This season of Doctor Who has been one of new takes on familiar themes—sometimes pushing the boundaries of what the show can do, sometimes pulling it back to its earliest roots, sometimes just frustratingly proving it’s still Doctor Who. But this week, in among the high camp and the mud-witches, it told a story only this era of the show could.
Much of “The Witchfinders” finds itself concerned with the idea of prejudice. It’s in the name, as the Doctor and her friends find themselves in 17th century Lancashire amid the fervor of witch-hunting across England, sparked by none other than the personal obsessions of King James I (he literally wrote the book on it, Daemonologie, in 1597, a copy of which is briefly seen in this episode). But it’s also focused on more than just accusing people of casting spells and curses over the village of Bilehurst Crag. It’s an episode that deals with prejudice in multiple forms, from religious persecution (obviously, given that witches were seen as agents of Satan) to class persecution—Becka Savage, Bilehurst’s landowner and the antagonist of much of the episode, is a former peasant who married up into the realm of landed gentry. But it’s also about the prejudices lobbied against women, whether in the 17th century or far beyond.
Most of this thematic idea, unlike prior historical outings this season (like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”), is kept at the periphery of “The Witchfinders”, whose other primary concern is a bit of classic Doctor Who camp. From zombies possessed by alien mud, to Alan Cumming delivering a majestically cheesy performance as James I, the episode’s intent at first is more about delivering a fun romp than it is offering a truly serious lesson about England’s witch-dunking craze.
It’s made clear from the get-go that it’s an episode unlike the historicals we’ve seen in season 11 so far. Literally seconds after the Doctor reminds Yaz, Ryan, and Graham that they’re not to interfere, they promptly set about interfering in a witch trial unfolding before them. And while dues are given to people acknowledging that the Doctor and her friends are clearly not normal people of the time, any issue of race that might have arisen is brushed over or just plain unacknowledged. “The Witchfinders” wants you to have a good time, be freaked out by some mud zombies, and laugh at Graham wearing a silly hat for most of it — just like the old Doctor Who you know and love, a constant theme of this season so far. And for the most part, it succeeds at doing so, even if it mainly falls on the back of Cumming’s delectably over-exaggerated guest performance to do so.
But as the tension of the episode escalates for its climax, “The Witchfinders” throws down a roadblock that transforms it from a fun, if otherwise slightly inconsequential, pseudohistorical adventure into something that only this season of Doctor Who could tackle: It reminds the Doctor that her latest incarnation is female, and that means the usual plan of walking into a room and just naturally assuming authority is something that is going to be questioned repeatedly (and often ignored).
The seeds are sown for this realisation early on, if only because they’re played for laughs—the casual disregard for women at any level of authority beyond being child-bearers or wives is made clear by King James being able to naturally override the Doctor’s psychic paper, seeing her less as a witchfinder-general and more like a witchfinder-assistant. But it’s only when that prejudice comes to the fore, and the women of “The Witchfinders”—Becka, and young Willa Twiston, whose grandmother was drowned as part of the witch trials—begin to turn on each other as the danger becomes graver, that the Doctor finds herself targeted in a way she never would’ve been before.
Aside from a single acknowledgement from the Doctor that if she were still a guy no one would question her waving around a magic wand taking gobbledegook, interestingly “The Witchfinders” doesn’t treat this as a hugely grand moment—even if it’s the first time it’s really happened this season, 80 per cent of the way in. It is not really a teaching moment for anyone other than maybe the Doctor herself. But it becomes another obstacle for the Doctor to overcome in order to start saving the people around her, an obstacle that she is, at first, unsure how to navigate after centuries of assumption. It makes the Doctor’s eventual victory that much harder earned, because she has had to prove herself to the people around her before she could even tackle it.
It’s a point that gets slightly undercut, as moments after said authority is won is when the alien mud (actually imprisoned beings called the Morax, released from their prison beneath Bilehurst by…Becka chopping down a tree she didn’t like, apparently) truly reveals itself as the threat of “The Witchfinders” rather than human prejudice, and the episode hastily rushes to its “stop the monsters” conclusion. But even then it’s a clever and nuanced approach to the Doctor’s current gender that goes beyond just the occasional lip-service nod of it having been a while since she wore women’s clothes, or what have you. While it’s something the show probably can’t get away with repeating too many times, the fact that it did so here elevated “The Witchfinders” beyond its fun, if fleeting, romp into an adventure with a great more deal to say than you might have first expected.
You might think that King James openly flirting with his, err, dodgily described “Nubian Prince” is a Doctor Who-y bit of additional pseudohistory, but no. Although it’s hotly debated just how intimate the relationships actually were, historians believe that James had multiple male and female lovers during his reign, on top of his marriage to Anne of Denmark. The most famous of all was allegedly with George Villiers, the son of a knight that the infatuated James elevated to the position of Duke of Buckingham — among several letters discussing the men’s bond with each other, a 2006 restoration of Apethorpe Hall, one of James’ royal residences, revealed a hidden passage between the bedrooms of James and Villiers.
God bless Bradley Walsh’s commitment to wearing that Witchfinder General hat for most of the episode. Graham looked silly as hell in it but you have to admire that he kept it on even when he had no real reason to.
For all the greatness we got in Alan Cumming just going above and beyond what would be considered “over the top” in every scene he was in, the conversation between King James and the Doctor about the mysteries of the world, and James’ own traumatic childhood, was a beautifully performed and understated moment between the two.
Given how much of the conflict in this episode is based around women being sidelined and ignored, how different would this episode have been if the Doctor had sent Graham into Bilehurst Crag to talk with the locals—which would’ve made sense, given his bus driver people skills—and brought Yaz with her and Ryan instead? King James probably would’ve had a right old time with only Ryan in a position of authority, at least.