Monday, 26 November 2018

Mud Lark

Doctor Who
The Witchfinders
Series Eleven, Episode Eight

Who’s up for more history?  The current series seems to work best when it’s set in the past, so it’s a yes from me.  Even if it’s not a pure historical.

Yeah, I know it’s not gonna happen.  Sort of.  In any other year that would be a crazy thing to expect, but Series 11 has come tantalisingly close, hasn’t it?  The only sci-fi thing about Rosa was time travel, which you get just by having the Doctor turn up.  Demons Of The Punjab went a bit further and had bona fide aliens in it, only surprise, the story wasn’t about them and you actually just watched a programme about history!  Sucka!  So I think it’s reasonable to hope The Witchfinders will finally throw off the New Who scaffolding that comes with historical episodes, and just have a bit of period drama with a TARDIS in it.  There is no rule anywhere that says this has to be boring, or that it can’t also be a great story for the regulars.

Hey ho, it’s not a pure historical – and it would be unfair to criticise an episode for what it isn’t.  (Maybe next year for pure history.  Or next series, whenever the hell they make it.)  As for what it is, The Witchfinders is the most recognisably New Who-ey historical episode we’ve had this year, tropes ’n’ all.  When Kerblam! fell out of a wormhole to the Tennant era, there’s a good chance this one came with it.  But it makes good use of some Series 11 stuff, which sets it apart nicely.

"Now we have no way of knowing if Mother Twiston was a witch or not!"
Er, well she's dead.  That's a pretty big vote for no, isn't it?
After decidedly failing to arrive at the coronation of Elizabeth I, the Doctor and co. discover a witch trial in ye olde Lancashire.  After her usual “don’t interfere” spiel the Doctor of course interferes and ingratiates herself with the local witch-finder, hoping to settle things down on the mob-violence front.  I’m not sure at what point they’d have left in the normal run of things, as it’s one of those historical situations where they have no local knowledge – Graham says he knows all about the area and never heard of any witch trials – so they get a free pass, I guess?  One of the quirks of Doctor Who time travel: ignorance is your ticket to interfere.

The psychic paper cuts through any awkwardness here, which is an annoying shortcut (that the show largely did away with until recently), but events soon put the Doctor back in the hot seat.  And I quite like that.  The whole point of the psychic paper was to cut through the accuse-the-Doctor-of-the-crime-because-he-showed-up-when-it-happened rigmarole, which the show had plenty of time for when it wasn’t done in 45 minutes.  But doing that also cuts out the need to use personality and authority to win people over.  Rely too much on it and you get, well, the Tenth Doctor; all “LISTEN TO ME-AHH” followed by people slapping him.  It’s strangely rewarding to have the Doctor’s easy power grab flit away to nothing.  Sometimes you’ve got to put the work in, and with all due respect to Thirteen, authoritah isn’t her strong suit.

Still, for me The Witchfinders is Jodie Whittaker’s most consistent episode yet – and she does get some authoritah later on.  The Doctor tries to rescue someone from drowning (and fails, but welcome to Thirteen), robustly faces down her own witch-ducking, and has a number of don’t-mess-with-me moments that actually resonate.  When she’s about to get ducked (sorry, I know it looks like an AutoCorrect) and lays into Becka the witchfinder, it’s like one of the properly grumpy Doctors back on patrol.  The whole ducking thing (sorry) is a ruse, since she’s good enough at escapology to get out of it, but she wants to find out more.  That’s good stuff.  Even better, this is the first episode (that I noticed) where she’s inconvenienced because she’s a woman.  King James cheerfully refuses to believe she could be in charge of her group, and the Doctor suddenly remembers what she looks like.  It’s a nice little nod to realism in history, like Yaz and Ryan suffering in 1950s Alabama.  Admittedly they over-egg it with the Doctor saying “Becka was right, these are hard times for women!”, but over-egging is one of Thirteen’s super-powers.  It gives her something to react against, anyway.

It’s not long before some sort of alien doodad rears its head (and the pure historical disappears like a dream upon waking, boo), and it turns out it’s… mud.  Like Kerblam!, the explanation turns up in the last ten minutes via a hasty info-dump.  There’s not enough information to figure it out earlier; sci-fi tends to fail as a mystery, as it’s entirely possible the villain will be a mutant blob from Planet Fleb and you’re never going to guess that.  The Witchfinders at least gets some creep value out of resurrected women, who look disturbingly Evil Dead-like and behave suitably disgusting when they’re hungry for more mud.  As with the creepy postmen in Kerblam!, though, they don’t really do anything, and they humourously leave the Doctor and co. unharmed and unconscious while they pootle off to do something else.  The whole sci-fi side of the script gets suddenly pedestrian when we find out they’re really the Morax, imprisoned aliens guilty of crimes unknown who fill your body with Morax mud and want to take over the world and blah blah blah.  What does any of it matter this late into the episode?  And New Who strikes again: aren’t witches much more interesting when they’re actually Blorgs from planet Blarg, and they only look like witches?  Er, no, actually.

The Doctor actually says "According to my calculations."
Pictured: calculating.
The Doctor pieces a lot of it together as a best guess, since she’s spent the episode picking up pieces of information, but then the solution manifests as “burn bits of their tree prison, point the sonic screwdriver at the burned bits, point those bits at the tree and abra cadabra it’s all fixed,” and you can feel the average IQ of the room drop.  It all feels very, “This is the sort of thing you get at the end, right?”, complete with King James offing a witch that refuses to be imprisoned.  This handily saves the Doctor from figuring out what to do with her, and may or may not be worse than imprisoning her for all eternity, which was the Doctor’s plan.  She gives the King the cold shoulder for Doing A Bad Thing, obviously, because these things are binary.

As a sci-fi story, The Witchfinders is pretty much a dud.  As a historical, it’s no documentary.  But fortunately there’s other stuff here.  Siobhan Finneran gives Becka buckets of self-belief; she’s actually quite nice when you’re on her side.  (Admittedly no one asks how, if all 35 witch trials have ended with a drowned innocent woman, they’re still drawing crowds, but I guess people do keep watching Most Haunted.)  Alan Cumming will probably divide a few fans with a performance that is, let’s just say not shy, but I enjoyed it.  Cumming is playing a comedic King James and no mistake, with enough witty emphasis that you know he’s going to say “Satan!” again and you’ll probably laugh.  (Well, did.)  I’m not entirely sure this episode needed a funny turn, but every scene was more enjoyable because of it.  Best of all, he flirts outrageously with Ryan, which gives Ryan something to react to, thank god.  In another “Welcome to 2018” nod, this is played exactly the same as if he were a female companion.  There’s no embarrassing nudge-wink about a man having the hots for Ryan – although there is a wry glance from everybody when King James asks him to stay at the end.  Ryan is, if anything, respectful about the whole thing.  (But maybe don’t say things like “I feel ya”?)  Elsewhere, Yaz at least sounds like a police officer when she goes to comfort the granddaughter of a murdered “witch”, and Graham gets to play policeman (sort of) as a witch-finder in a spectacular hat.  For once some of the good bits are shared out between the three of them, as they’re all genuinely horrified by what’s going on.  This is one of the reasons I like historical episodes: they put the characters in context, which is something they badly need and don’t get from spaceships.  I don’t need to repeat that these aren’t the deepest characters the Doctor has known, but any help bulking them up is appreciated.

The script isn’t brilliant.  It certainly has some good stuff in it, like not letting the Doctor march around witch-trial England waving the sonic screwdriver without consequences – this sort of thing is why people take the piss, especially when you scan someone and unironically say “No magic,” like there’s a scan setting for that.  But you’ve also got odd little clunkers like “What’s going on here at Bilehurst Cragg?” (like last week’s “There’s something very wrong here at Kerblam!” – is the Doctor part-SatNav?), and a should-be-brilliant face-off between the Doctor and a gloating King James wobbles when she says “You wanna know the secrets of existence?  Start with the mysteries of the heart.”  (Is she reading that off a fridge magnet?)  As much as I love the Doctor not being cowed by Becka, I wish there was a better point for her to make than comparing it to Yaz’s experience with a school bully – which is largely Yaz’s contribution this week, and not a very well-developed one at that.

Hey ho.  First time around, I was disappointed that The Witchfinders didn’t do what I wanted.  Second time, I enjoyed Finneran and Cumming’s performances a lot more, savoured the Doctor stuff, didn’t want to shove Ryan off a short pier for once and tried to ignore the bollocksy bits.  Words like “runaround” come to mind, and that’s not always an insult.  It’s an entertaining, if uneven runaround.  This series, it’s probably best to pick your battles.


  1. Argh, we're way behind reading these. One tiny little holiday and the reviews pile up like slabs of granite. (Ours, not yours. Yours are delightful confections.)

    First of all, we loved your satnav joke. Tee hee!

    Overall, you definitely liked this better than we did, although we think yours is a much more measured review than ours, not least because you achieved what we couldn't and watched it more than once. We agree with the runaround tag, although it's just that which clunks with the subject matter for us. Dunno, just seems too horrific for Alan Cumming's panto turn (fun as it is, and we liked the historical accuracy of his flirting with Ryan).

    For once some of the good bits are shared out between the three of them, as they’re all genuinely horrified by what’s going on. This is one of the reasons I like historical episodes: they put the characters in context, which is something they badly need and don’t get from spaceships.

    That's true, although it also has the drawback of forcing the judgment of history from a modern standpoint, which is frequently intensely irritating. Not that we're standing up for witch burning here or anything, but still.

    We had to think carefully about how we felt about the Doctor in this after we read your review. Her authoritah, we do not respect it, but we're clearly holding that up to a much severer standard than you are, and you make an excellent case for your standard here. After ponderation, we think our attitude a gender-based thing. Part of the reason we love Buffy is because she can fearlessly walk around at night and do all the other stuff we're forced to be careful with. And when they cast the Doctor as a woman, we were hoping for something similar: that her Time Lordness would trump her being female. We really don't want to see her being discriminated against because of her gender: we get enough of that in real life. Nor do we want to see her looking less competent than her predecessors, because it's too easy to associate that with her gender and we don' want to see anyone doing that. We're sure they're trying to do a good thing by pointing out the problems, but it's just not what we want to see. That's entirely our thing, though, and not a blanket judgment on it. Your stance is just as valid. It was helpful being able to clarify that.

    1. It's a tricky thing to word, but I don't *like* that the Doctor is inconvenienced because she's a woman, exactly. It's more the registering that she resembles a human woman now, and thus encountering the assholery that comes with it. I would be happier if she was strong enough to bulldoze it, and while I think she *just* about manages it in this case, the character this year is written as such a nothingy ditz that it looks alarmingly like a gag about women Doctors. That can't possibly be what they're going for, so why are they doing it? Why is she significantly dumber than the viewer? Answers on a postcard, but my guess would be "Chibnall can't write for the Doctor, and he's screening the scripts."

      I do also hate modern judgement of history - insert Gwyneth quote from Unquiet Dead, nailed it in Episode 3! - and in this case it was just a bit weird. What was all that half-hearted guff about Yaz getting bullied? How the hell was that the same? (Maybe it was, they don't go into it at all.) But, those companions. Literally anything for them to react against is going to help me out when it comes to caring about them. My standards may be lowering by the week! :P