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.
- Demons of the Punjab
- The Witchfinders
- The Tsuranga Conundrum
- Arachnids in the UK
- The Ghost Monument
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth