It’s November 25th, 2018. Ariana Grande continues to be on top of a top ten chart that is basically unaltered from last week save for a couple minor shufflings of position—Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper, Rita Ora, and Dave ft Fredo fall, Jess Glynne and Little Mix ft. Nicki Minaj rise. It is again the definition of a slow news week, dominated by the slow fallout of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination nearly two months earlier and the release of yet another one of those scientific reports that tries very hard to stress that we are all going to die unless we do something about climate change, followed, inevitably, by a lack of doing anything. Past that, it’s so tedious that The New York Times runs a front-page story on the forced retirement of drug-sniffing dogs in the wake of cannabis legalization, at least until the day this airs, when the European Union finally signs off on a Brexit agreement. Spoilers: it’s going to remain a fucking clown show.
On television, meanwhile, The Witchfinders. Let’s start at the core of this episode. A celebrity historical with a prominent and acclaimed guest actor is a particularly good vehicle for the tradition whereby, early in a new Doctor’s run, they are given a scene with a skilled veteran actor to see what happens. Eccleston got it with Simon Callow, Tennant with Pauline Collins and Anthony Head, Smith with Ian McNeice and Iain Glen, and Coleman with Peter Capaldi. With Rosa being about the weighty weight of its weighty political issues instead of the actors, it takes Whittaker until her second celebrity historical to get to do this, and she ends up drawing Alan Cumming, making his first appearance in Doctor Who since 1993 as King James I. There’s a standard issue Doctor Who episode going on at the fringes of this, but the point of the episode—the reason it exists and wants you to tune into it—is because of the scene where King James interrogates the Doctor.
Up to this point, Cumming has been turning in a carefully mannered comedy performance. This is an interesting quirk of the script, which sets King James up as, essentially, a comedy interruptor, showing up and ensuring that the Doctor can’t straightforwardly take charge of the situation. Cumming’s performance is high grade camp, deftly moderated so as not to devour the rural horror tale around it. It’s an interesting performance, because its relative restraint serves to give Whittaker a lot to work with, but it still sets up an interesting problem—an unusual sort of character to interface with.
So what do we get when it’s finally time for the two of them to face off? Hm. Well, Alan Cumming is great, a font of tiny reactions and subtly shifting emotions. But Whittaker… OK, sure she’s not helped by a script that demands she deliver lines like “true knowledge has to be earned.” And perhaps this can all be laid at the feet of Chibnall’s Davison revivalism. But when Peter Davison played a weirdly passive Doctor he still imbued the part with the basic level of mercury it demands—his Doctor seemed to be doing things.…