Doctor Who: Revisiting THE WITCHFINDERS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting THE WITCHFINDERS

Tony’s a witch. Bang to rights.

Doctor Who has a somewhat chequered history with witches, from the likes of The Daemons and tangential references in The Stones Of Blood to the less Wiccan, more theatrical Carrionites in The Shakespeare Code.

The Witchfinders is half one thing, and half the other – with the result that it promises much, and then tragically falls between two ducking stools.

For its first half, The Witchfinders is evocative of the First Doctor’s pure historical stories – a delve into history, and a growing sense of its inherent dangers. It’s got a sense of Hammer Horror about it too, in the greyness, the fear, the oppression of the villagers allegedly under the threat of witchcraft. Key to that is a cracking performance from Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage, local Lady Muck who’s come from humbler things, and has a secret to hide.

When tentacles – and then people – start rising from the mud, the episode achieves something which Series 11 has been waiting for for weeks: a genuine jump-scare. That’s followed up with a traditional, but effectively scary zombie apocalypse as more and more mud-versions of local slaughtered villagers start traipsing into town.

By then though, Alan Cumming’s arrived and nothing will ever be quite the same again. Playing the apparently quite true to life and camp as Christmas King James, he arrives with flash, dash and a degree of absurdity (along with only one bodyguard), but as he goes through the episode and has conversations, first with Ryan and then with the Doctor, he reins in the flamboyancy and we get enough backstory to help turn him from an absurdity into a three-dimensional human being and a king, haunted by insecurity, tinged with genuine fear, and burdened with an awesome weight of responsibility.

It’s also here, in her talk with King James, that Jodie Whittaker most defines what’s uniquely Thirteen about her Doctor so far. While the whole ‘spouting technobabble’ thing clearly gives her problems, coming across as a flat read off the page, and her Harry Potter sonic-stance feels a little like overcompensation, get the Thirteenth Doctor in a quiet moment, one on one, and she can change the world, any world, even while she’s tied to a tree. If the Eleventh Doctor complained that he had another face that no-one listened to, that era’s well and truly over, because in those moments, in those conversations, and particularly here in Joy Wilkinson’s script, people listen to the Thirteenth Doctor. In essence, it’s a solid pointer for where her Doctor lives and breathes – she can do a good loud ‘Oi!’ like the Tenth Doctor, but she’s more in tune with the almost sotto voce persuasive style of the Seventh. When all the madcap lunacy blinks away, and the enthusiasm stills, and this Doctor has something to say – listen carefully. She’ll change your life.

And then, bless it, the Witchfinders goes totally tonto and pulps most of its good work in an ending that’s rushed and irredeemably naff. Alien tech disguised as a tree? Sure, we can go with that. Big old hill as a prison for the Morax? OK, we can go with that. Hey look, a proper alien threat that wants to take over the world! Pretty much the first of the series, so we can go with that. The ranting Morax themselves…erm…yyyyyeah. Less successful. The conclusion, where the team are knocked out, rather than killed or possessed with Morax-mud? A touch over-convenient. And the sonic-heavy conclusion which somehow sucks all the Morax back into their prison? Way, way too easy and convenient.

Along the way, the story does give us a solid ‘stand up to bullies’ moral, with Tilly Steele’s highly believable Willa Twiston learning that standing up and making a difference is a better way of living – and even possibly dying – than living in fear under the boot of oppression, fear and lies. But the ending rather wipes its hands of all the carefully built-up tension and terror and human cost with a crowbarred-in alien threat to render it science-fiction.

In that, The Witchfinders is by no means unique in Series 11. It’s a series which proves that it can genuinely do pure historicals in the 21st century – something which previously only Big Finish has done – but which repeatedly loses the nerve to just do them, and throws in a bit of alien grimness to justify its own sci-fi existence. Certainly here, the mud-people and Becka’s motivation for her witchfinding fervour do depend on there being aliens on the scene, certainly more than, say, Demons of the Punjab depended on its aliens for anything at all, but the pacing of The Witchfinders, like that of Kerblam!, skews heavily towards atmosphere for 90% of its run-time and really misses the mark in terms of solving the problem in that remaining 10%. Certainly, it’s a rewatchable chunk of Doctor Who with the first real snarly alien conquerors of the series (which given it’s Episode 8 is rather saying something). It’s just a shame that the whole thing slides downhill like mud into a river the moment the aliens are revealed for what they are.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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