Discussing Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

Doctor Who The Witchfinders

The Doctor and Team (fam?) TARDIS stumble upon a some witch trials, an alien prison and campy King James.

I’m joined again this week by Hannah Long (@HannahGraceLong) and Jenna DeWitt (@Jenna_DeWitt).

If you need to catch up, previously, we discussed “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” “The Ghost Monument,” “Rosa,” “Arachnids in the UK,” “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” “Demons of the Punjab” and “Kerblam.”

This week, I ask the questions with Hannah and Jenna share their perspective on a wild ride of an episode.

Aaron: This may have been my favorite episode of the year, in part because it felt more connected to previous seasons. Other episodes this season had Doctor Who elements, but still felt like a show inspired by Doctor Who, rather than Doctor Who itself. The plot of Witchfinder seemed most like an episode that could’ve happened anytime during the New Who run.

What were your overall impressions of the episode this week and how do you think the show has done in trying to balance establishing something new, while staying connected to the overall Doctor Who arc?

Jenna: That’s an interesting perspective. I’d say this series has felt more Who-ish to me than it has in years because my standard of comparison is the RTD era. I think Chibnall is taking the larger budget and dark drama of the Moffat years, but putting it back in its proper place as a character-driven, domestic, justice-focused, and educational show.

Sometimes the education is physics or history and sometimes it’s more moral and sometimes it is the nature of hope or courage, but I think this series feels the most like “home” to me of any since series 4, and maybe even more so.

That said, I think the fez and Agatha Christie references last week were well-placed in helping us remember it’s the same show. She’s not just acknowledging she used to be a man, but actually reminding viewers that she’s the same Doctor as the previous ones we know and love.

That is important for any regeneration, regardless of gender. (For example, Ten reminding Rose in “New Earth” about their “first date” being a viewing party of the sun exploding while he was Nine.)

I think it was wise of Chibnall to lay off of the tired old Dalek-Cyberman-Angels-Master/Missy rotation and stop bringing back past companions, but perhaps more references like that in passing or consequences from previous series could help make the connection.

I do think they should consider at least a brief appearance from the Daleks or another recognizable villain next series, though. Or something similar to root it back in Doctor Who history so it doesn’t wander.

Right now, though, I think they are establishing a good entry point for all the new viewers and providing a refreshing change for those of us who were ready for a restart.

Hannah: Plot-wise, this did feel like a pretty basic historical episode of NuWho. The Doctor and companions arrive someplace, immediately run into trouble, and spend the rest of the story trying to figure out what’s going on alongside a flamboyant famous historical figure.

What’s different here is the inclusion of this season’s heavy focus on social justice issues and the dark, ponderous setting and subject matter. There’s little of the whimsical about this story (ignoring King James).

It barely feels like science fiction until the very end; I half-hoped it would be a proper fantasy horror story. I’m not sure that either of these innovations are particularly brilliant or consistent enough to constitute their own distinct aesthetic. In other words, I’d like a stronger central idea for this era.

Aaron: More than previous episodes, Witchfinder, with a female writer and director, seemed to lean into the cultural hindrances faced by woman, including now the Doctor. How do you think it addressed those problems? What solution did it present?

Jenna: I thought it was interesting and well done that the first person to really talk about gender is the villain, Becka Savage.

It wasn’t just a generic man in power being sexist, though King James certainly was reflective of his time’s view of women as primarily useful for gossip, not real investigating, and prone to be “witches.” But some of the sexism also comes from a self-hating woman in power, which is a dark side of sexism that we often don’t want to talk about.

I like that the thing that really gets through to King James is that the Doctor knows the human heart so well. I don’t think that would be out of character for other Doctors, but that is something that also set him apart when he was a man in the past.

But as a woman, it’s even more powerful because it shows that we don’t just have to flirt or be rescued or cry our way out of things as far too many stereotypes in stories throughout history have painted.

Emotional intelligence is real intelligence. Empathy is a strength, which is a key Doctor Who theme, but is also something that in a woman is often coded as weakness.

So it’s empowering to me to see the Doctor just being the Doctor like always but in a body so much more like mine, experiencing the world in a way much more similar to the way I and the women who have lived before me throughout history have experienced the world. (Her shock at experiencing this for the first time was humorous to me, though.) 🙂

Hannah: I, too, liked that Becka Savage was the first villain, upfront. After all, the witch trials were complicated. While most of the victims were women, there were male victims and some of the persecutors and accusers were women.

For me, King James’s sexism was all the more effective because it was really funny. The story didn’t need to beat you over the head with how wrong it was (we know that!) so it had some fun with it.

That scene between James and the Doctor was one of Thirteen’s finest moments so far. One of my consistent problems with the dialogue this season is that it was functional and bereft of subtext.

But this felt like Thirteen was a person with a lived-in experience and organic worldview, which I wasn’t getting before. She’s been inconsistent: she hates guns, except in Demons of the Punjab for some reason, and she says, “when people need help, I never refuse,” except when history might be altered. Why does she not want history tampered with? And why is she allowed to make exceptions? It is hard to understand her motivations.

With Eccleston, we knew right off that he was reacting to the Time War, which contextualized his worldview. He didn’t save certain people because “everything has its time and everything dies.” He was standing in for the Time Lords, keeping the balance of the universe.

Thirteen has no such contextualizing event, so talking to James feels like the first time we get a glimpse into her way of seeing the world, as grounded in her history observing people.

Aaron: There was a lot of religious and supernatural discussion this week. How do you think it handled the subject? How did it compare to previous episodes and how they dealt with Satan and the existence of the supernatural?

Jenna: I liked her comeback in response to the Old Testament quote that “the sequel” had a message of love. It’s a bit of a relief to me when secular media, especially from more progressive spaces, allows that there is good in the Bible and ultimately it lands on the side of love. I like to think the Doctor has read it too, and knows it well enough to understand the Christian cultures she lands in (aka historical Britain).

On the other hand, I know Christian culture enough myself to know that there are still Christians today who would agree more with the quote about Satan being all around us than Graham’s incredulous “you really believe that?” reaction. A recent Atlantic article even suggests that belief in the devil is rising.

I like the “it’s not really supernatural; it’s just science/alien” episodes because they reassure us the creaking of monsters in our closets is just the house settling. They are the ghosts that turn out to be plastic bags caught on fence posts, the tricks of the light that are revealed to be nothing more than that.

But I also think it’s important that the Doctor maintains a patience for people’s true beliefs. Instead of saying “There’s no such thing as Satan” (or any figure of belief), it’s important that she respects where people are and keeps it limited to “I really don’t think this thing you are scared of is what you think it is because I know a lot more about things you don’t understand.”

I think “Satan Pit” really messed up the Doctor’s sense of certainty in a lot of ways regarding what is scoffable about religion and what might hold some truth to it and challenge preconceptions.

Overall, I think the episode was FAR far less about religion and more about cult-like thinking,  especially falling into the excitement of battling an evil entity and being willing to kill to preserve the delusion.

I was most disturbed by how willing the nearly faceless, barely shown townspeople were to let this powerful woman, and eventually their king, preside over and execute these witch trials of their neighbors. It was disturbing, not just because it is historically accurate, but because this is often what it feels like every day to work in journalism.

You’re begging people to see the truth, or at least investigate further, but the comment-section pitchforks are out for blood and hate blinds. It was emotionally heavy to see this episode play out the metaphor so plainly.

So I’d hate for someone to come away from this episode angry at how a secular British show might have depicted Christianity or belief in Satan specifically, while missing the larger point of how fast beliefs can be manipulated into fear-fed hate that leads to murder in the name of “defeating evil.”

Hannah: I think the episode was addressing the witch trials on three different levels. First, there’s religion. The Doctor delivers a quick bit of Biblical exegesis rejecting the rules of the Old Testament for a New Testament verse: “Love thy neighbor.”

But this is quickly shuffled offstage as the story deals with the psychological underpinnings of the characters’ actions and finally, the third contributing factor to the massacre, which is, as Doctor Who usually finds, a material extraterrestrial cause.

So the moral of the story focuses, again, on the fact that there’s always a materialist explanation for things. Any sort of mysticism is going to be phased out in favor of a scientific worldview. Look how Graham quotes Ezekiel through the medium of Pulp Fiction. It’s a glimpse of a future, irreligious society. Scripture survives only through pop culture.

And “any sufficiently advanced technology,” the Doctor claims, cribbing Arthur C. Clarke’s line, “is indistinguishable from magic.” All things are explicable using material reason. (Fun fact: this line turned up earlier in Doctor Who in the Seventh Doctor episode, “Battlefield.”)

Of course, the mud zombies would never have gotten that far if not for human frailty, which seems to be the other major theme of the episode. Becka Savage’s snobbery about the woman who raised her and King James’ fear of plots exacerbate a bad situation. Those are decent morals to draw from a witch trial story, though unexpected ones. For a better Doctor Who story about hysteria and mobs, check out series 4’s “Midnight.”

And speaking of Satan, that brings up some earlier encounters with the occult on Doctor Who. Get ready for some insufferably detailed nerdery. You did ask for it!

A few episodes include witchcraft as a plot point, like “Image of the Fendahl,” “The Shakespeare Code,” and “The King’s Demons.” As Jenna mentioned, “The Satan Pit” is a major instance where the Doctor met a satanic figure, and it’s unusual because he was not able to explain away with science.

Far more common is the Arthur C. Clarke approach, as in “Pyramids of Mars,” where the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith face down Sutekh, an ancient evil being who the Doctor claims is the inspiration for the human myth of Satan. Sutekh is a fantastic villain, one of the scariest in all of Doctor Who. He looks cool, he sounds cool, his plot is super nihilistic, and above all, the instant he meets Tom Baker’s goofy, lovable Doctor, he crushes his mind like a bug. He is a serious villain. But he’s also an explicable alien from an ancient race.

The same thing happens in “The Daemons,” which concerns evil goings-on at the cursed hamlet of Devil’s End. The Master goes undercover as a priest and the Third Doctor and his UNIT fam (Three would never have used such a word, but “fam” is precisely what Jo Grant, Mike Yates, Benton and the Brigadier were to him) have conquer a demonic threat. Again, it turns out they’re aliens from the planet Daemos. It’s a great episode and now I want to rewatch it.

There are other demonic creatures (the Mara, the Black Guardian) but about the closest parallel in Classic Who to something like “The Witchfinders” is in “The Curse of Fenric,” when a bunch of evil zombies motivated by an evil from “the dawn of time” rise from the oceans to attack the Seventh Doctor and Ace.

The only thing that holds them back is faith. They’re not repelled by a vicar who lost his faith in WWII, but they wither before the Seventh Doctor’s faith in his companions. It’s interesting that this one, like “The Satan Pit,” embraces both the idea of inexplicable evil and that the Doctor’s only belief is in those that travel with him.

Aaron: Alan Cumming’s King James was a light point in an otherwise dark episode. In some ways he provided some needed levity, while in other ways he seemed out of place. I wasn’t convinced he was supposed to be portraying the actual King James until the end of the episode. I kept thinking he was a con-man pretending to be the king for some reason that would be revealed. What did you think of his performance and the character of King James?

Hannah: I thought Cumming’s campy performance was highly entertaining. But on the other hand, I’m not sure what role the character was supposed to fill in the story.

Logically, it made no sense for the king of England to turn up in Lancashire like a thrill-chasing nobleman with only a few courtiers. Stylistically, Cumming’s performance was totally at odds with the grim drama going on around him. And historically, James really was involved in witch trials, so he wasn’t a prissy naïf.

Therefore, including a jokey King James who just pops up in the face of logic and history doesn’t seem to fit with the mood of the story and the seriousness and internal logic of the history.

There is, however, one major reason to include him, which fits with the episode’s attempt to delve into the psychological issues of the hysterical Salem accusers. James’s religion seems to exist as a cloak for his fear—his fear of being assassinated (probably not paranoid—this is the guy who Guy Fawkes tried to blow up), his fear of abandonment, and his implied fear of his own sexuality.

At the same time, this episode was so dark and self-serious that I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it without him. He made the whole thing fun.

Jenna: Oh, that wouldn’t have occured to me that he would have been a con-man! I think that might have been a typical Who case of “Yay, we got a celebrity. Now let’s write in a role for him.” Haha.

I don’t know that that’s what happened, but it came off as too good of casting for the very queer King James as a delight for those who are Alan Cumming fans, but otherwise, it wasn’t very clear what he was doing there. Which would easily have been explained with a bit of dialogue, like Queen Victoria in “Tooth and Claw.” In fact, this royal appearance reminded me a bit of that in the end.

I second Hannah’s points as well about religion being a coping mechanism for his various fears. While it was a nice touch for humor and lightening things up, ultimately there were so many implied layers there with his “masks,” as the Doctor points out in her (quite powerful, imo) speech one-on-one with him.

I’d love to hear the writer and Cumming talk more about what they were going for and the depth of meaning behind his appearance and the dialogue they wrote.

Next week: “It Takes You Away”

1 Comment

  1. Would have loved to see the Doctor and companions in period clothing, they were going to Elizabeth I’s coronation. Also, “Love thy neighbour” in the NT is a direct quote from the OT. And did you notice that King James wrote a book “Daemonologie” which was published before the KJV Bible. Becka had a copy in her bedroom.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.