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Doctor Who Recap: Strange Magic

Doctor Who

The Witchfinders
Season 11 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****

Doctor Who

The Witchfinders
Season 11 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios 2018

Having just spent a lovely weekend in the company of a couple thousand fans at the popular, long-running convention Chicago TARDIS, I wanted to start this recap with a few words about the con, which is well worth making plans to attend if you’ve got no family obligations on Thanksgiving weekend, or need a solid excuse to get out of those family obligations. This year I interviewed a number of Doctor Who names on the main stage: director Graeme Harper, actress Ingrid Oliver (Osgood), and a handful of “monsters,” including Ross Mullan (the Silence), Sarah Louise Madison (the Weeping Angels), and Jon Davey (far too many creatures to list; look him up). I was also on an enlightening panel about the current state of the series and co-hosted a viewing with commentary of “Vincent and the Doctor” with none other than van Gogh himself, Tony Curran.

There was a real sense of community at the con this year, brought on, I believe, by the current run of the series. I talked to countless people this weekend and heard not a single one badmouth it; there was only praise. Folks are digging this new spin on an old show. Thirteenth Doctor cosplayers of all shapes, ages, and genders littered the hotel. One thing that stood out: young people in particular are loving this new Who. They feel it reflects their worldview with more accuracy than perhaps any Who before it. If you’ve got the young folks on your side, you’ve hooked into something important. They’re the people with the power to make the show into something more than television, to give it some real pop cultural significance. Chris Chibnall, feel free to take an early bow.

Having said all of that, let’s move on to “The Witchfinders,” an episode that, admittedly, I was pretty sure I’d love based on the title alone. I’m a sucker for anything to do with witches, be they the real deal or the unfairly accused. (I was one of those weird high school kids who got a great deal of enjoyment out of The Crucible, having played Reverend John Hale in a UIL production. And on top of that, this ended up being one of my favorite types of Doctor Who stories: alien science mistaken for magic; the Doctor even cites Clarke’s third law in the episode’s final moments. Team TARDIS ends up in 17th-century Lancashire, here called Bilehurst Cragg, at the bottom of Pendle Hill. At first, all seems terribly idyllic, but events quickly shift to the horrific when Old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly) is put on trial for being in league with Satan, and subjected to that old paradoxical chestnut: “If she dies she’s innocent, and if she lives, she’s a witch and we’ll hang her.” From the first moment Becka Savage (a great character name for a complex villainess, played to perfection by Siobahn Finneran) and her ducking stool are introduced, you know it’s only a matter of time before the Doctor will end up chained to this monstrosity.

Further, “The Witchfinders” is the first story of the season to really take into account and address the fact that the Doctor is now a woman, and how that can affect her forays into history, which is something I predicted way back on the day Whittaker’s casting was announced. How appropriate, then, that this is also the first episode of the season to be both written and directed by women (Joy Wilkinson and Sallie Aprahamian, respectively), who no doubt have an understanding of sexism in a way that Chibnall could not. While the Doctor is able to convince Becka of her credentials (“Witchfinder General”) via the psychic paper, the ever-present gizmo is not so fast to work on King James I (Alan Cumming), who is unable to conceive that a woman could hold such a lofty position. Instead, he sees Graham in the role, with the Doctor as his assistant.

Cumming brings over-the-top camp to the grim proceedings, which was surely intentional, as otherwise this would have made for unusually dark material for the family viewing hour. I was still laughing about his crush on Ryan, the “Nubian Prince,” long after the episode ended (as well as Tosin Cole’s deftly played reactions). His commentary on the time travelers’ contemporary clothing — “Are you actors?” — is a welcome hoot, while his assertion that women have an aptitude for “nosiness and gossip” had me wincing right along with Graham. Honestly, I didn’t want to like Cumming at first, thinking that he was playing on a different level than the production needed, but by the time the end credits rolled, he’d thoroughly won me over. The camp subsides into gravitas, and we see a man damaged by abandonment and a violent family history. It’s no wonder he attempts to find answers in superstition, as reality has become too much to bear. Cumming, who is surely banking serious cash over at CBS, didn’t need to take this role, and it says a lot about his respect for the institution that is Doctor Who that he did.

Though the men in this story have their parts to play, it really is all about the pressures exerted upon women by the society around them, and often by other women. The Doctor is experiencing this for the first time in her life, and puts a perfectly fine point on it: “Honestly, if I were still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself!” Yaz is triggered back to an awful time at school when a girl named Izzy Flynt turned the whole class against her. Young Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele) is pulled in different directions, and without the guiding force of her grandmother (“There’s enough wonder in nature without making things up”) she eventually succumbs to the hysteria, and joins in Becka’s condemnation of the Doctor. She’s probably the heart of “The Witchfinders,” and the character that goes on the most interesting journey. Even as the primary villain, Becka has a similar complexity. She admires the Doctor at first, being dazzled by her ability to hold a position such as Witchfinder General, but soon she must follow her king. The Doctor has a poetic line that pretty much sums up the entire season so far: “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. That can show you everything, if you stop being afraid of what you don’t understand.”

In Act III, following the Doctor’s escape from the ducking stool (on cue, she gives due credit to Houdini), the sci-fi elements come home to roost, as the truth behind the eerie mud-tendrils and zombies is revealed. Selfishness led to Becka’s cutting down a massive tree on the hill (“It was spoiling my view”), beneath which was imprisoned an army of alien war criminals called the Morax. She became infected by the aliens, and, assuming it was Satan attacking, she set out to kill as many witches as possible, believing God would save her in return. Through this development, yet another old chestnut is explored: the person doing the pointing is always the “guilty” one — often quaintly stated as: “If you’re pointing at someone, you’ve got three fingers pointing back at yourself.”

For the big finish, Doctor Who does what it must often do in these situations: vanquish the aliens and make everything right in the world again, or at least as right as it can be in the 17th century. The story has finished making all the subversive points it set out to make before delivering an action-packed, effects- and monster-driven ending — perhaps more satisfyingly than in any other episode this season. While the script for “The Witchfinders” is quite excellent and the performances are solid across the board, the production team must also be given a round of applause. From the exquisitely atmospheric location work in Little Woodham, to the costuming (oh, the hats!), to the props — namely that awesome ducking stool, a character unto itself — once again, this new Who proves that historical stories are its bread and butter.

Doctor Who Recap: Strange Magic