
- arguably Rosa Parks wouldn't have had her moment, but given the history, someone else would have instead
- the spiders would have been dealt with sooner or later, and probably Noth's bodyguard would still be alive, although arguably a few more people would have been killed
- Eve, Ronan, Durkas, Yoss, Astos and Mabli would all still be alive, because they wouldn't have taken a detour to rescue the Doctor and wouldn't have been attacked by the Pting.
- absolutely nothing would have changed on the border of India and Pakistan
- the oppressive 1% of the population of Kandoka would have been murdered by an uprising of the dirt-poor working class, and the Kerblam corporation would have gone out of business instead of continuing to grudgingly employ humans in meaningless drudge work.
- after a few more executions Becka Savage would have come to the attention of a local witchfinder (is that village on an island or something?) and likely have been burnt or hanged. Not sure what that would have done to the plans of the Morax Queen. Potentially the earth gets taken over in 1612, I guess?

I mean by the standards of normal Who, and especially by the demonstrated counterfactual in "Turn Left", it's not a LOT of difference, with the possible exception of the last one. Yay! Something positive to say about "The Witchfinders"!

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 6 days ago

What? Not everyone in Tsuranga died! Yoss, Mabli, and Durkas survived.

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Grapes 1 week, 6 days ago

Cummings was fun.

But yeah, the powerlessness you mention is becoming really obnoxious. Doctor Who often plays the 'mustn't change history' card, but generally as a narrative crutch. Under Chibnall it feels like cowardly hand-wringing conservatism. A woman's being drowned in a lake but mustn't interfere because history. Dither until granny's dead, then jump in and haul out her body. Ugh. I think there's room for a vacillating, ineffectual version of the Doctor; I just really really hate that this coincides with the first female Doctor. Predictable, yes, but still dispiriting.

Cummings aside, this is also without doubt the most humourless season of Who since the reboot. Worse than humourless - joyless. I was about to write that Whittaker, fine as she is, can't deliver a funny line, but after wracking my brains I can't think of a single truly funny line she's been given.

Sigh. In a better timeline we're all watching Olivia Colman as a drily funny, unapologetically weird, bomb-throwing anarchist Doctor.

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tachyonspiral 1 week, 6 days ago

Smashing alt-right blogger's vortex manipulator was comedy gold.

51 the pentagonal number got a laugh out of me ("You could have picked a bigger number!"). Banksy jokes were fine.

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FezofRassilon 1 week, 6 days ago

There have been funny moments, like erasing Ryan's phone and the Ed Sheehan joke, but I think I've probably laughed fewer times this series than I do in the average Moffat episode. Granted, Moffat sometimes focuses too much on comedy, so I don't mind a more serious series, but I thought it would be more fun and colourful. The teasers we got were all exploding with colour, where did that go?

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John 1 week, 6 days ago

El's sentence complaining about crowded TARDIS and impotent Doctor sounds exactly like what someone might have said about the 5th Doctor, save the pronouns.

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(Not That) Jack 1 week, 6 days ago

I've certainly been making that comparison since the second episode at least...

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Andrew 1 week, 6 days ago

Yes, and this series is really *dark* (in terms of lighting). It's actually hard to make out what's happening sometimes, on my rubbish monitor.

It's almost as if this series was made by someone who thought the only thing wrong with Warriors of the Deep was that all the corridors were too brightly lit.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

Ouch, that is one devastating burn but I love it.

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Lambda 1 week, 6 days ago

The 'mustn't change history' card doesn't even apply. It's based on avoiding paradoxes - if you don't like some bad history, so you go and change it, that bad history no longer exists to motivate you to go and change it, so it doesn't get changed... With saving someone who you don't know but is an innocent person being drowned, there's no difference between doing that in 1600 or 2600. If you save her, that's not going to stop you from traveling to this time period, coming across her and saving her.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 6 days ago

I dislike all time travel stories in which people can actually change the past. My favourite time travel story is still probably Prisoner of Azkaban.

And 12 Monkeys, of course.

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Daibhid C 1 week, 5 days ago

Comedy is, of course, a personal thing, but to me, one of the saving graces of the season so far has been "At least Jodie's funny".

(I agree she hasn't been given great material. It's all in the delivery.)

IMO, she's even funny without any lines at all. Her look of absolute devastation when Kerblam's Head of People is explaining they can't have a go on the conveyor belts is priceless.

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tachyonspiral 1 week, 6 days ago

One of the better ones this season, but as you say, all the standard irritations and the usual problems.

Series body count is disproportionately gay.

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Michael 1 week, 6 days ago

‘The Witchfinders should feel like a disposable filler episode with a good guest performance.’

This is ultimately my issue with the whole season so far. Every season has those episodes half way through which I imagine for the casual viewer must seemingly be the ones where the writing team have decided to phone it in for the week and serve as a minor distraction half way between the *good* RTD/Moffat episodes which bookend the start and finish of each season. The midseason episodes - which is not remotely to say all of these are technically bad - they’re just the ones I imagine most people skip over when they’re watching the show on something like Netflix, in order to get to the episodes with the big high points. Except in this season, every episode has on some level felt like one of those midway episodes. Personally, I think the show has actually suffered for the removal of arcs, as at least there’s sense the show is moving towards some dramatic crescendo, so even the more naff episodes on the most basic level when watching week in week out can at least be considered an exercise in patient deliberation, knowing that the show is seemingly building towards something akin to a high point or some dramatic revelation/resolution.

It’s fine Chibnall wanting to do the show in a more procedural style, but even the more watchable kinds of procedurals (for example I’m currently watching Luther) have underlying tensions built over multiple episodes. Chibnall era Doctor Who doesn’t. As an aside, for what it’s worth, any anticipation for the season finale has already been spoiled by the release of the blurb for the New Year’s Day episode. Of course, dramatic impact isn’t remotely the only thing I look for in TV I like watching, but in the case of this season, it’s as good a reason as any, without getting into the shows shitty politics, as to why I’m not even getting the most basic level of enjoyment out of this trash.

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Kate Orman 1 week, 6 days ago

I am desperate to point out to someone that the episode confused the ducking stool with the "swimming" of accused witches.

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FezofRassilon 1 week, 6 days ago

I'll admit I just couldn't find the word "ducking" scary, as I associate it with autocorrect.

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Derik 1 week, 6 days ago

I validate your observation!

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Dan L 1 week, 6 days ago

Thank you for pointing this out. I've learned something today.

I was glad they at least said they hanged the witches rather than burning them.

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Derik 1 week, 6 days ago

Did I misread this episode or did part of the episode's denouement have the Doctor outing Yaz as gay?
Yaz mentioned her year of hell and one particular girl who made her life hell with no specifics whatsoever... and the Doctor throws it back at Becca by saying that the girl made Yaz's life hell to "Deflect Attention from Herself."

I think the episode was actually doing a tastefuly subdued condemnation about the biggest homophobes being the ones with gay skeletons in their closet. James 1/4 is gay... so he clothes himself in unchallengable piety by starting a holy crusade. Evil landowner Becca used to do demi-pagan earth magic rituals before she got elevated to nobility and then when cutting down the Sacred Tree on the Hill for (ostensibly) selfish reasons (though really a self-denial behavior) she was struck down by evil... so she turned it around and killed 30 other women of basically her own same origins in order to try and.... bargain with the devil. "See how pious I am, you have to let me go!" Likewise Yaz's bully (presumably gay but possibly of some other target-minority status) made Yaz's life hell so that people would not look at HER. The need for the people from persecuted minorities to attack other minorities (or their own stripe or other) in order to secure their position.

Ah, here's the quote: "A girl called Izzy Flynn bullied my friend Yaz so no one would pick on Izzy. That's what you're doing; pointing the finger at other people so nobody points it at you." Plus the later pronouncement "It's in you, just as it's in them! And none of you can hide it anymore!"

Which, really... isn't that not-Trump's jam in Arachnids in the UK? He feels guilty so he strikes out at the Spiders and tried to claim the role of virtuous hero. Oh my God... we have A THEME! An actual THEME! One which you can also place (albeit less prominently) in Rosa and Demons of the Punjab!
THE SEASON IS DOING SOMETHING RIGHT!!!!!11111

Final notes: I like Grant cheerfully threatening King James the 1/4 not to erase these events from history by killing the villagers, or they will return and strike him down. It NEEDED to be done, the Doctor clearly forgot it and Grant just treated it like a tiny bit of tidying-up that he approached with deliberately hammy relish.
Also: Morax is the name of a Goetic demon. Just fun to note.

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Derik 1 week, 6 days ago

Or less subtly the ethos of this season may be: Raging homophobic demagogues are probably gay/trans/doubting themselves and trying to clothe themselves in self-righteous piety so that no one can accuse THEM.

Which... fair stripe... is something that has been proven true so many times that it is almost a joke in the Republican party. Is that true among the Tories as well?

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FezofRassilon 1 week, 6 days ago

But is this the message doctor who really wants to be sending? That LGBT people are the real homophobes?
It's just Kerblam! all over again, big structural injustices that go unchallenged, but have one of the oppressed act out in a way that makes them the villain instead of the wider society.

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Derik 1 week, 6 days ago

I would characterize the message as "zealots and demagogues are guilty of the things they accuse others of."
I'm not thrilled with throwing a gay historical figure under the bus but by making him SO CAMP... they are making it SO OBVIOUS what they are doing. EVERYONE around them knows what they are trying to hide. Their attacking behavior isn't fooling anyone, it just makes people afraid to attack them in turn.

I just feel like... there is a version of history where Witchfinders, the Spanish Inquisition of the Pink Purges BELIEVED in their cause. The version where they were operating on bad and harmful ideology, but at least not dishonest ideology. And this puts a lie to that. This sort of purging is ALWAYS begun dishonestly, always for other reasons and always as a means of exerting power.
Timid but devout village rectors do not see evidence of witchcraft and say "Ah well, I am a nonviolent person who feels that it it wrong to kill but we must all gt torches and burn these women to death." Because that is not their nature; they would handle it otherwise. The people who start this shit do so to consolidate their own power, wealth or position and religion and ideology are ALWAYS just the justifications they cloak that behavior in. ALWAYS.
ALWAYS. If their religion did not require burning witches then they would come up with a sanitary code, or accuse them of disloyalty, or miscegenation.... Just make up a reason, because it is an excuse to do something they already want to do.

And that is worth saying.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

"Yaz mentioned her year of hell and one particular girl who made her life hell with no specifics whatsoever... and the Doctor throws it back at Becca by saying that the girl made Yaz's life hell to "Deflect Attention from Herself.""

I saw that more as an insecurity thing, and Yaz's references to "fear and dread" as a rather tasteful way of discussing anxiety and depression - in fact the brief Yaz/Willa stuff we got I found rather moving. But you might be right.

"Morax is the name of a Goetic demon. Just fun to note."

Nice one.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 6 days ago

I was initially very confused by this post. I was trying to think how someone could be a quarter gay.

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Derik 1 week, 6 days ago

James is simultaneously "James the IV of Scotland" and "James the I of England and Ireland." Because there had been 4 prior Scottish kings named James but no prior British or Irish kings. Historians literally refer to him as "James the IV and I" as his formal reigning name.
I did not know that until this episode when I looked it up and I am STILL giggling.
If you tried to put that in a story people would think it was bad satire.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

He was James the VI of Scotland, fwiw.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 6 days ago

Yes, I knew that, and I actually think we should refer to him by the higher number, as we do with Elizabeth.

It's just that you used Arabic numerals instead of Roman and I kept thinking of fractions, as in fractions of gayness.

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prandeamus 1 week, 6 days ago

James II was technically James II of England and VII of Scotland. However, the agreement is that any future monarch of the UK - should we remain intact - will have the higher number. Should there ever be another King James he will be King James VIII of both England and Scotland, and there will never be James III of England.

James V of England hangs out in the Eleven Day Empire along with Faction Paradox and L. Miles.

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Derik 1 week, 5 days ago

I have no intention us using that but may I borrow James V in that capacity if I think of an appropriate story?

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prandeamus 1 week, 5 days ago

I certainly have no objections, but you can email me at this user name AT btinternet.com if you want to share the story.

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tachyonspiral 1 week, 6 days ago

Gotta say, i was a bit confused by how cuddly James was. Would have expected the response to Graham to be less "Oh, you've read my Bible!" and more "You presume to threaten your king?"

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 6 days ago

At the end? I think at the point the King was scared shitless of the TARDIS team and had realised he was not "their" King at all.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

An odd one this -- for me it trails behind the other two historicals for a few reasons (it engages less seriously with the history it's portraying, it's less moving and emotionally affecting, it's a whole lot whiter, it's got more stock alien tropes: none of these are necessarily awful in themselves but together they do make it feel like quite a step back). I am definitely a big fan of silly and campy fun involving Alan Cumming - who is absolutely magnificent, one of the best and hammiest guest stars the show has had since, idk, Soldeed - but you wonder if it would have done the series favours to have it earlier in the season, as though taking the RTD template of the celebrity historical and slightly blowing it open (as El observes, by problematising the 'celebrity' in question) and then allowing the show to progress past that to stories like Rosa and Demons which are much more sobering takes on history. On the other hand, Rosa was such good press for the show in general in the Ep 3 slot and it's hard to imagine this episode having quite the same impact, so I can see why they went in early for the big "this is how we treat the past" mission statement.

In fact it's interesting that this was originally meant to be the middle historical (Ep. 6) with Demons of the Punjab as Ep. 9. That makes a great deal of sense because the Doctor's haranguing them about not interfering in history *here* is just met with "okay, these are the rules, are you sure though, even if something isn't right" blah blah, whereas in Punjab they know the rules SO WELL that they're all able to join in with a chorus of "no interfering" - it's quite clearly meant to come after at least a couple of historical adventures. But on the other hand you could argue that it's a form of progress to go from the more non-interventionist philosophy in Rosa and Demons to at least some form of interfering in this story, which would justify placing it third of the three.

(On the topic of reordering episodes this season, I find it a bit damning that you could more or less shuffle any of them around except perhaps the first 4 - and even then Rosa could easily be taken out of that sequence. Arguably the same is true of Series 9 and bits of Series 10 to an extent, but S9 in particular is so tight thematically and has the episodes mirror each other across the season so strongly that it doesn't seem as much of a problem. A couple of additional oddities the series order raises - 3 very white episodes in a row with Kerblam!, this and It Takes You Away, after a relatively diverse first half of the season; and the strange optics of having two episodes back-to-back that are predominantly set in woods and/or involve folkloric horror).

Otherwise ... good to see a story you could only tell with the Thirteenth Doctor, I suppose; nice direction and score; and I love the ridiculous visual of a mud-monster wearing the 17th century wig, which almost makes the inclusion of the Morax worth it. Actually on that last point, I'd argue that the mud zombies probably got in the way -- this story should either have been a totally straight, dark reflection of the witch trials, sobering and serious and powerful, OR a fun campy romp that has folkloric horror, creepy imagery and a very flamboyant monarch ... but both together? It can't quite support the tonal whiplash of "serious adult drama" and "the Gatiss model of Doctor Who" and probably should have plumped for one of them like Demons of the Punjab did.

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Tom B 1 week, 6 days ago

Actually,, I'd say this isn't a story that you could only tell with the 13th Doctor. I think this story could have been done with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward with Lalla taking more of the Doctor's traditional part in it, like we had in The Horns of Nimon.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 5 days ago

That's fair enough, but that already requires a unique and relatively unprecedented use of a side character who isn't the Doctor but still almost functions as one for it to work. I suppose another way of putting it is that the Thirteenth is the only Doctor to whom you can imagine this happening.

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tachyonspiral 1 week, 5 days ago

Please do correct me if this is wrong, but Wikipedia claims that a significant minority of witch trials were of men.

Kinda feel like if any other Doctor had repeatedly denied that there were any witches, talked at length about things nobody from that period could possibly understand, and was then caught waving the sonic over a group of mud zombies, they'd have been accused, too.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 5 days ago

You're completely right, of course, in the sense of "this could technically have happened realistically, if a male time traveller had gone back and wandered around spouting jargon and waving a wand", but what I was getting was more "there doesn't seem any way a past production team would have made the strangely subversive choice to tell the story of a male Doctor being accused of witchcraft" (as sugg'd above, they'd just have gone for a companion instead). Maybe I'm wrong about that! (Though I guess there's no way of knowing).

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Michael 1 week, 6 days ago

‘An odd one this -- for me it trails behind the other two historicals for a few reasons (it engages less seriously with the history it's portraying).’

As a general rule, most TV/cinema/art works better as a vehicle for expression when it engages less with the ‘factual’ and ‘realistic’ and instead offers its own imagined impression of events and gives a perspective on those, rather than focussing energies on just trying to capture what amounts to a correct and accurate visual depiction. Not a great example, but I’m always reminded of side by side by pictures I once saw of two roosters. One by a Victorian artist which sought to perfectly capture the likeness of a rooster, and beside it Picasso’s bizarre, surreal image of a rooster. Picasso’s had little likeness to an actual rooster and didn’t even attempt to make a serious depiction of one, but his painting certainly gave the greater and far more interesting impression towards the nature of an actual rooster than the artist who aimed to paint a perfect likeness.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

I don't think that really goes against what I was saying, though, which is not "I like my Doctor Who as accurate as possible without aliens in it" (a fool's errand!), but rather that the two historicals we saw earlier in the season engaged more directly, thematically, and powerfully with what they were presenting than this one did. Demons of the Punjab did that in spite of - in fact, partially BECAUSE of - the alien assassins. The Witchfinders does have some good thematic work in it as partially discussed above (bullies, whipping up hate, innate insecurity, misogyny, etc) but it doesn't come across as accomplished as the other two, for me at least.

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Andy 1 week, 6 days ago

"Pity that this time it manifested by suggesting that Judaism is virulently anti-witchcraft and that it’s only the New Testament that fixed this."

This is an interesting take. I didn't see it as much as a dig on Judaism (spoiler alert: I'm Jewish) and more of a dig on Christians who cherry pick the most convenient bits of the Old Testament for their own ends, forgetting the parts of the New Testament that negate the fire and brimstone stuff.

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kevin merchant 1 week, 6 days ago

Only Christians ever burnt witches. The Doctor was making a dig at Christians who cherry pick verses from the Old Testament to support their case. Rather than say: The prohibition on eating shell fish or killing the children who do not "honour their father or mother" etc

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Simon Blake 1 week, 6 days ago

Oh, didn't you get the memo? Unless something's actually written by a Jewish writer, it's anti-Semitic. If you're going to keep your SJW card, you need to get on board with this. ALL references to Jewish people, bankers, the powerful, shrewdness, meanness, having a big nose, reptilian aliens etc. - they're ALL coded anti-Semitism, and so is everything else.

Or possibly it's exactly what you say - a dig at Christian cherry-picking - and people ought to, surely after this episode if no other, reflect that perhaps witch-hunts are a bad idea.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 1 week, 6 days ago

Hi Simon. Just so you know, this was your last comment on the site, and I'll be deleting any further ones you try to leave. I wish you luck in finding a forum better suited to your interests, views, and style of discussion.

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thesmilingstallioninn 1 week, 5 days ago

I could've sworn the line 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' came into vogue with the King James Bible, possibly translated that way to appease King James, who was afraid of witchcraft like he was afraid of conspirators against his throne. In the book 'Haunted' by Leo Braudy, there's a whole chapter highlighting witchcraft and religion, with the Protestant Reformation bringing about the demonization of cabals.

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Aylwin 1 week, 5 days ago

I believe the same form of words was used in the Geneva Bible, which was the most widely-used previous English translation, so I think the idea of James's responsibility for that is basically a myth.

And the shifts in belief underlying witch-hunting go back long before Protestantism existed. There are arguments that the Reformation contributed in some degree to its proliferation, but that's just one possible strand of causation among many. The whole phenomenon is one of those intractably multi-causal things where every elegant explanatory theory seems to have foundered on the rocks of over-numerous counter-examples.

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wyngatecarpenter 1 week, 5 days ago

I thought it was a reference to the theory that the line "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" was wrongly inserted into later translations of the Bible (or perhaps a mistranslation). I don't know if the theory is true, but I was already aware of it and in the context of King James maintaining that he insisted on it's inclusion, it seemed a clear reference, and in view of that in no way was it blaming Judaism.

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Camestros Felapton 1 week, 5 days ago

I don't doubt that was the intent and it's an obvious rejoinder to throw one bit of scripture back as an argument against another - but it's a bad piece of dialogue and regardless of intent it has anti-Semitic implications.

In context, along with the misogyny and King James's own obsessions, the witch persecution of that period in Lancashire were very much about imposing the structural orthodoxy of the state church. The allegations against the actual Pendle witches (if I remember correctly) arose during a clampdown against people who weren't taking communion from Anglican priest i.e. mainly closet Catholics (who were common in Lancashire) but effectively anybody trying to subscribe to the official church. Trying to win an argument against witchtrials based on scripture at that point history is just plain foolish.

Mind you, perhaps it was intended to be the Doctor using a bad argument because she follows it up with a worse one that events then directly refute by bringing up King James.

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Jesse 1 week, 6 days ago

this avoided endorsing the idea that witch hunters had some valid points

Well, sort of. It did culminate with the Doctor in a witchfinder-general hat leading a small mob with blazing torches as they chase down creatures possessed by an evil alien force.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 6 days ago

I'd have rather had the Doctor say "hell yeah, I'm a witch". Somehow you feel Moffat might've gone down that route.

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FezofRassilon 1 week, 6 days ago

I would have quite liked to see an episode set in the witch trials, where it turns out real witches exist, but those witches are the only ones actively holding back an evil force the villagers are unaware of. So the villagers are trying to burn them, which means they're still in the wrong and doesn't justify the witch hunts in any way, plus the Doctor gets to join the witches (maybe even wear a witch hat) and defeat the evil.

It's probably a bit too much like eaters of light or the Terry Pratchett witches, though.

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Aylwin 1 week, 6 days ago

I think anything of that sort would be hard to do in a true-to-history way, in as much as practitioners of (what was thought of as) benign magic did exist and seem to have been numerous and discreetly well-known in their communities, and to have been generally thought of as a distinct group from maleficent witches (though their activities were illegal, and probably also made them more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft). And indeed, among the services such people offered was that of defending against evil forces, namely the magical attacks of witches. So it would be a bit incongruous to offer that as a shock twist.

Admittedly, this story was itself not much interested in being true to history. Proactive witch-hunting was a rarity in England, and although the actual Pendle case and its offshoots came closer to fitting that pattern than most, there was certainly no such thing as an official "witchfinder" in England, let alone a "Witchfinder General" (a non-existent title invented for himself by Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s). In this, as in other aspects of its RTD-celebrity-historicalesque tendencies, it conformed to the model of Doctor Who landing in fictional genres and popular myths rather than actual history.

Also, you mentioned burning, so I'm afraid this is where I do my obligatory "unlike most other countries, those convicted of witchcraft in England were not burned (alive or dead) but hanged, on account of the law and prosecutions deriving largely from ancient popular traditions in which witchcraft was a kind of aggravated murder or assault, rather than from the new elite theories originating in the late Middle Ages which conceived of it as a kind of aggravated heresy, those ideas being influential in elite-led witch-hunting but not in the kind of popularly-generated accusations that prevailed in England (the anomalous case of the Hopkins rampage excepted)" bit. Which was actually one area where the story did opt for reality over popular mythology, given that there were repeated references to hanging but none to burning, apart from James's final attack on the chief Lorax, which provided an excuse to eat the cake as well as having it.

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Sleepyscholar 1 week, 5 days ago

There was one exhortation to Burn the Witch. I remember, because I started to sing the Radiohead song at that point...

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Aylwin 1 week, 5 days ago

James said it when he went in with the torch. Was there an earlier occasion that I'm forgetting?

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Roderick T. Long 1 week, 5 days ago

Who am I to believe, some bunch of historians or Monty Python?

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Aylwin 1 week, 4 days ago

"Why does the sonic screwdriver not work on witches?"

"............Because...they're made of wood?"

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Derik 1 week, 5 days ago

Strictly speaking the wise women in this episode were witches... sort of. They were communing with the sacred tree which was somewhat alive, and they were doing rituals to the soil which was actually evil alien sludge... and the soil responded? (Possibly because Becca's contradictory beliefs were causing it to do so.)
But the tree was definitely the wise woman's favorite. Magic or no... that group was tuned into the situation to a degree.

(Pity that the earth in question turned out to be genocidal, objectively evil and named after a Goetic demon... but the episode at least had the good grace not to emphasize that and arguably downplayed it.)
I think it's more accurate to describe the women as worshipers of the tree rather than the evil mud though since the name of the town literally means "Sacred Tree on a Hill."

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Simon Blake 1 week, 6 days ago

I'm looking forward to the Chibnall-era story in which the "Doctor" ends up in a Nazi uniform. At this point it's surely only a matter of time.

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Riggio 1 week, 5 days ago

You mean he'll do a remake of Justin Richards' The Shadow in the Glass novel? With the Jodie Whittaker Doctor and Kate Stewart instead of the Colin Baker Doctor and Alastair?

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Tom B 1 week, 4 days ago

Or an adaptation of the Colditz audio, with Jodie instead of Sylvester.

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Nindokag 1 week, 5 days ago

> "It did culminate with the Doctor in a witchfinder-general hat leading a small mob with blazing torches as they chase down creatures possessed by an evil alien force."

Yeah, that's exactly the thing that bothered me! I was rather enjoying this one up until the Morax reveal. It seemed like they were actually trying to say something about the psychology of witch-hunting, of pointing the blame at someone else before it points at you, of loudly performing purity because you're afraid you're impure, stuff like that...

and then the mud-monster reveal, which is dumb not just for being the most boring and obvious Dr. Who cliche, but worse because now the message is "Witches aren't real, but aliens who act just like you expect witches to act are real, and you're justified in using witch-hunting tactics against the aliens". Totally undermines any moral point they were trying to make.

I feel like the overarching problem this season is that Chibnall just doesn't notice things like this in other peoples' scripts. Moffat or RTD would have looked at the script for Kerblam! or Witchfinders and said "hey your twist ending seriously contradicts your theme, how about some tweaks". Judging by Chibnall's own scripts he doesn't seem to know or care that an episode should HAVE a theme, much less how the ending might demonstrate the theme in action.

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(Not That) Jack 1 week, 6 days ago

The good news: for once, I watched an episode of Doctor Who, was reminded of a previous regime, and it WASN'T Saward and Davison!

The bad news: it felt an awful lot like a cruise control RTD era celebrity historical. The aliens in particular just as easily could have been shouting "PYROVILE!" when the Doctor confronted them. (In fact, both Pompeii and The Shakespeare Code featured aliens or people fronting for aliens that were largely female and "mystical".) It's like someone skimmed their memories of the RTD era and figured "okay, this is how Doctor Who does aliens in the past, they're witches or oracles" and banged out a script.

I mean, I guess "doing what worked 10 years ago" beats the hell out of being morally and politically reprehensible, but it sure isn't getting me to watch it again, no matter how much Alan Cumming acted everyone off the screen.

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Brian B. 1 week, 6 days ago

For me this was one of the season's weakest episodes, although thanks to Alan Cumming I found it passably entertaining. The problem I have with Witch Trial discussions is that unlike something like "Rosa" or "Punjab", they almost always imply that the problem is something from a long long time ago. I grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s, so I remember vividly: at least in the United States (and Wikipedia also says Canada/ New Zealand/ Brazil), we had famous witch trials throughout!

The Daycare Witch Trials: dozens and dozens of innocent child care providers jailed and made infamous, accused and often convicted of running wildly preposterous sex-abuse and child-sacrifice rings. It was absolutely rooted in insecurities about the role of women -- daycare centers being perceived as the fault of feminism ripping mommies away from their homes. None of these trials were in any way an improvement over the 1590s, or Salem, except in that capital punishment, thankfully, is out of fashion now.

Heck, it stayed active in 2016 with accusations that Hillary Clinton was running for president while running a child-prostitution ring out of a pizza parlor; she didn't go to jail (despite crowd chants of "lock her up") but she did lose to Donald Trump of all people, so...

Admittedly, I don't like the style of "historical" that treats the past as just a cute, mildly adorable variation on the present. (I loathed "the Shakespeare Code".) The past is another country, for sure, and I love a genuine engagement with its ideologies and concerns. But genuine engagement is very different from the smug "the past is an ailment we cured a long time ago" treatment, which tends, alas, to be quite false.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 6 days ago

Which Wikipedia article is that? I'm Brazilian and I never heard of witch trials in Brazil in modern times.

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prandeamus 1 week, 6 days ago

I can't answer for the original poster, but perhaps it was a referent to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_ritual_abuse

The "moral panic" is still something that happens in modern society even if the word "witchcraft" is not invoked explicitly.

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Brian B. 1 week, 5 days ago

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-care_sex-abuse_hysteria . It doesn't go into any detail about non-U.S. cases and merely asserts their existence; I definitely am not prepared to stand behind that second-hand claim if it doesn't ring familiar to you. The U.S. cases were a *huge* deal.

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Dan 1 week, 5 days ago

I don't know about Brazil, but witch-hunts are taking place all around the world in the present day, perhaps mostly in Africa. See Ronald Hutton's "The Witch" chapter one where he gives dozens of examples.

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JFrancis 1 week, 6 days ago

Nothing much to add; I enjoyed this episode a great deal but am willing to accept that's probably because it managed not to be crateringly immoral.

The one observation I'd make is that I think it was a good choice to have the whole problem being caused by evil alien monarchy, with the Doctor explicitly defeating a king at the end. Not necessarily the most nuanced metaphor (and it might not have been intended as such) but a adventure in a time of witch trials where the threat actually ends up coming from royalty does seem to gesture in the right direction.

Though I think I'd have preferred it if they'd just leant into it all being the local landowner taking out their problems on everyone around them.

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5tephe 1 week, 5 days ago

At this point, having King James drive in post resolution and burn the witch while the Doctor yells "No! Don't!" is so blatant it feels like trolling.

Surely - SURELY - this repeated thematic action must be paid off in the finale?

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 5 days ago

How repeated was it? I can only think of the first episode. Oh, and Arachnids.

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Aylwin 1 week, 5 days ago

Telling off Ryan over the robot-shooting thing in TGM is a more low-key example of the same thing, and likewise muddled.

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5tephe 1 week, 4 days ago

1 is unique.
2 is a coincidence.
...

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Dan 1 week, 5 days ago

In regard to the exchange between the Doctor and King J, I think appealing to someone's inner suffering in your attempt to persuade them not to kill you has a deeply moral dimension. It's does confront evil, and it nearly works in a convincing way.

Also, about the the Old Testament, witchcraft, and your comments about Judaism, I really don't think the Bible witch quote can be expanded into the suggestion that "Judaism is virulently anti-witchcraft". Please don't do this. The quote is in the Christian Bible. It was in the Old Testament. It's presence (and it may well be a perfectly good translation) helped cause the deaths of thousands of people. It has nothing in particular to do with Judaism, because the witch trials in early modern Europe were Christian affairs.

And of course, the New Testament didn't manage to fix this, evidently. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the same in Christianity. Anti-semitism (and a lot of "pro-semitism" too actually) runs through the history of Christianity, but it seems overdone to make such things out of those lines.

Today, the Bible's injunctions against witchcraft continue to support suffering around the globe, since some of the witch-hunts of today bear a cultural relationship to them.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 1 week, 5 days ago

Do you even know the connection between the Old Testament and Judaism?

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Dan 1 week, 4 days ago

There is nothing in my post to suggest otherwise.

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TomeDeaf 1 week, 5 days ago

The quote "Love thy neighbour" is from Leviticus as well, so it's as much a part of the OT as the (mistranslation) of "thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live" is. Which is why I think the overly straightforward presentation of "OT bad, NT good" here rankles somewhat.

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Dan 1 week, 4 days ago

Yes I understand how it could rankle somewhat, and there is a genuine point here.

I was glad they included the witch quote. I had been thinking about it before it went out, having seen a Haaretz article discussing the translation.

According to the article, the jury is possibly still out on that one. It might mean "witch", or an ancient equivalent of this, since some ancient peoples believed in to what amounts to the same thing. (Some witches might use poison also, magical or otherwise.)

As you say, Jesus is quoting the OT when he says it. The difference seems to be - and this is certainly how many Christians see it - that Jesus asserts that this, along with the injunction to love God are all you need to follow to secure eternal life. As I understand it the original law is a cornerstone of Judaism in any case, but I know little of the history of this.

It was about as an effective a rebuttal as the Doctor could make to the Leviticus quote, given her audience.

I get the poin, but at the time of watching the episode I thought the whole thing was excellent. I believe you would have to be very strongly anti-semitic already to form the impression that Jewish people are ardent witch hunters. It is the "Christians" that are engaged in it here.

As for compounding an impression that OT God bad, NT God good: well, the OT God does have his scenes, and hey are also the same God, for Christians. But this might go into a much longer discussion. I have some reason to have some insight into it, but I may not know enough right now.

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Dan 1 week, 4 days ago

I mean, Christians do think of the whole thing as the scripture of their religion. They very much "own it". These people are putting a lot of emphasis on a few OT verses, as we see a lot of in the US today in other contexts...

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Mark Pompeo 1 week, 3 days ago

Found this interesting piece from before the season started that wound up showing great foresight in how problematic it would be to make the Doctor ineffectual at the same time they made the Doctor a woman. I should probably give my thoughts on it too, but honestly I'm high right now and don't feel like it lol.
https://www.tor.com/2018/07/16/the-most-feminist-thing-doctor-whos-11th-season-could-do-is-refuse-to-address-sexism/

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