'The Witchfinders' recap: a spooky slice of 'Doctor Who' folk horror

Paul Kirkley
Contributor
Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and Tilly Steele in Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (BBC)

The eighth episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘The Witchfinders’:

What’s it about? In 17th century Lancashire, the Doctor and friends encounter witch trials, King James I and an “alien mud invasion”. Clearly, things are about to get messy.

Verdict: Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman – and never more so than in Lancashire in the early 1600s, where 10 women were tried and executed for witchcraft in the area surrounding Pendle Hill.

As a result, ‘The Witchfinders’ is the first Doctor Who story of the Jodie Whittaker era that’s forced to confront the Doctor’s recent change of gender head on. “Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job, and not have to waste time defending myself,” she says at one point. (“Tell us about it,” mutters half the audience.)

That said, it isn’t designed to serve as a clunking allegory for some of the more… unreconstructed opinions that surrounded Whittaker’s casting last year. (I don’t think even the below-the-line commenters on Mail Online went so far as to actually say “burn the witch”… Did they?) Rather, it’s a richly atmospheric slice of folk horror from writer Joy Wilkinson and director Sallie Apprahamian – only the second such all-female team in the show’s 55-year history, incidentally.

Wilkinson cracks through an awful lot of story in a short space of time, without ever feeling too frantic or hurried, and takes care to leaven the darker, more grisly aspects of the script with plenty of Team TARDIS’s trademark zingers.

Like all this year’s stories, it also looks incredible: leaden skies and ribbons of dank fog lie low over the Lancashire hills, skeletal trees rise up from blasted heaths and even the sporadic low winter sun fails to add much warmth or cheer to the landscape. TV people often talk about “the grade” – the bit of post-production where the pictures are rendered in certain tones – and the work colourist Gareth Spensley has done here is stunning. If you hear anyone talking about 50 shades of grey in this episode, believe me it’s nothing to do with the Doctor being tied up with ropes (though that happens as well).

Alan Cumming as King James I in Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (BBC)

Into this gloomy, fearful land of sickness and blighted crops, Alan Cumming’s King James I brings a splash of colour, and more than a dash of panto. A preening, strutting peacock of a monarch, his entrance stops just short of bursting out of a cake, and Cumming is obviously enjoying himself enormously (a little too much, perhaps?). “I rather like the drama,” he purrs at one point. You don’t say.

The King is quick to dismiss the Doctor as a “wee lassie”, while taking a shine to Ryan (“my Nubian prince”), and appoints Graham his Witchfinder General, presumably because it gives Bradley Walsh the chance to wear a funny hat.

Cumming isn’t the only star booking, though, and Siobhan Finneran is reliably brilliant, bringing a real messianic fervour to the role of landowner and enthusiastic witch-dunker Becka Savage.

It’s a demanding script for Jodie Whittaker, this one: alongside all the expository heavy lifting, she’s landed with a fairly hefty amount of earnest, slightly theatre-in-education speechifying – including telling the King of England “You want to know the secrets of existence? Start with the mysteries of the heart.” This has been a running theme of this year’s series, and I can’t help thinking it might be a blessing to dial down some of the more Wonder Years stuff and remember that, with the Doctor, what’s left unsaid can be just as powerful.

That aside, there’s much to relish in Wilkinson’s dialogue: I particularly enjoyed the application of modern management jargon (special measures, flat team structure) to the business of Jacobean witchfinding. In fact she had me at “mud tendril”.

Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh in Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (BBC)

Amidst this enjoyable persiflage, ‘The Witchfinders’ doesn’t shrink from moments of pure horror, most explicitly when the rotting corpses of the undead rise from the rutted earth, while the tree roots burning with green fire is a striking image loaded with pagan, folkloric symbolism.

As Doctor Who elevator pitches go, “The Crucible meets alien mud invasion” is fairly irresistible, and so this proves to be. “This is way too dark for me,” says Ryan at one point during the story. I’d have to respectfully to disagree on that point. In fact, slight excess of Hallmark card emoting from the Doctor notwithstanding, my only major quibble is: why on earth wasn’t this shown at Halloween?

Doctor’s notes: She loves apple bobbing (of course she does). She’s good at holding her breath and getting out of chains, thanks to a very wet weekend with Harry Houdini.

Fellow travellers: Yaz had the year from hell (not literally) at school when Izzy Flint turned the whole class against her. She calls King James I “mate”. Ryan initially mistakes the 17th century for some kind of “hipster pop-up happening”. The King has a thing for him and wants him to be his protector.

Isn’t that…? Alan Cumming (James I) is an Olivier, Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning star of stage and screen known for roles in GoldenEye, The X-Men and The Good Wife, among many others. ‘The Witchfinders’ is his first brush with the world of Doctor Who since his appearance alongside Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy in unlicensed straight-to-video spin-off The Airzone Solution (1993). Siobhan Finneran is one of Britain’s most in-demand actors, best known for playing Sarah O’Brien in Downton Abbey, Janice Garvey in Benidorm and Clare Cartwright in Happy Valley, for which she was BAFTA nominated.

Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage in Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (BBC)

Location, location, location: Bilehurst Cragg, Lancashine, in the early 1600s.

Scary monsters: The Morax, an ancient warrior race imprisoned for billions of years beneath Pendle Hill, Lancashire.

Quote unquote: “If we’re not being drowned we’re being patronised to death.” The Doctor discovers the downside of being a girl.

“Together we shall save the souls of the my people – even if it means killing all of them!” Tough love,  Becka Savage-style.

“You, with your alluring form and your incessant jabber.” King James I’s verdict on the Doctor. But why is he making it sound like a bad thing?

“We’re all the same. We all want certainty, security and to believe that people are evil or heroic. But that’s not how people are.” Except on Twitter, obviously.

Best bit: The Doctor’s trial by ducking stool is a great moment of high drama. But…

Worst bit: … they could have made much more of her disappearance and triumphant escape, rather than having her pop up, a little soggy but none the worse for wear, literally seconds later. A missed opportunity.

Scariest bit: The rotting corpses of the undead rising from the rutted earth. A classic slice of Doctor Who teatime terror.

Funniest bit: “Careful, it’s my pricker” is surely destined to join the ranks of Doctor Who’s most immortal lines, alongside “No, not the Mind Probe!” and “You’ll contaminate my spores!”

Back in time: The idea of aliens being responsible for enduring British myths and legends is something Doctor Who has explored numerous times, from the Loch Ness Monster (‘Terror of the Zygons’, ‘Timelash’) to King Arthur (‘Battlefield’).

Next time – ‘It Takes You Away’: On the edge of a Norwegian fjord, in the present day, The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz discover a boarded-up cottage and a girl named Hanne in need of their help. What has happened here? What monster lurks in the woods around the cottage – and beyond?

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