‘Doctor Who’ 11.08: ‘The Witchfinders’

❉ For once the suspected Evil Alien Bastards were Evil Alien Bastards!

This last Saturday I was at the film festival DarkFest II, where there was a screening of Michael Reeves’ horror classic Witchfinder General (1968). It’s become the best known example of the fiction based on a notorious period in English history, where supposed female practitioners of the occult arts were executed in grisly fashion – generally, by being burnt alive. I was quite intrigued to see how Doctor Who would deal with this grim subject, in a family show at 7 o’clock on a Sunday night.

Unevenly, as it turned out. For the first time this year, there were bad lapses in the direction that made some elements look unintentionally ridiculous – the Witchfinder hat that made Graham look like one of the Diddy Men and the Doctor like Windy Miller, plus the alien voice that sounded like the deep, daft ones we used to do at school when we were ‘playing Doctor Who.’

Then there was the normally unassailable Alan Cumming’s decision to play King James I as a saucy camp laddie. It was so tonally at odds with everything else, particularly Siobhan Finneran’s committed, intense performance as witchfinder Becka Savage, that If it was intended to provide some light relief, it missed completely and made the episode look schizophrenic. And at a time of national paranoia and religious mania, would the King really be skulking around the shires without a heavily armed retinue? That did rather stretch credibility.

You can also tell how badly both parts of a story don’t fit, when you have to have a physical plot device to hold the historical and sci fi strands of the narrative together, namely a ducking stool made from alien tech disguised as a tree. If that wasn’t contrived enough, the ‘tree’ was also the key to an alien prison inside a hill. Becka, the local landowner, chops down said tree and the incarcerated alien hordes start to seep out, infecting her, so she believes – reasonably for the time, it has to be said – that the mark of Satan is upon her, hence the local witch trials… no. It felt like the writer had come up with the ‘witchfinders with aliens’ idea and instead of hammering out a logical reason for those two elements to be together, reverse engineered from the starting point of the concept in the most contrived way possible.

The Witchfinders isn’t the first Doctor Who story to be be built in this way, but if it’s as glaringly obvious as this, there’s something clearly amiss at the writing stage. This was also indicated by the reappearance of the scenes, prominent in the early episodes of this series, where the momentum of the story grinds to a halt as the Doctor becomes Basil Exposition.

The frustrating thing is, there was a better, purely historical story in here about the social and political pressures on women in the 17th century: Becka had “married up” from humble origins, leaving her cousin Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele, quietly effective) on the bottom rung of the social ladder; Willa’s only option of importance within the community was to keep providing the herbal remedies and cures her mother had. The Witchfinders was also the only story this year to really address the implications of the Doctor’s change of gender when faced by a culture dominated by men. It was a nice twist that it was, atypically, a powerful woman of the era – Becka again – who gave the orders to have the Doctor restrained and tried as a witch. And why these scenes were the most effective in the story.

Other plus points: the “tendency to tendril” and the mud zombies were well done, keeping the kids happy and mum and dad hiding behind the sofa, and for once the suspected Evil Alien Bastards were Evil Alien Bastards. Graham continues to be the only one of the regulars you’d really want to go down the pub with, delivering a good line about the local witchfinding being in “special measures” and quoting from Pulp Fiction (1994).

If The Witchfinders proves anything, it’s that you couldn’t count on the historical stories being the best ones this year. Which is a shame, as the 17th century was a fascinating period of history.

❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.

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