It’s surprising that Doctor Who has never utilised the infamous witch trials of the 17th Century as a setting for a story up till now. The period and the old english locale is rife with potential for a good, gothic horror adventure, whilst the various facets of witchcraft are practically calling out for that oh-so-sweet Who-ish spin. Writer Joy Wilkinson has clearly had this on her mind too, as her debut story – The Witchfinders – packs in plenty of the above (and lots more to boot).
Like many of the episodes this season, it all starts pretty low-key, with the alien threat taking it’s sweet time to manifest. The setting and the nature of the witch trials themselves is sinister enough though to keep the plot ticking along nicely, as the Doctor and her ‘fam’ bear witness to a nasty witch ducking in the village of Bilehurst Cragg, before encountering none other then King James I (played by a gloriously camp but charismatic Alan Cumming) and discovering a sinister presence hiding in the mud.
Wilkinson’s script is watertight, delivering an engaging, atmospheric story laden with creepy imagery and grim undertones. The monsters of the week are a mud-like alien race with the power to possess the dead, which results in some moments that will no doubt put younger viewers behind the sofa, whilst the main conceit behind their presence is teased out with plenty of interesting clues. The full CGI versions don’t cut the mustard as much when the they are fully revealed at the end of the episode, but the walking-dead mud witches strike a far more imposing, memorable threat in the episode’s second act – undoubtedly, they’ll be the fuel for many future nightmares.
The human villains come fully fleshed too – central villainess Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) is wonderfully layered and tragic, a raving fanatic driven by selfish desperation and the need for self-preservation. Alan Cumming‘s take on King James is also a delight – though leaning dangerously into the realms of grandstanding panto villain, Cumming manages to reign in the flamboyant monarch’s more grandiose aspects when it becomes time for some more personal and touching moments.
The real star of the show though is Jodie Whittaker, who finally gets a fair slice of the drama that previous episodes have barely afforded her. It was always a sure-fire thing that the Doctor would be accused of witchcraft, but the exchange which follows between her and the King about the ‘mysteries of the heart’ is a wonderful two-handed scene that really allows her Doctor to exert some authority and wisdom. More of this in future episodes would certainly be magic!
Director Sallie Aprahamian delivers the goods here too, with some great cinematography conjuring up plenty of foreboding, doom-laden atmosphere – cold, uninviting and unsettling. There’s a nice sense of scale to set-pieces like the ducking scenes, whilst the comedy is pitched just right considering the more sombre nature of the story (Bradley Walsh in a Witchfinder’s hat – need we say anymore?). All in all, the episode hits all the right marks, making for a decent historical episode.
The Witchfinders is easily the most traditional type of Doctor Who story we’ve had this season, and best of all, it pulls it off with ease. The alien plot draws heavily on aspects of the historical period, utilising the setting for maximum chills, yet also layers on plenty of engaging drama and layered characters. Whist it may lack in the final ten minutes thanks to some uninspiring monster designs and a flat climactic confrontation, the episode as a whole stands out this season as one of the creepiest stories yet.
Doctor Who is back on BBC One next Sunday. Be sure to check out our Series Blog and join us for our verdict of Episode 9.