The early scenes of Sunday’s Doctor Who seemed to be setting up The Witchfinders to be the year’s creepiest, most chilling episode.
We had an eerie Lancashire wood, tendrils groping up out of the mud, a sinister masked figure, the groaning, axe-wielding reanimated dead... and a grisly chapter in British history, when witch “trials” condemned innocent people, mostly women, mostly poor, to death.
Many viewers might have agreed when Ryan (Tosin Cole) described the execution by drowning of Old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly) as too “dark”. Fortunately for them, the tone rapidly lightened. The aliens in dodgy latex masks were altogether less scary, the plot was almost as daft as the previous week’s Kerblam conspiracy, and guest star Alan Cumming stole the show as a comically paranoid King James I.
After recent episodes struggled with sprawling guest casts and disparate stories, The Witchfinders kept it simple and coherent. We had Twiston’s granddaughter Willa (Tilly Steele) learning to stand up to bullies, and a cautionary tale from James and local landowner Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) about how bullies are born of their own fears and insecurities. If not a serious explanation of the witch trials, it was at least a story.
This also gave Jodie Whittaker space to show more of the Doctor’s personality. We’ve seen her bubbly and enthusiastic and we’ve seen her angrily defiant, but The Witchfinders gave us a Doctor who was rattled, who was offended, who almost lost her patience—only to have to win over her staunch adversary through her sincerity. It was a reminder of what an actor of Whittaker’s calibre can bring to the role, when given the material.
A messy final act and some heavy suspension of disbelief aside, The Witchfinders would have been a fun, freaky adventure if it hadn't felt like such poor taste. James I was a real king who persecuted real victims. Pendle Hill is a real place where real mass murder was carried out. Compared to the careful handling of historical crimes in Rosa and The Demons of Punjab, this episode seemed to lose sight of that. It’s the sort of history Doctor Who used to do and, if rumours of a rift between showrunner Chris Chibnall and BBC bosses are to be believed, could soon be returning to.
It could be a lot worse, but this year has shown how it is capable of much better.
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