Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 8 – The Witchfinders

“Together we shall save the souls of our people from Satan. Even if it means killing them all.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

We seem to have settled into a pattern in this new series of Doctor Who that every other episode will have a historical setting. That’s a higher ratio of stories set in the past than any other time since the show’s 2005 revival, but so far it’s been worth it – I’d say the historicals have been far and away the best eps of the season.

The Witchfinders (and wasn’t there an old BBC Past Doctor book called that?) wasn’t as strong an episode as Rosa or Demons of the Punjab, in part because early 17th century witch hunts aren’t really still resounding the way the events in those eps were. It was also, if I’m honest, a bit of a mess of a script, with themes and pacing all over the place. Yet for all of that, there was some excellent stuff here, which made it enjoyable despite its flaws.

The chief flaw,for me anyway, was once again that the actual sci fi element of the story was slender at best, and once it settled into that it became a far less interesting narrative as a result. The Morax mud people could have come from any old ep of Who, though in fairness their manifestation as muck-encrusted trad witches was well-realised by director Sallie Aprahamian. But the old saw of accidentally freeing alien prisoners then having to put them back in their box has been done to death over the years in this and plenty of other sci fi shows.

Which is a shame, as everything preceding that was really well done. Most pertinently,while witch hunting may no longer be a big social issue (well, in some parts of Africa, I guess), it shone on a light on something that very much is. The witch hysteria that reached its apex during that century was very much a gender based issue. Yes, some men were convicted as witches, but a vanishing few compared to the huge majority of women, most of whom, as here, were nascent medicos or midwives, practising skills that didn’t meet with the Church’s approval.

Script writer Joy Wilkinson, one of still very few women to have written for the show,absolutely foregrounded this. As a result, this was the first ep since Jodie Whittaker took the lead to really address the fact that the Doctor is now a woman; previous eps set in the past have glancingly referred to it then moved on.

This time it was right to the front of the script. Witnessing the Doctor’s frustration as her usual confidence-grabbing tricks failed because of her gender and the historical period she was in, was both amusing and incisive. I’m sure her predecessors would have had no problem pulling off a disguise as a witchfinder general, but here she found herself playing second fiddle to Graham just because he’s a man. The script even had her acknowledge it with annoyance, pointing out that she’d have had a far easier time of this if she was still a man.

It also meant that one of her previous, usually successful tricks – ingratiating herself with royalty – didn’t work either. Previous Doctors have met legendary kings and queens of England, and always managed to grab their confidence; here, James I (and VI, if you’re Scottish) took a lot longer to be convinced. Because the Doctor is a woman, he wouldn’t believe her to be in a role of authority, but was all too willing to believe she was a witch.

That said, the script had a surprisingly rounded and sympathetic portrayal of James, who’s never really generated much sympathy as a monarch. Yes, he was a religious fanatic and a zealot; but the script took pains to give him motivation in the form of his backstory (which Ryan admitted was “worse” than his own). It also showed him wavering in his convictions despite a hatred of compromise – that scene with the captive Doctor was a gem as the King’s obvious thirst for knowledge fought with his irrational beliefs.

It was equally surprising then that Alan Cumming, an actor more known for his comic casting,pulled off a nuanced and likeable portrayal of the King. His usual twinkle was certainly present and correct – never more so than in his none-too-subtle advances to Ryan (“My Nubian Prince!”). But when called on to give the part some serious acting, he got it spot on, underlining as the script did the contradictions in the man who was the King.

Of course it was nice to see the widely held belief that James was, at least, bisexual reflected on screen – you’d never have got to see Richard I kissing his minstrel Blondel in 1965’s The Crusade!But it wasn’t the only modern allusion in a very traditional setting. One thing I particularly liked was Yaz’s scene with young Willa, in which both admitted to suffering from what sounded very much like anxiety disorder and panic attacks. As someone who suffers with this myself, it was refreshing to see it represented onscreen, especially in such an atypical setting. Historical drama rarely acknowledges mental illness in a sympathetic way (unless you’re GeorgeIII anyway).

It was also entirely in keeping with the themes of the episode that the nominal ‘villain’was a woman too, both as a human and latterly as an alien. After all, if women can be powerful, they can also be the baddies too. Again, though, the script gave us a rounded character in Siobhan Finneran’s Becka Savage; she could easily have ended up as a one-dimensional fanatic, but both the dialogue and Finneran’s performance gave her depth and sympathy despite her actions.

It has to be said, with all this rich characterisation of the guest roles, the regulars got fairly short shrift. True, Mandip Gill got the aforementioned scene with young Willa, and Ryan got some comic interaction as James I’s lust object. But their roles were fairly sketchy and generic here. Even the usually excellent Graham was largely just used as comic relief, though even in this Bradley Walsh was marvellous. While Jodie Whittaker got to shine as the Doctor, frustrated with the limitations imposed on her arbitrarily because of gender.

Which is why, despite witch hunting no longer being a thing, this ep was as pertinent in its way as either Rosa or Demons of the Punjab. Because misogyny,and not taking women seriously in general, very much still is a thing. At some point, given the show’s propensity to travel to historical periods where this was even worse than it is today, the Doctor’s gender change was going to have to be addressed. And given the themes here,this was absolutely the episode to do it. An uneven script, and a curate’s egg,to  be sure, but I think the good far outweighed the mediocre.

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