Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Writer: Joy Wilkinson
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Alan Cumming, Becka Savage, Willa Twiston
Runtime: 50 Minutes
Series 11 - Episode 8
After the bouncier exploits of last week, looks like we’re back on dangerous ground again for The Doctor and the TARDIS team. Something you can certainly never criticise this new run for is playing it safe, here seeing the gang visiting 16th century Lancashire in the midst of the witch trials.
So yeah, we’re back playing with some pretty dark portions of relatively recent human history again, and if you were wondering how seriously writer Joy Wilkinson was planning to take this mortifying concept of the reality of witches when applied to a family show, the opening sequence in which we see an elderly woman drowned by the twisted landowner of a small village is enough to rattle the bones to a degree.
There have been (unfair) criticisms levelled at this series that the show is certainly showing more affection for the marginalisation and persecution of non-white/male characters, but in this period setting the same sense of fear sets in for the Doctor as it did for Yaz and Ryan back in 1955 Alabama. As her position as not only a woman, but a woman wise beyond her years – never mind her eccentricities as the Doctor – puts her at risk as judgement is cast upon her by landowner Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) and the arrival of King James in the form of Alan Cumming. Of course they would see her as a witch, and in a time of resurgence for witches as symbols of feminine agency it feels remarkably well-timed.
Cumming is pulling out the big guns with this performance. An actor often acclaimed for his high theatrics and personality on screen and stage, Cumming is fantastically pompous in the role as he marches about with fantastically devilish facial hair and costuming. As is Finneran as an antagonistic figure who may not be all that she appears.
That’s kind of the issue with this otherwise strong episode. The nature of the distinctly alien threat is something that doesn’t really intrude on the margins of the drama for the most part (to the episode's benefit), but by the end when it actually does need to deliver on the established plot points of alien possession and mud based creatures – the monster designs of which are grotesque in the right way – it holds back the reveal for so long that it ends up being rushed in the final 10 minutes with an outlandish light show climax that feels a little out of step with the rest of the episodes tone and aesthetic.
The episode is shot well with a muted and chilly autumnal pallet that echoes more than a little of Robert Egger’s The Witch, with director Sallie Aprahamian showing her strengths more so than her last episode with plenty of Dutch angles to stress the paranoia of the conflict. As with most depictions of the era looking to display the truth of these awful events, all the talk of accusations because of dying crops, animal behaviour and illness expose that the only illness setting in is the complacency of people giving into their own delirium and fear of the unknown.
This is where the episode strikes its most unexpectedly powerful blow, by once again feeding the events of history back into the characterisation of the leads. While comforting and trying to save the young Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele), who’s only remaining relative was killed off in the opening, Yaz opens up about her dark past with bullies at school making her feel sick with the fear of humiliation and judgement, something she assures Willa she is not alone in feeling as she must take the punches and keep enduring through this hell. It’s a bold choice of motivation and definition that is absolutely going to ring true for too many viewers who have experienced this before.
There’s plenty given for the quartet to be up to, with Yaz separating off to help Willa, who gets a full arc to herself even if she doesn’t have a great deal of displayed agency even when faced with the reanimated corpse of her grandmother. Ryan finds an interest in James’ history, who also gets some great nuggets of historical reflection, and Graham gets on at faking being a witchfinder general while wearing a ridiculous hat, so that’s entertaining. Only Whittaker feels out of her depth occasionally, or at least playing things at her consistently high level of joy to such a contrast that it’s maybe too much at points.
The Witchfinders is another really strong period episode for a series that has already delivered on some of the best of recent years for the show, and even if it falls short of the potency of those it’s got some fantastic performances on show with some darker shades that look like they’re ready to shape the final two episodes to come.