Doctor Who: Tremendous Alan Reigns; Direction Invokes Sentimentality
Another historical episode, another one out of the park for these season of Doctor Who.
The Witchfinders has proved that this season is firmly on a roll – following the Doctor and company as they’re dropped into the middle of a Lancashire village deep in the midst of a murderous with hunt, things take a turn for the science-fictional as King James turns up to figure out exactly why these witch hunts have taken on such a fervent turn.
And there was just so much to love about this episode, wasn’t there? Historical characters are hit-and-miss, but Alan Cumming brought a sublime sense of dramatic camp to King James – he’s a talented enough actor to be able to ground the controversial king in some sense of reality, with the script allowing him a couple of solid scenes of brutal vulnerability. Ah, yes, that script – Joy Wilkinson is the third non-Chibnall scribe of the season, and she’s the proof of the pudding that this version of the show is at its strongest when he is guiding proceedings but not penning them. Her sublime balance of humour, scares, and historical commentary was deft and never got bogged down in one over the other, helped along by some really striking direction from Sallie Aprahamian. Doctor Who, being the show it is, rarely feels visually distinct, but this handsome episode really put the deathly feel to the Autumn setting.
Plus, the setting is just classic Who: British history, a major historical figure, a famous period of our transient past. And the familiarity of that setting allows the episode to explore a little more than it normally might. I really appreciated the subtle nods towards the misogyny that drove so much of the witch hunts (side note: read A Delusion of Satan by Francis Hill – it’s one of the most interesting, in-depth looks at the history of with trials out there), and especially the fact that the show finally really acknowledged the fact that the Doctor’s gender gets in the way of her ability to move freely through the historical worlds she visits. Tennant, Smith, Capaldi et al never had the chance to explore this, but Whittaker’s irritated, frustrated attempts to get people to take her gender seriously adds a layer of humour and depth to the episode.
Plus, this is actually a really spooky outing. I literally gasped when I saw the first earth-zombie, knowing that when I was a kid, my mother would have been lunging for the “off” button on the TV too late for me not to have two weeks of nightmares. As I wrote earlier this year, Doctor Who was an introduction to true horror to me, and I love it when the show really indulges that in a meaningful way. Is this show even doing its job if it isn’t sending kids skittering behind the sofa? I think not.
There’s so much I enjoyed about The Witchfinders – cracking guest performances, a comfortable chemistry between the returning cast, the unflinching brutality of the with hunts – but more than anything, this just felt like a classic Who episode to me. It was fast-paced, it was funny, it was scary and spooky and unsettling and packed with pathos – from the first minute to the last, this is the kind of story that hooks you in and refuses to let you go. This episode made me feel as though I was watching as a kid again, unquestioningly and joyfully enjoying the weekend teatime TV that I looked forward to all week long. And for that, The Witchfinders has to be one of the finest episodes of the season so far – and, I hope, a promise of just how good this version of Doctor Who can be once it’s truly settled in.
What did you think of this obviously great episode? How are you enjoying the season so far? Let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter or Tumblr! If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out the rest of my Doctor Who recaps right here, and also check in with my other recapping projects – I’m currently covering the first Harry Potter book as well as the current seasons of Riverdale and American Horror Story. If you want to read some of my fiction, please check out the ALPHA FEMALE erotica series (eighteen-plus, obviously), available on Amazon now. As ever, if you want to see more stuff like this, please consider supporting me on Patreon!
(header image courtesy of The Independent)