If this season has been characterised by its carefully minimalist approach, it’s quiet character moments and its underplayed threats from villains who aren’t truly villains, The Witchfinders flips that entirely on its head. This episode was a full-on, over the top Doctor Who story that would have sat very easily alongside the Tom Baker, Peter Davison or, indeed, David Tennant’s era of the show.
At first, it looked as though it could have been another quiet piece of social realism: the Doctor had taken charge and had gained the confidence of an authority figure who appeared to have been mislead by a deluded sense of black and white morality and Christian self-righteousness. Easy pickings for our quick talking Time Lord.
But it’s not to be: no sooner had she name dropped our great and glorious king than, like a pantomime villain, he appears from beneath his mask to put straight any misconceptions we could be harbouring about him. Melodramatic, smoothly spoken, arrogant and camp as hell, here was the true villain of the witch hunts. So clearly without scruples did the Stuart monarch come across that I was getting flashbacks of the Kings Demons and wondered for a moment whether we were being presented with the unexpected return of Kamelion. Alternatively, if Alan Cummings’ performance reminded me of anyone, it was of Anthony Ainley’s Master. An assumption only reinforced when the king reinterpreted the psychic paper and put the Doctor in her place. You could just imagine Ainley cackling away in the shadows at that put down.
Alas (or thankfully, depending on your point of view) it was not to be. Instead we had a possibly quite brave, high camp, morally dubious, rendition of King James I. And wasn’t it fun to watch? Except perhaps his flirting with Ryan – I can almost imagine that it wasn’t entirely untrue to the character of the King, but the King’s fetishisation of his ‘exotic’ friend was a little uncomfortable at times (even if Ryan’s obliviousness was delightful).
What made this episode interesting viewing was that it very much avoided making itself a tale about “issues” despite how ripe the material was for it. Far from teaching James or Becka the error of their ways, or even repeating Demons of the Punjab and Rosa and having our heroes having to stand back and watch the atrocities of history repeat themselves, here we have a genuine monster. In fact, if you want a particular gripe with the morality of the episode it is that, theoretically, James’ superstition and obsession with the witch hunts is more or less vindicated by the events he witnesses, especially when he nearly becomes victim to them. Sure, the monsters are aliens rather than demons from hell, but such a distinction is hardly worth making.
As an aside here, I did encounter a familiar complaint here (not really sure if this is actually a complaint with the writing as it is clearly true to form). It’s nothing new, in fact it’s a problem I’ve had with the show since it’s beginning, but this insistence on the Doctor and their companion’s part on correcting the mistaken superstitious beliefs of less modern societies in order to explain the true extra-terrestrial truth and thus generally further complicating all relations with the people with whom they are trying to work. In this episode, why bother to say that these monsters are not demons risen from hell but in fact aliens descended from heaven? As far as the 17th century characters are concerned, it amounts to the same thing – these are malevolent creatures from another world and mean us harm. If hell fits closer to their conception of the universe, surely it is better to work with that rather than muddy the semiotic dialogue by calling up images of fallen angels? The Doctor has fallen foul to such misunderstandings so many times in the past 2000 years that you’d have thought she’d have learnt by now.
Anyway, once the true villains of the piece are established in all their horrific monstrosity, sending the more fearful fans running from the room, we have a madcap race to the finish. A little too much of a race for my liking. So much build up, an impressive looking enemy, a perfect cliffhanger as the lot of them are knocked out and the King taken, and then a solution pulled out of the hat in seconds by the Doctor. The final showdown included a repetition of a common theme this series with James stepping in and killing the queen rather than let her be in prisoned “humanly”, although this happened so quickly that it took a moment for me to realise why the Doctor was cross. This was the one story this season where, due to the pacing and extent of the plot, I felt it would have benefited from being a two parter. It reminded me a bit of Moffat’s first “movie poster” season with all its stories squeezed into single episodes and, most similarly, to the magic-sonic solution of the Power of Three. Here, however, it does just feel like a missed opportunity rather than actually seriously undermining the plot. I wanted to see much more of this enemy, especially as they taunted the king.
As far as the ongoing themes of the season go, this one was interesting. The repeated motif of “do not interfere” mirroring the other historical episodes was so quickly broken by the Doctor herself. And, it turns out, with good cause (even if the intervention itself is a failure). That said, whilst she does dispatch the enemies in a massive end of level boss battle, we are still left with the reality of James: his apology to the Doctor is hardly a repentance – we certainly don’t expect him to change his ways. He is still a terrible man (regardless of whatever childhood trauma left him incapable of trusting others). But here, even if that theme is still there, it is somewhat overshadowed by how much worse the Morax were, and the Doctor’s complaint about him appears to be due to his killing of the Morax queen rather than his ongoing persecution of women under the pretence of his war against Satan. That said, this was the first episode this season that fully embraced the Doctor’s gender and as issue in itself: her position and assumed command of the every situation being seriously undermined by her gender. I’m glad they didn’t explore this too much before now as it could so easily have become overdone (and, in fact, would have undermined how progressive a move Jodie’s casting was), however I very much enjoyed it in this episode and the discomfort on Graham’s face at being promoted was beautiful to behold.
This season of Doctor Who is drawing so very close to its conclusion now and I’m enjoying it immensely. I don’t want it to go. Did no one at the BBC receive my request for a 26 week season?