“This is way too dark for me.”
What a thrillingly bizarre episode of television that was. Yet another historical episode, this episode carried on the series theme of being an excellent romp back in time. Though maybe ‘romp’ is the wrong word because, like the other journeys to the past we’ve seen this season, The Witchfinders is pretty dark.
Team TARDIS find themselves back in time, accidentally in the wrong place. I guess it’s one of the difficulties of having every episode be standalone, trying to find a reason for them to stumble into these adventures. But we’re going with “accident” this week. Straight away things are weird, they’re in a 17th century village in the middle of a witch trial – a witch dunking to be precise. You know it’s going to be a more serious episode because the colour palette is really washed out and grey. But another excuse for the depressing atmosphere and even more depressed people is that they’re in the home of the barmcake and Prof. Brian Cox, Lancashire (I’m from around there so I’m allowed to make the anti-Lancashire joke, ta).
That’s right, they’re slap-bang in the middle of the Pendle witch trials. But the little village they’re in isn’t in any historical records and no one has ever heard of it. Adding to the overall strangeness of the episode is Alan Cumming as James I. Now I don’t want to oversell it, but this might be the most entertaining performance ever committed to film. He rocks up in a weird mask, huge cape, crazy facial hair, and every alternate angle is a dutch angle. And I’ve not even mentioned the accent! His constant flirtation with Ryan is actually laugh-out-lous hilarious, which is saying something in an episode with terrifying mud zombies for villains. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when some of the decisions were made in the writer’s room regarding his interpretation of the character. Although, much more likely, people were too transfixed with his performance to try and offer him any notes. It adds an air of extreme camp to an otherwise pretty macabre affair.
Seriously, for the first twenty minutes, this episode felt more like Apostle than Doctor Who. It’s a testament to the quality of the show that it can bounce between so many tones week to week. Think about ‘Kerblam!’ last week, it was pretty light sci-fi. Now this week we have a genuinely toe-curling historical horror – and the whole season has been up and down in terms of story and tone. I’ve said it in the past, but one of the qualities that keeps me coming back every week for this show is the way that it can change from Sunday to Sunday (I miss Saturday-WHO too). For horror this week just look at those mud zombies, mud-grandma especially. The scene where The Doctor was looking at the specimen in the jar and Yaz was telling her to turn around, and you knew there was something horrible behind her, was actually really tense! And gross! According to Stephen King there are three ways to scare an audience; Horror (things in the dark or the unnatural), Terror (feeling something behind you and there being nothing there), and Gross-Out (gore, blood, slime). This episode definitely goes for the latter, with gooey Evil Dead tentacles and the disgusting gammy grandma.
The episode does go a little crazy in its third act, with Pendle Hill being revealed to be an intergalactic prison holding an army of aliens, but after the balls-to-the-wall morbid wackiness of the first forty minutes, I’d let this episode go wherever the hell it wants. And following on from last week, every character feels useful again. That is due in part to a big chunk of the episode having the three companions stick together away from The Doctor. I do still reckon there are one too many companions in this season, but I’d hate to choose which one to axe. Graham is the best though, cementing his reputation as an all-time great companion by wearing a frankly ridiculously-sized witchfinder general’s hat for the majority of the episode.
Overall, it was great episode! And I’m glad because that means the historical episodes have been three for three, all excellent episodes. This episode handles the morality of The Doctor a little better too. She’s cool with trapping the war criminals back in their intergalactic prison, but killing them is a step too far (though she didn’t seem that annoyed at King James I). Like in The Crimson Horror, it’s always a bizarre blast when the gang take a trip up north. And Alan Cumming makes this episode so incredibly ridiculous that I’m tempted to call it the best of the series so far – but there are still two to go, and the trailers for the next episodes certainly aren’t giving much away.
Reviewed by Jack