Doctor Who 11x08 “The Witchfinders” Review
Okay, let me level with you all… I had about a million thoughts watching this episode, the first being “YAS, WITCHES,” immediately followed by “Holy shit, this is dark.” Not even ten minutes in and they’ve already drowned an accused witch whose granddaughter is watching amongst the crowd. The Doctor, of course, tries in vain to save the accused and as a result angers local aristocrat and Satan enthusiast Becka.
Now, obviously, you can’t make an episode about witch trials completely free from at least a mention (or implication) of death. The death of Willa’s gran at the very beginning of the episode signifies yet another dark Doctor Who death that only serves as a damper on the whole season. Doctor Who has never needed death to be effective in conveying dire straits, so this was definitely a bit much. Which brings me to the point that the show is losing a bit of its whimsy in favor of darkness — they could have landed in the midst of a witch trial without a death and it would have still been effective.
The “big bad” of this episode is another new alien race called the Morax (spelling debatable since they weren’t listed in the credits). I have to give it to Chibnall, too; this is about as scared as I’ve been watching Doctor Who since the days of the weeping angels.
The Morax have been imprisoned on Earth inside of an alien prison fashioned to look like a tree, and when Becka chopped it down they were released. They need bodies to occupy, however, so when Willa buries her gran this mysterious haunted mud LITERALLY fills up her dead body and reanimates her (and a few other unlucky of the deceased). Yup, that happened, and I hated it. That part of my notes just says “what the ACTUAL fuck, guys,” and I meant it.
Becka is also being slowly taken over by these super fun and chill aliens, of which she of course interpreted to be Satan. So, what do you do when something strange and terrible is happening to you? Start a full witch hunt, obviously. She’s fully taken over by the Morax by the end of the episode, her new Morax form trying to free the rest of them now that she has a body to do the job. The Doctor and co manage to trap them back in their tree prison at the end, but not before a whirlwind of an episode.
I did, in all honesty, enjoy most of the episode. As soon as they landed in the middle of a witch hunt I knew the Doctor, now in a female body, would get caught up in this in a way her previous male regenerations wouldn’t have had to worry about. We meet King James (brilliantly played by Alan Cumming), who immediately dismisses the Doctor and declares that Graham (the white guy!) must be the Witchfinder General, a title claimed by the Doctor to gain some credibility with the locals. The whole exchange between King James and the Doctor is infuriating, resulting in the best quote of the season from her: “If we’re not being drowned we’re being patronized to death.”
Honestly? New quote for the insta bio.
We also FINALLY see some much needed intensity from Jodie this week while facing the obvious evil of the episode, the Morax, and the even more obvious evil, misogyny. After being accused of witchcraft (honestly, if you’re not living your life as someone who would have been accused a witch in the eighteenth century, are you even living?), King James and the Doctor have a great exchange about his tragic past and his current affinity for killing witches, which results in the Doctor accusing him of living behind a title. He throws it right back at her: what’s she hiding behind that title of “Doctor”?
With all the whimsy surrounding Jodie’s acting, it’s hard to remember that the Doctor is several thousand years old and has seen some of the worst things imaginable. That’s part of what makes the show compelling: this character that’s seen the best and worst of everything. They’ve been so focused this season on the Doctor now without showing any of that depth, so imagine how excited I was after King James accused the Doctor of hiding who she is behind a title and Jodie came through with that thousand year old stare.
As for King James, his introduction as such a flamboyant character seemed ill placed amongst the dark story line, but Alan Cumming did an absolutely stunning job of walking that line between menacing and theatrical. He’s unashamedly flirting with Ryan one second and threatening to burn down an entire village the next, and I truly had fun watching his performance once I settled into it.
I wouldn’t have been mad if this one was stretched into a two parter. The story had the potential, and it seems criminal to not utilize Alan Cumming for a little while longer. Besides another weak alien and some odd placements, this was a sold episode. Let’s see, with only two episodes left, what kind of note the series will end on.