Once again, the new Doctor Who cast and production team prove they are well-suited to take on historical dramas and alien horrors in period settings.
“The Witchfinders,” the eighth episode of the season, finds The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) making their way to Lancashire in the 17th Century. Intending to visit the coronation of Elizabeth I (despite The Doctor’s complicated relationship with her), Team TARDIS find themselves instead at a witch trial presided over by local land baroness Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran). Too late to save the latest victim of the witch panic, The Doctor assumes the role of Witchfinder General; ordering the trials to cease. Unfortunately, her plan is thwarted by a seemingly unlikely visitor: King James I (Alan Cumming).
And with the king’s arrival, Doctor Who enters new territory as he looks into the psychic paper and sees she is listed as the Witchfinder General’s assistant. His inherent chauvinism alters the fabric of the paper’s psychic message and he assigns the Witchfinder General to Graham. The Doctor, meanwhile, must figure out how to save the nearby village despite the king’s ability to dismiss her simply because the Time Lord is a woman.
Sadly — or perhaps smartly — the episode never delves too deep into the issue. Instead, it presents the ambient sexism of the era as an obstacle The Doctor must overcome to prevent an alien holocaust from occurring in the countryside. While it would be nice to see the episode confront the issue more directly, the show’s format binds The Doctor as much as the king’s attitude does. She can’t really change his opinions as it would alter fixed points in history. It is possible the show is better off for playing with the topic in this fashion considering King James eventually listens to her, even if he doesn’t want to hear what she’s saying.
For his part, Cumming plays the king with such an appetite that it lifts the appropriately dreary locations. His King James if full of theatrical bravado and barely contained appetites. His immediate attraction to Ryan is an early highlight. But the operatic elements of the king’s demeanor eventually give way to a soul troubled by his upbringing within court intrigues and a personal darkness his era can only explain away as the workings of Satan. In one of his key interactions with The Doctor, she surmises many of his troubles began when his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, abdicated the throne of Scotland while he was an infant and left him in the care of regents. Curiously, the issue of the protestant rebellion against her Catholic rule is left on the table next to a deeper investigation of the period’s sexists attitudes. But from the standpoint of James as a character in this story, he is as much a victim of the prevailing attitudes as he never finds a proper outlet to channel his anger at seemingly being abandoned. In lieu of this, James takes up an interest in witchfinding, which leads him to this very specific time and place.
Which is important not so much from a historical sense — though his views on witchhunting changed in our history shortly after 1600 — but from the simple fact that he is there to witness The Doctor preventing another alien invasion in England’s history. If we’re counting from James’s point of view, The Doctor previously prevented another Time Lord from mucking with the Norman invasion of 1066, a Sontaran scouting mission sometime in the Middle Ages, a second Sontaran raid shortly before The Doctor’s marriage to Elizabeth I, and a Carrionite incursion at the Globe Theater in 1599. Considering James succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne — a point the episode is also curiously vague about — it is somewhat surprising he did not recognize the concept of The Doctor. But even if he knew anything of the Time Lord’s involvement with his predecessor, he would not be ready to accept that person as a woman. And as we’ve established, James’s dismissal of women is an ongoing obstacle The Doctor must face time and again throughout the story.
But unlike the other historical episodes this season, the alien menace on display turns out to be the real threat. The Morax may not get much development once discovered, but they make for a splendid visual and worthy, if brief, foe. Curious that they also present themselves so exactly as the superstitions surrounding witches at the time. Perhaps a choice made for expediency as much as the thematic connections.
In fact, “The Witchfinders” — with its exploration of James’ character, the period prejudices, its allusions to Becka Savage marrying into the landed gentry, and even the connection between her and the “witch” she drowns early in the story — could have pulled off being a two-parter. There would have been room to explore Willa’s (Tilly Steele) situation more fully and, perhaps, realize the other villagers as more than a mindless mob. But that’s a fairly minor complaint as the show continues to tell wonderful tales which accept prejudice as a reality which must either be confronted or circumvented to save the day.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.