Following last week’s mediocre adventure where the Doctor primarily fights Amazon she returns with a much stronger historical episode.
The Doctor and her companions find themselves in 17th century England. What they discover is the landowner of a small Lancashire village has been trying women as witches, resulting in 35 deaths. The Doctor sets out to find what’s happening in the village with the activities of the landowner drawing the attention of the king.
The best episodes of the season so far have been the historical episodes. They have had the best stories, characterization and the most creative. “The Witchfinders” is the episode that felt most like a classic era story or a story during the Davies/Moffatt era. It’s a historical set story that has an extra-terrestrial threat.
The setting of the witch hunts was a logical one considering the Doctor’s new gender. Historically men were also tried as witches, but in popular culture, most people associate women as the victims. This is the first episode where The Doctor is marginalized for being a woman – she is dismissed from any role of leadership or being able to make any useful contribution. Due to the social climate, she is quickly seen as a witch. The Doctor points out that she would have been taken more seriously if she was still a man. She is also more accepting of her new gender, using more female pronouns to describe herself.
Due to the setting, anything alien would easily be seen as witchcraft. People of the era wouldn’t have understood concepts like aliens and advance technology and were superstitious. It’s surprising that the modern era of Doctor Who hasn’t used this setting before. The alien element played a much more important part of the story than in the other historical episodes in this season. The rural setting makes it plausible that the events in the village would be forgotten – it has been done before in episodes like “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood.” I particularly liked how the alien threat was presented in the episode since there was not an invading force or disguising themselves as humans and control people from within. The aliens’ presence was due to an accident.
Alan Cumming is the biggest name guest star in this season. He plays King James I of England (or James VI of Scotland) and the fears of the trailer that he was going to be an outright villain who relished the chance to kill ‘witches. Fortunately, his characterization was more nuanced. The king was a product of his time – he was a pious man who feared the unknown. James, I was justifiably paranoid because he has seen those closest to him being killed and there have been attempts on his life. The Doctor is hostile to the king, but he does form a friendship with Ryan.
Siobhan Finneran who played the main villain of the episode ran the witch hunt did it out of fear. While her acts are reprehensible, she wasn’t a sadistic monster who enjoyed the suffering of others. Her actions were based on the culture of her time.
The big issue with this episode was the acting. Cumming played James I as if he was a bit camp and he spoke with a posh English accent yet used Scottish terms. James, I was born and raised in Scotland, and he was the first king of England and Scotland so it would have been more logically for Cumming to use his natural accent. Finneran was the worst performance being so over-the-top – she acted like she was in a pantomime. Her performance was so forced, and it did not come across as fun or funny.
“The Witchfinders” is a classic style episode of Doctor Who. People who are unhappy with the new direction of the show should be happier with this offering.