Doctor Who series 11: The Witchfinders review

Does a Time Lord weigh more than a duck? We might just find out in Doctor Who's The Witchfinders. Spoilers follow the squirrel…

This section of the review is free of spoilers. If you venture below Daphne the spoiler-squirrel, beware…

11.8 The Witchfinders 

If you’ve yet to see this week’s instalment of Doctor Who… well, you probably weren’t an American fan streaming it on Amazon Video. Last week’s adventure, Kerblam!, somehow managed to displace itself in the archives of the very corporation it was lampooning, meaning that a few confused viewers found themselves with early access to tonight’s historical outing. As such, it’s probably been slightly harder than usual to avoid spoilers this week, but if – like us – you managed to do so, we’ll begin with some overall impressions before delving into specifics.

So far this year, the historical episodes have been a deliberately slow-paced and measured look at a pivotal situation, leaving the Doctor and her companions skirting cautiously around the boots of history, eager not to damage the footprints. There’s none of that restraint on display this week, though. For reasons as emotive as they are intellectual, Team TARDIS have cause to throw themselves whole-heartedly into the fray and sort the timeline out afterwards. 

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This gleeful abandon lends itself to a tale that isn’t just pacey, it’s sometimes poorly-paced. The first moments of dialogue happen in voice-over, for instance, and there are a number of conversations and encounters that seem almost brutally rushed, but then there’s also a lot of time spent showing the gang tramping through the forests of Lancashire when there really isn’t that much to talk about. If you’ve enjoyed the greater emphasis on meaning and character that Rosa and Demons Of The Punjab provided, you may be left with a mostly-empty stomach following tonight’s episode. Conversely, if you’re a Whovian who’s been itching for the stakes to be raised and a proper peril to present itself, you might find yourself remembering the old adage: be careful what you wish for…

From now on, here be spoilers.

Here be monsters! We’ll get to the Morax later – or the Moracks, as it may be. Or the Moraqs, perhaps. It’s hard to say for sure when they weren’t namedropped in the credits, so for now we’ll go with the x as it’s clearly the most extra-terrestrial intruder in the alphabet. Firstly, though, it’s time to address a grumble that, just like the muddy malcontents this week, has been bubbling under the surface for far too long.

The various incarnations of Star Trek have often been jokingly accused of taking long strings of technobabble and then immediately having another character simplify them into a single, easy-to-digest analogy. The kind of explanation, in other words, that keeps the more casual viewer up to speed.  This year, Doctor Who has repeatedly gone one step further; it’s taken to reiterating the same very basic plot points over and over again within a single conversation.

This tendency to have the regular characters state and restate what’s happening, so that the writing team are absolutely sure everyone’s on the same page, has permeated this season, but it seems particularly obnoxious this week. There’s the moment, for example, where the alien convicts lunge forward, shouting “Morax!” only for the Doctor to retaliate with a stern “Who are you?” Later, the Doctor posits that the Morax must have been imprisoned on Earth, presumably for war crimes – an observation that would have seemed a lot more intuitive had they not bellowed that exact confession at her five minutes previously. (There’s an awful lot of bellowing this episode, from pretty much everyone concerned.) 

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While this heavy-handed approach to storytelling is doubtlessly effective, it does mean that even the swiftest script suddenly feels bloated and a little bit patronising if you’ve been enjoying the unapologetically convoluted storylines of recent years. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to ensure Doctor Who is something the entire family are capable of appreciating, but there are ways and means of doing so that don’t have to come from repetition of dialogue. Sometimes, a single look from one of the main cast is all you need, but it’s been rare to see that level of trust in the actors on display this year.

Expositional grumblings aside, though, tonight became a marked departure from the previous two historicals courtesy of Alan Cumming and his portrayal of James I, a ruler who famously became intrigued with witch trials while travelling and soon ensured they were in vogue back at home. Honestly, he could well have been auditioning for a Blackadder revival tonight. Doe-eyed and plum-cheeked, Cumming’s campy performance rests upon all of the prevalent preconceptions about King James, whether that’s his latent, distracted paranoia or taking a fancy to random male courtesans. A tonal whiplash surrounds him, to the point that you’re never quite sure whether he’s to be hated, pitied or taken as a figure of fun. Like many a monarch in Doctor Who, he certainly carries precious little authority when things kick off.

And speaking of authority – while the subject’s had its edges nibbled before, this week we run headlong into the elephant in the room. It was obvious from the get-go that tonight, sooner or later, Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor was going to be tried as a witch when a male regeneration might not have been. There’s definitely some fun to be had with the notion that, having spent half-a-dozen episodes insisting that her sex doesn’t matter, the Doctor is huffily forced to acknowledge that, at least in the presence of a foppish and possibly delusional sovereign, his guards and some swords, it absolutely does.

It’s unfortunate, however, that in the first plot to really acknowledge the Doctor’s physical change, we saw more of the fallible tendencies and distracted nature that have characterised Whittaker’s regeneration thus far. Maybe because she’s part of a larger ensemble or maybe because there’s a renewed effort not to portray her as a superhero, this Doctor stumbles in ways that her predecessors didn’t. As this episode focuses strongly on new-found female appearance, it’s hard not to imagine that people might conflate the two and come away feeling that this new, less assertive Doctor is part and parcel of her being a woman, even if that was never the team’s intention. 

For example, here the Doctor is so excited by the prospect of living mud in a specimen jar that she allows the bad guys to loom up behind her, even while Yaz intones “Doctor… Doctor…” like we’re watching Scooby-Doo. She’s unable to bring King James on-side with one of her trademark speeches, and in fact it’s he that leaves her speechless this week. Having a more vulnerable Doctor is absolutely not a bad thing, but in an episode where the guest cast repeatedly state that women can only accomplish so much, this feels like a missed opportunity for Whittaker’s personification to step up and prove to all concerned that she’s still the universe’s one-and-only cosmic hobo. There were no glass ceilings for the sonic to shatter this week, not when King James ultimately ignored the Doctor’s protests and chose to put the final ‘witch’ to the torch before her eyes. 

All of which brings us back around to the Morax, ambiguously-spelled Monsters of the Week. Whether you consider them evocative of the Gelth thanks to their desire to inhabit dead bodies, or some kind of offspring of the Flood that so effectively terrorised Bowie Base One back in The Waters Of Mars, we certainly received our long-awaited alien threat. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘paper-thin’ would be heaping too much praise upon this particular menace, even if they are basically from a tree.

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Why? “Kneel before the Morax, feeble human!” That was a line, an actual line of dialogue roared by an alien criminal in a year that has left us desperately craving a meaty antagonist. Despite all of the shouting this week it’s hard to see what threat the Morax really posed. Okay, so they can’t be shot, but they’re not exactly nimble. They’re also not very clever, given that Ryan and co. are able to hide from them using the impenetrable cloaking device of a seventeenth century staircase railing. Their leader possesses a woodcutter’s axe, yes, but so did my old garden shed, and I was never afraid that that was going to suddenly rise up and murder me. (I am now, though. Bugger.)

When the supposed threat-of-all-threats, the King of the Morax, finally starts to form, it’s a very odd moment indeed. Since this week has struggled to coherently deliver a message about female empowerment, having this ‘King’ – never before mentioned nor apparently really needed – suddenly pop up out of nowhere feels like a bit of a stumble. He never even manifests beyond a vaguely-ominous CG cloud, so you’re forced to wonder why anyone bothered with him at all. Certainly, Siobhan Finneran was more than capable of carrying the danger of the Morax through to their defeat, though that’s damning with faint praise.

As for character development of the regular cast… there was precious little to be found this week. No confrontations, no attempts at inter-generational fist-bumps, none of it – apart from one moment where the Doctor looks to Yasmin to determine Granny Morax’s pulse rather than waving her sonic about. While we’re starting to get ideas of where Yaz, Ryan and Graham’s respective strengths might lie, these are all very formative arcs. Is Ryan the muscle? Is Graham the mole, ingratiating himself while picking up on the finer details? The jury’s still out. 

What we’re left with, when all is said and done, is a pell-mell but flawed episode that abandons the history lessons in favour of an old-fashioned, monster-driven romp.  If only the aliens had been given the same nuance, care and screen time that the human villains have enjoyed so far, this could have been a classic episode. Instead, what we’re left with is a passable story that not only highlights some of the shortcomings every script has suffered from this year, but struggles to define who, exactly, this Doctor is, not to mention her place in the universe she’s defended all of her lives.

Read Chris’ review of the previous episode, Kerblam!, here.