So What Happened?…
After finding themselves near Pendle Hill, Lancashire in 1612, The Doctor and her companions end up following villagers to a trial where an old woman has been attached to a ducking stool, accused of witchcraft. Thirteen tries to save her after she’s dunked into the water, but ultimately fails. In order to prevent this from happening to other villagers, she proclaims herself to be the Witchfinder General to the local landowner, Becka Savage, but matters are complicated when King James I turns up and decides that she has to be Graham’s assistant as she’s ‘merely’ a woman. In the meantime, Yasmin has gone in search of the old, now deceased woman’s relatives, and finds her granddaughter, Willa, burying her; saving her in the nick of time from a tendril rising up from the mud around the burial site. When Thirteen is informed of this, and that Becka is the young woman’s cousin, she comes to the conclusion that alien forces are at work with regards to the strange occurrences.
Whilst her friends follow the reanimated corpses of recent victims of Becka’s witch hunt, The Doctor stays behind to quiz the landowner about what she’s hiding and ends up being accused of being a witch herself. Similarly to Willa’s grandmother, she ends up being tied to the ducking stool and tries to plead with King James to let her go, but Becka insists that the ducking goes ahead, although not before The Doctor notices that she struggles to have contact with the wood that the stool is made from. Thirteen manages to escape thanks to some expert training from Houdini in the past, and then confronts Becka just as the corpses arrive at the banks of the river. Backed into a corner, the woman reveals that she was infected by the aliens when she cut down the tree that was spoiling her view on the Hill. Believing it to be the work of the Devil, she hid her own guilt by having Old Mother Twiston (Willa’s grandmother) tried for witchcraft as she knew about the affliction on her leg and refused to hurt a family member by removing the limb.
The alien entity eventually takes over Becka’s body completely, and reveals herself to be the Queen of The Morax, a race of war criminals who were imprisoned inside Pendle Hill, and released from their prison when the landowner chopped down the tree. After arming herself and her friends with parts of said tree after King James is taken by the aliens, when they go to confront the Morax queen, she reveals that she intends to use the monarch’s body as a host for that of her own race’s king, in order to conquer Earth. Thirteen reactivates the jail, however, propelling the aliens from their host bodies, leaving James to kill the queen in Becka’s body. As The Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham prepare to leave the following day, the King declares that all memory of what happened will be wiped from the record, and he and Willa look on mystified as they leave in the TARDIS.
Monster of the Week
Marieke: I would really like to know if children thought the mud zombies were scary. To me, they could have been scarier, these so-called witches possessed by mud. Of course it was the alien mud that turned out to be the monster, not the witches nor the zombies themselves. They were imprisoned in the hill, locked up by a tree branch. Uh, not the safest of locks, possibly? The alien monster threat ended up as the one-dimensional ‘fill all the people vessels, rule Earth!’ and disappointed being the first real alien baddie since Tim Shaw. Also why did the queen need that king? Becka Savage was savage enough in her human form already, it felt like The Morax were shoehorned in to tick the alien baddie box. I still want to know whether children had zombie nightmares like I did after watching Thriller though. In that case, they would pass.
Danielle: I’m almost relieved that we finally had a proper alien baddie after all these weeks of humans being the ‘true villains’. Although, I guess it could be argued that Becka was the bad guy here after unwittingly chopping down the gate to that alien prison, and then cowardly executing her own grandmother for fear of being discovered as the source of all of the ‘devilry’ in the village. I almost find myself wanting to know more about what The Morax did, and certainly who was responsible for imprisoning them in the first place.
Marieke: The atmosphere was foggy and therefore rather creepy, and the colours also seemed to favour the darker, harsher tones. The witch hunts were no joke and the whole scenery reflected that. The landscape was vast, empty and abandoned. Killing all those women left its mark, and then there was King James I who swept in with his campy style, nudging and winking the horrific atmosphere away. The episode felt like a clash of styles, not really knowing the direction it wanted to take.
Danielle: Unlike Marieke, I don’t think the light relief that an exceedingly camp King James brought with him detracted at all from any of the creepiness. In fact, I reckon it was a much needed change of pace in what would have been an uncharacteristically dark episode otherwise. The damp and dank atmosphere provided by the seventeenth century, Lancastrian backdrop was the pitch-perfect setting for those alien corpses rising from the mud.
Marieke: The Morax, who were rather easily defeated. Honestly, the whole episode was a mystery to me.
Danielle: Obviously the main mystery was what Becka was hiding, and the lengths she was prepared to go to to keep her secret hidden. (Murdering your own grandmother is pretty damn harsh by any standards.) I am a little baffled by the fact that King James I turned up unannounced as if it was the most normal thing in the World, but I’m trying not to read too much into that.
Alan Cumming, most famous for his role in The Good Wife and now the lead on Instinct, gave a turn as the rather exuberant King James I. Whilst Siobhan Finneran from Happy Valley and Downton Abbey took on Becka Savage.
Scene of the Week
Marieke: Graham and his hat. He finely threaded the lines of being recognised as commander (’cause male!), but also does not want to put his fellow team, especially the Doctor (oh yes, female!), down. If he is going to miss the hat, maybe he can order one.
Danielle: I really loved the fact that Thirteen managed to escape from the ducking stool thanks to Houdini teaching her how to get out of a tight spot during a previous, unseen adventure. Of course he did! I also rather enjoyed all those awkward conversations between Ryan and the King.
Marieke: This episode has got Team Fezzy divided. I for one, did not enjoy it at all. It felt clunky and incoherent. The alien mud was an unconvincing threat. The Morax a baddie as forgettable as the one I really hated during Twelve’s tenure, whose name I have seem to have forgotten already (Scorax Blitzer..?). The Doctor now being female obviously was a good set up for her to be tried as a witch. That sonic screwdriver is rather a giveaway, but everything seemed rushed and an easy plot point. The Doctor once again felt out of her depth for most of the episode, whilst she really could have shone here. The team did not work properly together again. Ryan was just there as King James’s eye candy, Yaz was part of the care department and once again it was Graham with the best parts of the three.
Speaking of King James I, Alan Cumming enjoyed the part enormously and that was visible. He was super camp and demanded all the viewers’ attention. As much as I enjoyed him enjoying it, it did not fit the type of episode. It took away from the horror, as much as the real King James I might have been the same type of person. He either should have toned it down, or the episode should have had a different set up to fit the campiness. Then there is Siobhan Finneran, who was being a cold witch drowning baddie to begin with. The moment she fully changed into the Morax queen, I could not withhold a chuckle. It was so over the top without being scary, it felt totally out of place again. Even though it was nice that mankind was not the evil force this time, she easily could have taken that evil queen-esque role on on her own.
The Morax did not add anything, besides ticking that compulsory alien enemy box. Maybe had the mud zombies been a little scarier, we at least would have had that. Instead it was all a little bit of everything, without a consistent theme or atmosphere to pull it together. Both Team TARDIS and the extras are let down by the inconsistencies. Are we going for scary? Camp? Aliens yes? But human shaped baddies at first to throw the audience. It felt like a draft ended up on the finished scripts pile. I wouldn’t mind at all if this episode were shackled and drowned in the river. This time no Houdini trick would work to save it.
Danielle: It would appear that ‘The Witchfinders’ is the televisual equivalent of Marmite here at Fezzy Towers. Love it or hate it, finally, for the first time since the opening episode of the series, we saw a real alien threat, rather than having the ‘people are bad’ ethos being further hammered home. Don’t get me wrong, the Morax weren’t necessarily adequately realised, and as I’ve already proposed, I would have liked to learn what their crimes were, but still it was a relief to not have The Doctor underlining the moral flaws of the humans she encounters. For the entirety of the episode at least. For me, the seat of alien imprisonment here, buried under the hill beneath a tree gateway, was both bizarre and ingenious, as was the resolution to their threat.
I also didn’t mind that Team Tardis was split up once again. Having three companions allows writers to cover more ground in a much more expedient manner so, for example, we got to learn more about Willa and her relationship with Becka, whilst the gender politics played out between Thirteen, James and Graham. There was no narrative need for Yaz to be there when she could be better utilised elsewhere. The whole dynamic has changed since the number of TARDIS occupants swelled to four. It stands to reason that roles would be delegated, from exposition to moving the plot along.
Arguably, there were two main, interlinked factors here that dictated whether you were going to to like or loathe this episode of Who: suspension of disbelief and that ‘clash’ of tones. Suspending your disbelief seems like a prerequisite for sci-fi shows like this, but sometimes an element of that fantasy your expected to buy into pulls you out of the experience. I think for Marieke that element was the perceived dissonance between the unquestionable high camp of Cumming’s character, and the much darker subject matter, i.e. the witch hunts. Whilst I’d agree that viewers probably did get some mild whiplash between the death of Old Mother Twiston at the start of the episode, and the arrival of the flamboyant monarch shortly after, I didn’t really see them as incompatible. Gallows humour, or in this case ducking stool humour (sorry, not sorry), is so intrinsic in British literature, film and television that I barely battered an eyelid at the melding of the darkness with the frivolity amidst ‘The Witchfinders’. With that in mind, it does raise questions about whether or not this difference of opinion has a cultural component. Either way, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree this week.
Our Fezzy Score:
So what did you think of the ‘The Witchfinders’? Let us know in the comments…