The Witchfinders

Story No. 310 Let's get a shift on!
Production Code Series 11, Episode 8
Dates November 25, 2018

With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Joy Wilkinson Directed by Sallie Aprahamian
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle

Synopsis: The TARDIS fam encounter King James in a village where women suspected of being witches are hunted.


The Horror of History by Niall Jones 25/9/23

For all its much-heralded innovation, not all of Series 11 was intended to do something new. Its eighth episode, The Witchfinders, fits neatly into a genre that Doctor Who has been doing regularly since 2005: the celebrity historical. This is a genre with a clear formula: the Doctor travels to an easily-recognised period of history, meets a well-known historical figure and teams up with them to defeat aliens who have tried to blend into their settings.

Despite broadly following this formula, The Witchfinders does depart from it in several ways. In stories such as The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp, the past is presented less as a new world to be discovered and more as a familiar set of tropes to be played with and made into jokes. While the historical figure who appears in The Witchfinders, King James I of England, is very well-known, its setting during the Pendle Hill witch trials is less familiar. Moreover, the seriousness of its topic means that the story is played far straighter than is the case for most other celebrity historicals.

Another thing that The Witchfinders does differently to other stories in its genre is that it emphasises just how alien the past can be. This is perfectly illustrated by the witch trial that the Doctor and her companions witness early on in the story. Local landowner Becka Savage takes no pleasure in overseeing the witch trial in Bilehurst Crag, but is utterly convinced that it is a necessary part of the fight against Satan. At one point, she declares that 'we shall save the souls of my people from Satan, even if it means killing them all'. In a witch trial, the accused is tied to a large tree branch overhanging a river; before being dunked into the water, she is told: 'if you drown you are innocent; if you survive, you are a witch and shall be hanged'. It's the kind of trial in which even entering the courtroom leads to a death sentence.

What's presented here is real historical horror, of the sort that was often explored in Hartnell-era stories, such as The Aztecs or The Massacre. There's even a Past Doctor Adventure set in Salem called The Witch Hunters featuring the First Doctor. The Witchfinders echoes the ethos of these purely historical adventures by having the Doctor remind her companions of the importance of not interfering with 'the fundamental fabric of history', an emphasis that is also highlighted in Rosa and Demons of the Punjab. Of course, what the Doctor says and what the Doctor does are often two different things. As soon as she realises what's going on, she dives straight into the river and attempts to save the accused woman. While this shouldn't be surprising, it's rare to see Jodie Whittaker's Doctor act in such a clearly heroic way. In fact, it's a refreshing return to form for a Doctor whose moral compass often seems confused.

The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the episode, with the Doctor and friends firmly on the side of the victims of Becka Savage's witch trials.

Much of the action takes place outdoors and was filmed at Little Woodham Living History Village in Hampshire, creating an evocative sense of place. The story's strong sense of atmosphere is further enhanced by the direction. The camera makes much of the wintry nature of the landscape, including several disorientating and ominous shots of the menacing bare canopies of trees. Other images emphasise the sense of dread, such as the silhouette of an axe being raised. The way the story is directed pushes the episode towards folk horror, a genre that has often used historical witch trials as a source of terror.

The episode's writer, Joy Wilkinson, describes herself as 'a horror nut' growing up, so this might not be surprising. Her website notes that her favourite TV shows include 'The Prisoner, GBH, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks, Succession and Peaky Blinders', so it doesn't sound as though she is a fan of Doctor Who in the way that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat are, although the fact that she subsequently adapted this episode as a Target novelisation and has contributed a short story and a comic strip suggests that she enjoys writing for Doctor Who. There's nothing wrong with this, of course - in fact, the series needs writers who aren't fanboys - but one result here is that the most traditionally Doctor Who part of the story is also the part that works the least well.

The Morax don't appear explicitly until near the end of the story and don't particularly impress when they do. Their backstory is very generic - war-like aliens imprisoned on Earth who seem evil for the sake of being evil. The idea of them taking the form of mud tendrils is interesting and the shot, towards the end of the story, of a snake-like tendril with a screaming mouth menacing King James is genuinely frightening, but, for the most part, they merely appear as ashen-faced zombies, possessing the bodies of witch-trial victims. They feel shoe-horned into the story and seem to be there mostly because it's Doctor Who and Doctor Who needs aliens, ending up as one of the most forgettable aspects of the episode.

In contrast, Alan Cumming's performance as King James is anything but forgettable. He plays 'Satan's greatest foe' with relish. He is introduced into the story by bursting in on the other characters and removing his mask with a flourish, before drawling, 'you may prostrate yourselves before me'. This James is camp and dramatic, proclaiming his love of disguise and flirting with Ryan, but he is also a fanatical witchfinder. This marks a stark contrast from the way most historical figures have been presented in Doctor Who, with his most controversial aspect brought to the fore. As a result, the Doctor and James find themselves at loggerheads for much of the episode, culminating in the Doctor being accused of witchcraft herself, a rare example of the Thirteenth Doctor's gender being relevant to the plot. Despite being presented as something of a villain, Cumming's charismatic performance ensures that James remains sympathetic throughout. He also unironically sees himself as the hero, someone who quests for 'goodness and knowledge, beauty and art - all of God's virtues', even if that quest involves the killing of a large number of women.

Despite this, the episode suggests parallels between James and the Doctor - both are committed to fighting what they see as evil and both hide behind masks and titles - yet one is a seventeenth-century monarch firmly ensconced in a fundamentalist Christian worldview, while the other is a scientifically-advanced time traveller. While this hints at interesting ambiguities, the episode doesn't explore them in much depth, with the Doctor's speech on how 'inside, we're all the same' feeling flat and banal. Similarly, her response to Becka's biblical justification for her actions - dismissing it as Old Testament and commenting that 'there's a twist in the sequel, "love thy neighbour"' - is both inaccurate (the command to 'love thy neighbour' first appears in the Book of Leviticus) and inadvertently risks coming across as anti-Jewish.

The problem that the episode encounters, a version of which occurs in most Doctor Who stories involving magic, is that, for a character like James, trapped in a world that lacks the necessary understanding to separate the supernatural from the extraterrestrial, the arrival of the Morax simply provides physical evidence that affirms his existing beliefs. It not only proves the existence of Satan, but also shows him to be truly evil; simply pointing out that there aren't any witches, just aliens who look like witches, doesn't really change that. In a seventeenth-century context, the difference just isn't meaningful. The key debate in The Witchfinders should be less about religion versus science and more about the moral lines crossed in fighting perceived evils.

While its failure to properly engage with its most interesting ambiguities is frustrating, The Witchfinders is still an enjoyable watch and is certainly one of the better episodes in Series 11. Joy Wilkinson's script is largely solid, the direction stylish and the acting generally strong, with a stand-out performance by Alan Cumming. It may not be a classic, but it is still reasonably good. The story's straightforward plot and conventional storytelling also marks a contrast with much of Chris Chibnall's writing for Doctor Who, in which plots, characters and settings are multiplied and spliced together, sheer kinetic energy attempting to make up for a lack of depth. The Witchfinders might not be radical, but its basic competence is something that cannot be taken for granted in the turbulent Chibnall era.