Oh Brilliant: I’m kind of in love with Whittaker’s Doctor at this point. I might be out of step with a reasonable portion of fandom but I really don’t care, I am simply loving her interpretation of the character and how she is being written at this point. This was her most passionate performance to date in a season where she has been growing in confidence and getting to grips with the part of a lifetime. Yes, there were a few moments where she faltered along the way but it’s a hard part to determine until you have played about in lots of different types of stories and for me it has been one of the most fascinating evolutions. Even the mighty Patrick Troughton, of which I see many similarities in Whittaker (the childishness, the ability to fly into a rage, tempering her quirkiness with manners) took an entire season of faltering steps to truly master his performance. In this story she is centre stage; inveigling herself into the historical setting, standing up to murderers, smartly investigating a gripping mystery, dishing out memorable one liners, reminding her friends of their responsibilities to history, excited in the face of royalty and then facing the King with righteous anger when he ingloriously mistreats her and tackling a terrifying alien menace without breaking a sweat. I love how the story is built around the idea that the Doctor is a woman, something that the series has quite wisely tried to avoid until this point (given the extreme reaction to Whittaker’s hiring): at no other point in the show’s history could you have a story where the Doctor is forced to endure a witch trial. It would be extremely odd if it happened when he was a man. It would have been left for the companion to endure with the Doctor saving her life at the eleventh hour (which the Doctor gets to do anyway in this story). Instead we have a glorious scene where the Doctor gives daggers to the King who orders her dunking and watch as she is dropped in a lake with chains around her neck, only to emerge later free of her bonds and dropping a line about Houdini. Facing death and a walking away with humour. She’s magic. She gets terribly excited at the idea of apple bobbing and wastes no time asking if she can have a go. Her confrontation with King James is probably the most nuanced scene that Whittaker has been handed to date. Two foes, both hiding behind false names, both seekers of the truth. One trying her best to be open and understanding, the other trapped in a state of paranoia and distrust. The Doctor might be tied up but there is no sign that she is a victim. As she implores to the King to trust her, I genuinely thought she was getting through to him. So the episode pulls the rub up beneath me as he orders her execution.
Graham: Graham’s willingness to adhere to the Doctor’s advice about history is a running theme this season. He was very much on her side in Punjab, and similarly pushes her approach here too. It strikes me that he respects her opinion a great deal, whereas the younger whippersnappers are more impulsive and slaves to their emotions. He gets the most important scene in the episode, where he asks Mistress Savage if she is a good person but it is rather undermined by the fact that he is wearing a silly hat.
Ryan: He’s caught the King’s eye, this Nubian Prince. I thought it was rather wicked how the script leant on Ryan for some gay humour but it shows a lighter side to this dour character that I appreciated. Doctor Who has never shied away from homosexuality in its new iteration and this was a delightful example of how it can be made to work and still be entirely suitable for a family audience. The King is literally undressing Ryan every time he looks at him and the moment where he brandishes his prick before him was the most overt sexual metaphor since the two Doctor’s comparing sonic screwdrivers in Day of the Doctor. Surprisingly, Ryan doesn’t seem to mind so much that he is the object of the King’s affection and even uses his manly wiles to influence him in a few moments.
Yaz: She’s not the focus this week but she still has some lovely scenes, brandishing a shovel and tackling the Morax root, seeking out a woman in distress and comforting her and leading the Doctor to the source of the problem. She very importantly points out that people are still persecuted in this day and age, just like she shone a light on racism in the modern day in Rosa. Whilst companions should be central players in the story, I begin to see why having contemporary characters in history is a worthwhile exercise.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If I was Satan do you seriously think a bit of rope would stop me?’
‘And you wonder why the darkness comes back at you?’
The Good: It’s another story where the Doctor and friends have already arrived and the usual obligatory TARDIS console scene is excised. This season has felt very McCoy in that regard. No secret is made of the fact that the witch trials were a murderous act and the director develops a very bleached out, drab colour palate for the scenes where women are chained up and drowned. It’s shining a light on a particularly unpleasant period of history, something this season has dared to do with pleasing frequency. The source of the ducking stool is mentioned very early on, setting up the climax imperceptibly. It would have been very easy to have had the Doctor save Willa’s grandmother from drowning but instead the she has to look her granddaughter in the eye and deliver the news of her death. People were killed thanks to superstition and paranoia, and it would be wrong of this episode to pretend otherwise. It’s a fantastic score this week, all discordant violins and dramatic It really sets the scene for the desolate location and the chilly horror. Listen out for the music during the scene with the Doctor on the ducking stool especially. I could listen to Alan Cumming luxuriate in colourful dialogue until the cows come home. He’s clearly having the time of his life mincing his way through this dark tale and he provides a wonderful contrast to the nastier aspects to the story. The Morax are quite the most disgusting zombies Doctor Who has ever thrown up on screen. With their pallid skin, black eyes, matted hair and dripping with filth, they are quite repulsive to look at. It’s nice to see a season that has shied away from icky monsters really go to town with this one. The army that appears silently through the misty forest is a genuinely horrific sight. A word for the direction; I really loved the shots of the twisted and gnarled trees that offer a clue to the alien of the week and the solution in defeating them. There’s also an Ariel shot of the misty forest as the Doctor and co are pursued by the Morax quite unlike anything we have seen in the show before. The direction is stark and uncompromising and very refreshing because of it. Willa turning on the Doctor despite all the kindness she has shown her is another important moment because it shows how could people can be corrupted if they are coerced. Isn’t it wonderful that the Doctor and company head of to defeat the monsters like the flame wielding villagers in Frankenstein? What a glorious reversal.
The Bad: It’s time to address the lack of an arc this year. Has it been a problem? Was it a fresh approach that has paid off? I would say yes and no, which is about as diplomatic an answer as I could give. The arcs on Doctor Who are definitely a mixed bunch and I would say that I much prefer (obviously, some might say) the attempts of Russell T Davies (who focussed on telling individual stories with hints and whispers turning up mostly unobtrusively that are paid off later in the season) to Steven Moffat’s (which involved overly complex that promised so much and very rarely delivered on those promises). Chibnall has ditched the lot and just opted for distinct stories that stand on their own ground in a season that is linked only by the regular characters who take part in them. The downside to this is that there have been a number of underwhelming stories this season (mostly written by Chibnall himself) which could have done with a bit of arc goodness to spice them up. On the other hand it means that the stronger episodes of the season have stood out on their own merits. The past couple of seasons have really dragged because of their arcs (both the hybrid and Missy in the vault felt like add ons simply there because the format of the show demanded there was a running storyline. They didn’t enhance the stories they were in or lead to anything spectacularly revelatory or mind-blowing. I can see why Chibnall felt it was time to give that format a rest, especially if he has nothing to add himself. Saying that this season has felt a little safe because it has abandoned all structure. In becoming a perfect point to introduce new viewers it has potentially alienated those who might watch a show for it’s continuing storylines (that’s a large portion of the audience these days). More than ever, this feels like classic Doctor Who. Just telling individual tales that you hope will thrill and amuse. Have I answered my question? No. But I really admire trying something completely different. In the latter half of the season, which is proving to be infinitely stronger than that of season 10, simply delivering good dramatic tales is paying off in spades. I love an arc but excising one from this series is certainly not affecting my enjoyment.
Result: ‘By nightfall, every last witch in this village shall be destroyed…’ Another winner in a season that has saved most of his magic for the latter half. I love the confidence of tone in The Witchfinders, a story that isn’t afraid to switch between camp character comedy, historical cruelty and quite disturbing horror. The witch trials are a subject I have long wanted Doctor Who to tackle on television. It has always felt like a subject that is rife for drama. That nasty streak that runs through this season, how it shines a light on the darker aspects of humanity, has been one of the most prevalent and powerful themes. It does us well to remember how we can be fed to fear things and within that fear commit the most terrible of acts. Nowadays we get to accuse and taunt from behind our phones, but let’s not pretend that directed social media hate isn’t a form of witch trial. This just strips away all the devices and drops us into a period where we actually wanted to see the lethal result of our condemnation. Alan Cumming delivers a delightfully whimsical King James who terrifies because he’s a man who is wilfully pointing the finger and committing murder whilst indulging in the drama of it all. He’s enjoying the theatrics of murder and paranoia, and the episode wisely delves into why he is such a suspicious man. It really is a star turn. Even better, surprisingly, is Siobhan Finneran, who offers the performance of the season as Becky Savage. A woman consumed by hate and anger and accusing all and sundry to keep the suspicion away from herself, I found her a genuinely monstrous creation long before her literal transformation. The direction of the story, all bleak and colourless and yet focussing on unnerving imagery, feels very appropriate and it is one of the most atmospheric scores of the year too. The only thing that there isn’t really time for is to give the alien menace any great exploration (the writer chooses instead to indulge in scenes with Willa much in line with this seasons focus on human drama) and so all we get is a throwaway line about their past and why they are on the Earth. A shame because they are visually very frightening, easily the most successfully ghoulish element of the season. This is the story where the Doctor is tried as a witch and walks away every bit the heroine. It’s my favourite set piece in a season that is clocking up an impressive number of them. And the funniest gag of the year comes when King James, famous for his lusty appetite for men, nearly comes to a sticky end when facing a great phallic monster that rises from the ground to devour him. An intoxicating mixture of history, horror and humour: 8/10