For the third time this series, the Doctor and Team TARDIS take a trip back into Earth history, this time dropping in on the 17th Century for the Pendle witch trials. The local landowner – Becka Savage – is doing the bidding of King James I, and has already drowned 35 witches by the time our heroes arrive on the scene. However, a dark secret appears to drive Becka, and a marauding alien force is released from imprisonment with the aim of wreaking havoc on the planet.
It certainly is not overstating the point to say that the historical episodes have been the consistent highlight of this year’s run of Doctor Who, and it is reassuring to see that ‘The Witchfinders’ continues that with great flair and panache, delivering a truly thrilling adventure, and one which will have put kids firmly back behind the sofa, with visions of corpses having been reanimated by an alien mud. The setting brings to mind Hammer Horror films, and the episode could have simply sat back on its laurels and let that alone do a lot of heavy lifting; however, it is good to see Joy Wilkinson’s script actually delivers by going beyond that, and – like the other historicals this year – having something relevant to say about our present, giving it something of substance as well as style.
It is, perhaps, surprising that Doctor Who has not featured witch trials (leaving aside the licensed novels and audios) before, as it seems such an obvious period of history to visit and explore. However, it seems to have worked out to the show’s benefit, as it has given the chance to draw a parallel between the historical witch hunts which we see deposited here, and the metaphorical ones which are being screamed about on an almost daily basis by a certain President. The impassioned speech made by the Doctor about the impact of spreading hate is a theme which resonates strongly with the time which we are in, and it is to be hoped that this was actually an intentional move on showrunner Chris Chibnall’s part, by using the setting for the purpose of making social commentary.
Doing a ‘celebrity historical’ and using King James as a focus for the story gives an extra dimension, as the way in which the character is written leaves it open for Alan Cumming to chew the scenery with a ‘big’ performance in the best possible way, and with such delicious aplomb too. It is startling to realise that Cumming has never appeared in the series before now, as he seems a natural ‘go-to’ when casting for a major supporting role; however, you can certainly see why he was apparently considered for (and perhaps even offered, depending on who you believe) the role of the Doctor in the past, but this is perhaps for the best, as he delivers such a turn as King James that you simply could never envision anyone else coming even close.
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Another true delight is Siobhan Finneran – perhaps best known for her turns as Rita in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, as well as Janice Garvey in ITV sitcom Benidorm – providing a truly chilling performance as lady of the manor Becka Savage, giving us a believable character who you can easily credit as being capable of turning on the villagers in order to protect her own self interest. When she becomes possessed by the extraterrestrial force, and it comes to the fore towards the story’s climax, she gets to stretch her acting skills further by having to become an alien queen as well, and managing not to go completely OTT, while still fitting into the house ‘style’ which we as an audience have come to expect from our Doctor Who monsters.
In fact, it really is about time we finally had a proper villain of the piece this year, with consequences and comeuppance, and we get two for the price of one with Becka Savage (I would say this was a classic case of nominative determinism, but Savage turns out to be her married name), with Finneran getting to show the duality of halving both human and alien sides to the character. As a consequence, it almost ends up being a ‘punch-the-air’ moment when she finally gets taken down in the finale, even though the script does take pains to indicate that her demise at the hands of King James could have been avoided, and seemed a needless act on his part. It certainly does seem a fair point, but perhaps the temptation on the part of the audience to feel so triumphal could have been avoided if we had been given other opportunities earlier this series to see the bad guys we have encountered so far being brought to justice; instead, it comes out as a much-needed release of this need for proper closure, and perhaps an overcompensation in our reaction.
The story also manages to give us another outstanding supporting turn, with Tilly Steele shining as Willa Twiston, who is very much the heart of the story, and is someone who it really is satisfying to see make it through to the end of the episode safely, unlike Claudia Jessie as Kira Arlo in last week’s tale, ‘Kerblam!’. Willa is a character you genuinely root for, as you see her grow from being the meek and timid victim of her cousin, Becka Savage, to a strong and empowered women who steps up to face her fears when helping the Doctor and friends in confronting the monsters and saving the day. A nice touch is her determination at the end of the story to start up a new life elsewhere using her grandmother’s potions to become a healer – or, as she pointedly puts it, a ‘doctor’.
‘The Witchfinders’ manages to give us one story that would never have been possible before the Doctor’s gender change – we get to see her placed in mortal jeopardy simply by virtue of being a woman, and means she has to fight that much harder to be listened to, pointing out that had she still been male, her authority would have been more easily accepted. The lengths to which she has to go to earn the trust of those around her are emphasised most strongly in the scene where she is held on suspicion of being a witch, and speaks to the very heart of King James, managing to take almost total charge of what should have been his interrogation of her, and cutting to the very core of the monarch.
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It is to be hoped that this run of three very strong consecutive adventures will carry on for another week, as the show seems to have hit something of a purple patch just now, after what was a rather uneven first half of the current series. The rumours of the last week about Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker departing after the next series would be a massive loss if true, as the production has found its feet, and is now managing to give us some properly strong stories which manage to capture the best of the spirit of classic Who, while also giving us something fun, new and exciting at the same time.