Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

“I could show you everything if you stop being afraid of what you don't understand.”

As the first episode to really tackle the Doctor’s new gender head on, it was... okay. Perhaps there should be a rule about witch stories in genre television… oh wait, see rule eight and change burning at the stake to dunking in a river.

Okay, that isn't totally fair, because this episode didn't totally suck. I'll start with the positives. The Doctor is starting to fully take shape now, and her style is decidedly a pacifist with a heroic streak a mile wide. She is fully willing to sacrifice herself first before putting others in danger. Sure, the last few Doctors have had moments like that, but this Doctor is selfless.

I'm a bit torn about King James. While the character bore some vague resemblance to the real historical king (see below), he didn't have his own witch-hunters and he wasn't openly gay. Yet, casting Alan Cumming was perfect for this take on the King and made me smile with every double entendre. His character just felt wildly out of place in this story.


The subject matter here involves true darkness, probably as close to evil as you can get. It is also a perfect framework to discuss misogyny. Which is why the choice to use a woman as the primary antagonist felt off. Not just because she was ultimately innocent, a puppet for a parasitic alien; her gender flipped the traditional dynamic on its head and not necessarily in the way the writers intended.


In the end our villain ends up being a monster of the week; alien prisoners trapped underground as berries by a magical tree, and seriously, how has that been kept in check with the rampant expansion and deforestation in this century? Yes, the message was about how intolerance is foolish, and that a person is not defined by gender or race or age or creed, and everyone has worth no matter what. But the underlying framework was very flawed.

Bits:

King James I was involved in witch-hunts, attended trials, and even wrote a book about the subject of witchcraft. His book is credited as providing some background material for Macbeth.

The way they revealed Alan Cumming as King James was delightful, and his constant flirtation with Ryan was hilarious. I also loved how Ryan didn’t seem uncomfortable as much as flattered.

Graham spent most of the episode leading, but seemed a bit bored while doing it.

Yaz is feeling more and more like The Doctor’s assistant and trainee; she is acting a lot like her.

Was the final alien makeup or CGI? I couldn’t really tell.

Quotes:

Savage: “As King James has written in his new Bible, 'Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.'”
The Doctor: “In the Old Testament. There's a twist in the sequel. 'Love thy neighbor.'”

The Doctor: “And why today? Because this is my problem. I can buy that this is the biggest ever witchhunt in England. Or, I can buy that it is an alien mud invasion. But both on the same day? I can't buy that!”

King James: “My father died when I was a baby.”
Ryan: “I feel ya. I lost me mum and me nan.”
King James: “My father was murdered by my mother who was then imprisoned and beheaded.”
Ryan: “Okay, that's worse.”

King James: “Who are you? How do you know these things?”
The Doctor: “I know because we're all the same. We want certainty, security. To believe that people are evil or heroic but that's not how people are. You want to know the secrets of existence? Start with the mysteries of the heart.”

The Doctor: “I am no witch. I'm just good at holding my breath and getting out of chains, thanks to a very wet weekend with Houdini.”

Savage: “Do you know why the ducking stool was invented, Doctor? To silence foolish women who talk too much.”
The Doctor: “Yeah, I did know that, which is daft because talking's brilliant.”

Ryan: “We have to help out.”
King James: “Yes, yes. We must confront those agents of Satan even in the face of witchery and…”
Yaz: “Aw, mate, seriously? Not witches! Bodies possessed by alien mud!”

Two out of four magical trees turned into witch dunking apparatus... apparati?

J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Personally, while I enjoyed Alan Cumming's take on King James, what I really wanted was an episode about the Doctor's very wet weekend with Houdini.

migmit said...

Seeing Alan Cumming is always a pleasure, but the episode in general was kinda meh.

I felt like they were going through a checklist "how to show misoginy". Insist a woman will never achieve anything — check; doesn't matter that there is another woman standing right there who already did and in a few minutes would become a sort of a hunting partner to a king. I had similar impression of "Rosa", although this episode had more fun parts (read: at least some).

I have to say, with the title like that I was subconsiously expecting Ghostfacers to show up.

Anonymous said...

I like Jodie's take on the Doctor, each of the companions has potential (even though some of them have been underserved, three companions has worked before). But it just hasn't felt like Doctor Who all season. I've been watching since I had to stay up late on Saturdays to catch it on PBS and I firmly believe every iteration has a redeeming quality (even 6). But lately these episodes just sit on my DVR until I feel guilty enough to watch them.

migmit said...

Related; just found this: https://io9.gizmodo.com/1830609009 — and it's hilarious. Apparently, not everybody liked the previous episode.

(full disclosure: yes, I work for the guys who published this; no, nobody told me to promote this link in any way)

Anonymous said...

Billie, check out the audio Smoke and Mirrors, where the Fifth Doctor is summoned to a fun fair by Houdini. It’s an enhanced audiobook produced by Big Finish Productions and AudioGo for the 50th anniversary range Destiny of the Doctor, which had a story for each Doctor up to the Eleventh, read by actors from each period (except for the Ninth Doctor, where it’s Nick Briggs doing the reading) and a guest actor performing a guest character.