Like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” before it, “The Witchfinders” shows that Chibnall and company seem in their element when working in the constraints of real-world history – the lazy worldbuilding can mostly be skipped and we’re dropped immediately into the plot. The routine is well established now – the Doctor and her friends are thrust into a new location and situation, the story meanders its way to a close. Once again, the highlights of this episode are character moments, the weakness is the inconsequential alien.
There’s the core of a good idea, though. The witch trials are a fascinating period of history and a female Doctor has a unique relationship with it. The idea of the alien forces being misconstrued as Satan is fun too, although we’ve had similar ideas before (in Chibnall’s own episodes). King James I is a great guest character and he’s a lot of fun to watch, historical inaccuracies aside.
It’s great seeing the TARDIS team in such a mundane, real-world location, but it’s odd how quick they are to judge and talk down to the locals. We get it, witches aren’t real and the trials were horrific, but the Doctor’s moral absolutism is completely misplaced here. I expected a heavy moment early on when it seemed like the Doctor would let an innocent woman be drowned, but 13 jumps in, pulls her body out…and she’s dead anyway. There was the opportunity for an important lesson here. History has lots of messy, unhappy moments, but the 21st century has no right to claim moral authority over the 17th, and it seems especially tone-deaf when this season has so deftly handled the Rosa Parks incident.
Likewise, the Doctor’s condescending attitude towards the local lord’s hunt for Satan doesn’t help her. This woman doesn’t believe in some abstract, spiritual sense of evil, she literally believes in a being that is the embodiment of all ill in the world. It’s a defining trait of the (modern) Doctor that they’re not religious, but they of all people should know that you usually handle these things with a little more tact. You’ll win no-one over by telling them their beliefs are medieval.
It’s to the episode’s credit that the matter of the Doctor’s gender is handled expertly throughout. It’s obvious in hindsight that the Doctor would end up herself accused of witchcraft, but it’s a great move and highlights how different 13’s relationship with the world is than that of her previous selves. To have her frustrated that in the past she could get away with a lot more without having her authority questioned is fun and sadly accurate. I’ve said it before but this is the show at its best: unafraid to acknowledge the difficult and grey areas. Little jokes about pockets are fun also.
The aliens are boring and generic like most have been this season. The lack of iconic foes like the Daleks and Cybermen is becoming increasingly apparent. These mud monsters are somehow trapped on Earth while also calling it primitive. They control dead bodies and want to ‘fill’ – an almost definite euphemism – all of Earth’s people. They serve little but distraction and once again the episode would have been stronger without them. Could we not have an episode exploring such a dark and unique period of our history without a grinning granny carrying an axe? It’s schlocky and lowers the quality overall.
Yaz has effectively no role once again, aside from a clumsy line about growing up to challenge her school bully. Ryan has some fun interactions with James I but the golden boy, as always, is Graham – hat and all. But even he feels like a footnote here. Their strongest moments are in the ‘flat structure’ interactions and the acknowledgements that the time they’re in simply don’t benefit women, but it’s safe to say the Doctor’s adventure would have been largely the same if they weren’t present. Even the moment where they call for the Doctor to be raised from the river is robbed of all tension when she deus ex machina’s herself out of the lake.
“The Witchfinders” is another inconsequential romp in a season full of them. With rumours of both Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall’s departures in 2019, it’s really starting to get worrying. This series hasn’t been the worst of NuWho – far from it – but it’s far from the highs of Tennant and Smith’s eras. It’s difficult to know how this series will be remembered, especially if we’re headed towards another soft reboot. More people are watching and talking about the show than they have in years, but how long will it last? My hope is that Jodie and Chibnall are here to stay for at least another series – give them time to breathe and expand on what’s worked this year. Because right now, who is the 13th Doctor? She’s the least characterised of any NuWho Doctor and I’m still waiting for that moment that cements her alongside her predecessors. Let’s hope the remaining two episodes end the series on a strong note.