Doctor Who: The Witchfinders
November 25, 2018 1:37 PM - Season 11, Episode 8 - Subscribe

Arriving in 17th Century Lancashire, the TARDIS team become embroiled in a witch trial.

Alan Cumming hamming it up as king James I ? I love it!!
posted by Pendragon (50 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, I am always up for Alan Cumming devouring scenery. The rest was fine by me. The monster of the week didn't seem overly complicated, and was basically one of those "being overcome by hate (or in this case, immense pettiness vis-a-vis your view) makes you the real monster" metaphors.

All the "the Doctor is Satan's handmaiden!!!!" yelling made me laugh with its similarity to the comments sections / letters to the editor lately. It's like they knew.
posted by cage and aquarium at 6:18 PM on November 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


I didn't know I wanted Alan Cumming to play King James but my god it worked.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:43 PM on November 25, 2018 [13 favorites]


Radio Times is here to remind us that he was offered the part of the eighth Doctor
In fact, the Spy Kids and X-Men actor was once offered to play The Eighth Doctor, but he turned down the role due to one requirement of the job: living in Cardiff.

Previously speaking about when he was approached by then-showrunner Russell T Davies, Cumming recalled: “I said, ‘Sure, I still have a flat in London, it’d be perfect.’ Then he said, ‘It’s eight months of the year in Cardiff…’ And I said, ‘What?’ And I think that might have been what blew it.”

Cumming has also revealed he was later approached by Mark Gatiss to play the Time Lord, but again turned down the offer after learning he’d still have to live in Cardiff for eight months of the year – “I’d do anything for Doctor Who, but I won’t do that,” he said.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:44 PM on November 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


i really wonder if it's because of his love for London or whatever is wrong with Cardiff?
posted by numaner at 8:14 PM on November 25, 2018


i enjoyed this episode. i expected the Doctor to be accused of witchcraft (i mean, she's the first female Doctor, you can't have a whole season without doing a witch-hunt episode where she gets accused, it's like some universal contract of being female), but it was entertaining how they got there.

and of course Alan Cumming is amazing
posted by numaner at 8:15 PM on November 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


That was not a bad villain/monster of the week. Not an all time great or anything, but plenty good enough to establish they do care about that sort of thing.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:32 PM on November 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Alan Cumming made this episode. Would have been amazing if King James was a temporary companion!
posted by liquorice at 1:04 AM on November 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


This felt like the first episode this season where the plot was developed enough to be interesting and not very predictable. The make-up on the mud-zombies was pretty creepy too, it wouldn't have looked out of place in an actual horror movie.
One thing we rolled our eyes at though was
Doctor: "Remember, we absolutely cannot interfere in historical events!"
(Next scene) Doctor: "I'm immediately going to interfere in this historical event!"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:16 AM on November 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


I did enjoy the line:

“Honestly, if I were still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself!”
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:19 AM on November 26, 2018 [19 favorites]


i really wonder if it's because of his love for London or whatever is wrong with Cardiff?

Having lived in London and visited Cardiff, I can't say I really blame him.

(P.S. What happened to King James's Scottish accent?)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:55 AM on November 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


I thought this was a solidly entertaining episode. I know I've quibbled with thing in this series, but so far every I enjoyed every episode, there hasn't been an eye-rolling not-this-again episode so far.

From a pedant's point of view I really liked the way they always talked conspicuously about witches being hanged. Witches weren't burned in Britain. Not sure if King James should have had a more Scottish accent though.

This seems to be the first one where they've opened the bottle of having the Doctor face sexism.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:30 AM on November 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Did the Radio Times article get their Doctor-numbering wrong? 8 was Paul McGann for the 1996 tv-movie/Fox backdoor pilot. If they're talking about Russell T. Davies & months in Cardiff, did they mean Cumming was up for the part of the 9th (Eccleston) Doctor?
posted by oh yeah! at 5:30 AM on November 26, 2018 [6 favorites]


I rather enjoyed Cumming’s very fruity, aristocratic version of a Scottish accent. Not historically accurate, perhaps, not least because Jacobean English sounded markedly different from modern English anyway, but as a performance of a modern version of Very Posh Scottishness it was a lot of fun.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 6:05 AM on November 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


Cardiff isn't so terrible but it's like asking someone to move from Manhattan to Cleveland.

This episode had me and Husband googling about King James' sexuality (wiki has it as "a matter of dispute" lol).

I really enjoyed this one, though I didn't actually give any fucks about the monster (I rarely do though, tbh) and it did kind of clarify for me what might be missing for me this series. I don't feel much chemistry between any of the leads (I don't mean romantically, just in general). The characters all seem like lovely people and I know a lot of folks are very pleased with a big Team TARDIS and less of the intense character stuff (what old Who fanboys used to refer to derisively as "soap opera") but I'm missing it. I really need someone to have an arc here. Like, a big stakes, personal growth, confronting inner demons, transforming into a better person (or maybe worse?) arc. Without that, they're diverting stories with some fun gags and naff special effects but as soon as the episode is over, I stop thinking about it, like it never happened.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:25 AM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


Lots of fun, and I'm up for Alan Cumming anytime. I do think three companions may be too many to keep up with, as it always seems that the plot is, "Let's split up so the Doctor can talk to 1 or 2 of you and the 3rd will get to do something or be forgotten for half the episode" to me.
posted by xingcat at 6:38 AM on November 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Was the monster brand new for this episode? It seemed to come out of nowhere. They crammed the monster's entire backstory and motivation into the last 7 minutes of the episode. It was a lot like the Pakistan/India episode in that way. Also, the tree/prison has been there for billions of years? I know they lampshade this in the episode but it makes no sense that it seemingly survived ice ages, meteor impacts, lava, continental drift, and a billion years of weathering and then one lady with an ax is able to cut it down? I know aliens being all up in Earth's biz is a conceit of the show, but I'm just really not buying it in this series for some reason.
posted by runcibleshaw at 9:41 AM on November 26, 2018


it's a magic alien tree ok? it was made to survive natural disasters, not humans with axes.
posted by numaner at 9:53 AM on November 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


One thing we rolled our eyes at though was
Doctor: "Remember, we absolutely cannot interfere in historical events!"
(Next scene) Doctor: "I'm immediately going to interfere in this historical event!"


But.. that's standard Doctor behavior....
posted by Pendragon at 10:34 AM on November 26, 2018 [13 favorites]


And in the end, it all worked out -- Graham says "I've done the old Pendle Witches walking trail. Nobody ever mentioned Bilehurst Cragg. Never heard of it." In the end, King James proclaims "Not one word of any of this shall ever be spoken. And even the name Bilehurst shall be erased from all records."

Yes, the Pendle Witches walking trail are a real thing. Also real: Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James &c.


numaner: it's a magic alien tree ok? it was made to survive natural disasters, not humans with axes.

"It's old, eroded over billions of years, presumably." -- The Doctor

Also, I was rather amused (in a SMH sort of way) how Mistress Savage recognized the potential for another woman to be in a place of power, but King James did not:

The Doctor: We're your witchfinders, sire, as we explained to Mistress Savage.
King James: [looks at psychic paper] Witchfinder's Assistant. [Looks to Graham] So, you must be the Witchfinder General.
Graham: What? No, she said she was.
King James: A woman could never be the General.
The Doctor: [Laughs] Silly me. Must have got all confused. Mustn't I, boss?
Graham: Uh, yeah.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:59 AM on November 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


It was kind of interesting how the psychic paper identified the Doctor as an Assistant Witchfinder. Since the paper keys on what the user wants it to say, that "assistant" status had to have been in the Doctor's own mind. Her puzzled glance at the paper and the "wtf?" look on her face was priceless.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:17 PM on November 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


I thought psychic paper said what the reader expected to see, not the owner?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:24 PM on November 26, 2018 [9 favorites]


Yes, the reader is leading, not the owner.
posted by Pendragon at 12:38 PM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


Looks like it can be a bit of both. Per flt's link...
Usually, it showed what the holder of the paper wanted the person reading the paper to see, (TV: The End of the World) or vice-versa. (TV: The Idiot's Lantern) However, if the user wasn't specific about what he wanted the reader to see, instead using a broad idea like "worst nightmare", what turned up on the psychic paper would always be a surprise.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:14 PM on November 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


There have been plenty of times where the Doctor was surprised by what the psychic paper said (and Shakespeare saw it as blank).
posted by acidnova at 6:47 PM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


The subtitles had King James say of the Doctor's moniker, "like Dr. D, the necromancer", but I'm pretty sure it was meant to be "Dr. Dee", as in this contemporaneous bloke. (Wikipedia doesn't mention any necromancy specifically on Dee's page, but it does come up on the page for his close associate Edward Kelley.)

Jeff Vandermeer fans may also recognise Dee's glyph.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:32 PM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the BBC One subtitles had "Dr. Dee". Their captioner either had the script or is a little more on the ball history-wise.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:59 AM on November 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


Was the monster brand new for this episode? It seemed to come out of nowhere. They crammed the monster's entire backstory and motivation into the last 7 minutes of the episode.
They all are this season, I think.

When the head mud monster revealed herself and did that attack to camera I honestly thought we'd be kicking off into a 2-parter. Then the next scene picked up and everyone seemed basically fine and the Doctor was explaining the monsters and I was thinking "Surely you can do that at the start of next week's episode" but I check and nope there's a good 5 or 6 minutes left to the episode. Very weird.

Cumming was great though. As was Graham in the hat.
posted by dumbland at 2:01 AM on November 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


I dunno, I felt like it was a little all-over-the-place and weirdly....rushed, or something. I'm still in initial mulling mode, though.

Although I did chuckle at Graham's last exchange with King James:

Graham: "And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them."

King James (nodding): Ezekiel.

Graham (smug smile, shaking head): Tarantino. (steps into TARDIS)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:50 AM on November 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I also felt like the monster plot ended up a bit rushed, and is every notable English hill a prison or gateway for eldritch horrors? It almost felt like two story pitches shoved together, "let's talk about silencing women and how women with power silence other women" and "let's push these rage avatars into a prison on the hill." I felt like there should have been a connection between the two themes, but it just didn't come out.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:15 AM on November 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


I too have worked for organisations that claim to have a flat management structure just about the time when we're all about to be devoured by some slavering beastie and I'm up the front.
posted by hawthorne at 6:30 AM on November 27, 2018 [13 favorites]


There’s a new episode this Sunday, right? BBCAmerica didn’t show any preview bit, per usual. Or, if they did, I blinked and missed it.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:35 PM on November 27, 2018


We got a preview as normal here (UK) and there's an episode on the TV schedule for Sunday.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:30 PM on November 27, 2018


Not an all-time great, but a fun little episode with fun guest stars. My biggest concern going into the episode was that they'd flatten out the real life misogynistic/patriarchal reasoning underlying real life witch hunts for the sake of made-up alien stuff, but they balanced both aspects pretty well, I thought. Maybe it'd have been better if the monsters were better linked to the story's themes of (religion as excuse for) social oppression, etc etc, but one can say that about a lot of Doctor Who episodes!

Was it just me, or did the mud tendrils had a cool, almost stop-motion-y effect going on? Anyone know how they made that happen?
posted by bettafish at 4:59 PM on November 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


The mud monsters were repressed toxic masculinity bubbling up to the surface in a reaction to women. They’re summoned by a symbolic emasculation—a woman chopping the trunk of a tree with an axe. They’re a mindless stew of aggression and violence. It’s a great theme for the first episode where the Doctor really comes to terms with not being a man anymore.
posted by EarBucket at 6:13 PM on November 27, 2018 [16 favorites]


Very true EarBucket. And also thinking about that point a little more, it's interesting to think about how the toxic masculinity of the mud monster came out as internalized misogyny in Miss O'Brien Lady Savage. Also, what a name for someone whose internalized misogyny is killing her town. But like, she had this whole thread going of feeling rejected from her family after marrying up, and now infected with this toxic rage, that she hates, she takes it out on her family. It's really good writing if you think about it.
posted by bleep at 7:52 PM on November 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


What I meant to say here and forgot is that it's interesting to think about the Doctor finding themselves in a woman's body having to think about and confront any internalized misogyny that they had built up over the years. Hopefully not too much, but these adventures are the closest thing the Doctor gets to therapy. Or maybe the TARDIS is the Doctor's therapist/partner so it sent her here to think this over.
posted by bleep at 9:55 PM on November 27, 2018 [2 favorites]




Things I loved about this episode: directly exploring the Doctor's new experience as a woman confronting patriarchy, King James as a queer drama queen, the creepy crawling face of the Morax queen, the nuanced portrayal of Willa and the way her moment of betrayal is portrayed as totally understandable, the surprises of the plot--like I definitely couldn't predict how this episode went, the way the human villains were presented as complex, with understandable motives, what the Doctor said about wanting simple heroes and villains and how that's not real.

Things I didn't get about this episode: why did Willa's grandmother say, "I'll still be with you in the water, in the fire, in the air, in the earth."? Like, that's totally a neo-Pagan framework and discourse. Was that a hint that they were actual, non-evil witches? And, even more confusingly, why did the Morax-possessed corpses also refer to the elements right before they blasted the King's man?

Things that kinda frustrated me about this episode: the way, in a highly paranoid social context, people just kinda accepted the Doctor and her companions in a way that felt way too easy. Especially King James--oh, sure, I don't remember you at all but of course you're the new Witchfinder General. Also, the way the Doctor and the companions don't seem to even make a cursory effort to try to translate into historical language patterns and frameworks. And the like, we'll just keep asking you if you really believe in Satan felt preeetty naive and like a failure to imagine/understand just how different of a worldview people had in the past.

I critique because I love!
posted by overglow at 10:57 AM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I was hoping for some kind of payoff to the "water, fire, air, earth" thing as well.

As for King James accepting the existence of a Witchfinder General he doesn't remember appointing, I figured that was just part of how the psychic paper works. I'm ok with that being glossed over because I see it as one of those things that's necessary for the story to go anywhere interesting.

The whole "you don't reeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaallllllllyyyyy believe that?" schtick was ridiculous, though. That was some Twitter-atheist tier discourse, and it didn't improve the episode at all.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:14 AM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


Also, the way the Doctor and the companions don't seem to even make a cursory effort to try to translate into historical language patterns and frameworks. And the like, we'll just keep asking you if you really believe in Satan felt preeetty naive and like a failure to imagine/understand just how different of a worldview people had in the past.

I don't know if it's better or worse that the Doctor actually met Satan (The Satan Pit). And that Satan may actually be the Doctor in a later regeneration (The Name of the Doctor). Probably better both are forgotten.
posted by This time is different. at 10:12 PM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


I had a different reaction to the Satan stuff - I thought it was in what sense is Satan all around us? - trying to understand rather than saying c'mon, really. Perhaps because I don't understand the sense in which religious people now believe stuff.

I didn't understand that intelligent adults had a non-allegorical belief in that sort of thing until well into my 20s. It took a long, patient discussion with a Catholic friend about transubstantiation to make me understand that, no, being a Catholic really meant really believing the wafer somehow actually became the flesh of Christ in some way.

What someone in Jacobean times means when they say "Satan is all around" is difficult - I accept that many people believed in Satan (and some just said they did to avoid being murdered) but in what sense did they think he existed? Not in an allegorical sense of "bad things will creep into our lives unless we obey this behavioural code", clearly. But also, not in the sense that he's behind every tree somehow?

In what sense did the Norse believe? That there was a bloke with a hammer in the clouds? Or just that the natural world was dramatic and capricious? Or to bring it back to Doctor Who, note that even Neeva is pretty suspicious when The Evil One actually turns up in the flesh in The Face of Evil.
posted by hawthorne at 2:57 AM on November 30, 2018


the nuanced portrayal of Willa and the way her moment of betrayal is portrayed as totally understandable,
That was really refreshing. No total change in life outlook at first sign of Doctor. Her life and choices were still severely constrained and there she still was.
(Sorry to double comment)
posted by hawthorne at 3:19 AM on November 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


@hawthorne - why wouldn't they believe he was behind every tree? Medieval life was short and horrible for pretty well everyone.
posted by Mogur at 5:02 AM on November 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


Sure, but in what sense? Did they think there was a little chap with red skin and a trident physically standing there waiting to jab you when you weren't looking? Or evil generally lurking in the breeze? I don't have any idea and I think that's what the TARDIS crew were trying to get a handle on.
posted by hawthorne at 3:45 AM on December 1, 2018


Yes, they do think there is someone physically there who is trying to get them. Satan could take many forms, including a friendly face.

If you say "No, that's ridiculous. What did they *really* think?". This. This is what they really thought. They really thought God was real, was an old white dude, and really kept an eye on them from up above. They thought there were any number of demons quite literally nearby, trying to get them. The "religion is a metaphor for our appreciation of the universe" notion that you're working with is a rarified concept that would literally get you killed in most of human history. Which is what is irritating people about this episode. We can see Yaz or Graham saying "Oh, come on, now", but the *Doctor* should know better. She's seen religious fanaticism up close and personal and lost people because of it.
posted by Mogur at 5:49 AM on December 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


And it's not just in history. There are people right now* who think that there are literal demons literally trying to trick them into sin so they can grab them.

People ban Ouija boards and Harry Potter books for a reason.
posted by Mogur at 5:51 AM on December 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Sorry, that asterick after the word "now" is a typo that I didn't get in time. There is no footnote.
posted by Mogur at 7:03 AM on December 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Some dodgy ADR sound mixing this episode... I've noticed that before this series. Surprising, given the rest of the technical stuff is usually up to par.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:47 AM on December 3, 2018


I kind of liked this episode, but I was really troubled by this bit:

Becka: "As King James has written in his new Bible, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'"

OKAY, WOW THERE ARE A LOT OF PROBLEMS HERE.

First, I don't think anyone in early 17th century England would say "as King James has written." The KJV was obviously created by a committee of translators, and if you didn't know that up front, you would figure it out when you opened up your copy and read the note from the translators to the readers, laying out their approach to translation and why a new edition was needed. And even then, almost no one would say "as the translators of the King James version have rendered it." They'd just say "as the Lord God Almighty proclaims in the book of Exodus."

Further, it implies that this rendering is new to the KJV, but if you look at its predecessor, the Bishops Bible, you get "Thou shalt not suffer a witche to lyue"--the KJV didn't change the wording at all. Likewise for the Great Bible, ("Thou shalt not suffre a witch to lyue") and the Geneva Bible ("Thou shalt not suffre a witch to liue"). Anyone who had ever read any English translation in use in that era would know that Exodus 22:18 is one of the many lines that the KJV folks didn't change at all. This bit of dialogue is annoyingly bad.

BUT IT'S NOT AS STUPID AS WHAT COMES NEXT.

The Doctor: "In the Old Testament. There's a twist in the sequel: Love thy neighbor. Which is why we've come...to help you fix your problems without killing anyone."

Where to begin? Maybe with this "LOVE THY NEIGHBOR" IS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, TOO. Leviticus 19:18 "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord." I deeply hate the wide-spread, simplistic, and utterly wrong idea that the Old Testament was angry God and the New Testament is a free love commune. The moral vision of both testaments is basically indistinguishable. It's love, mercy, and justice all the way through--yes, with troubling bits here and there, but those appear in both sections, too. The Doctor is offering a horrible reading of the Bible, and--although I'm sure that's not the intent--it also strikes me as inherently anti-Jewish to treat loving your neighbor as a Christian innovation when Jesus is just straight up quoting the Torah.

I know I'm getting a bit argle-bargle here, but I deal with nonsense ideas about Bible translation and the relationship of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles all the time, and it's frustrating to have Doctor Who take the dumbest possible reading and just run with it.

Argle.

Bargle.

Again, I repeat my standing offer to anyone in the entertainment industry to be your Bible/theology fact-checker for a really freaking reasonable fee. Here's your rewrite:

Becka: "As the Bible says 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'"
The Doctor: "The Bible also says: Love thy neighbor. It's highly unlikely that anyone here is a witch, Becka, and it's certain that they are all your neighbors. Let's read the whole book, not just that one line."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:47 AM on December 4, 2018 [16 favorites]


I really like that rewrite! I think they just wanted a way to remind the viewers that Alan Cumming was *that* King James but there must have been some other way.
posted by bleep at 3:54 PM on December 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


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