The Witchfinders – Doctor Who Review

We’re up north once again! The Doctor and friends find themselves in Lancashire, near Pendle Hill, in the middle of the infamous Witch Trials. But in spite of the Doctor’s Time Lord non-interference policy, she cannot help but help when somebody is in trouble.

The heart of this story lies in hidden identities and mistaken identities. This is a story of people not being seen for who they are. Thematically, the Witchfinders is about people who are not what they seem on a variety of levels, whether through deliberate deception, or through social assumptions.

Who’s Who?

The Doctor warns against interfering in history, only to immediately interfere. It’s a joke we’ve seen in the show before, but it always makes me smile. This idea that the Doctor has a persona they want to portray, but as soon as they see injustice, or a crying child, they cannot help but show their true colours.

Of course, the Doctor has a history of assuming other names and identities in order to get around or infiltrate. John Smith, or simply a safety inspector, or in this case a Witchfinder, the psychic paper is usually involved somewhere. But we often forget that the name Doctor is, itself a mask.

A mask of my own face

This story begins with a shadowy figure in a mask. King James, as we discover, has come to Lancashire for the Witch Trials. But the more we find out about him, the more we discover that James himself wears more than a literal mask.

He is haunted by his past traumas, he hides a probable homosexuality (or Alan Cumming heavily implies as such through his performance), and simply plays a role. He talks of loving the drama, but every drama needs an actor, and an actor a character.

Yas talks about her experiences being bullied in school, and that she dealt with it by carrying on as if nothing were wrong. She had to take on the persona of somebody who was not suffering, in spite of the fact that she was. Her attempts to give this advice to Tilly, it doesn’t ring as great advice, given the circumstances.

Becka Savage puts on a brave face, performs the role of a pius and godly ruler here to rid the world of evil. She hides behind this mask to protect herself from the terrible truth of what has really happened to her. Pushing events forward in ever more extreme ways, Becka is so desperate to perform her role that it results in dozens of deaths.

Ultimately, the villains of this story, the Morax, use the bodies of the dead as masks. They disguise themselves as buried humans, infiltrate and attack, taking on the role of zombies. Using the bodies of other people, taking on the image of the dead, and threatening to do the same to the whole world.

I’m Not A Witch I’m an Alien

The Morax are visually impressive and serve a really interesting thematic part of the story. Using bodies as masks, in the same way the human characters are pretending to be something they are not. They do fall a little flat when the Morax queen speaks in verbose and over the top threats.

The alien menace was subtle and frightening up to the point where it came into the open, and became a little absurd. If the Morax had spoken less, or with subtlety, this would have worked better in my view. Their threat was unspoken fear, the mirror they held to the world. Instead of bombastically threatening to fill people with hate, it may have been more powerful to have them do it. Let the audience see it.

The Doctor repeats the exposition the Morax Queen gave us a scene later, so it feels a little pointless. Having the Doctor work out what was going on using her wits would have pushed this episode from good to great.

Alan Cumming is Great

I don’t have a lot of in depth things to say here, but I just really enjoyed Alan Cumming’s performance. His banter with Ryan, his aloof attitude, but also his emotional moments were brilliant to watch. It almost makes me want the Doctor to meet King James again just so we can see more of him.

But, next week we’re in Norway. Let’s hope it takes us away…