It’s no secret that this season, the first for Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker and the revamped creative team led by new showrunner Chris Chibnall, has seen decidedly mixed review from fans. Most of the audience discontent has seemed to revolve around the stories told in each episode feeling a little “safe” in terms of not tackling more grand-feeling science-fiction tales; certainly, the episodes have wrangled with socially-relevant topics, but each episode has operated largely independently of the others and with very little of the connections to the larger Doctor Who lore that eagle-eyed fans have come to know and love.
This week’s episode, ‘The Witchfinders,’ is really no different: a fun episode, gorgeously shot and featuring fantastic performances from both principal cast and guest stars, but extremely light on the sci-fi and leaving, in the end, somewhat of an empty feeling. Read on to learn more.
WARNING: Spoilers for this episode of ‘Doctor Who’ lie ahead, obviously. If you haven’t seen the episode and don’t wish for any of its content to be spoiled for you, the time to turn back is NOW!
RECAP: As is the case with the TARDIS, she deposits our intrepid travelers somewhere in space and time other than where they are trying to go (but usually a point at which they are needed). In this case, the Doctor and crew were trying to get to the coronation of Elizabeth I (just for the fun of witnessing it, one assumes) but instead, they are delivered to Lancashire in the early 17th Century, in the height of the witch-hunt frenzy no less. In the village of Bilehurst Crag, Mistress Savage is in charge and as our interstellar explorers watch helplessly, the Mistress executes – er, “judges” – her 36th witch.
This, obviously, does not sit well with The Doctor, so she reveals herself to Savage as one of King James’ Witchfinder Generals (thanks to the good ol’ Psychic Paper), which seems to calm the Mistress of her fervor – that is, until the real King James I arrives at her castle and commends her on her religious zealotry. King James – played with amazing zeal by guest-star Alan Cumming – would, of course, never have installed a woman as a Witchfinder General, so Graham gets put “in charge” of the crew, much to the Doctor’s gender-bending chagrin.
There are odd happenings afoot, however: tendrils of mud start to attempt to capture villagers and when the corpses of the deceased “witches” begin to rise from their muddy graves, it’s up to the Doctor to overcome the gender stereotypes of the period and get to the bottom of it all!
- The first question I must ask is: here we are, in the time of history where people (women in particular) are suspiciously questioned about witchcraft and magic for pretty much anything “out of the ordinary…” and yet the Doctor and companions waltz around the entire episode in their 21st-Century clothing and no one bats an eye? Not even King James I, arguably the all-time craziest of the crazy religious zealots?
- Good on this episode for finally giving the Doctor a bit more to chew on in regards to the “re-gender-ation” of the character. Yes, there have been a few jokes about the gender-swap made here and there throughout the season, but this is the first episode where the Doctor truly has to work around the fact that she is having a harder time than if she was still he. At one point, the Doctor is so exasperated that she says “Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with my job and not have to waste time defending myself.” It’s nice to have this particular aspect of the character explored a little more in-depth.
- An interesting tidbit as a sidebar to that last fact: this week’s episode is one of the select few in Doctor Who‘s history that was both written and directed by women. Neat!
- One of the most glaring inconsistencies I’ve seen this season with the Doctor (and granted, this is not necessarily a new issue here in this season) is the “willy-nilly” type of attitude that she has towards which parts of history she is and isn’t willing to tamper with. Even in this episode, early on she adamantly states to the companions that they are NOT to interfere with anything, lest they muck up the timeline; mere minutes later, she herself is jumping in the lake to save a dying villager – one that is supposed to die, per her own historical rhetoric – and trying to insert herself as an English authority figure in order to prevent other people from dying in the past. Pick a side, Doc!
CLOSING THOUGHTS: Overall, the story was entertaining and paced very well, although the last 15-20 minutes of this super-sized episode actually felt hindered and negatively impacted by the inclusion of the sci-fi-heavy elements of the tale, which is something that should never happen to a show like Doctor Who. It’s also telling – and not in a great way, sadly – that the most engaging and entertaining episodes of the season have been the ones that Chibnall did not write.
PRINCIPAL CAST FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE:
Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor
Bradley Walsh as Graham
Mandip Gill as Yaz
Tosin Cole as Ryan
New episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ air on Sunday nights on BBC America.