In 17th Century Lancashire, the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham become embroiled in a witch trial and the arrival of King James I.
At this stage of the series, it’s almost no surprise to see another good historical story from this production team, however, it is a surprise to finally get a decent alien invasion storyline this year. Alan Cumming also looks like he had a great time playing James I, and he is perhaps the highlight of this story, and despite the darker subject matter of witch hunting, this does feel a lot more of a romp than previous entries this series.
In the Old Testament. There’s a plot twist in the sequel – “Love thy neighbour”. Which is why we’ve come. To help you fix your problems without killing anyone. That’s what King James would want.Thirteenth Doctor
We have had quite a few historical stories this series, with The Witchfinders following in the tracks of Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, but here we see the TARDIS crew in 17th Century Lancashire. The big difference here is that the Doctor does interfere much more than previously, where a softly-softly approach had been favoured. Whilst witch hunts are an established part of English history, what we see here has a much more fantastical background and is based in the fictional village of Bilehurst Cragg, which allows a bit more creative freedom for Joy Wilkinson. The story benefits from great casting, especially Alan Cumming playing King James I (VI) and Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage. Savage does appear to be the expected human baddy that we have become accustomed to over the past few weeks, so the twist that she has been infected by the Morax is a nice surprise. That being said, both Savage and James are beyond redemption, as Savage has had 36 people killed under the pretence of them being witches, and James kills the Morax possessing Savage in the end. His reaction when the TARDIS dematerialises is also fantastic.
Do you know why the ducking stool was invented, Doctor? To silence foolish women who talk too much.
Yeah, I did know that. Which is daft, cos talking’s brilliant.Lady Savage and the Thirteenth Doctor
If I had to pick a flaw in an episode I largely enjoyed, it would be that the companions do not have a lot to do in this story. Yaz almost fades into the background in the story again, and it’s a shame to not get more insight into Yaz’s story about being bullied at school, as this would be some nice character development for her, as this does seem to be at the core of her decision to become a police officer. It is interesting that this is the first time that the Doctor has been underestimated and Graham being assumed to be the leader, as this was something that I was concerned about becoming a recurring theme following this regeneration. I do enjoy his protest that they are all equal, but of course this doesn’t fit in with the beliefs of the time period. Graham does have slightly more to do than the others when he becomes Witchfinder General, and I like the fact that he reinstates the Doctor’s ‘position’ meanwhile Ryan just seems to act as a love interest for James I. This does lead to one of my favourite conversations in the episode between him and James I, and the history graduate inside me had a moment when James mentioned that Mary, Queen of Scots was involved in the plot to kill Lord Darnley, his father.
The Morax are potentially one of the best villainous aliens that we’ve come across this series, although this has been quite slim pickings so far. The Morax look fantastic, even if the majority of them could be boiled down to being zombies. The Queen of the Morax looks genuinely intimidating and the episode is really effective at scaring us. For the second week in a row, I’ve genuinely felt that the Doctor and her friends were in genuine danger, and it’s nice to have this uncertainty and peril return. I like the sudden revelation of their involvement in the story and in particular, the idea of the alien technology keeping the alien army under Pendle Hill imprisoned. I feel that these aliens packed a seriously genuine threat as a world invading force – they are much more menacing and believable than the Pting, for example!
I’ve got so many questions right now – like did you drink that or absorb it? Are you all one big muddy mass or separate entities, only taking the one body?Thirteenth Doctor
I feel like I say this every week, but Jodie Whittaker puts in another great performance here, and we get to see more of her darker, angry side here. The scene where she first encounters the Morax possessing Old Mother Twiston shows her perfectly capture the Doctor’s enthusiasm at coming across something completely new to her, and the questions she asks are delivered at such speed almost like a stream of consciousness. In this story, she gets more moral grandstanding speeches, which she also delivers really nicely, as she exposes the hypocrisy of Becka Savage and James I, as well as attacking the idea of mob mentality here. She’s yet to put in a sub-par performance as the Doctor and I can’t wait to see more.
Verdict: The Witchfinders demonstrate that this series’ biggest strength is the historical episodes again, with great performances from the two main guest stars, Alan Cuming and Siobhan Finneran. It would have been nice for the companions to have more to do though. 8/10
Cast: Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair), Alan Cumming (King James I), Siobhan Finneran (Becka Savage), Tilly Steele (Willa Twiston), Tricia Kelly (Old Mother Twiston), Arthur Kay (Smithy), Stavros Demetraki (Stavros)
Writer: Joy Wilkinson
Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Behind the Scenes
- The Doctor quotes Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- The TARDIS team are supposed to be travelling to the coronation of Elizabeth I at the start of the episode. Elizabeth I appeared in The Day of the Doctor, where she married the 10th incarnation of the Doctor, and would later (or earlier from a viewer’s perspective) have him banished from her kingdom. Perhaps the TARDIS is trying to keep the Doctor safe by not taking the team to this point in time.
- Whilst Bilehurst Cragg is fictional, there was a witch trial in 1612 relating to Pendle Hill.
- This is only the third story to be written and directed by women. The other two are Enlightenment and The Mark of the Rani.
The conversation between the Doctor and James I, where she strips away at James’ perceived heroism and delivers an impassioned speech. Usually this would result in a change of heart by the monarch, so it’s a nice twist to see James call for the guards to take the Doctor to be tried.
You can’t go hurting people just because you’re scared to face up to the darkness inside you. You have to be better than that.
How do you know these things?
I know because we’re all the same. We want certainty. Security. To believe that people are evil or heroic, but that’s not how people are. You want to know the secrets of existence? Start with the mysteries of the heart.The Thirteenth Doctor and James I