Well that was…something? I don’t think I’ve ever heard the name ‘Satan’ in a TV episode so much before, and I’ve spent the last week watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. This week The Doctor and her team find themselves in 17th Century Lancashire, England amidst the largest witch hunt ever within the country. Stumbling in midway through the dunking of a potential witch by local landowner Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran), The Doctor ‘accidentally’ interferes and cements herself and the gang as witch hunters appointed by King James himself, embarking on a trip to gather information on the cruel and unsolicited trials on members of the public surrounding Pendle Hill. However, their fraudulent credentials are soon brought into question once the actual King James (Alan Cumming) arrives.
After last week’s episode I couldn’t help but feel a rejuvenated hope for the series’ quality moving forward, the prospect of an episode dealing with the witch trials and featuring the first female Doctor stirred up excitement that knew no bounds. Yet despite having a solid story, thanks to writer Joy Wilkinson, the way in which it was told left little to be desired. Every aspect of mystery was once again dried up through the use of repeated techno-babble and exposition to ensure that nothing could even remotely be categorised as ‘subtle’, and even though we finally got an alien baddie this year in the form of the Morax, they managed to rank highly among the ‘generic alien evil’ list. In fact, I can’t remember a single memorable line of dialogue from them, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
“I could show you everything if you stop being afraid of what you don’t understand” – The Doctor.
First of all, I thought the episode looked brilliant. Director Sallie Aprahamian filled the episode with winding Dutch angles to emphasise King James’ paranoia, whilst the rest was filled with bleak foggy marshland and dead silhouettes. It was immediately what springs to mind when you think English witch-hunt, like a television-budget and less-artistic version of Robert Eggers The VVitch. This location work throughout the series has been a particular highlight, and although the episodes rarely make use of their settings it’s still nice to see a world that’s real sometimes instead of one that’s manufactured from a green screen.
Wilkinson manages to usher in some of the more subtle moments for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor from last week too. Here she’s genuinely against the majority, accused of witchcraft thanks to her clothing (seriously, remember when the team used to dress for the occasion?), knowledge and screwdriver-use. This gives Whittaker some much-needed anger against the likes of Becka Savage and his majesty, with the latter in particular giving her some much needed emotional work towards the end of the episode when he expresses a clear tendency towards violence. However at the same time, it appears as though Chris Chibnall had a word and peppered in the disappointing rambling and childlike distractions of the character from the rest of the season. I understand that The Doctor’s always been fascinated with small details and the unknown, but it’s never stopped her from staying on track before and has always come across as endearing. Here, she’s less-assertive and more grating than ever to the point where her fascination with the alien mud that seems to be possessing people distracts her from impending doom – one that even Yaz seems to be more on the ball with.
Having four primary characters means that there’s always going to be sacrifices in terms of characterisation. Even with the companion’s reduced roles this week you’d have thought that The Doctor would finally get a chance to take center stage, yet instead we’re offered up the same content we’ve been given for the last eight weeks. I understand the roles of Graham, Ryan and Yaz now – Graham is the emotionally-intelligent gatherer of information, Yaz is the resilient and empathetic heart, Ryan is the good-hearted relief with some muscle thrown in (seriously, at the slightest jump when Yaz walks into Becka’s bedroom he’s more than ready to chop any intruder down with an axe). In that case…what’s left for The Doctor? She’s responsible for the adventures and does seem to figure things out in the end but it’s difficult to asses her character from that alone and is something that, frankly, sexist fans will most likely use to spur negativity towards this new era of the show.
“We must confront those agents of Satan even in the face of witchery!” – King James.
This week’s guest stars seemed to have a larger role than usual too. Siobhan Finneran gleefully takes joy in ramping up the bitterness within Becka Savage, the controlling leader of the hunts responsible for over thirty deaths by dunking. I know I’ve been critical of the lack of alien menaces this year but this week seemed to be the first time a human antagonist would have worked just as well thanks to Finneran’s performance. She’s icy and deranged from the start, the equivalent of a high and mighty preacher with shady ideals. However, when it’s revealed she’s only using the trials to cover her own slow possession by the Morax’s mud she’s very quickly rendered generic as her voice becomes booming and she talks of her race’s power and intentions to destroy the “puny humans”. Again, evil alien jargon 101.
On the complete other end of the spectrum however is Alan Cumming’s (Ghost Writer, Spy Kids) King James. A pantomime of a performance, filled to the brim with camp undertones and overtones, it’s difficult what to make of his character. I never knew whether to laugh at how much fun Cumming was clearly having playing up to the intense paranoia and homoerotic tendencies of the character or to worry at how jarring his performance was compared to the relative-severity of the rest of the episode. His fascination with Ryan (Tosin Cole) is a particular highlight, whilst throughout the rest of the episode he spouts weary words of Satan ten times a minute and takes every opportunity he can to cheer himself on and prance around waving about his witch-hunting tools. I found myself laughing multiple times throughout the episode thanks to his triumphant cheering and accusations of witchcraft. A flattering or realistic portrayal this was not, but at least it was damn entertaining. The timely themes of the current series are also expressed throughout James’ character, as he wholeheartedly presumes Graham (Bradley Walsh) to be the leader of the group instead of The Doctor. This is the first episode to fully address the change of gender, both in this instance and The Doctor’s frustration at how investigating witch trials would have been so much easier if she was still a man. It’s merely used as a throwaway gag but it’s interesting to see if this quote will be used against the show in the time to come.
As for the Morax, it turns out they’ve been kept prisoner on the planet through the use of an alien artifact disguised as a lone tree, which Savage disturbed and let loose once she chopped down. The visual effects for both the Morax and its king look look crisp and clear, with fragments of mud dripping all over the screen making Becka’s transformation all the more disappointing in the end when she becomes another generic evil-eyed humanoid. The Morax soldiers for the rest of the episode look menacing, though their danger is limited thanks to their slow movement and limited use too. It’s frustrating because the story elements in play could have been put to such better use with a different structure; it reminded me of season ten’s ‘Eaters of the Light’ in that way. The Morax too, are very reminiscent of The Gelth from Mark Gatiss’ ‘The Unquiet Dead’, possessing bodies to do their bidding in a vaguely-similar setting.
‘The Witchfinders’ sadly succumbed to some of the overarching problems prevalent throughout new Doctor Who. Yet thanks to some solid performances, nice visual moments and snippets of hope thanks to writer Joy Wilkinson, what we got was still a nice little detour for fifty minutes. And sometimes there’s nothing too wrong with that.