The Doctor was bound to get a dose of good old-fashioned sexism sooner or later, but it did take eight episodes to find it. What happens Team TARDIS encounters witch hunters in the day of King James I?
The Doctor is trying to get her crew to the coronation of Elizabeth I, but ends up in Bilehurst Cragg in the time of witch hunting. They witness the murder of Old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly) at the hand of Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran), Twiston’s cousin who married up and now controls the whole town. Twiston’s granddaughter Willa (Tilly Steele) watches on in horror as her grandmother is tested for witchcraft and dies by being drowned in a river. The Doctor tries to dive in and save the woman, but she’s already passed by the time the Doctor can get her to shore. She uses the psychic paper to get Becka to believe that she’s the Witchfinder General, and insists that she stop her trials for the time being.
Yas follows Willa, and notes that when she gives a prayer as she buries her grandmother, the mud around her comes to life and tries to grab her. Meanwhile, the Doctor, Graham, and Ryan are trying to find out what Becka is up to when they’re interrupted by King James I (Alan Cumming). The psychic paper tells him that the Doctor is the Witchfinder’s assistant, and they have to say that Graham is now the Witchfinder General. The Doctor goes to investigate what Yas saw, leaving Ryan and Graham with the king. She talks to Willa and insists that she can help her; Willa tells the Doctor and she’s related to Becka and that her grandmother only ever used herbs and brews to heal people. They go back to the gravesite and find the mud in the area reanimating the corpses of the witches who have been killed. The king and Becka arrive and see the corpses and decide that the Doctor is a witch. They convince Willa to also protest against the Doctor. Becka puts the Doctor on trial and tries to drown her before Yas, and Ryan, and Graham can reach her. The Doctor escapes and confronts Becka, who she knows is at the center of the turmoil.
It turns out that everything started when Becka decided to cut down an old, special tree that was blocking her view, and the mud around the tree began to fill her up. She couldn’t fix it with any medicines, and decided that it was Satan’s doing—and that the only thing that would save her would be devoting her life to ridding Bilehurst Cragg of Satan’s influence by killing witches. It turns out that the tree was alien biotech keeping a prison locked under Pendle Hill. The prison housed a Morax army, and now they intend to break out and take over the world. They kidnap King James to fill his body up next, but the Doctor and crew re-lock the prison and send them back underground. King James seems to have lost his fire for witch hunting, and he and Willa see the crew disappear in the TARDIS.
I dearly wanted this episode to work, but it just did not come together in any direction. The episode is intending to call out many different issues that pertain to sexism, but in failing to stick to just a few, the whole thing kind of falls apart. First, we get a chance to see the Doctor have to deal with direct sexism for the first time, but the story doesn’t twist that knife at all. Instead, she grumbles about it and continues to work behind everyone’s back; it never slows her down for an instant, even when she’s literally sentenced to death at her own witch trial. And if that was supposed to be the point, that could have given us an incredibly emotional crux to drive through, but the episode seems to think it’s actually addressing sexism from the Doctor’s perspective when it emphatically isn’t. Sexism is instead briefly inconvenient for her, and then not an issue at all because she manages to have a nice chat with King James, and he’s suddenly fine with her.
Speaking of King James, Alan Cumming is a treasure as always… but he seems like he’s appearing in an entirely different episode. He’s far too fun for the subject matter being tackled, and while it’s great to watch him flirt and ponder and come out the other side a different sort of man, it’s hard to imagine why that needed to be any part of a story about witch hunting, or the pain and suffering that it brought to communities of women throughout history. One or the other needed true focus, rather than splitting the difference awkwardly. And while he’s utterly divine to watch, his presence simply isn’t needed in the story at all (aside from maintaining Doctor Who‘s obsession with the Doctor meeting and befriending/irritating as many British monarchs as possible).
There’s another aspect of sexism being called out in this episode that doesn’t stick the landing in how its portrayed—the ways in which women hurt other women due to the pressure that sexism exerts on their lives. Willa’s betrayal of the Doctor is the purest form of this argument. She gives up the Doctor to Becka and the king for completely understandable reasons; her grandmother was just murdered and she’s terrified for her life. Two very powerful people who have no qualms about killing her are asking for her cooperation in bringing down another woman, and she gives in out of terror. This is how real sexism operates under a patriarchal system. Women are made to believe that standing against sexism is too costly to their own survival, and leave other women to bear punishment when they speak out or move through the world too loudly.
If that had been an important turning point in the episode, it would have all come together nicely, but it was only a tiny footnote in a much muddier theme. Instead, the person who is meant to bear this particular mantle is Becka, a woman who has murdered three dozen women (they only ever say she murdered people in the episode, but they are clearly all women, and it’s incredibly important to keep pointing that out in an episode about female-centered violence) because… she wanted to chop down a tree for a better view?
This is where the episode collapses and under its overly-ambitious multitude of plot threads. What turns Becka into a witch hunting murderer is something that has nothing to do with sexism or power or witchcraft. She’s just a jerk who wants to chop down a lovely tree, an error that leads to an alien infection, and subsequently causes her to take up the mantle of God’s avenging angel. That theme might have worked, if it had been played just right… but at the end of the day, this is an insult to the very real women who lost their lives being accused of witchcraft. Those women weren’t killed because another woman was scared that she was being taken over by “Satanic forces.” They died because they practiced earlier forms of medicine and midwifery (just like Willa’s grandmother, though here she merely dies for not helping Becka enough), because religious institutions of the day thrived on paranoia and fear mongering, because these women frightened men who could not bear to see women with a modicum of power that they did not possess for themselves.
This episode, titled “The Witchfinders” has nothing to do with the persecution caused by witch hunts at all. Not really. It doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of the power dynamics that created it, or any amount of care for why those women were actually killed. It’s used as a handy backdrop for a hackneyed alien plot about an army who possess bodies somehow using mud. The Morax army isn’t interesting, or all that scary, or in any way important to the rest of the plot. No one comes away with any understanding of what made witch hunting such a heinous pastime in Europe and beyond. The Doctor isn’t moved by how being a woman forced her into a very different position than she normally occupies on her own adventures because it never hindered her all that much. The bad guys are stopped by stuffing fire into a tree stump.
If you’re going to tackle a period of violence that was used as an excuse to rid the world of “misbehaving” women, there should be some intention behind it. But this episode barely paid lip service to the idea. There was a better idea here, somewhere. It’s not as though the Doctor doesn’t know what it feels like to be singled out and nearly killed (“Midnight” comes to mind as one of the greatest examples in that direction), and foregoing the humor and occasional winks from King James might have given the story a purpose and a direction that led to great things, even if it was harder to swallow.
Asides for this week:
- There is suspicion by many historians that King James I was bisexual, which the episode gives a nod to in the king’s flirtations with Ryan. (Also, we’re talking about Alan Cumming here, who probably gets it written into his contracts that he’s allowed to flirt with any and all male costars.)
- We have some genuine timeline muddying here. King James I makes the point to Ryan that people have tried to blow him up before, which would seem to reference the 1605 Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes. The Doctor herself believes that they’re in the “early 17th century.” But the king had already cooled on his interest in witchcraft and witch hunts by 1599, so something got fudged…
- The Daemonologie that the Doctor notes in Becka’s room was an actual tome written by King James I about black magic and necromancy, and is believed to have served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
- The Doctor mentions having hung out with Houdini, hence her ability to escape chains while underwater.
- The Doctor likely survived her drowning due to her respiratory bypass system, a fun bit of Gallifreyan physiology that the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Tenth, and Twelfth Doctors have put to use in various adventures.
- The Doctor quotes Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law to King James I, which is something that she’s quite fond of name checking and paraphrasing. (Both and Seventh and Twelfth Doctors have brought that one up before.)
- The Doctor bobbing for apples is now the cutest thing that has ever happened, goodnight.