'Doctor Who': "The Witchfinders" Review
It's a piece of quintessential "Doctor Who" for Series 11's eighth outing.
Warning: Potential spoilers for the episode ahead.
The word "quintessential" is a fun one. Behind is the idea of something that is most representative of something. If, as a Doctor Who fan, I looked at Series 11 and was to pick the episode from it that represented the series, there's a strong possibility that I would pluck for its eighth episode, "The Witchfinders."
Certainly, it has all the makings of a classic Who story. Team TARDIS travels back in time to a small village in 1612 Lancashire, things start on the lighter end of the spectrum with a festival-like atmosphere, and the Doctor going bobbing for apples. Things, of course, take an invariably darker turn quite quickly. The local landowner, Becka Savage, is in the midst of a witch hunt. A witch hunt that, soon enough, sees the Doctor and company becoming involved. What starts out as a simple effort to stop senseless killings is revealed to have greater significance with strange happenings and the arrival of monarch James I upon the scene.
As I said, it's a quintessential Doctor Who set-up.
One of the fascinating things about the episode is how much the script from Joy Wilkinson feels both familiar yet fresh. It is easy to imagine a version of it made during the late Third Doctor era, for example, or during the early Tom Baker years for that matter. What separates it from those eras, besides its shorter running time, of course, is in its TARDIS crew and how it realizes the alien threat that ultimately underlies things. It's a fine combination of what makes Who, well, Who, both past and present.
It also helps that the episode has a choice guest cast, with one member of in particular standing out. That Doctor Who managed to land Alan Cumming speaks to the power of the program, and it's to the credit of those involved they put him to full use. Whether it's comedic moments such as his introduction as King James I or even more earnest scenes such as a confrontation with an arrested Doctor, Cumming shines. He's clearly having a good time, but not at the expense of overplaying the role, thankfully. And what are the odds that Who would manage to get two stars from The Good Wife in the same season (the other being Chris Noth in "Arachnids in the UK")?
The rest of the guest cast is solid, as well. Siobhan Finneran's performance as Becka Savage offers up a fascinating character, one that is far more than your typical Who villain. Tilly Steele's Willa Twiston is another interesting one, playing with so many different aspects of being an ordinary person caught up in events. What's intriguing is how they both play different sides of the same coin. Both are women at a time when being so meant having little power over one's life. It's how they react to those situations, and how they let it effect upon dealing with the events of the episode, which makes them different, and gives the episode much of its power.
The higher-end production values are also on full display here. Tim Palmer's photography, in particular, gives the entire episode a rich cinematic quality, one that makes adds immensely to the horror film atmosphere of the piece. That atmosphere is also something that director Sallie Aprahamian takes full advantage of, as does composer Segun Akinola. As polished as Series 11 has been to date, "The Witchfinders" adds to it even more.
The end result is, for me, one of the standout episodes of Series 11. After all, there's a neat trick at the heart of "The Witchfinders" script. It's an alien invasion story masquerading as part celebrity historical, part folk horror tale. It's a combination that is perhaps quintessentially Doctor Who. Where else would you find witches, aliens, and the King of England all in the same place?