Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)

A group of Republican politicians in Ohio recently made headlines for sponsoring a bill that would not only ban abortions, but also make the procedure punishable by life sentences in prison and even the death penalty. Many were quick to point out the irony of a group being “so pro-life they’ll kill ya.” That peace-minded religious doctrines have so often been used to justify hatred and violence is one of the biggest paradoxes of history. It’s also the idea at the heart of “The Witchfinders,” the first pre-20th century historical episode of the season. Like “Rosa” and “Demons Of The Punjab,” “The Witchfinders” has big, meaty questions on its mind. But it balances those headier ideas with more of a classic Doctor Who romp. Like “Kerblam!,” “The Witchfinders” blends the emerging voice of this new era of Doctor Who with something a touch more familiar. And while the episode doesn’t quite stick the landing, it still emerges as one of the strongest of the season.

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Up until intergalactic mud monsters take over the third act, “The Witchfinders” plays like a British answer to The Crucible. While attempting to attend the coronation of Elizabeth I, the TARDIS team accidentally wind up in early 17th century Lancashire in the village of Bilehurst Cragg, where wealthy landowner Mistress Becka Savage (Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran) is drowning her 36th witch. Ryan’s fear that the whole thing is “too dark” is soon assuaged by the appearance of high-profile guest star Alan Cumming as high-profile historical figure King James I. Cumming camps it up while joyously chewing the scenery, but adds a bit of gravitas to James’ obsession with rooting out witchcraft. Indeed, once they team up, Becka and James become an even more deadly pair, each relying on the other’s zealotry to justify their own actions.

“The Witchfinders” is at its strongest when it’s exploring how religion can be twisted to become a justification for violence in times of uncertainty and fear. (“Demons Of The Punjab” explored many of the same themes in a different religious/social context.) There’s a deep sense of paranoia that runs throughout the episode, conveyed in director Sallie Aprahamian’s low Dutch angles and murky color palette. The episode effectively captures the slippery slope of violent moral righteousness: Once you’ve murdered a couple dozen people under the auspices of doing God’s will, it’s hard to admit you may have made a mistake. So the only way forward is to double down, rope more people into your violent system, and do whatever you can to justify your twisted sense of morality—both to others and to yourself.

Of course, given that it’s about a witch-hunt, “The Witchfinders” isn’t just about religious fervor, it’s also about gender. This is the first episode to make the Doctor’s new gender a major plot point. Though Becka is willing (and relieved) to believe that the Doctor is a “Witchfinder General,” James refuses to accept that a woman could hold such a position of authority and instead defers to Graham’s presumed expertise. Becka quickly shuns her burgeoning allyship with the Doctor to defer to James instead. Writer Joy Wilkinson is very smart about painting patriarchy for what it is—a hierarchical system that places men above women, but which members of all genders participate in. After all, it’s Becka who leads the violent, misogynist witch-hunts that first draw James’ attention, and while she might be facing her own struggles as a rare 17th century female landholder, that doesn’t make her any less of a villain for her brutal murders.

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Wilkinson also resists the urge to put in too many “rah-rah the Doctor cured sexism!” moments into the episode. Sexism is a system far too big for the Doctor to fix with a wry quip, and it would be pollyannaish to imply otherwise. But we do get to watch the Doctor figure out how to be a hero while dealing with the extra burden her gender places on her in this historical context. As she notes, “Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with my job and not have to waste time defending myself.” Wilkinson wisely balances the episode’s grim depiction of 17th century patriarchy by presenting the Doctor at her most heroic. Whether she’s diving into a lake to try to save a witch-hunt victim or freeing herself using underwater escape tricks she picked up from Houdini, the Doctor is refreshingly proactive in “The Witchfinders.” And save for a few nice moments with Yaz, the companions largely take a backseat in this episode as the Doctor is put front and center for once.

Aided by that extra screentime, this is easily Jodie Whittaker’s best performance yet in the role. She brings a fascinating mix of steeliness and empathy to the way the Doctor interacts with Becka and James. It helps that Whittaker gets excellent sparring partners in both Finneran and especially Cumming. The episode’s best scene features the Doctor and King James squaring off about their respective philosophies after the Doctor is accused of being a witch and left tied up before her “trial.” Both the Doctor and James have big questions about the nature of the universe, but whereas the Doctor is curious, empathetic, and able to admit when she’s wrong, James is inflexible in his religious fervor. That juxtaposition becomes its own powerful critique, even if James ultimately isn’t particularly punished for his role in the witch-hunts. (Cumming’s comedic turn softens the character enough to where you kind of buy that.) On the other hand, the Doctor’s icy judgment also feels like a punishment in its own right.

For the first two-thirds of its runtime, “The Witchfinders” is an excellent episode, one that blends real-world villainy with the horrifically creepy imagery of mud-filled corpses rising from the dead. That mostly continues through the (rather clunky) reveal that Becka first began her witch-hunt after being marked with what she thought was the sign of the devil. Her desire to prevent her own damnation (and protect her position in the community) quickly became a warped murder spree in God’s name. It’s good, chilling stuff, and then the episode goes ahead and tacks on a fairly lackluster sci-fi ending.

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It turns out the mud monsters are an imprisoned warrior race known as the Morax, who broke free and infected Becka after she cut down the tree that served as their prison lock. The Morax stuff is pretty thematically detached from the witch-hunt stuff, and the creepy reanimated corpses get a lot less creepy once their queen takes over Becka’s body and starts monologuing about destroying the world. It’s clear the episode doesn’t really care about the Morax either. The Doctor just kind of defeats them with some hastily delivered technobabble about toxic smoke and repaired security systems. It’s too rushed to be interesting, while also eating up screentime that might’ve been better spent on the companions or local villager Willa (Tilly Steele), who barely feels like a character.

Yet despite those missteps, “The Witchfinders” succeeds far more than it fails. If it bites off a little more than it can chew, well, at least it offers a lot to think about. Though it’s set further back in time than “Rosa” or “Demons Of The Punjab,” “The Witchfinders” is every bit as relevant. Doctor Who has often delivered broad messages about standing up to bullies, but this episode is pointed about explicitly defining a bully as anyone who uses their religion to hurt rather than help. It’s hard to think of anything more timely than that.


Stray observations

  • I really liked the Doctor explaining “talking’s brilliant” in response to Becka’s claim that the ducking stool was invented to silence “foolish women who talk to much.” You don’t often get a big hero moment based around the importance of communication, but, really, what could be more important?
  • This is one of the very few Doctor Who episodes to be both written and directed by women.
  • This season features a bit of inconsistency in terms of which bits of history the Doctor is willing to change and which she isn’t, but I also feel like that’s par for the course with Doctor Who in general.
  • Okay, but the name Mistress Savage is a little on the nose, right?
  • Wikipedia pages to check out after tonight’s episode include the one on the real-life Pendle Hill witch trials, and, of course, the colorful, complicated life of King James VI and I.
  • Graham really rocked that pilgrim hat.

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