For the third time this series we’re back in a period of history where a particular group of people are being persecuted for no very good reason – this time women, pertinently to the Doctor’s new identity – although there is a first here in that this time, there’s some nasty aliens up to no good. Which is not to say that Wilkinson skips over the running theme of misjudged antagonists behaving without deliberately malicious intent entirely; our chief opponent turns out to have been at least partially possessed by something approaching the Devil and by the episode’s end almost everyone has been partially either exonerated or at least justified in something of their beliefs. Even Willa (‘valiant protector’, etymology fans) goes off to practice her alternative therapies medicine at the end of the instalment, placing her somewhere between witch and doctor. Joy Wilkinson’s script, whether by accident or by design – and presumably by design – might be the most satisfying of the series so far.
It might be the new cameras, although it’s happened often enough before, but Series Eleven can’t rid Doctor Who of the minor niggle of people standing around waiting for their cue during its action sequences. And oh boy, there was an awful lot of music this week; if people thought the arrival of Segun Akinola was going to save them from having to complain about the score being mixed so loudly as to drown out the dialogue then they’ll be scratching their heads about how wrong they were. But those two production grumbles aside, this was a story that achieved what it set out to, and with a modicum more wit than has been apparent in other recent instalments.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, we’re here to consider Alan Cumming though, aren’t we. Has there ever been an actor who has enjoyed his appearance in Doctor Who quite as much? The miracle of Alan Cumming, is that he doesn’t rein himself in one iota, and yet while he comes perilously close to tipping the tonal balance completely out of its equilibrium, he manages to instil King James with just enough sympathy to make the portrait a lovingly embellished one, rather than being wilfully and unnecessarily show-stealing. This reviewer actually held his breath just for a moment at the end of the episode, not quite entirely certain that Ryan wouldn’t take the monarch up on his offer; with Cumming in situ it was always a given that James’ early preference for the company of boys be presented in one way or another, and his taking to Ryan was both amusingly awkward and awkwardly amusing – in quite the most entertaining way. And what a lovely parting moment between the two.
As a plot, The Witchfinders was as predictable as anything else this year, which is not meant disparagingly. If Series Eleven has been as consciously set up so as to fit right into Sunday evenings after Countryfile and in the Antiques Roadshow’s slot as it seems, then it’s been a roaring success – and Wilkinson’s script was filled with easily fathomed, but equally rewarding, reason and resolution, from the mystery surrounding the village’s disappearance from historical records, to the explanation for the mystery of the Morax’ key. Despite a fair amount of hopping around – never anything to complain about in Doctor Who – it even retained that composed pace we’re taking so long to get used to. If the narrative alluded back towards The Visitation, the tenor of the story was very much more akin to The Woman Who Lived, complete with a stranded extra-terrestrial menace with vaguely leonine features, and a plot revolving around ritual execution. This was probably also the most graphically frightening episode since The Woman Who Fell to Earth, but in that slightly rustic manner that made it just a bit more palatable – or disorientating, depending upon your sensibilities – for those Sunday evening viewers.
Jodie Whittaker could still do with adding some quiet self-possession to her repertoire as the Doctor, but the obvious comparisons that were being made between her and David Tennant or Peter Davison were thankfully a little less in evidence this week. But ‘Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself,’ was maybe just a bit too on the nose not to cause a bit of a squirm. Likewise some of the comedy, especially that revolving around the hat and the position of Witchfinder General, vacillated between hilarious and honest, and strained to the point of eye-rolling – but that’s an easily accepted compromise, especially in a production that’s taking care not to retread its predecessor’s paths while being mindful not to wander too far away from them either.
Is this the episode everyone’s going to remember from 2018? No. With Rosa and Demons of the Punjab for company, it isn’t even the most striking historical story – and not by some distance. But The Witchfinders set itself certain goals and didn’t miss a one, and managed to achieve them with a touch more subtlety than we might have expected it to. Along with great dollops of obviousness too, of course. Which makes it every bit as successful as each of those two stories, and no less meaningful either, albeit in perhaps more surreptitious ways. This is a series that has in almost every episode focussed in on something that’s worth dealing with, whether that be an obvious ‘issue’ or not, and at the end of fifty minutes it’s abundantly clear that James has learned a lesson, even if the viewer isn’t being struck across the head with what that lesson might necessarily have been.
DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11, EPISODE 8: “THE WITCHFINDERS” / WRITER: JOY WILKINSON / DIRECTOR: SALLIE APRAHAMIAN / STARRING: JODIE WHITTAKER, BRADLEY WALSH, TOSIN COLE, MANDIP GILL, ALAN CUMMING, SIOBHAN FINNERAN, TILLY STEELE / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED NOVEMBER 25TH)