A witch hunt creates a unique challenge for the 13th Doctor.
It feels like every time-travel show does an episode dealing with the witch trials, whether in Salem or elsewhere. Hell, Legends of Tomorrow covered the topic earlier this season! But with Jodie Whittaker in the role of The Doctor, “The Witchfinders” puts our titular hero in the main path of the fear and paranoia that led woman after woman to be accused and tried as agents of Satan.
The episode starts in a small village in Lancashire in 1612, with a witch trial. An elderly woman is drowned during the trial, with The Doctor unable to save her. But she uses her psychic paper to convince Mistress Becka Savage that she is a Witchfinder General, to prevent further trials. Mistress Savage is clearly not a stable leader, even within the context of witch trials. She calls horses creatures of Satan, saying she had them all shot. She is Exhibit A in how fear and power are a terrible combination.
But The Doctor has very little time to set the village on a better path before King James I waltzes in, promising to vanquish witchcraft across the land. King James is played by none other than Alan Cumming, bring a fantastic mix of flair and righteousness to the role. He clearly relishes playing the egotistical, pigheaded ruler, not so much a villain as a person rendered paranoid by an upbringing filled with loss. He declares The Doctor must be the assistant to the Witchfinder General, Graham, and promises Becka to help purify her land, beginning with the old woman’s granddaughter, Willa.
Meanwhile, Yaz rescues Willa from a mud tendril, our alien element for the episode. The Doctor and Yaz talk to Willa and learn that she and Becka are cousins. The family was close until Becka got married, and started the witch trials soon after her husband died. When The Doctor, Yaz and Willa go to investigate the mud, they find that it’s sentient and resurrects the dead. In some awful timing, King James and Becka show up as well. The Doctor thinks that there’s something Becka is hiding, but she turns it around and accuses The Doctor of witchcraft and raising the dead. That’s all it takes to convince King James as well. It’s in this moment that 13 runs into a problem unique to her from her predecessors thus far. As she states, “If I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself.”
King James orders The Doctor arrested and prepared for a witch trial. In a cool sequence, her and King James have a battle of wits before the trial. While he’s ideologically obsessed with rooting out Satan, the King’s not stupid. He holds his own against The Doctor and even hears her out somewhat when she brings up his tragic past. But the only way he feels he could know for sure if she’s a witch or not is to dunk her. So The Doctor gets dunked but, being The Doctor, she escapes.
As she does, it’s revealed that the mud creature originated inside Becka. She reveals that she was infected with an alien being when she cut down a tree blocking her view. She tried to heal with medicine and prayer, and eventually with the witch trials, hoping to save herself by doing God’s work. After her revelation, the alien creature takes over, revealing itself as the Morax, a race imprisoned in the tree for war crimes. They wish to possess King James to conquer Earth.
After being knocked out, our heroes wake up and go after the creatures. It doesn’t take much for The Doctor to reactivate the prison, slamming the Morax back in their cage. It’s the only part of this episode that feels a bit rushed. It’s barely more than five minutes between the alien reveal and defeat. Still, Doctor Who is absolutely crushing it with the historical episodes. Unlike their last couple of trips to the past, this ends on a relatively high note, with most the villagers surviving, King James toning down his witch-hunting and our heroes heading out in the TARDIS.
- Mandip Gill gets another strong moment in this episode. Yaz talks about that sick feeling you get when everyone turns against you, bonding with Willa over the pain it causes. Glad to see she’s getting more and more chances to shine.
- The Doctor states the mud that went for Willa wasn’t her to kill her but fill her. She’s very proud of her rhymes: “Poetry under pressure.”
- Where did The Doctor learn to escape chains like that? “A very wet weekend with Houdini.”
- After getting knocked out by the Morax, The Doctor reveals she hasn’t had a hangover like that since the “Milk Wars of Keston Five.”
- At the end of the episode, Graham and Ryan tell King James to behave, or else, “we will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger.” James thinks they’re quoting Ezekiel. Graham states it’s Tarantino. Awesome.