Well, malleus my maleficarum if we haven’t stumbled upon my favourite Doctor Who episode so far this season. Witches! Not-Actual-witches! Possessed mud! Technolo-tree! Horny King James! The Doctor Faces Actual Logical Discrimination As A Woman! The Doctor Actually Makes An Effort To Save Someone!
I’m particularly glad they didn’t screw this one up, because this kind of historical deep dive is right in my wheelhouse. I’ve been a voracious fan of witch hunts and witch trials, ever since I first read about England’s self-styled Witchfinder-General Matthew Hopkins when I was a kid. I even took a course at university called “Witchcraft and Demonology” as part of my history major, because how could I not? I have no idea if it’s still offered, but I imagine the tightening of university budgets and a renewed focus on subjects more likely to suit soul-destroying corporate jobs might have seen W&D go the way of the witch hunts themselves. Which is a shame, because it means far fewer students getting exposed to the amazing world of penis-and-witch-inspired medieval woodcuts and drawings.
I also love the story of the Pendle witches, which clearly inspired this week’s episode. Their notorious 1612 trial fits this timeline and location, allowing us to roam around Lancashire with the first At Least Bisexual/Probably Gay King of Great Britain.
And that is correct not because James I was the first queer king of England (Edward II is pretty well established, and there are a fair few stories about Richard the Lionheart), but because he was the first king of the unified England and Scotland, Great Britain. So there, got you on a history technicality. Ye gods, I’m a nerd.
Anyhoo, Alan Cumming was always going to be awesome no matter what character he played on Doctor Who, and I’m so pleased it was King James. He gave him the obsession and fanaticism about Satan and witches, infused it with the paranoia someone targeted by the Gunpowder Plot would probably have, possibly over-egged the sympathy regarding his childhood full of abandonment, but nailed the ego and that lusty, pre-Puritan sensuality.
And so, dear readers, let us be each other’s Nubian Princes, and get cracking on another Doctor Who recap.
S11E8: The Witchfinders
A trip to see Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation goes awry when Team TARDIS land a fair bit north in both time and space of 1558 London. Ever the practical one, it’s Graham who spots Pendle Hill and works out they’re in Lancashire.
But the weekly village fair and apple-bobbing contest the Doctor gets so excited about turns out to have a dark side - it comes with a de rigueur dunking for the witch du jour. D’oh!
Graham, Yaz and Ryan are understandably upset by having to stand by and watch an old lady’s enforced participation in the world’s worst-ever charity fundraiser, but the Doctor was insistent that they not mess with history. That’s been the Doctor’s modus operandi for most of this season, so it was an utter bloody delight to see her break her own rules and dive in after Granny Weatherwax, I mean, Old Mother Twiston.
Sadly, the Doctor was too late; the old woman had died, sending her granddaughter Willa into floods of tears (oh whoops, water references, too soon?).
The Fine Lady overseeing proceedings was mightily pissed off at the Doctor for interfering, preventing a 100% correct diagnosis of “Witchy McWitchFace”. She’s on the verge of arresting the Doctor when Thirteen produces the psychic paper and the Fine Lady reads her credentials as “The Witchfinder-General”.
While Yaz decides to hightail it back to the village of Bilehurst Cragg to find, console, and possibly pump information from Willa (boooo), the Doctor, Ryan and Graham follow the Fine Lady, Becka Savage, up to her manor house. It turns out Becka has been trying to be a leader since her husband died, which is particularly hard being a woman. Interesting that she should read the Doctor as the Witchfinder-General, the one in charge - searching for sympatico as women in power, perhaps?
It certainly piqued my interest, as witch hunters have historically been men, because patriarchy and privilege and power and needing someone to blame for shrinking crops and/or penises.
So I was delighted when a masked man, who’d been following all the slam-dunk action from afar, revealed himself at the manor house to be none other than King James VI of Scotland, King James I of England, son of Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, father of “There Goes Me Head” Charles I, husband to Anne of Denmark, lover of the Duke of Buckingham, author of Demonologie and commissioner of his eponymous Bible, subject of the murals of the Banqueting House ceiling, fervent believer in the Divine Right of Kings and Guy Fawkes’ Number One Enemy 1603 through 1605.
DAMN I HISTORY NERD GOOD.
James admits he uses the mask to travel incognito while he does the Lord’s work in combating Satan - but also because he’s the 2018 YouTube community personified and LIVES for the DRAMA.
The writer of this episode knows her history - that whole thing is an in-joke about James’ favourite form of entertainment, the masque. Masques were super melodramatic court plays that featured actors (often royal or nobles themselves) dressed up as fantastical or allegorical figures who would sing, dance and deliver messages about life and generally talk up the achievements of whomever it was who forked out the cash for the whole show. It was kind of like a Trump rally with class.
James also wrote Demonologie in response to his attendance of witch trials in Berwick in 1590 when he was merely King of Scotland. No doubt becoming King of England too hampered his ability to attend more witch trials, but it’s a lovely flight of fancy to imagine him stealthily making his way around his kingdom, box of pricks - sorry, prickers - in tow.
Alan Cumming imbues James with such heavy-lidded seductiveness, you’d think he was Blofeld’s cat, purring through a particularly long monologue-based scratch. You can almost see him licking the cream from his lips as he describes Ryan as his “Nubian Prince” and advances on him slowly, desperate to learn more about him.
His malleable sexuality doesn’t stop him being a typical 17th century misogynist though - when presented with the Doctor’s psychic paper credentials, he immediately describes her as an “assistant”, with Graham clearly being the actual WFG. “No woman could be the general!” he exclaims.
The Doctor is put out, but plays along, saying she’s the chick bait of the operation; while Graham insists it’s a flat team structure. James suggests the next step should be putting Willa on trial, and Mistress Savage redoubles her commitment to weeding out Satan even if it means killing the entire population of the village.
Meanwhile Willa is trying to complete a ritual prayer over her Granny’s rough grave, with Yaz watching from behind a tree. Something about the words conjures up a “mud tendril” that attacks Willa; a quick-thinking Yaz is able to bash it into submission thanks to a handy spade.
Personally, I didn’t feel like “tendril” was quite the right word; but a “nasty root” might have given the wrong impression to Australian viewers.
Willa runs off, and Yaz runs back to the manor house, bursting in on the Doctor, Graham and Ryan taking a quick shifty through Becka’s room to note an excessive number of handkerchiefs, medicine bottles and an axe under her bed.
The Doctor sonics the mud left on Yaz’s clothes, and finds nothing out of the ordinary about it. Still, she wants to chat to Willa about her Granny, and leaves Graham and Ryan responsible for holding back the murderous march of James and Becka by pretending to be r-e-a-l-l-y interested in James’ collection of witchcraft ephemera. They don’t have much luck, but Graham does nab himself a very nifty hat.
The Doctor and Yaz happen upon Willa attempting to make a break for it; they convince her they’re here to help. Old Mother Twiston was a healer; Willa reveals that Becka Savage is their cousin, but that hasn’t stopped her from persecuting them.
Willa feels sick despite the Doctor’s sonic diagnosis that there’s nothing wrong with her, magical or otherwise. Yaz works out that the illness she feels is existential dread relating to being bullied and persecuted, and the Doctor convinces her to stay and help them stand up to Becka. Although kudos to Willa for pointing out that standing up to a school bully in the 21st century is slightly less likely to result in death than standing up to a religious fanatic in the 17th - insert “Unless you’re at INSERT CRAPPY SCHOOL NAME HERE, am I right?!” joke.
Graham quizzes Becka about what exactly she means by Satanic infestation, and why she has to struggle so much against it. He also asks her, really poignantly, whether she’s a good person, hinting that she may not have the innate right to judge others.
Meanwhile James gives Ryan the full sob story on why he cannot trust anyone, and this is where my pedantic history nerdism comes in. James talks about his father being murdered by his mother who was subsequently imprisoned and beheaded - rather an easy way of disposing of several decades worth of history and intrigue. His father was a drunk who hated his mother, and killed her trusted adviser just before James was born because he was jealous of her better claim to the throne. Yes, he was raised by a series of Regents who got themselves murdered, but he was also a royal prince who was always going to be raised by tutors and guardians, not necessarily his parents. That’s just the way things were for the British royals - you could argue up until Wills and Harry.
King James wonders about his mother again later, when he has the Doctor all tied up and accused of being a witch. She says he just needs to examine the darkness inside himself rather than project it onto every woman he sees. I get that they were trying to establish that he had Mummy issues, but come on, the Doctor saying “nobody knows” why Mary left James when he was a baby? Rubbish! Mary was arrested and imprisoned because she’d lost the support of Protestant nobles; she later fled to England to seek Elizabeth I’s protection, which came in the form of more imprisonment. The Doctor should know that. And THEN to say Mary Queen of Scots was “scapegoated”? Sure, she was tricked by Francis Walsingham with the Babington Plot, but only because she would jump at any scheme to help her escape and/or take the throne. Let’s not “poor Mary” Mary Queen of Bloody Scots, thank you very much.
That whole thing is kind of my bag, so it was just a little grating to see them give James a bunch of Mummy abandonment dramas when in reality most royal heirs were brought up separately to their parents anyway, and quite frankly he would have had to avoid his mother before she was executed anyway to keep in semi-sweet with Queen Elizabeth.
Where were we?
Let’s just cut to the part I would have been VERY ANGRY about had it not happened: the Doctor getting arrested for being a witch. She literally has a magic wand, it had to happen (and of course should have happened to any sex of Doctor). Poor Willa of course had a hand in the accusation; of course she had to accuse the Doctor to save herself, we all would. I end most medical consults by yelling “Witch! Burn the witch!” at my GP, which is particularly awkward after a pap smear. Still, the centre very kindly still very kindly processes my Medicare rebate.
I did like the part of the interrogation scene in which she said James was hiding his real self, and his turnaround of “Like you hide behind the title of Doctor, perhaps?” I wish they’d pushed that a bit further, given Jodie Whittaker a chance to generate some backstory for Thirteen, but alack! They cut away.
The Doctor is rigged up to the ceremonial dunking stool, demanding that Becka ‘fess up to whatever it is she’s been hiding. When the wood zaps Becka with an unexpected buzz of static electreecity, her suspicions are confirmed, but Becka’s deadly purpose is set. She calls on King James to give the order to dunk, and down the Doctor goes.
After being given the rather thankless task of trudging around after the multiplying mud monsters, Yaz, Ryan, Graham and Graham’s hat turn up in time to see the Doctor go under, and order King James to stop the ritual. Eventually he calls for the Doctor to be brought, back up, but Becka is wild with anger - and a slight Le Chiffre eye irritation.
Eventually the dunking stool is retrieved - but no sign of the Doctor. The tension lasts for maybe half a second until “Looking for me?” - and the Doctor appears on a nearby riverbank. It turns out a wild night with Houdini can teach you many things.
It’s time for Becka to come good with the goss, and explain why she seems to be at the centre of all this recent chicanery, as well as the key target for the lumbering mud monster women.
It turns out Becka copped a nasty root to the leg while attempting to cut down a tree on Pendle Hill that was “blocking her view”. I mean, sure, everyone wants to get their real estate values up, but it’s hardly the Cote d’Azur, love.
The wound turned septic, which Becka took for Satan’s influence within her growing, and not even Old Mother Twiston’s special remedies could cure it - and the old bat was too nice to want to chop Becka’s infected leg off. Becka by this point had murdered 35 people trying to direct attention away from her own Satanic Panic, and as she had to kill off any witnesses, Granny became number 36.
Becka’s freakout intensifies, and she goes into full Wicked Witch of the East meltdown mode. It turns out her face can’t defy gravity any longer, and Becka is subsumed by the true alien menace - the Morax.
These crazy critters have been trapped in Pendle Hill for millenia, as a punishment for their many war crimes elsewhere in the universe. They’re pretty pissed about it too, and demand the Doctor hand over King James, so they can fill him full of mud too and let the whole army loose for revenge, filling people left right and centre and frankly I’m a little too prudish for that.
Despite having some sort of whizz-bang knockout power, Morax Becka chooses not to just stab the Doctor and companions to death and run off with James for their ritual “welcoming the Mud King back” ceremony, but instead allow the Doctor and crew to recover and formulate a plan on how to stop her.
This is Doctor Evil level criminal mastermind negligence. Maybe it’s the recent transformation, but Morax Becka really has… MUD… ON HER FACE… FOR THAT ONE.
The Doctor’s worked out the Magic Tree was the lock for the Morax’s prison, and as such has a key role to play in returning them hence.
There’s another clunky Jodie Whittaker exposition moment, where she says awkward things like “According to my calculations, this ancient alien wood is like Semtex to the Morax”, and formulates a plan to use the elegant technolo-tree to boil the Morax back down to basix and lock them up again. The Doctor then gets them to break up the dunking stool and set fire to the pieces to use as anti-Morax weapons; essentially, large citronella candles. She also claims she will “re-set the lock”, and I’m a bit confused by that, because isn’t the tree the lock?
It doesn’t matter, because Willa insists she accompany them as she’s the only one who knows the way up the hill, and Graham gives the Doctor the Witchfinder-General hat, nawww.
Up on Pendle Hill, Becka Morax has got King James pinned against the stump of the tree (which it turns out had given Bilehurst Cragg its name), and summons her husband from the mound in order to “fill him” with his Moraxy essence. A large throbbing root bursts forth and threatens to spurt its muddy payload right in King James’ mouth, and just as the symbolism becomes a little too M15+, The Witchfinders arrive, huzzah!
Ryan grabs the King to safety, prompting helpless cries of “My protector!” from a clearly delighted James. Willa waves her torch to ward off her muddy granny, and the Doctor does some sort of abracadabra with her sonic and/or flaming torch, and resets the lock, which apparently is fine as just a stump.
The technology/magic draws the mud atoms out of all of the stolen reanimated corpses, and they fall to the ground. But Becka Morax is still up and furious, refusing to go anywhere.
Then King James steps in, or rather runs in, grabbing one of the flaming torches and setting Becka Morax alight with a cry of “Burn the witch!” (I wonder if his GP processes his Medicare rebate…) Becka goes up in a wave of green light like so many High Sparrows in the Sept of Baelish. And even though Becka had totally transformed into the very dangerous Morax, the Doctor is still pissy with King James for killing her. Seriously, Doc, what did you think King James was going to do? Pull on a Pussy Hat and march for women’s rights? His worldview is unchanged; if anything, these shenanigans have just confirmed it.
The Doctor is still refusing to jabber on with Jimmy as the gang make their way back to the TARDIS, adventure over.
James makes Ryan a very sensual offer to join him in London and live as his protector, but Ryan turns him down. I thought this was a massive missed opportunity in the episode - Ryan was the one to hear from James about why he doesn’t trust people. To me, it was a golden moment where Ryan could have said “Mate, the way you go through protectors, I wouldn’t last two weeks. Might be time for you to work through your trust issues?”, but instead he just says “Got stuff to do” and hands James back his fancy badge.
Graham gets back into the TARDIS with a Biblical Ezekiel/Tarantino reference, and the Doctor explains what’s about to happen by paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke, then proving him right by vanishing. “Where did they go?” is James’ curious response, as Willa smiles along. She’s off now to learn her Granny’s secret recipes, and become a healer herself. A Doctor even.
I still have a few questions after this episode, such as...
Why did Becka have all the horses shot? I didn’t quite understand why idle 15 to 17 hands were the Devil’s playthings. Goats, sure. But horses are lovely. If it was simply a budget issue, why mention it? Nobody would have noticed. And why was the mud harmless on Yaz, but then once the Doctor got it into the sample bottle, it started shaking? I just don’t really understand the mechanics of those Morax.
But The Witchfinders has been the most pleasing episode of this season so far, and so that I must be grateful.
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