Doctor Who – ‘The Witchfinders’

Series Eleven, Episode Eight


The TARDIS team go to Lancashire – other side of t’Pennines – and find themselves in the middle of a witch trial in the 17th century.

The unfortunate old lady on the ducking stool is Old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly), and the trial is being presided over by Mistress Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran). The ducking stool trial decides on guilt this way – if an accused witch drowns, they were innocent, but if they survive, they are a witch, and are to be hanged. Either way, once accused they are already condemned to a death sentence.

The Doctor dives into the river to pull Mother Twiston out, but it is too late, she has already drowned. Becka is angry with the Doctor, to which the Doctor replies that Mother Twiston wasn’t a witch “but you, Mistress Savage, are a murderer!”. This is the truth, but the Doctor could well have got herself into trouble here. Luckily, the psychic paper says she is the Witchfinder General, therefore she has authority over Becka.

Becka walks the Doctor through the village to her home, Savage Hall. We learn that the village is called Bilehurst Cragg and that Becka has had 36 people killed via witch trials.

Enter King James (Alan Cumming). He wants to get involved, as the peril of witchcraft is a bit of an obsession of his. He causes problems for the Doctor, by saying there has to be a mistake on her paper, as she can’t be the Witchfinder General, as women aren’t allowed the top job. Glass ceiling I suppose. (Or perhaps wooden ceiling/straw ceiling in this time?). The Doctor laments that she never had to put up with this sort of thing when she was a bloke! Anyway, Graham has to pretend to be the Witchfinder General now.

Meanwhile, Yasmin finds Willa (Tilly Steele), the granddaughter of Mother Twiston, in the woods. Willa is attacked by a tendril made of mud, but Yasmin saves her. Willa reveals that Mother Twiston was a village wise woman who made and applied medicines. Willa also says that Becka is in fact her cousin, and that Mother Twiston raised her! So what Becka did was a particularly brutal betrayal.

Yasmin tells Willa that she was bullied in school by another girl, and she remembers the fear and dread she felt every day. She vowed when she grew up that she’d stand up to bullies. But it’s not always that simple, certainly not in Willa’s case. She can’t stand up to Becka, as Becka will just have her tried as a witch. Standing up to Becka would effectively be signing her own death warrant.

The others all arrive in the woods, and the mud appears to be moving around. The Doctor gets a sample, and says it’s alien. The animated corpse of Mother Twiston rises, as do the corpses of all the other “witches”. The alien mud has taken over them! James’ bodyguard, Alfonso, is killed.

The Doctor thinks Becka knows something she isn’t telling them. Becka says they’ve all just seen the Doctor use a “magic wand”, i.e. the sonic screwdriver, so that must mean the Doctor is a witch! (In fairness though, “magic wand” is as good an explanation for the sonic screwdriver’s endless abilities as any!). James joins in the accusation, and Willa, under pressure from Becka and James, reluctantly sides with them. So the Doctor is arrested as a witch.

Graham, Yasmin and Ryan follow the “witches”, who go to Savage Hall. The “witches” collect an axe Becka keeps by her bed.

The Doctor’s trial begins. The Doctor tells Becka that she keeps doing the witch trials, she keeps increasing them, but she must know they solve nothing. If anything the problems have increased. She also says that Yasmin’s bully picked on Yasmin so nobody would pick on her, that is more or less what Becka is doing. Becka just says after she has killed the Doctor, she will go after all her friends.

The Doctor is ducked, but after the stool is brought back up she isn’t there! She has managed to escape.

The “witches” all come for Becka, but when she tells them to stop, they do! Becka has to tell everyone the truth now. She cut down a tree on a hill as it was spoiling her view. But then she noticed a mark. She knew she was poisoned, but tried to fight it through will power and medicine, but it kept spreading. This is the main reason why she ordered more witch trials. She saw it as “doing God’s work so He would save me!”, but it’s probably more accurate to say she was killing others to save her own skin. To make matters worse, she had confided in Mother Twiston, who tried to cure her! Either way, Becka can’t hold on any longer, and she is taken over by the Morax Queen.

The Morax were imprisoned on Earth for war crimes, the hill was the prison and the tree was the lock. The Morax take James to be the vessel for their King to be put in.

The “wood” from the tree is actually alien technology made from a substance that is the Morax’s weak point, so the TARDIS team and Willa make flaming torches from them.
They find the Morax, and use the torches to force them back underground. The Morax Queen refuses to go, so James kills her!

Then at the end it’s decided to move all the residents to other towns, destroy this one and erase it and all mention of it from the historical record, taking “we’ll pretend none of this ever happened” to an extreme.

I enjoyed this as a historical episode.

Although the village of Bilehurst Cragg and most of the characters are fictional, they encounter another real historical figure, King James I of England/VI of Scotland. He was indeed paranoid about witchcraft. He was also almost certainly gay, though he probably wasn’t as foppish as he’s presented in this episode. If anything, he was said to be a messy, uncouth slob!

A mask James uses looks very similar to one Plague doctors used in the 17th century.

The TARDIS team were intending to get to the coronation of Elizabeth I, so the TARDIS equivalent of the SatNav definitely took a wrong turn somewhere!

They find here that apple bobbing is a Sunday tradition rather than a Halloween one. I don’t know if this is true or not, but quite interesting if so.

Becka had all the horses in the village killed, declaring them “creatures of Satan!”. It is true that there is a history of animals being killed due to a belief they were associated with the Devil, but I wonder if in this episode it was a bit of a budget saving exercise, like the coconuts used to sound like horses hooves in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Yep, I’ve done the obligatory reference to that film in a witch trial episode without even mentioning the film’s witch trial scene!

Witchcraft, the Devil and other supernatural explanations were blamed for things such as crops failing and physical and mental illness. Often people accused of being witches, werewolves or in league with Satan were village outcasts or people who didn’t have anyone to stand up for them. It was essentially an exercise in scapegoating.

Something which holds true today is that the need to believe in black and white moral certainty can have drastic consequences. The Doctor notes to this in a conversation with James, when she says “We want security, certainty, [to] believe that people are either evil or heroic, but that’s not how people are!”.

Becka wasn’t entirely wrong about what was happening to her. It might not have been “devil” possession, but alien possession is kind of the same difference! I get that the show wants to keep to sci-fi and doesn’t want to go too far in a supernatural/fantasy direction, but when they do and then try to dial it back it’s always a bit jarring.

The Morax weren’t that great as an idea really. The episode even has characters refer to them as an “alien mud invasion”, in a slightly snarky way. They come in almost as an afterthought, and are dispatched very quickly.

Becka was a horrible person, she was a selfish, cruel coward. But she came across as a realistic character, there are plenty of people like her around. Siobhan Finneran was really good at the part. She usually is good, but her performance was one of the best things about the episode.

‘The Witchfinders’ is notable as being the first Doctor Who episode of the new series to be both written and directed by women. The writer was Joy Wilkinson and the director was Sallie Aprahamian. Not only that, but even if you include the classic series, it is still only the second Doctor Who story to EVER have that distinction, the other one was the 1983 serial ‘Enlightenment’.

I really liked ‘The Witchfinders’ for the most part. Like ‘Demons Of The Punjab’ I felt the historical aspects were stronger than the alien ones, but it was a good standalone episode.

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