In the eighth episode of the eleventh series of Doctor Who, the team travels to 17th century England and lands right in the middle of a witch hunt. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of misogyny, death, body horror.
Oh my god, I am in love with series 11, and I’m so thankful that the show manages to be thrilling, hilarious, and address big social issues all at the same time. I mentioned at the end of the video for “The Witchfinders” that this feels like a spiritual successor—almost an unofficial trilogy—with both “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab.” The writing for series 11 has not ignored the ramifications of people who are not white, straight men traveling into the past. We saw this in both Ryan’s and Yaz’s stories in those episodes, and here, we get stories that do something similar for Ryan and the Doctor. In short: Ryan is fetishized by King James I, and the Doctor is treated horrifically for being a woman. And these things are integral to the story! Ryan has to use King James’s uncomfortable advances to keep himself safe from suspicion and to try to solve the mystery of Bilehurst Cragg. The Doctor, on the other hand, becomes intimately wrapped up not just in the witch hunt itself, but in challenging King James to reconsider who he is and what he believes.
But lemme back up, but seriously, I love this script so much. The pacing is brilliant, and that’s largely because of how it is structured. The reveal of the Morax happens early enough that we get the brilliant pivot point of knowing what’s going on with enough time to explore the prison, the idea of complicity, and the tragedy at the heart of the witch hunt. One of the most pervasive themes in this episode centers around trust and fear. How do we come to fear the world around us? What pushes us that way, and how often are we complicit in stoking the fear of the Other? (I will note that I found it odd that Yaz was not treated poorly in any direct way, given that she was both non-white and a woman, though she was generally assumed to be an “underling” of Graham.) Yes, this is a historical episode about the literal witch hunts that consumed these societies at the time, but it’s hard not to also place this in the context of the present day.
At the heart of this conflict is Becca Savage, played with brilliant paranoia and rage by Siobhan Finneran. Here’s a woman who is presented to us as the leader of the witch hunts, and in those initial scenes, I did not think she was an antagonist; I thought she was someone caught up in the furor and paranoia, who was trying to do what she thought was right, but had gone terribly, terribly wrong. And that’s believable, given both the time period. Becca was a woman in a world where misogyny often resulted in women being accused and executed as a witch. Of course, it was hard to sympathize with her after the opening scene is her murdering Willa’s grandmother, and I wasn’t sure if “The Witchfinders” would try to redeem her.
Instead, this episode goes to such an incredible and fascinating place, one that doesn’t negate the paranoia that we experience in the first half of the story. It’s hard to tell how many personal disagreements manifested into claims of witchcraft; it’s impossible to know how much pettiness, how much self-preservation, how much pure terror led to the deaths of people thought to be in league with Satan. The witch hunt in Bilehurst Cragg, despite having alien origins, still fits in with the general history of witch hunts. There’s still a ton of misogyny; there are still entire societies turning on one another; there are still tests that are devised to “prove” a witch’s identity that are dripping with impossibility. The dunking/drowning one is of particular note, and it’s used here to demonstrate how utterly futile it was to fight being accused of witchcraft. In any scenario that plays out, being accused results in death. You either die by drowning—proving you were innocent—or you die by execution if you survive. Thus, who wouldn’t want to redirect attention away from themselves if possible?
That’s what we get in Becca Savage, who unleashed a terrible, terrible evil because of the most ridiculous reason. I actually love that it was because of something so superficial that she is thrust into this nightmare. If she’d just left that tree alone, would this have even happened? But instead, her need for a better view caused her to set the Morax free, whose symptoms of possession were unfortunately too similar to what was seen as witchcraft at the time. So yeah, I can’t feel too bad about Becca’s fate, especially given that she murdered thirty-six people by claiming they were witches, when she knew the entire time that she was the cause of the bizarre phenomenon in Bilehurst Cragg.
Simultaneous to this is the arrival of King James I to Bilehurst, and once again: THANK YOU, FRIENDS, FOR NOT SPOILING THIS GLORIOUS BIT OF CASTING. Alan Cumming is a goddamn DREAM in this role, and I’m so blown away by the scenes he gets with Jodie specifically. There’s a fantastic arc here that addresses fear and paranoia in a manner that’s diffferent from Becca’s story. I just adore that scene where The Doctor challenges James to rethink his life and why he can’t trust anyone. She doesn’t ignore the fact that his life has been challenging, and she doesn’t suggest that he can’t be upset at circumstances. Rather, she begs him to consider that he’s actually afraid of what he does not understand, that he has closed himself off to the world out of a need to protect himself. Yet like Becca, is he actually doing that, or has he become part of something else, something more insidious and terrible? Is he working to make the world better, or does he only care about himself?
This episode doesn’t necessarily resolve that, and I respect that. I found it more fulfilling that he still betrayed the Doctor and that it was up to her companions to convince him to spare her. It meant that this ending was uncomfortable, that The Doctor was disappointed in what King James had done. But in the end, she at least wins him over enough that he promised to keep all of the events of this witch hunt a secret. History is protected, the truth of Bilehurst Cragg is erased, and for once, intervening in the past was a good idea.
HI, I AM SO IN LOVE WITH THIS SERIES. I know I opened with this, but y’all. I’m so HAPPY.
The video for “The Witchfinders” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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