“The Witchfinders” Review

I was hoping for fewer aliens, but let’s focus on the positive: if we’re going to have an alien race in the story, at least it’s integral to the narrative. And, more importantly, this series is really excellent at finding interesting historical events to explore (rather than the ‘celebrity’ historical focused on Dickens/Shakespeare/Christie etc.) I enjoyed Graham getting the location from Pendle hill, a landmark that has been around for a long time, a pleasingly authentic detail.

A careful balance is struck in presenting the horrific nature of the witch trials within what it, essentially, a bit of family entertainment. There’s a need to steer a course away from straight mockery (I’ve already got “logically…if she weighs the same as a duck…” in my head by the time the witch trial starts.) Equally, it can’t be too horrific for its intended audience (whose proxy, Ryan, might as well turn and break the fourth wall when he says “This is way too dark for me.”) It’s something that the show has done superbly this year – in this case, the Doctor’s reaction to the ducking of a suspected witch is crucial. She can’t be callous enough to stand by, despite her exhortations not to interfere, that’s not who the Doctor is anymore. Nor can there be some glib wand-waving resolution that masks the consequences of the atrocities being witnessed. (Or rather, screwdriver-waving.) But she dives in and she tries.

Alan Cumming gives an excellent turn as James VI/I, I’d feared he’d be on the cartoonish side (“I am inveencible”) but again, it’s a well judged performance that reveals a human beneath the caricature, an orphan with real human lusts, fears and curiousity.

Although I’m wary of making too much of a joke out of the fact the Doctor is finally a woman (it’s not a gimmick) it was right to make a comment about the barriers she has suddenly discovered.

“Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself!”

Having visited our patriarchal planet many times before, she may have been oblivious to many of the privileges she enjoyed when she was a man, now apparent by their absence.

So overall, another excellent historical, but one where I felt there were a couple of missed opportunities (besides ditching the aliens).

One of these concerned the way in which the Doctor, having to deal with a very powerful figure (i.e. a king) had to compromise between principled but futile defiance, and flattery and pragmatism. If you have the chance to stand up to a despot, should you give yourself the satisfaction of denouncing him entirely even if it has no effect, or become complicit in the wrongs you can’t fix by focusing on those you can. By the time the Doctor et al. returned to the TARDIS with King J. it felt like they were quite pally – a rapport that might be justified where it allowed them to steer him away from his worst atrocities, but there’s still no denying he is responsible for some monstrous acts.

The other concerned the culpability of the mob – who enjoyed their festive apple bobbing before watching the ducking. Not just could they have stopped it – but did they want to? Or were they willing to allow bad things to happen as long as they were sufficiently entertaining… again, somewhat topical.

More thoughts in a forthcoming episode of Fusion Patrol.

Next week: Norway?

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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