Doctor Who series 11 - episode 8 - The Witchfinders - by Joy Wilkinson

Jacobean apple water, probably not super hygienic.
With a TV show that has as long a history as Doctor Who it is very difficult to see a new show without being reminded of shows that have gone before. This week’s installment, The Witchfinders, reminded me of The Masque of Mandragora, where in the fictional European duchy of San Martino in the late 15th century, an astrologer seeks to summon the power of an alien intelligence to rule the Earth. There is also a hint of The Image of the Fendahl, set in an English priory where a cultist transforms a female scientist into an ancient gestalt alien called a Fendahl. 

These are both stories from Tom Baker’s era, and his presence for me has cast a very pleasant shadow over this new series of Who. The new Doctor herself may owe a lot to Troughton’s second Doctor, but the series is a real throwback to the heyday of Doctor Who, with Tom at the helm, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that is a very good thing. In other words, this episode was just great.

As usual, here comes fair warning that spoilers follow and you should go watch the show, secure in the knowledge that it is a humdinger, before coming back here to read whatever I have to say about it. 

This is Doctor Who (New Who) series 11, episode 8. It is called The Witchfinders, is written by Joy Wilkinson, and is packed with humor. On Wilkinson's site it says Her favourite TV shows include The Prisoner, GBHThe Wire, Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks and Peaky Blinders. Her favorite films are Terminator 2 and Aliens. But she also likes The Terminator and Alien. I loved her writing, and her interest in genre shows and movies shines through. For example, the Doctor gives a speech, very common in works about time travel, about how it is super dangerous to intervene in the events of history. As she is giving the speech, you just know that the first one to break this rule is going to be her, and so it happens. Within seconds she is diving into freezing water in an attempt to save a woman in a ducking stool, accused of witchcraft, from being killed. It's an important moment for the character of the Doctor, and for this episode, and for the show. 




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The episode takes place in the woods, which look very cold and grim, perfectly setting the mood for a story that takes place during the rule of King James. According to Wikipedia:

James was King of Scotland, England and Ireland from the 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and this period was known as the Jacobean era. Apparently, it was in his reign that the colonization of the Americas began. James himself was a talented scholar, the author of the book Daemonologie, which we see in the show, among others. He also sponsored the translation of the Bible into English that would later be named after him: the Authorized King James Version.


More than just a performance. Cumming captures the essence of this king.


I’m talking so much about King James because he is a very important character in this episode. He appears as a kind of traveling witchfinder, and is portrayed beautifully by Allan Cumming as a kind of determined, demented, and effete psychopath. I was, however, surprised to see the king taking such a personal interest in hunting witches, but his Wikipedia page has a special section on witches, and it says:

James visited Denmark, a country familiar with witch-hunts, which sparked an interest in the study of witchcraft, which he considered a branch of theology. He attended the North Berwick witch trials, the first major persecution of witches in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act 1563. Several people were convicted of using witchcraft to send storms against James's ship, most notably Agnes Sampson. James became obsessed with the threat posed by witches and wrote Daemonologie in 1597, a tract inspired by his personal involvement that opposed the practice of witchcraft and that provided background material for Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth. James personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches.

Interestingly the episode also shows the king flirting with both the Doctor and her assistant, Ryan. This too seems to have a very firm basis in history. Another Wikipedia page is dedicated to the king’s sexuality. It says:

The personal relationships of James included relationships with his male courtiers and his marriage to Anne of Denmark, with whom he fathered children. The influence his favorites had on politics, and the resentment at the wealth they acquired, became major political issues during his reign. The page then goes on to list three male lovers, along with his wife and a female lover.

Both the king and the Doctor are larger-than-life, and the scenes they share together are the heart of this episode. In particular the moment where he has her tied to a tree, intent on torturing her, but she mentally dominates him, is fascinating. I love the way the Doctor confronts her enemies, confidently browbeating them and bending them to her will.That too is very Tom Baker.

With this in mind, it was interesting to see her frustration at the start of the episode, when she couldn’t get the king to take her seriously. She wasn’t able to dominate the room, simply because the king refused to acknowledge her importance or listen to her. "If I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself," she laments.

Witches, witches, everywhere.


The story had a hint of Hammer Horror, in the best sense of that famous studio’s output, but was also very, very clever, with a real sense of the history the Doctor is taking her companions on a tourist jaunt through. 

This was a stand-out episode, and I might even stick my neck out and say... just maybe... the best of the season, so far. 

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