We’ve just seen Doctor Who series 11 episode 8, “The Witchfinders”.
Some Americans saw it last week briefly, on Amazon Prime. More Americans will see it later tonight on BBC America. But this is from the BBC One screening in the UK. Spoilers up, obviously.
1. The Witchfinder Doctor
And with this episode, the Doctor becomes the enemy. Twice, taking the role of the Witchfinder General even if it is denied her by her gender for a period in the middle. The Doctor experiences sexism against herself for the first time, but it also takes the focus off her allowing her to get on with stuff. Though as she said, ‘If I was still a bloke I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself’. Was that aimed at her surroundings or at the fanbase? Until she, rather predictably, gets taken for a witch herself. But then she ends leading a mob of people wielding lit torches against suspected witches… hypocrite much?
2. A Pantomime King
King James the First or England is King James the Fourth of Scotland, his reign joining the two kingdoms. Alan Cumming eats up the royal furniture, with the certainty of a posh privileged Scottish accent, and an utterly cartoony high camp demeanor that gives him the chance to shout Satan at any opportunity with arched eyebrows while boasting his own Biblical credentials. But for all that, he’s a man who can have doubts raised, a conscience and depth behind his foppish fascism – hypocrite much?. And it even turns James into a final hero, albeit it one screaming burn the witch. And it feels like Doctor Dee is a story yet to be told. And there has been a suggestion we will see more of him. In reality at this stage in his career, James was over the witch issue. He’d moved on…
3. An Unhappy Valley
While Siobhan Finneran, last seen in the rather miserable Happy Valley carries that demeanor to this role as Lady Savage, a landowner-turned-witchfinder, defending her own position as a powerful women by doing away with any other woman who may challenge her, when she knows that her own nature betrays every ounce of her being. The Hypocrite General – though it does allow her to believe the Doctor is a Witchfinder General while the King can only see her as an assistant – and Graham gets the hat. And she is masterful at manipulation, bread and circuses combine in the apple fair to placate the populace and bring them to her cause.
4. Glorious Mud
This was a medieval village closer to that of Maid Marion And Her Merry Men, resorting to messing around in the mud. Was a P-P-Pancake Day far from their lips? Still they managed to mostly keep the mud off themselves which was an impressive treat when it is infected with the longdead alien warrior hordes. Maybe they wash themselves bobbing for apples?
5. Bleak Expectations
Lancashire is a godless heathen society as any Yorkshireman knows. Look at those stark trees against the flat landscape. No wonder where there are hills, they are burial grounds for undead alien warriors of hate. And a crime against it becomes the greatest sin… but the landscape, dulled down into black and white a lot look wonderful.
You know, with all those Daemons under the Devil’s Hump, maybe the Doctor whould take a batter look at Medieval burial grounds…
6. Sympathy for The Devil
The Doctor doesn’t believe in Satan. Even though in a previous body she’s met him, and his pit… but she does know her King James gospel and can quote it. So can Graham, albeit via the medium of Pulp Fiction.
7. The Stuck-In-The-Mud Dead
If The Walking Dead won;t give us enough zombies, then Doctor Who will, in a reprise of The Unquiet Dead, with corpses rising and attacking, frankly the most rational answer is that they are possessed of the Devil, rather than animated buried alien warriors infecting the mud, from tendrils to humans to Kings. Still… allergic to a special kind of wood? How very handy. Beats kitchen vinegar I suppose…
8. Royal Patronage
King James chose to favour towards his ‘Nubian Prince’ of a Ryan, who he can only view as a fellow torturer. albeit an ‘exotic’ one for the King. James was rumoured to have had relationships with men, the Duke of Lennox, the Earl of Somerset and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and it was even a point of comment at the time. Ryan would have not totally stood out. From working-class dropout to King’s courtesan – that would have been quite the journey.
9. Which Witches?
Witch hunts reached their peak in the 1600s, in a time of mass unrest and a desire for scapegoats, leading to the rise of appointed Witch Finders, who made a pretty penny for being appointed to the task. The Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612 are some of the most famous, where women were arrested for cursing their neighbours or selling their souls to Satan – revealed under torture, of course. With the fear of suspicion turning on anyone, everyone testified against the accused, including one woman’s nine-year-old daughter. Ducking stools, pin pricks and general torture were all methods of discovery. And King James led the rout, with his book Daemonologie seen in tonight’s episode providing much evidence and even changing the rules so that – say – nine-year-old girls could testify in witch trials. Thousands died…
10. A Darker Doctor
Lots to think about, but less to laugh at. This Doctor is keen and earnest but less likely to find moments of humour. She’s been compared to the delivery of Ten and Eleven but she may be heading more towards Five. Her demeanour carries her through until she finds something or someone to be angry at, but this show may be in need of a Donna Noble soon. Combined with the landscape, the death and the general realisation that bad people are getting away with bad things and the Doctor does less to stop it than she could, maybe it’s good that the Doctor has shifted from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day. Not much ho ho ho to go around right now…