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This season's third historical adventure continues to show that the thirteenth Doctor's best episodes are those set in the past. Unlike “Rosa” or “Demons of the Punjab,” though, “The Witchfinders” is an episode that relies heavily on an alien influence. That's not to say that a purely historical episode set during the witch trials wouldn't work, but it would be a very different story to the one we enjoyed on Sunday night. While there's a moral side to the story, “The Witchfinders” is unashamedly in the mould of the theme park history romps of the previous few Doctors, and that's great. As good as the more serious historicals this season have been, it's worth reminding viewers that trips to the past can be a lark as well.
Even especially silly historical episodes like “The Unquiet Dead” and “The Unicorn and the Wasp” had impressive death counts, and you don't visit a seventeenth century witch hunt without some horrific moments. The strength of this episode lies in its balance between the outlandish and the realistically grim, with the gruesome but ridiculous Morax making for a threat that's easy enough for the Doctor to defeat, while the more frightening and far more real danger of the witch trials is something she has no way to stop. The Doctor rids the unlikely-named Bilehurst Cragg of the unearthly monsters, but it's they who destroy the more human threat of Becka Savage, even if the Doctor does twig the truth just beforehand.
Most damningly, the Doctor fails to talk her way out of her own execution by King James. It's hardly the first time the Doctor has been on the verge of execution, and only escaped by ordinary luck or extraordinary ability, but it does come after a series of adventures where her impact on events has been minimal. It's a good thing that at last we have some good old-fashioned monsters for her to beat (in rather perfunctory fashion), to show she can still do the essential Doctoring. She does manage to talk down the King for a moment, but the Doctor's moving words aren't a match for his combination of religious zealotry and fear. This comes in an episode where, for the first time, the Doctor has to really deal with the different attitudes faced by women.
The witch hunts were, of course, as mired in misogyny as they were in religious mania (as with King James) and personal vendetta and survival (as with Becka). While plenty of men were tried and executed as witches, far more of the unfortunate victims were women. While the real life trials at Pendle Hill weren't nearly as devastating as those in its fictional neighbouring village, the numbers speak for themselves: eleven were tried as witches, nine of them women, and only of one the twelve was found innocent. The rest were executed (another woman never reached trial, dying in prison). While the use of the ducking stool as a method of trial is historically unlikely—these were generally used as a punishment for unfaithful wives and similarly victimised women—the unsurvivable method of attempting to drown a supposed witch and then executing her if she survived—drives home the impossible situation and sheer cruelty an accused witch faced. The folkloric confusion between the two actions stems, no doubt, from the fact that they were similarly spurious accusations used to dispose of troublesome women with enemies.
It was essential that the Whittaker had the opportunity to simply strut her stuff as the Doctor before having to explore the difficulties of being a Lady of Time, but equally a story like this had to happen before the year was out. The simple fact is that the world was (and is) a very dangerous place for women, and there are many eras and places where being female will damage the Doctor's standing. I'm pretty sure that Capaldi's Doctor would still have been strung up if he'd been waving his magic wand around during a witch scare, but he wouldn't have faced the dismissal and patronising attitudes of men. Unfortunately, to follow this up with the Doctor unable to win out against the King using her wit and words, even if only temporarily, makes her character appear weaker when she needed to show what she was made of. At the end, the Doctor has won the King's respect, but too late to have saved her from a ducking.
It's interesting that this is the first of the season's historical adventures to be set in Britain (although “Demons of the Punjab” intersects profoundly with British history). The episode could have been set as effectively in the Salem Witch Hunts, and Doctor Who has visited these events in the past (in the first Doctor novel The Witch Hunters, by Steve Lyons), and this has overtaken the British witch hunts in popular culture. However, it's clear that both writer Joy Wilkinson and director Sally Aprahamian are drawing more on older British cultural artefacts like Blood on Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General (which have been subject to much parody in the past before the era fell out of fashion—both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Black Adder (in “Witchsmeller Pursuivant”) had elaborate witchfinding stories) but all this had faded in popularity by the mid-eighties.
Of course, setting this Britain means we get to have King James as our historical celebrity guest. In contrast to the rest of the cast, Alan Cumming plays the King as larger than life, fruitily arrogant, and unashamedly camp. When it matters, though, Cumming allows the King quieter, more serious moments. King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) is a fascinating figure, one whose life was plagued by violence and threats. His fear of those who would hunt him is underplayed, as is the tragedy of his background, but it allows some context to his actions here. In reality James had become less zealous in his witch hunting by 1612, but he was committed to his faith throughout his life and was a major proponent of the fight against evil, as he saw it, during his time in Scotland (a country he all but abandoned to his underlings once ascending to the English throne). Of course, you can't have King James on-screen without flagrant gay flirting, and his coming on to Ryan doesn't disappoint there (Ryan, for his part, takes it all in his stride). James' sexuality has been subject to rumour and debate since his youth, so the accuracy of this portrayal is something for discussion. Nonetheless, if you're going to write King James as a flamboyant gay demon-hunter, there's no better casting than Alan Cumming.
Siobhan Finneran also makes for a fine guest star as the unethical but desperate Becka, playing her hard enough to be a compelling villain but with enough sympathy to make her motives understandable. Tilly Steele is equally good as Willa, the next in line for Becka's persecution until the Doctor draws the attention. There's an interesting angle to Willa's characterisation, with her following a sort of earth-based faith that would now be called pagan and then would be called satanic. Judeo-Christian religions have a long, long history of (literally) demonising other faiths and belief systems, and while Becka's attacks on the villagers are motivated as by desperation, personal interest, and classism, they are fuelled by religious fanaticism. James was fanatical in his belief he was doing God's work, and the many commoners who rallied behind the witch hunts were driven by both unquestioning belief and fear. The Doctor takes a more rationalist stand against blind faith in the supernatural, in keeping to how they were portrayed in earlier incarnations.
There's a problem with using Doctor Who to criticise religion, though. Yaz shouts down the faithful: “They're not possessed by the Devil, but by alien mud!” In the words of Dave Lister: “Oh good, something sensible at last.” A bunch of alien criminals made from dirt is no less ridiculous than possession by demons; it's a bit hollow for the Doctor to dismiss belief in Satan when she's actually met him. Still, her focus on the “twist in the sequel” to Christianity being “love thy neighbour” is a very nice touch, even if that phrase did originate in the Old Testament. At the end of the day, as much as I have problems with religion, using faith for good instead of harm is a far better message than believing in technobabble monsters over demons.