Doctor Who S11 E08: The Witchfinders episode FIRST REACTION

My dear reader,

Life just has a habit sometimes of getting in the way of my live viewing of Doctor Who which is frankly inconvenient. So I settled down this weekend with a cup of tea in hand with iPlayer, as a longstanding fan of Doctor Who with butterflies in her stomach. The synopsis on the BBC website and the official trailer had suggested the BBC were raiding their costume department again for a full-on historical extravaganza. Would I love this story? Here goes…

The opening credits start and the theme tune…

Me: I’m still loving this interpretation of the theme tune and the visuals. The coloured vortex is so beautiful 

Written by Joy Wilkinson and directed by Sallie Aprahamian

Me: An episode directed and written by women. Could be cool. I’ve realised this whole series has been more female-centric than previously. Heroic females have over-shadowed the male supporting roles this series and have been written far more sympathetically so far anyway. 

The Doctor loves apple bobbing
The Doctor loves apple bobbing!

(A village scene, people dressed in early 17th Century rustic clothing. The Doctor is leading her crew around the looking for something. Something catches her eye )
DOCTOR: Apple bobbing! I love apple bobbing.

Me: Jodie’s delivery is so weird here. Why is she drawing so much attention with this line and why has no-one noticed their out of time clothing? The Tardis crew stand out. It was mentioned they are going to the coronation of Elizabeth the First so why aren’t they dressed for the period?

(An older man with a white beard rings a handbell..)

SMITHY: Mistress Savage demands your presence. The ceremony will begin.

GRAHAM: Anybody else missing the party vibe all of a sudden?…

Me: Interesting name Savage by name and nature?

DOCTOR: Yep. And judging by the vibe here, something is definitely not right.

Me: okay we’ve got folks in masks. Very Dick Turpin. 

 (A shot of the river and an old woman is chained to the end of a tree branch)…

GRANNY: Don’t cry, Willa. I will still be with you.

Me: Awww I feel a bit sorry for the old lady…

BECKA: Duck the witch!

ALL: Duck the witch! Duck the witch!

Me: This is all getting a bit nasty now. She’s done for either way. Such a mob mentality

(There is a splash! The Doctor has dived in the river and is swimming towards Granny.)

Me: Oh what just happened?  The doctor has jumped in! Have we seen the Doctor swimming before?  What about the rule of non-intervention. Isn’t she going to change events doing this?

Alan Cumming is a Royal with faith in God
Alan Cumming is a royal with faith in God

(Granny has died and the Doctor is squaring up Mistress Savage, who wants to take Willa. Mistress Savage challenges the Doctor who produces the psychic paper (sigh… used a bit too much at times. The classic doctors never needed it)

BECKA: Witchfinder General?
DOCTOR: That’s right. Witchfinder General, with my crack team, taking over this village. Right, gang?
GRAHAM: Yeah, cos you are in special measures

Me: The modern language here wouldn’t make sense to a real 17th-century person would it ?. I guess I should let it go as its Doctor Who but it’s making me wince. 

DOCTOR: Everybody, go home. This trial is over.

Me: I’m liking Jodie/ The Doctors authority here. She’s obviously working really hard to save this woman. I like the look of the whole location so far and the tone is dark and mysterious. I love the face mask design of the skulking figure.

(The Doctor is walking with Mistress Savage)

DOCTOR: If you’re the landowner, why are you walking? Where are the horses?
BECKA: Horses are banned in Bilehurst. They are creatures of Satan. I had them all shot.

Me: Wow! she’s dark, without mercy. 

( At the Hall the Doctor is warming herself by the fire trying to reason with Mistress Savage, offering to help as a mysterious figure enters the room removing his cape and hat)

BECKA: King James! Your Majesty

JAMES: You may prostrate yourselves before me, God’s chosen ruler and Satan’s greatest foe come to vanquish the scourge of witchcraft across the land. Forgive the mask. I have enemies everywhere and have to travel incognito. Also, I rather like the drama. What a peculiar ragbag of folks. And those garments. Are you actors?……

Me: Oh my God its Alan Cummings and why is he talking like that? He sounds very camp! Was King James like that in real life? Crikey. I’m a bit worried about that. What is he going to be doing later on?  (half laughing at this point). Well, I did say I wanted a bit more humour and a funny story in the past.  This wasn’t quite what I expected. Okay, I’ll go with it.

JAMES: A woman could never be the General.
DOCTOR: Silly me. Must’ve got all confused. Mustn’t I, boss?

Me: Ohh the doctor sounds well peeved. The Doctor’s gender doesn’t normally cause an issue but interesting to see it used here to her disadvantage… the assumption that she is the cleverest person in the room is nicely overturned.

Granny is a bit off colour!
Granny is feeling a little off colour!

( Graham is explaining the assumed dynamic of the Tardis crew to King James. All modern gobbledegook )

JAMES: Even the wee lassie?
DOCTOR: Even me. Very handy undercover. Set a woman to catch a woman.
JAMES: A cunning ruse, using your innate aptitude for nosiness and gossip.

Me: ( laughing so much here) The doctor looks outraged at his blatant sexism. Alan Cummings is enjoying himself quite a bit here. 

KING. This is no time for the weak. Satan preys on the innocent, even while they sleep. Together, we must purify your land, starting with the grandchild of the witch you tried today. A fine plan, is it not?
BECKA: A genius plan, Your Majesty. Together we shall save the souls of my people from Satan, even if it means killing them all.

Me: Really ? Oh okay ( sarcasm) There is definitely something bad going on with her

 (In the woods Willa is burying her grandmother and Yasmin is watching. Yasmin sees a tendril come out of the ground and creep towards Willa’s leg. She saves Willa by using the wooden shovel and starts hitting the flailing tendril until it dissolves into mud)

Me: Oh its an alien. I’m so disappointed! Leave it out for once please.   

(At the Hall Ryan and Graham are trying to keep the King and Mistress Savage from going anywhere. The King is explaining about his torture implements, and wide selection of body parts ) Laughing

(The forest. Graham is with Becka)

BECKA: If people are good, they have nothing to fear.
GRAHAM: Are you a good person, Mistress Savage?
BECKA: My conscience is clean

Me: I’m not so sure. There are 35 people dead love! 

(Willa’s cottage. The Doctor and Yaz are talking to Willa)

DOCTOR: Do you mind if I check you over? Don’t worry, I am a doctor.

(The Sheffield sonic whirrs.)

Me: Oh god the sonic ‘s coming out again ( big sigh) Surely Willa would be more suspicious here of a light, buzzy wand thing

WILLA: That movement in the mud. It was Satan, wasn’t it?
DOCTOR: I doubt it. Not a big believer in Satan.

Me: Hang on!  What about when 10 went to the Satan Pit ? Are we retconning the past. Hope not

( By the grave, Willa’s Granny has come back from the dead and wants the phial of active material . The Doctor gives it to her unaware there are more figures
DOCTOR: Always good to get fast answers.

Me:  Zombies! This reminds me a bit of the Gelf  ( In the Quiet Undead) when they took over dead bodies…

(In the Forest Alfonso has been killed and Willa has betrayed the Doctor so King James has condemned the Doctor as a witch.)

JAMES: Like Doctor Dee. A necromancer. That seals it. Arrest the witch!
DOCTOR: I… I am not a witch!

Me:  I like this development and how the doctor being female automatically makes her  is a witch. Wouldn’t have probably happened otherwise. 

(In the village the Doctor is tied so a birch tree and King James has come to see her for answers)

DOCTOR: Don’t we all? But true knowledge has to be earned. Tell you what. I’ll trade you my wand for answers to as many questions as you want to ask.
JAMES: I’m not a fool, Doctor. I am King James, Satan’s greatest foe.
DOCTOR: Yeah, yeah, I know. It must be comforting playing that role, hiding behind a title.
JAMES: Just as you hide behind Doctor, perhaps…

Me:  Ohh I really like the Doctor digging into James’s personal history. Actually suggests the Doctor is sussing him out and shows her Doctor’s intelligence. They aren’t quite equals in knowledge but he’s astute. Shades of series 7 with King James’s comment? 

DOCTOR: You could have seen her before she died, but you didn’t want to. Why?
JAMES: She left me when I was not even one year old. What kind of mother does that? Why would I wish to see her?

Me:  I’m really enjoying the drama of this conversation between them. He’s bitter. 

JAMES: I do not know what you are. And there is only one way to be certain. Guards! Summon the villagers

Me:  Oh, a ducking!

(In the Hall Ryan, Graham and Yasmin are hiding and see a mud women with an axe)

Me:  That’s a BIG axe. The cool colour tones look really good and atmospheric. Great direction and cinematography. Adds to the horror. 

(By the river King James has given the order for the Doctor to be ducked )

GRAHAM: Bring her back up now! I’m the Witchfinder General! I’m giving you an order!
BECKA: I obey only my King!

Me:  Go Graham! Loving his assertiveness which feels instinctive from Bradley

(Becka has transformed into a Morax)
MORAX: Hand me your King.
JAMES: What?

Me:  Ha ! He cowered in fear . Okay the Morax are creepy adversaries

DOCTOR: Haven’t you got your own King? Or is he hiding?
MORAX: He does not hide, he waits. We have all waited for too long, trapped in the hill.
DOCTOR: Pendle Hill.
MORAX: Our prison. The mighty Morax army, captured and imprisoned on this pitiful planet, for war crimes.

Me: Oh, really is that what has happened! Oh, I think I preferred the straight witchfinder story rather than this sci-fi twist. 

(After the energy blast from the Morax, King James is missing)

DOCTOR: From what Becka said, I’m guessing the Morax are royals with soldiers. Pretty brutal ones at that. Presumably exiled for war crimes, scrambled down into their primal form.

Me: There’s a LOT  of exposition from the Doctor here about the Morax, Would like more show don’t tell.  

(Wila offers to lead the Doctor up the hill ))

WILLA: There are more powerful people here than kings and queens. There’s us, together.
Me: She’s brave!

(The Doctor has reactivated the prison under Pendle Hill)

JAMES: Yes, you will. Burn the witch!
DOCTOR: No, sire, stay away!
(James thrusts his burning brand into the Morax, and it screams as it turns into green flame)

JAMES: What, woman? She was a witch. She confessed.
DOCTOR: So you got what you came for.

Me: The Doctor’s not pleased but cant say I agree. King James had to kill her to escape with his life.

(Forest as the Tardis disappears)

JAMES: Where did they go?

Me: The look in his face is priceless.

Conclusion. I enjoyed that story overall. Joy Wilkinson loves her history and its very telling that it felt the strongest part of the story and the better realised thematically. I didn’t think the sci-fi element was really needed in the story and the reveal came quite late in the proceedings for me to care about the aims of the Morax. Much preferred the emphasis on the  witch finding story rather than the aliens imprisoned in the hill. I wasn’t sure about Alan Cumming initially but he won me over with a hugely charismatic performance as King James. By turn, he made King James horrifically focused seemingly enjoying  the torture of his subjects and  showed him also weak, cowardly. He was seen as a product of his upbringing. His dark humour though gave him an odd charm due to the nobility he carried himself with.

Siobhan Finneran was excellent as Mistress Savage with the right level of puritan sternness and darkness in her character but she also  engendered a touch of sympathy from me as she reluctantly changed into the Morax. Loved seeing the dark tears flowing from her eyes whilst she was changing.  Tilly Steele  as Willa was quite consistent all the way through. The story was beautifully directed with some lovely landscape and overhead forest shots by Sallie Aprahamian.

Of the regulars, I enjoyed the comedy of the Ryan and King James scenes although Ryan does seem a bit out of place as does Yaz. Neither bring much to the story and seem almost bystanders. Graham getting the hat was fun as Witchfinder general and I like that he is quick thinking so much of the time responding to other characters. Jodie was much better written  as the Doctor this episode than previously and is growing more into the Timelord I understand. She got some meaty  one to one scenes with Alan Cummings and displayed some of the  curiosity and braveness I’ve seen with other Doctors. I still feel her characterisation hasn’t been completely consistent and nailed all the way through this series. I  never really know who she will be week to week and its feels as if I’m still waiting for a really big I am talking! a moment from her.

Not ducking history and an entertaining tale despite the sci-fi – 8 /10


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