​ "The Witchfinders" – Doctor Who S11E08 Review

Yes, it's a classic scary Doctor Who monster. It's still a mediocre story. And that's what a lot of this season has been. Mediocre stories. We've had stories about big business, and 1950s racism, and the Partition. And now we get that the treatment of women in 17th century in England is bad. Duh. It's all been very modern, but it hasn't been that thrilling and/or memorable.

And for those who haven't heard yet, there's a rumor going around that Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall are both leaving at the end of this season. One wonders if the two are related: lack of memorable stories and the departure of two of the people responsible.

Jodie Whittaker, Doctor Who S11E08

But why is "The Witchfinders" not that thrilling? Let's take a look and find out why. The Doctor & Co. materialize in 17th century Lancashire and wander around the village of Bilehurst Craff. There's a celebration going on, and eventually the group finds themselves at the nearby river where the local landowner, Becka Savage (Siobhan Finnegan) is preparing to hold a dunking trial for suspected witch, old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly). Old Mother dies before the Doctor can save her, and the Doctor gets all up in Becka's face about how she killed an innocent. Becka is all, "Well, the Doctor's interference ruined the trial" (??), and the Doctor flashes her psychic paper, which I'm already re-sick of it, and presents herself as a Witchfinder General.

While Yasmin talks to Old Mother's granddaughter Willa (Tilly Steele), the Doctor, Ryan, and Graham go back to Becka's manor where the masked man that has been following them reveals himself to be King James (Alan Cumming). And Cumming is the best thing about the episode. He's hammy, kingly, and has lots of emotional depth beyond that.

James is big on finding witches. Becka is more than glad to help. The Doctor's psychic paper backslides (I think) and says she's just a Witchfinder Assistant. James assumes Graham is the General and gives him the old WG's hat. James also seems to have an entourage hiding just off screen, because his personal assistant and some guards quickly show up as well.

James and Ryan hit it off, which I'm not sure if it's supposed to suggest a romantic interest or not. Regardless, it doesn't go anywhere so... so what? It gives Tosin Cole something to talk about other than Ryan's dysplaxia.

Tricia Kelly, Doctor Who S11E08

The Doctor and Yasmin befriend Willa, and Yasmin gives the girl a pep talk about fighting depression. They eventually discover Old Mother has been reanimated by mud, and the mud around her grave site is animated with tendrils. There's also weird things afoot like a surplus of handkerchiefs in Becka's room, an empty vial of medicine, and an axe beneath the bed.

When the Doctor confronts Becka, Becka accuses the Doctor of being a witch. James sides with Becka and Willa admits the Doctor is kind of strange. After a brief speech where the Doctor tries to appeal to James by offering to tell him everything he wants to know if he lets her free, and James refuses, the Doctor is dunked. She survives thanks to a combination of breath-holding and training with Houdini. There's an energy discharge when Becka touches the dunking stool, and she bleeds a tear of mud.

In a rather long exposition sequence, Becka explains she cut down the dunking stool tree because it was blocking her view. It was Old Mother's favorite tree, and hacking the tree down released the sentient mud beneath it. Some of it got into Becka, and she's been running around killing witches both to cover her own transformation, and because she thinks since "Satan" is in her, she can defeat him by killing the supposed witches.

Siobhan Finneran, Doctor Who S11E08

Becka loses the fight for her own body, and a mud-person (i.e., an alien "Morax") takes over her body. Apparently it's the Queen Morax, and she and the animated bodies grab James and release a rather generic energy blast, knocking out everyone else. In a rather rushed ending, the Doctor works out the tree is a biomechanical "key" (hence the energy discharge earlier) that confined the banished Morax soldiers to Earth. Burning pieces of the tree gives off anti-Morax fumes, which let the Doctor & Co. confront the Morax as they prepare for their king to take over James.

The Doctor does lots of hand-wavey stuff to reactivate the key and manages to suck the Morax out of the corpses so that they collapse. Just when you think, "Hey, Becka was alive when she was possessed, so maybe this will save her", the Morax Queen "admits" she's a witch. James grabs a torch and jams it into Queeny, and she explodes real good.

At the end, Willa and James accompany Team TARDIS back to the TARDIS. James has learned a valuable lesson, and Willa has decided to become a healer like Old Mother. Ryan refuses to go back with James to London and be his protector. And the group depart, leaving an astonished James and Willa.

Other than a rushed and somewhat inexplicable ending, it was an okay episode. The "key" also pulls in all the Morax, and burning parts of the key acts as anti-Morax repellent. But who imprisoned the Morax, in the first place? The other Morax? Some other race of beings? The Lorax, who were offended at the name similarity? I don't know.

The first two-thirds of the episode builds up the suspense, and both the wandering mud corpses and the transformed Becka are creepy in a Doctor Who monster type of way. But the ending is really rushed, and one gets the impression that first-time Doctor Who writer, Joy Wilkinson, was too busy checking off boxes --Yasmin deals with depression and bullying, James was maybe homosexual, the Doctor deals with the 17th century treatment of women because she's now in a woman's body -- to consider how she was going to wrap things up until she got to the final stretch.

Siobhan Finneran, Doctor Who S11E08

The Morax are superfluously cool but ultimately uninspired. They have a generic "energy blasting" power that they conveniently forget to use at the end, and body possessing, and tendril thrusting, and an invasion occupation. But we don't find out anything about them, and they're not that... inspirational? I can't say I would want to see them return. And they're not exactly the next Daleks or Cybermen or Sontarans or Weeping Angels or the Silence. They're alien soldiers with a few tricks, and that's it. A one-and-done, as it were.

The performances are good. As noted, Cumming is the best of them, but Finneran and Steele are fine as well. Whittaker mostly gets center stage: Ryan and Yasmin get their little subplots, and Graham mostly walks around with the goofy looking Witchfinder hat and look... well, goofy. It's not really a companion episode, though. One gets the impression they're giving the companions subplots because they can't find much else for them to do.

Maybe it's that I'm an American viewer, but a lot of subtext seems lost on me. It's never quite clear why James is such an important figure. Maybe he's a much bigger "king" in England. But to me it's about as exciting as watching the secret adventures of Benjamin Harrison. As such, stuff like his apparent homosexuality is just not that interesting and seems cloaked in "is he or isn't he?" so the whole thing is a bit of a muddle. Still, it would have been nice if Wilkinson had had somebody say why James was important and why we should care about him. Maybe it's an Anglo versus American thing. I'll have to see what my Canadian and Mexican and Japanese and Hindu friends think of it.

Jodie Whittaker, Doctor Who S11E08So overall, we got a decent episode that seems doused in the same modernism as much of the season. Women good, men bad at worst, indifferent at best. That and Chibnall's... "softer" approach is why I could see him quietly leaving at the end of the season. Maybe he isn't giving the BBC what they want, maybe Doctor Who doesn't give Chibnall and Whittaker what they want. Maybe it's some mix of the two, maybe it's none of the above. Maybe it's all just rumors, and Chibnall and Whittaker will go on for a multi-year run.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?

Written by Gislef on Nov 26, 2018

Comments

Gislef posted 13 days ago

The tree was "biotech". So I suppose that's enough of a reason to allow the sonic to work.

What I find interesting is that Jan Wilkinson hasn't written that much TV and it's mostly soap operas, and it's her first DW episode. The episode monsters seemed almost like a cliche of what a stranger might think a DW monster is. They're an army, they want to conquer Earth for some undefined reason, and they have a generic energy blast ability. Why not kill the Doctor like they killed Alfonso earlier? Even if their energy blast wouldn't do it, use that axe they were hauling around and hack her and the others to pieces.

"The Witchfinders" seemed like a soap opera with a s.f. tinge. I'm all for bringing in new outside writers. But you bring in a a soap opera writer, and have a show runner who is doing "soft" s.f. and more modern day sensibilities, and you get... "The Witchfinders".

tnt posted 13 days ago

You are totally right about checkboxes. It seems that every episode this season was written only with those checkboxes in mind. Instead of giving depth to stories and characters, the writers was too busy juggling with SJW clichés.

BTW, isn't sonic screwdriver is not supposed to work on wood?

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